First the good news: the bicycle is such a marvel of design that it can fit anyone, no matter what: small people, big people, people with bad backs, bad joints, missing limbs – it is possible to find bicycles to fit anyone comfortably and efficiently. Then the not so good news: Finding that fit takes some work. You can navigate this guide using the links below:
|Common Misconceptions||What About Mountain Bikes?|
There are some common misconceptions people have with regards to fitting a bicycle. Here, we discuss each and provide some expert opinions on the topics.
Misconception #1: Just Use Your Inseam Measurement
Knowing your inseam is only the first step. To make sure you have a bike that’s comfortable and efficient for you to ride, you need to do more work than that. Dan Towle, owner of R and E Cycles, a Seattle bike shop and custom frame builder, says over-reliance on leg length is the most common fitting mistake out there. “When you’re in a bike shop and they ask you to stand over the top tube and they say ‘well, that’s your size’—that would be like buying an entire suit by holding the pants up to your waist and seeing that the legs don’t hit the floor,” he says. Yet this is how many bike sales work.
“Rent a tuxedo, they spend 20 minutes measuring [you], and you’re going to wear it two hours. Buy a bicycle and they fit for 10 minutes. You’re going to ride it every day.” Perhaps the most obvious way the inseam philosophy of fitting falls short is considering the top half of the body. How much you have to lean from the saddle to the handlebars affects how efficiently you can ride, so two people with the same inseam length can’t expect to fit the same bicycle. Women tend to have shorter torsos in proportion to their legs, so they often need a bike with a shorter top tube.
Then there’s the matter of where to position the handlebars and the seat, how to angle the seat, and what kind of saddle to use – all details that can prove crucial to a cyclist’s comfort. If you want to do this yourself, you have to be prepared for a lot of research and trial and error.
To simplify the process, you can hire the services of a bike fitter – someone with the training and experience to recognize what fits and what doesn’t on a particular bike. There are a variety of fitting philosophies at work out there, and fitters’ training varies, so it’s a good idea to ask around before you settle on one. Most specialty bike shops can point you to someone with experience in fitting.
Misconception #2: Just Use Your Body Proportions
A bike isn’t a garment: it’s a machine. So when you’re fitting a bike, it’s not only important to take into account the size and proportions of your body, but how it moves. “You can’t look at a person and know what size they are,” Towle says.
Georgena Terry, the mechanical engineer and designer who founded Terry Precision Cycling, says the only way to test a fit is to ride the bike. “Once you’re out on a bicycle riding and your position becomes dynamic it changes radically,” she says. Women and men, even if their legs, arms and torsos are the same length, will fit bikes differently, Terry says. “The center of masses of their muscles are not in the same place. You could take a man and a woman with identical proportions, put them on the same bicycle and she will feel uncomfortable and he won’t.”
Erik Moen, of Corpore Sano Physical Therapy and Sports Performance, spends his day helping people fix the relationship between body and bike. He’s a physical therapist with a specialty in cycling. His office is next to one of the Seattle area’s busiest bike trails. His walls are decorated with champion jerseys from riders he’s worked with. One of them says Lance Armstrong – he’s worked with Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael. Instead of a table, he has an indoor bike trainer. When he’s looking for ways to help his clients get over pain or training blocks, he watches how they ride. Knowing how the body works – how flexible people are, and how mobile their joints are – is paramount when you’re fitting a bike, he says, and it can’t be done with a set of measurements.
For example, the best biking stance depends on the rider’s core strength and flexibility. Elite racers do best hunched down over the drop handlebars, but most of us aren’t elite racers. For many active people, the most comfortable way to rack up the miles is with a more upright position – still leaning forward, but not as extremely. Unfortunately, because companies historically designed performance bikes to fit racers, it may be a little harder to find that kind of relaxed fit.
Towle says he found a niche 30 years ago building bikes for riders who wanted high-performance bikes, but weren’t as bendy as the champs. “Most fitting technologies and bicycle fit designs are designed more around the 20 to 30 year old racer crowd and most of our customers weren’t that,” he says.
Misconception #3: The Same Bike Design Fits Everyone
Wrong. If you’re 5’2″ or shorter, or 6’4″ or larger, you’re going to have trouble finding a bike that fits you and functions properly. This is a problem that disproportionately affects women: 29 percent of American women are 5’2″ or shorter, while less than half a per cent of the male population is 6’4″ or taller. As Terry (herself 5’3″) puts it: “Small women really get the shaft.”
With a conventional road bike design, making it for a shorter stature means the pedals and cranks can get in the way of the wheels. So it calls for an unconventional design. For example, Terry tackled the problem by building a bike with a front wheel smaller than the back wheel. Bigger people create added stresses on the bike. The extra weight and torque means that they need frames that aren’t just bigger, but stronger too.
Misconception #4: Fitting Only Takes One Visit
Quick fits can happen, but not to everyone. Even with the most expert fitter, riders often have to return for minor adjustments. And those minor adjustments can make a huge difference. Moen says most of the changes he makes to bikes are tiny: he moves something a few millimeters, or changes an angle by a degree or two. But the results can be dramatic. Neck pains vanish. Average speeds surge ahead by one or two miles an hour. “One of the magical things I take a person and make changes to their bike position and make them feel better pretty quickly,” he says. Saddles, in particular, can take work. If your bike shop doesn’t let you try a saddle for a few rides and then take it back, you need to find a new bike shop.
