Does your bike fit?

I have discussed in a previous post about why and how to cycle defensively in urban areas.  I overlooked what is perhaps the most important thing a cyclist can do – make certain the bike fits.  Otherwise, the ability to maneuver around hazards, stop suddenly and accelerate when necessary is compromised.

Bike fitting can get complicated and, expensive.  You can pay hundreds of dollars for a fit and hundreds more for equipment upgrades – saddles, stems, handlebars, cranks.  However, there are three essential guidelines to consider – three checks that you can do yourself from the seat of your bike as illustrated above.

  1. Can you touch your foot to the ground when seated on your saddle?  If you are unable to reach the ground, your saddle is too high.  You may be able to lower it  provided the frame is not too large for you.
  2. When your cranks are level to the ground, is the front of your lead knee perpendicular to the pedal axle?  This positioning enables you to deliver maximum power.  Adjustments to saddle height and positioning forward or backward may be necessary.
  3. When cycling in a neutral position with the arms outstretched and relaxed, is the front wheel’s axle blocked from your view by your handlebars?  This puts you in a powerful, balanced position without straining the back.  Lateral adjustment to the saddle may be necessary or the stem may be too long or short.

There are several other minor adjustments that can be made – the angle of the handlebars, the positioning of the brake/shift levers, the angle of the stem, the height of the stem, the width of the handlebars and the angle of the seat.  As you become stronger and more flexible, further adjustments may be necessary.  Bike fitting is not a one-time event.  Each season you need to re-evaluate your riding position making certain you can touch the ground if necessary, deliver optimum power to the pedals and remain in a comfortable position without reaching too far with your arms and keeping your back in a neutral position.

Get fit.  Ride often.  Ride safely.


8 thoughts on “Does your bike fit?

  1. I’m confused on the first two… Touching my foot to the ground may be important for urban riding but that has absolutely no bearing on whether or not my saddle is too high. I can’t touch on any of my bikes (four)… Well, I can on the mountain bike if I lean and use my left big toe.

    Second, the knee perpendicular to the crank may be a starting point, but the proper position is actually behind the leading edge of the knee. There’s a bone just under your kneecap (its part of the tibia) that, when your leg is bent, sticks out just a touch (maybe 3-4 mm behind the leading edge of your knee and a cm or two below the bottom of the cap) – if you take a plumb-bob from the edge of that part of the tibia and extend it down, the point should be right in the center of the spindle that attaches the pedal to the crank.

    Your third point I get, agree with and have used.

    Don’t mean to be a pain.

    PS – I was fitted, thrice, by a pro who apprenticed in England and built the 24 hour world record bike used by Michael Secrest in 1984… The guy knows his bikes. I own a ’90 Cannondale SR-400 (54 cm [too small, my fault – first bike]), a ’99 Trek 5200 (58 cm), a ’13 Venge Comp (56 cm) and an ’08 3700 (19.5″). 6’0″ (182.88 cm)

  2. You are not a pain at all. I have been professionally fitted several times and know how precise the adjustments can be. I was addressing the post more to the recreational, urban cyclist. I see too many riders on poorly fitted bikes and wanted to encourage everyone to make a few adjustments themselves.

    I have been fitted for my road bike and make minor adjustments throughout the season depending on the nature of the riding. My commuter and mountain bike I fit myself with assistance from my son (he holds the plumb bob).

    thanks again.

  3. You bet and thanks – I always worry a little bit about coming off like a jerk online… I kind of figured, just wanted to make sure I was on the right page, if you will.

  4. Good and important post!

    I have to say I agree with the previous commenter — the type of bike matters, and it’s more about saddle to pedal distance rather than saddle to ground distance. I use a road bike for urban commuting, but if I lowered my saddle enough for my foot to touch the ground, my knee would probably be bent the entire time, and would never extend at all. Ouchies!

    But you know what, I see a lot of people in Chicago pedaling like that. That could be part of the reason they’re doing it — so they can touch the ground without getting off the saddle. Their poor knees!

    Fit is sooo important though. I completely agree. And fitting needs change as your body changes, so I frequently assess how I feel and make sure to do a new fitting if things feel off. I can tell immediately when I need a new one — riding becomes much more irritating if I’m not fit well.

    I see a lot of people riding around with poor fit and I just want to pull over and tell them I’m going to help them adjust things properly so they wont be in pain or so uncomfortable anymore!!!

    And I agree that there are things you can do at home. I’ve never had a professional fit, my partner does everything. But it works because there are two of us and we can watch how each other looks while the other pedals.

    That’s another tip to add– grab a friend who can watch and look at your positioning or use a full length mirror so you can see yourself.

  5. Thanks Echo.

    I see too many urban cyclists unable to control their bikes – stop quickly, maneuver around hazards and manage climbs. I have 4 bikes – a commuter, a racing road bike, a hand-made touring bike and a cross country mountain bike. And, I have been professionally fit for the road bike (more than once). On each of these bikes, if I extend my foot and lean the bike perhaps, I can touch the ground. I certainly agree that the saddle to pedal height is key. This is a link I use to calculate the correct distance ( As I mention in the post, it can get complicated and expensive. My intent was to encourage the inexperienced cyclist to make a few minor adjustments themselves so that they ride more safely and comfortably.

    Thanks again and, I must say I enjoy your comics.

  6. Ill-fitting bikes can easily turn off a wannabe cyclist …for good. One doesn’t need to be professionally fitted for a bike but it does require help from experienced cyclists or certain bike store staff. And not all are good.

    I recently published a blog post on women cyclists where I looked later at the photos I chose, and I would say half of the featured photos, the cyclists didn’t look properly fitted. But hey, if they could ride around…

  7. Hi Jean. The intent of the post was to encourage recreational cyclists to make a few minor adjustments themselves to make riding safer and more enjoyable for everyone. I certainly agree. There are a lot of poorly fitted cyclists. I carry a multi-tool and will stop to assist with minor adjustments – saddle & stem heights, saddle position – when I can. Some are receptive and appreciate the assistance. Others, not so much. Not only are bikes poorly fit but poorly maintained as well. Every week I wash my bike(s), clean & lube my chain(s), adjust the brakes and derraileurs and tighted the seat post, stem and water bottle bolts. They ride better when they are clean, lubricated and tight but that is for another post.

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