Adjusting bicycle fit for comfort

You don't own a bicycle because you never enjoyed the bicycle fit


You own a bicycle, but it gets two rides per year (once in Spring, when you have renewed hopes, and once again in Fall, when you feel a little ashamed of not having taken it out all during the good weather - people in Arizona and California won't understand what we just said, but that's ok...).


You own a bicycle, you take it out often - either to commute (you righteous soul, you) or for exercise (you righteous-for-a-different-reason soul, you) - but you don't enjoy it and you get uncomfortable after only short distances.

Maybe it's you.

Maybe it's the bike.

But maybe it's just how the bike is adjusted.

Yeah, seriously.

We don't mean how the brakes and shifting mechanisms are adjusted (don't get us started on derailleurs...); we mean adjustment to fit your carcass. Bicycle fit is incorrect for you.

If the bicycle is approximately the right size for you, then there are a few adjustments you can implement, to make it fit and work better with your anatomy. They aren't hard to do. The 'hard' part is deciding what works. Well, perhaps the real hard part is having the patience to do it right.

It's a chicken-and-egg thing. You won't ever get it adjusted to really feel right unless you take it out frequently. You won't ride frequently unless it fits you comfortably and feels right when you ride.

So, what do you do?

You change one thing and take the bike out for a while, and see if the change to bicycle fit was an improvement or not. If it seems to have improved, you decide if it needs more improving. You change the same item a bit more in the same direction and ride the bike and see if the additional change improves the improvement. And so on.

What's to change?

Depends. What's the problem? If everything else seems OK, but your knees hurt after (or even during) a ride, then see our article about Q-rings!

Other than that, it's probably position

Bike-riding position is a very personal thing, and depends on bicycle fit adjustment as much as on the style of bike. Everybody is different. Different build, different age, different injuries, different fitness. Two people the same height might have different leg lengths, different arm lengths, more muscle in one place or another, more fat in another place or not, and so on. The angles between body parts might differ.

So, you start by buying a bike with a frame that's approximately correct for you. If it's an upright diamond-frame bike, there are rules-of-thumb about being able to straddle the top tube without it touching your crotch. Fail to heed that, and you can whack your tender bits severely if you ever suffer a sudden stop. And we do mean suffer. Don't ride a bike with a frame that's too tall for you. Much regret will ensue.

Elements of seat positioning

You can change only a couple of things, regarding your bike seat. The kind of bike you have kinda locks you into the general type of seat you can install.

Upright diamond frame equals saddle

A mountain bike, a road-racing bike, a touring bike, or a hybrid bike are all examples of the "standard", diamond-frame bicycle that everybody thinks of, when they see or hear the word "bicycle". The salient aspect here is that you straddle the thing you sit on, and your legs come down either side, to reach the pedals, which are only a little forward of the seat position.

You can see from the pictures that you could not reasonably install a flat, wide, pan-type seat that would support your buttocks. If you sat back comfortably in such a seat, your legs would be out to the front and you would not be able to reach the pedals.

On an upright DF (diamond-frame) bike, you need a relatively skinny saddle that you can straddle. This means that your weight is supported by a relatively small area that is shoved up your crotch.

Some seats might have the possibility of a slight (an inch or so) forward and backward adjustment. Most don't. That aspect of bicycle fit might be out of reach for you, unless you upgrade your saddle and saddle mount.

In general, for a saddle-style seat on an upright DF bicycle, you can adjust the height of the seat by raising or lowering the seat-post within the upright tube. That puts the seat farther from or closer to the ground, and farther from or closer to the pedals.

You are seeking a position that gives you as extended a motion as possible on the pedals (so, least amount of bend in your knees at furthest reach to the pedals which is how you transfer most power), but you want to leave enough bend in the knees that your hips do not need to rock when you pedal.