Misconception #5: A Fitting Lasts Forever
Our bodies are constantly changing, and that means, over time, your bike fit will change too. “If you’re first getting into bicycling, how you fit a bike today will generally be different from how you fit in three to five years,” says Moen. You may need to adjust the bike so that you can lean down more into a speedier, more aggressive stance, a phenomenon called “getting stronger and longer.” On the other hand, if your training is slackening, you might need to adjust things to allow for a less challenging stance.
Injuries, aging, or changes in training focus: all those things can mean the bike needs some adjustments. So make sure your bike has room for change, Terry says. “Maybe your flexibility gets better. Maybe you lose flexibility. The bicycle needs to be evergreen, alive and able to change with you.”
Misconception #6: Some Discomfort is Unavoidable
“Absolutely not”, says Moen. If bicycle riding brings on pain or numbness, it means you have to make changes. “You may have to go to some lengths to get to that fit. Eventually there is something out there that’s going to work,” Terry says. “When it’s adjusted right, it’s such a piece of your body. It is complete harmony, simpatico; it’s almost a Zen kind of thing. If it’s not, somethings wrong.”
What About Mountain Bikes?
A fine fitting mountain bike can take you over stuff, through stuff, and around stuff, quickly, in comfort and (mostly) rubber-side down. Reaching that sweet spot of two-wheel, all terrain joy takes a bit of attention. And the more you’re going to pedal it, the more attention you should pay to fit.
How much mountain bikers pedal varies wildly. Some downhill and freeride riders hardly pedal at all, instead relying on gravity to propel them downward and vehicles and ski lifts to propel them upward. Most of the time, they stand on their pedals, their seat kept low, so they can flex their legs for landings. The bikes they ride come in three sizes: small, medium and large. “You generally just go by your height,” says Zeb Tingley, manager of Fluidride, a Seattle-based online business, specializing in downhill and freeride bikes. Those that do pedal their bikes, get themselves into position by adjusting, and at times sitting on, their seats
Cross-country mountain bikers have to pay more attention to fit. In a sport that can have them going many miles over trails and rough roads, overuse injuries are a possibility if the bike isn’t set up properly for the body. So fitting a cross-country bike has a lot in common with fitting a road bike.
You have to choose the right design for the body’s proportions and the rider’s preferred stance. Some like a laid-back near-upright position much of the time. Others like to lean into their turns like a road racer. You have to carefully select a saddle that works, and take the trouble to position it correctly. That means the right height, tilt, and position backward or forwards on the seat post. You have to be prepared to refine the fit as you go, and adjust it as the body changes. If riding gives you pain or numbness, then the bike isn’t fitting right. As with road bikers, the small – 5′ 2″ and under – and the very tall – 6′ 4″ and over – have the hardest time finding a comfortable fit on conventional bike designs.
One approach to finding the fit is through trial and error: adjusting the positions of seat, saddle and handlebars until the bike works the way you want it. A shorter method is to pay for the services of a professional bike fitter – though you should make sure whichever fitter you choose has experience fitting bikes for the kind of riding you want to do.
Differences with Mountain Bike Fitting
There are four major ways that the fit of a cross-country mountain bike differs from that of a road bike.
#1 – Mountain bikers don’t stay in one position on the bike. They move around. For example, they’ll rise off the saddle in rough terrain, stand on the pedals for a steep climb, or hunker over the handlebars for a sprint. How much time riders spend in different positions varies depending on the kind of riding they do, says Scott Rock, manager of R and E Cycles, a Seattle bike shop and custom bike builder. This means there is no one way to set up a mountain bike – the fits vary with the ways people ride. “It’s going to be a different fit for a cross-country racer, for an all-day trail rider, or for a guy that’s going to be riding downhill.”
#2 – Mountain biking works the upper body, not just the lower. Whether it’s yanking the front wheel over obstacles, shimmying up steep slopes, or absorbing the many bumps of the trail, mountain bikers’ upper bodies work hard. A well fitting mountain bike should make that hard work a little easier. “You have to work with the body,” Rock says. While a road bike fitter’s primary concern is about the leverage of the foot on the crank, mountain bike fitters also have to consider the leverage of the upper body on the frame itself.
#3 – Weight balance. For a mountain bike to ride well, and go over all the obstacles it’s supposed to tackle, its weight needs to be evenly distributed over the wheels. Too much weight backward, and you’ll have trouble with stability. Too much weight forward, and the bike becomes hard to control. Riders have steer with their arms locked. “Imagine driving your car with your whole arm locked into one position,” Rock says.
#4 – You need to fit the bike to the terrain. “Different regions call for different styles,” Rock says. For example, wide handlebars might be good for ascending trails on California ridge tops, but they’d get in the way on the twisty, forested cross-country trails of the Pacific Northwest. Before you set your bike up, it’s important to know something about the trails you’ll be tackling on it, and the bikes people like to use in the area.
A professional fitting certainly isn’t for everyone. However, if you ride regularly, especially long distances or competitive racing, or you have pain and numbness when riding over any distances, it may be worthwhile to look into this. Check with your local bike shop about expert fitting services – as they may have the facilities themselves or can point you in the right direction.
For a basic frame size recommendation – something to get you started – use our bicycle frame size calculator. It relies on your height and leg length, giving you a recommended frame size along with other recommendations. This is not a bicycle fitting, but rather a bike size recommendation.