Beyond a professional bike fit which will get you somewhere between “close to” or “right on” a perfect fit for your bike (depending on how much time, money and energy you’re willing to put into it), there are a number of other factors that can lead to a need to tweak a bike from time to time. Normally I’d be writing a post like this about my Venge, but as it’s about as close to perfect as I can hope for, I’ll instead concentrate on the 5200 which recently went through some major changes that required quite a bit of tweaking to get it right.
My Venge came with the latter of the setups: I put a lot of time and energy into getting that one right and when I ride the bike it feels, without a doubt, amazing. There is no pain, other than an inappropriate lack of saddle time, associated with riding. No saddle sores, no knee pain, no arm, shoulder, neck or back pain. It’s perfect (or as close to it as I can imagine at this point). The 5200, on the other hand, has been quite a bit more elusive when it came to getting it set up so I felt as good as I do on the Venge so I have quite a bit of experience in working things around to get it to where it is today.
Now, in case you haven’t been around for the history, I bought my Venge at the end of the 2013 season. 2014 was my first full year on the bike and it was marvelous. I also upgraded the handlebar at the end of the season (this is important later). I bought the ’99 Trek used, in the winter of 2011 after blowing $400 on a Cannondale that was too small for my needs (a definite rookie mistake). The full carbon 5200 came with all of the stock equipment (drivetrain, saddle, seat post, handlebar, etc.). I had problems with it right away. Here’s what it looked like the day I brought it home (and after two hours to clean it up decently):
Please forgive the gnarly entertainment center and the mountain bike pedals… In any event, the saddle that came on the bike was too wide. So wide that my left sit bone hurt quite a bit after long rides and after a while it got so bad that it affected my left hamstring. I had no idea at the time that my problem was a saddle that was too wide, I’d never heard of such a thing (when you’re a kid, your parents buy you a bike and you ride it – no rocket science involved) but as a noob I did the right thing when I realized that my bike was hurting me – I went to the bike shop and explained my problem. The technician measured my sit bones (a rather obtrusive process) and came to the conclusion that my saddle was 155 mm wide and I needed a 143 mm saddle. Here it is with the new saddle and after I dropped the stem considerably:
This is where two simple changes get tricky. Because I bought a new saddle that had about an inch less padding on it, I had to raise my seat post to get the reach to the pedals right. Makes sense, yes? I wasn’t done yet though… Because I raised the seat post, I had to move the saddle closer to the handlebar by a millimeter or two (if I’d have lowered it, I’d have moved it back). Lowering the handlebar also changed my reach a little bit but if you look at the difference between the first and second photo, you’ll see that I addressed this by rotating the bar upwards which brought the hoods closer to me. I rode the bike like that right up until I bought the Venge when the 5200 became my rain bike…
Once I rode the Venge for a week I realized just how much I really hated the handlebar on the Trek. The flat part of the ergonomic drop never felt right. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good. As well, the bar that came on the bike was a 44 cm bar – the bar on the Venge was a 42 and fit me much better (a 44 is for someone with exceptionally wide shoulders). I didn’t change it though, even though I could have picked up a new bar to match the one on the Venge for somewhere around $45, I figured I’d live with it because it was only my rain bike.