You can also adjust the rake - the angle that the nose of the seat tips up or down - which basically adjusts the fit of the bike to your crotch. Tip it down too far and you put extra pressure on your sit-bones and/or you constantly feel that you are sliding forward. Tip it up too far, and you soon get numb-nuts. Your perineum - that wiggly line between sack and anus - gets mashed, as does the substantial nerve under it. Next thing you know, your dick is not working as well as you might have hoped. Before that point, you might investigate the newer skinny saddles with the split or hole designed to prevent numb-nuts (or more accurately) numb dick.

In many cases, both those adjustments - the tilt or rake angle of the saddle, and the height of the saddle - are friction-fit, so you must tighten very firmly after adjusting, to ensure that your weight does not accidentally adjust your adjustments.

When you have the saddle positioned and adjusted, then you need to adjust the handlebars to properly match. For overall bicycle fit, they are interdependent.

Upright diamond frame takes several kinds of handlebars

A diamond-frame bike can have any of several types of handlebars, depending on the style and purpose of the bike and the different styles affect the bicycle fit. Most racing and touring bikes have drop handlebars, the kind that extend forward of the post, then swoop down and curve back. Usually, the highest part of the handlebar set is roughly level with the top of your saddle (which you already adjusted). That means the actual handle grip area for use during serious pedaling is below the seat, causing you to lean far forward as you ride.

If you are slim and athletic, you can assume that position and remain in it while pedaling furiously. However, if you are fat, you would likely find your gut getting in the way, and your breathing compromised by the curled-forward posture, so you might want to raise the handle-bars somewhat. If you don't, then you'll likely spend most of your riding time half-sitting up, with your hands resting on the handle-bar cross-bar and not down on the real grips. If that's the case, then you definitely need a second set of brake handles that can be reached from that resting (loafing?) position.

But let's imagine that you find a reasonable position that lets you assume the curled over racing position with your hands properly on the drop grips. It is very likely that when you assume that position for any length of time, you will find that the hunched-over posture has changed the angle of your hips and thus the apparent length of your legs. Yes, you might find that your carefully calibrated saddle position needs tweaking, now, in order to reassert proper bicycle fit.

Other things will affect your cycling comfort, power, and efficiency. One parameter might be whether you have a binding-type connection between special pedals and cycling special shoes. That will cause you to pedal differently and to assume a slightly different posture than if you were using ordinary shoes in toe-baskets, and different again if you would be using just open, flat pedals with no positive connection. In that latter case, you would tend to place your feet a wee bit further forward on the pedals, thereby shortening your leg-reach slightly compared to one of the options that traps the toe to the pedal. More tweaks to the seat position and angle in order to nail down that optimum bicycle fit.

Similar considerations come into play if you have a mountain bike or hybrid with straight-across handlebars. The seating position is different. The geometry of the frame is different. You still lean forward a lot, but not in the dropped crouch of the racer or touring cyclist, except in limited circumstances. Still, you are adjusting a triangle of handlebar, seat, and pedals, attempting to accommodate it to your body, your equipment, and your preferred posture and style on the bike.

Then, if you have a cruiser-style bicycle, you will sit almost completely upright, with little or no forward lean. This position will put the least pressure on your hands and the most on your butt. The handlebars are likely high - perhaps higher than the seat, and swept back to allow them to be gripped when you sit upright. The upright posture affects how far the seat can be from the pedals.

Of course there are other designs

Another possibility that is more rare, but has had a cult following for years, is the recumbent cycle - which comes in two-, three-, and even four-wheel styles. Two-wheel recumbents normally have a sling or pan type seat, since the rider is... well... recumbent. This means that the whole notion of bicycle fit is quite different. The seat of a 'bent has an actual seat-back, and there is no saddle nose or horn. The rider's feet are normally horizontally out front because that is where the crank and pedals are, not down below. To accommodate that geometry, a bike (or trike) can have extended, swept-back handlebars often resembling ape-hanger bars seen on some chopper motor-bikes and on old banana-seat kids' bikes. Other designs of recumbent bike and trike do away with normal handlebars in favor of a joy-stick like arrangement under - or above the rider's legs. Usually a bent will have a positional adjustment to put the seat closer to the pedals or farther away, the range being constrained by frame members. Some also have rake/tilt adjustments. Beyond that, bent riders often resort to elaborately carved and bolstered pads to achieve the greatest comfort and proper bicycle fit.

