There is nothing more important in road cycling than getting one’s saddle set to the proper height and position on the seat post. Nothing. Just a few millimeters off and your power is affected by as much as a mile per hour off of your average. A half a millimeter and you can be looking at as much as 3 mph. Folks, I’m trying to stress here, this is a really big deal.
It’s also a perplexing issue for noobs and some seasoned vets alike when it really doesn’t have to be, setting the saddle properly is quite simple, actually. This should take a total of maybe ten minutes.
Saddle height is the simplest and the place to begin. Now, I always do this with my bike set on my trainer in my office because I don’t have to worry about balance and I can get myself set perfectly on the saddle. One can also hold oneself up in a doorway or have a friend hold the bike up. For starters, with the saddle height, it makes sense to do this in your cycling shorts because the padding will have an effect on the height. I won’t be adjusting my height as it’s already right so in the photos, I’ll be in my jeans.
All you do is get on your bike, place your heels over the spindles on the pedals and pedal backwards. Your saddle is at the right height, within a millimeter or two, when your leg straightens out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Make certain your hips stay perfectly still through this, if your hips rock side to side it’s too high. If your leg doesn’t straighten it’s too low…
Once you get it to the place where your leg perfectly straightens without rocking, lower it 1 millimeter (this gives you a little more power on the bottom part of the stroke). Now, 1 millimeter is not a lot so don’t go too far. A problem to watch out for (one that I have to be careful of myself) is that your legs may not be the same length. I only have to worry about a millimeter so I settle it with a slight adjustment (1 more mm lower) to the saddle but the proper way is to actually have your cleat on the short side shimmed. If you straighten out without rocking on one side but rock on the other, guess what…
Now, you may have noticed I’m in my street shoes in that first photo… My cycling shoes have a bit of a heel to them. If I were to try this with my cycling shoes on, it would skew the result.
Now, for the trickier of the two, setting your saddle to the proper fore/aft position. The reason that I’m checking mine today is that I had a new handlebar put on my bike and that could change my orientation on the bike just a little bit. Knowing that a millimeter matters, it’s best to be certain. For this one, you’ll need a plumb bob* or a 4′ level. I use the 4′ level because I have several and it’s just a little less time-consuming and a touch more exact. For this one you’ll need your cycling shoes on. First, level the bike. Check by using a 4′ level, placing it under the quick release skewers of each wheel:
Get on the bike, preferably on a trainer, and warm up for a minute or two. The goal is to get your butt in the proper spot on the saddle – and this is the specific reason I like to do this in jeans. Without cycling shorts my saddle is like sitting on, well something hard and not comfortable. I’ll be able to find my happy spot a lot easier without the padding from my cycling shorts. Once you’re in the right spot, stop pedaling making sure the pedal cranks are parallel to the ground. Then take the level and place the bottom inside edge on the end of the crank arm and the top on the outside of your knee:
That should be plumb:
Now, here’s the important tip: If you have to move your saddle forward, you have to raise the saddle. If you had to move it back you have to lower it. Usually just a millimeter or two but check yourself with the pedal backward trick above just to make sure you’re right. Also, don’t get cocky and try to save time by reversing the steps so you won’t have to adjust your saddle height twice. Why? I have no idea, but our local pro setup artist has checked me three or four times and my wife at least twice and this is the order he goes in every time. So I do what he does.
A few quick tips about saddle level: The general thinking is that the saddle should be level. There are occasions to deviate though. First, I have heard that women generally prefer to nose their saddle down just a smidge. Also, if you tend to ride in a more upright position, nosing the saddle up a millimeter or three will offer you a little more support for your hips. I’ve tried that one myself and it surprised how comfortable I was riding on the bar top (it felt horrible in the drops on the hoods though, I ride too low).
*Setting the saddle fore/aft position with a plumb bob: Instead of going from the outside of your knee, directly under your kneecap is a small bone protrusion. Place the string directly on the outer edge of that protrusion and allow the bob to rest just above the pedal axle (inside is easiest when you’re alone). It should be hovering directly in the center of the pedal spindle.
UPDATE: A friend posted a comment warning about those who have large feet using care with this method, he had a tough time getting his position right the first several times. I’ll dig into this a little bit to see if I can’t come up with a reason (we’re both stumped). A second suggests this is a good measure for a baseline, however there are several factors that could effect the actual requirements for the setup. That said, I disagree with some of his suggested causes (such as arm length which would suggest too short a stem or too large a frame). In the end, road cycling is simply a compromise of dozens of factors in order to achieve the greatest power to the pedal as is comfortable.