Last year I decided that I needed to upgrade the handlebar on my Venge from the alloy bar to the carbon fiber Aerofly handlebar. The reach and drop on the Aerofly bar was very close to that of the Tarmac Bend alloy bar so no changes were necessary to the Venge’s setup but I was finally able to put the bar from the Venge onto the Trek…
Now this gets interesting, please stay with me. The difference between the old Trek bar and the new bar was huge. The drop was way less, as was the reach on the new bar. This meant that I didn’t have to reach as far to get to the drops which put me in a bit of an odd position on the bike. Here’s what the Trek looks like today:
First, many apologies that I didn’t stage the bike properly – mea culpa. Now, because the original handlebar was a different diameter at the stem, I had to get a new stem for it and I picked up a quill stem adapter from Nashbar (cheap and light). Originally I got a 70 mm stem, to match the reach of the old stem but when I installed that and rode it, I felt cramped up (if you put in enough miles on a properly fit bike, you can feel these small differences instantly when you switch to a different bike). So I tried the spare stem from the Venge (I replaced that when I upgraded the bar) but that stem is a 100 mm reach and was way too much stretch. I ended up with an 80 mm reach stem. Now, if you notice the angle of the hoods, I changed that in the process because the idea (according to the cool kids) is to have the line of the hoods be on the same plane as the bar as it stretches away from the bike:
Originally, I had the hoods a little lower, so they better followed the line created by the bar – like I have on the Venge:
Unfortunately, that just didn’t work out. I made it a couple of months like that, hoping I could get used to it but in the end, it was causing me a little bit of pain in my right elbow – I had to reach just a little bit too far. What I ended up doing, rather than try to find a decent 75 mm stem (there’s no such thing, they come in increments of 10 mm), is I simply raised the hoods about five millimeters so that I wouldn’t have to reach so far. I could have kept it simple and rotated the bars up so the hoods came with it but that would have messed with how I ride in the drops and would have looked really goofy (it matters to me, maybe not you, but it does to me).
To simplify a rather complex concept, one that is likely to bring about howls of protest were I to make any kind of concrete statement about how to actually go about fine-tuning your bike to your liking, I’ll simply leave it at this: There are dozens of ways to tune your bike to your exact liking. You’re not limited to the simple things (or the things that cost you to change), saddle height, saddle fore/aft position, stem length, bar drop/reach. You can also change the angle of the handlebar, raise or lower the hoods (just make sure they’re even and level when you’re done – if you have one hood higher than the other, even by a little bit, you will be in for some pain over long distances), you can adjust the level of your saddle (nose up if you ride upright, level if you ride aggressive, and nose down if you’re a woman (seriously, women tend to like their saddles nosed down a little bit if they’re not happy with level).
Now, you may be wondering, how do you know if your bike is right or if you have work to do?
I can only offer my experience on this front, having ridden everything from a bike that’s too small to one that’s a little big, to one that is absolutely spot-on perfect… I can tell by feel. I should feel like my weight is distributed evenly to a point where I don’t put a lot of undue pressure on my butt, my arms/hands/shoulders and I don’t have to crane my neck beyond being comfortable when I’m in the drops (I should be able to easily see 2-4 car-lengths in front of me while riding in the drops). I feel balanced and pain-free on a ride of medium length and intensity with proper saddle time (call it two hours at 20 mph in the saddle in my case). I’ve found that if something is off, if something is not right, I’ll experience a sharp pain after a decent ride. Say one of my hoods isn’t level with the other one (I’ve dealt with that once before I knew to check it) or my saddle isn’t perfectly level (and by perfectly, I mean it). The pain will be sharp and intense… In the case of the saddle level, I’ll feel like I’m being pushed forward. I slide towards the nose of the saddle and have to keep pushing myself back to get to the happy spot on my saddle. In the case of one hood being out of level (or square), I’ll feel pressure on the arm that doesn’t have to reach as far. If my saddle is too far back or my stem is too long, I’ll feel like I have to reach too far to the hoods (assuming the stem length is right*), riding with my hands on the bar-top will be more comfortable (the hoods should be the most comfortable position on a road bike).
Finally, to wrap up this first rather lengthy post, fitting a road bike properly becomes more important as the distance, speed and time in the saddle increases. An improperly fitting bike, in the short-term, will often present painful hot-spots that will fade after a ride. Often the cause of this pain can be mistaken for effort or more time in the saddle; “Well, I increased my effort on the last ride, so that’s why my arm hurt afterward”. Over time though, the pain will intensify and sometimes even migrate. I’ll cover several of my experiences and how I corrected for them in the coming weeks…and I guarantee, the posts will be much shorter than this one. As I add them, I’ll amend this post below with their links. The important thing to remember after all of this is that you should not be sore after riding your bike unless you attempt a very intense hike in saddle time. If you are, the first thing to look at is the setup.
Here’s Part II: The Hoods