This is a picture of a recumbent trike.

WOW! Is that EVER annoying.

OK, try this, instead... a picture of a recumbent bike, and no annoying rider...

Unlike a DF rider who generally cannot apply force greater than his own weight to the pedals (which they do when standing up on the pedals), a 'bent rider can often achieve greater force by bracing against the back of the bike (or trike) seat and applying as much force as leg muscles can produce. But a bent rider is sitting on his butt muscles in a pan seat and can be prone to "bent butt" after some miles of riding. That is, the pressure and irritation hits the bent rider in different ways and places than it does the DF rider... at least the bent rider is not usually in danger of numb-dick...

Semi-upright crank-forward bikes have aspects of both bent and DF

A relatively recent addition to the range is the crank-forward bike, which has a frame similar to a DF, except that the seat tube and seat post are laid back at an angle. This puts the crank and pedals, and therefore the rider's feet, considerably forward of the DF position, though not near horizontal like a 'bent bike. Because the feet are high and forward, the rider does not straddle a saddle, but instead sits on a pan seat that has a vestigial nose and a vestigial seat-back (really just a slightly raised ridge). The seat cups your buns, rather than wedging up between 'em.

The particular bike shown above is owned by one of the guys here at MHT and is his pride and joy. You can't tell from the picture, but the seat is as wide as it is long, and is easy on the butt. Notice that the seat tube is sloped wa-a-a-ay back, and the crank and pedals are forward of the seat, rather than deep below.

This means that the seat post can be extended or shortened to accommodate the pedal-reach of longer and shorter legs, but the rider (short or tall) can STILL put both feet flat on the ground while stopped without leaving the seat. That is UNlike a regular diamond-frame bike, where lengthening the seat-post puts your butt that much farther from the ground, and you must get off the seat, or lean over on one leg when you come to a stop.

Other advantages of that seat-post angle - despite the strength and stiffness (which is considerable - this is a very well-made bike), there is nevertheless a little flex in the arrangement. This means that when you ride over a bump or pothole, some of the vertical jolt is absorbed by the slight flex of the laid-back seat-post in its laid-back tube. If you were on a regular, upright diamond-frame bike and hit the same bump or pothole, the wedgie seat gets slammed up your ass and your spine takes the full jolt. For that reason, it is a little less critical to always see the bumps and to unweight when riding a crank-forward bike.

The manufacturer RANS makes several sportier models of crank-forward bikes, but we like our relaxed cruiser. See our next bike-related story for another fun aspect of our bike that might help make your life better.

The main reason that we MHT guys like the crank-forward design is the seated posture of the rider. We formerly had drop-handlebar and hybrid bikes, and the hunched-forward posture began taking a toll on our necks. It's ok if you are hunched forward and keep your head and neck in line with the rest of your spine, but that means you are looking at the ground about six inches ahead of your bike... and your run into stuff.

If you maintain the bent-over posture (that is best for minimizing your aerodynamic resistance while riding) but you bend your neck to look ahead (which you must do for safety), then your neck takes a beating and eventually begins to strike back.

The crank-forward design, especially the cruiser style, eliminates that problem. We think CF is a great compromise between DF and 'bent.

Here's how to get to their site RANS Bicycles

Don't forget to say Hi for us, while you are there.

OH! Here's another bike site we like a lot: Into The Ride blog It's about 'bents and crank-forward bikes.

The MHT page What the page is about
Bicycling Knee Pain How the Q-ring helps correct knee pain from riding your bicycle
CVT for bikes Replace finicky derailleurs with tough-as-nails Continuously Variable Transmission on your bicycle
Bicycle Fit How to properly fit your bicycle to your body
Numb-nuts and numb-dick If you insist on an upright, diamond-frame bicycle, then get the right kind of saddle to save your manhood.

If this page wasn't where you wanted to be, then from this 'bicycle fit' page, go back to the home page.

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