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Road Cycling for Noobs: What It Feels Like When Your Bike’s Setup Is Right


November 2014

Possibly one of the toughest questions to answer pertaining to cycling, especially when starting out, is whether or not your steed’s setup feels right for you.  Beyond the typical, “get a bike fit done”, how do you really know if it’s right?  If you’re putting enough effort into it, riding will hurt for a time until you get used to the effort, let alone your bike and its setup.  Without time in the saddle it can be seriously difficult to figure it out.  To make matters worse, sometimes getting one bike right can be quick and easy and another can take forever and a day.  As examples, my Venge took three hours.  My 5200 took something like three years to finally get it dialed in to where I really love to ride it.  There’s a reason for that three years though…  I’ll get to that toward the end of the post.
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First, everything matters – centimeters, more often millimeters.  The trick really is, once you get your bike dialed in right, you’ll know it.  When you get out of the saddle to pick the pace up or climb a hill, your butt will naturally find the right spot on the saddle when you sit back down, without even thinking about it or having to shuffle around to find the spot – I call this “my butt’s happy spot” (saddle position/height).  Your arms won’t feel like they’re too wide on the brake hoods and they’ll be just wide enough that you won’t clip your elbows when you pedal (handlebar width).  You won’t feel like you’re reaching too far for the handlebar or that you’re crammed into the cockpit (stem length).  Your sit bones won’t hurt – one side or both (saddle width or style, position and height).  Your shoulders and neck won’t hurt (too far forward or incorrect drop [saddle to bar])…  You won’t get numb feet (cleat position, softer soled shoes, saddle too high).  Now these are just a few simple examples, I could probably go on for a bit longer but you get the idea.

Where this gets tricky is saddle time.  The more I train in a specific position on the bike, the more natural it will feel, the better that position works for me…  This only works to a certain extent though, it’s not infallible.  If you’ve got one component (or more) off by a couple of millimeters even, saddle time won’t fix the problem, it’ll make it worse.  If this seems confusing, like a lot to figure out, don’t worry (you’re not alone).  The solution is to be systematic in your approach to making sure your setup is dialed in the best it can be by paying attention to how you feel during longer rides that don’t exceed your current fitness level.  As an example, if you’re comfortable at 35 miles as your long ride, looking at how you feel after a century may not paint a proper picture.

First, know that all of the research you’ve done and everything you’ve read that says to get a fitting done is right.  Unless you’ve got thousands of miles on bicycles, and actually know what you’re doing, don’t even bother trying to set your own up.  Once you’ve gotten your bike fitted, then start paying attention to how you feel to get it dialed in perfectly.  Assuming you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, you can either tell your setup person at the shop what you feel and they’ll help you or you can try to tackle it yourself (if I’m not sure of the ramifications of what I’m doing, I’ll ask someone at the shop first and make adjustments based on their recommendations).

Also, as a resource, if you’re having trouble figuring which way to go or diagnose what you’re going through, try my “Noob’s Guide” or “Bike Fitting and Maintenance Issues” pages…  Maybe you’ll get lucky and I messed it up before you had a chance to, and I wrote about it.

One final note on my Venge and 5200…  Specifically, how I finally got the 5200 figured out.  When I bought my Venge, I did know a little something about setting up a bike because I’d been trying to get the 5200 figured out for so long.  Straight from the shop, I got the Venge very close so when I took it in for my fitting, after three hours of crunching numbers and angles all that had to be done was lower the saddle by two millimeters (which helped quite a bit by the way…  Also, before they did the fitting the owner wanted me to put some miles on the bike to see what I liked and what I didn’t).  Once I got it home, the fit and feel were unbelievable.  The first thing I noticed was the width of the handlebar (42 in lieu of 44 cm on the 5200).  The Tarmac bend bar on the Venge was much better suited to my shoulder width.  Now I thought of buying another handlebar from Specialized and putting that on my Trek but instead opted to upgrade the bar on the Venge and put the old bar on the Trek.  That sorted, I made a couple of other changes (90 mm Bontrager SSR stem in lieu of the 70 mm I had on there, lowered the saddle 2 mm and brought it in (toward the handlebar) one millimeter…  That done, now my butt finds the happy spot on my saddle, naturally.  In other words, I made the fit on the Trek like the Venge (though it’s not exact, the geometries are different so it took some tweaking to make it feel like the other bike).

Some of the errors and omissions over the years were as follows:
1.  I knew I hated the deep ergo drop (with the flat spot below the brake levers to rest the hands) but I didn’t realize that it was too wide until I was riding the Venge and got to experience the proper bar.  This was a setup oversight, but I would have tried to live with it rather than upgrade the bar anyway.  That won’t happen again, the bar width is a big deal.
2.  When I bought the Trek, the saddle was too wide at the sit bones (155 mm, I need a 143).  This problem only took a couple of days to figure out.  My sit bones hurt after every ride so I explained the problem to Walter at the shop and he fitted me for a new saddle.  Saddle width matters – believe me, get your sit bone width measured and purchase a saddle to match that width.
3.  Because I wanted to look like I knew how to ride, I always sought to have my saddle as high as possible so the drop from the nose to the handle bar was as great as possible.  This effected my power at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  Far better to set it right and lower the stem.
4.  Now this is important…  I tried to make the Trek exactly like the Venge by measurement, which meant using a 100 mm stem on the Trek to get the Saddle Nose to Handlebar measurement right.  Unfortunately because the geometries of the two bikes are different, that didn’t work.  I had to reach way too far for the handlebar which meant that my butt always wanted to go to a spot too forward on the saddle for comfort.  The answer was a 90 mm stem but I still was just a touch shy (it took 5 miles of a 35 mile ride to figure this out)…  I was so close, but I was still too far forward.  I cheated.  Even though I knew I had the saddle in the right fore/aft position on the bike, I moved it forward 1 mm.  That’s it, just one mm, but that made all of the difference in the world.  It’s perfect now.  Or at least good enough for government work.
5.  The stem change (from 70 to 90 mm) was not a setup oversight.  That stem fit the bike and my riding style when I first started riding.  In fact the owner went to great length to get me fitted onto that 5200 as comfortably as possible.  My riding style changed over the years and adjustments had to be made.



  1. Chyrel says:

    Getting the right bike fit makes a lot of difference when it comes to comfort and performance in riding. With the bike I’m riding now, I’m more efficient when it comes to climbing. That fits like a glove kind of thing.

  2. Tricky business, I agree. The issue for me that took a while for me to figure out was the tilt of the saddle. For a long time I was supporting far too much of my weight on the arms, and finally tilting the saddle back a degree or two shifted my centre of gravity so that I now sit balanced and comfortable. The difference when you crack it can be huge.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That is definitely a tough one to get right. I’m having a tough time with my 5200 seat post – I like my saddle perfectly level and the notches won’t let me get there (it’s a couple of degrees either way). Still trying to figure out whether it’s worth a new seat post or not.

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