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Road Cycling: Setting Your Saddle Properly

October 2014
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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…
IMG_5283Once 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.
IMG_5289Now, 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:
IMG_5293Get 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:
IMG_5290That should be plumb:
IMG_5292Now, 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.

Now, as a last step, check the level of your saddle, just to make sure you’re right on.
IMG_5294Then level out your saddle and Bob’s your uncle.

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.

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10 Comments

  1. dagowop says:

    Great guide. I would also caution people with abnormally large feet (like myself) to do exactly this but then be prepared to make further adjustments. It took me about 10 adjustments to get it right.

  2. fastk9dad says:

    Large feet should only matter in saddle fore/aft position, not saddle height as your heel would be in the same place no matter how gargantuan your feet are. I’d also argue that you should do the heel thing in bare feet than with street shoes since most will have a thicker heel than any cycling shoe.

    With that said, I find it’s far easier to perform your own basic fit with “Bike Fast Fit” for the iPhone/iPad especially if you have a trainer. It simulates the high tech video tools used by professional fitters pretty well allowing you to dial the angles of your knees etc…

    Personally I don’t subscribe to the KOPS position as an absolute. I go for balance on the bike vs some arbitrary measurement dependent on anatomy. If that puts me slightly forward or rearward of KOPS so be it.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s how i was set up too. The fitting came with the bike so i didn’t have to pay for it, the shop owner just wanted to make sure i got the most out if the bike. That said, i have BFF too… Just haven’t been able to get the camera set quite right. I agree with your assessment on big feet too btw. Odd thing is, i do have big feet (though not ridiculously big) so i’m a bit perplexed. Maybe he was lifting his heel, brining his knee forward. ?

      • fastk9dad says:

        I think a pro fitting is always the way to go, especially for a novice, but if you’re a serious cyclist you should know how to modify your fit as well.

        Still not sure about the foot thing, it could be like you said.

  3. exmaschine says:

    I would say that your post is a good baseline, but everybody has such varying measurements to deal with. such as inseam, arm length,torso length, natural foot position (pointing in or out) hip size, sit bones, etc. Not too mention, physical limitations and conditions. A one size fits all, absolute numbers guide just is not the to always go. My setup is in no way close to what you suggest, just can’t do it. Very short arms, longer torso, pigeon toed, pinched neck nerve, and psoriatic arthritis force me to compromise.

  4. exmaschine says:

    By the way Jim, I like the idea of using a level instead of a plumb bob!

  5. tischcaylor says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to explain this.

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