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Why Bike Fit Matters More than the Bike Itself…


I am a stickler when it comes to bike fit.  Anyone who has read the posts on this blog knows this about me.  I went through a 3 hour Specialized Body Geometry setup on my Venge then transferred those measurements, the best I could, to my 5200 (Trek).  All of my bikes have gone through some form of fitting, from the rudimentary for my mountain bikes, to the extensive for my road bikes.

In fact, I even went so far as to take my 5200 in to make sure that I had it as close as possible to my Venge.  I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to get it closer.  The end result was that it was as close as could be when comparing a 56 cm compact frame race bike to a 58 cm standard frame race bike.  I can’t get the Trek any closer to the Venge than it is…  We’re talking within a few millimeters here and there.

My bikes have been set up this way because the setup is everything when it comes to cycling, speed and comfort.

I don’t care how plush the ride is, how wonderful the frame material is, how wonderful the saddle is…  If the bike setup is off, it’s going to hurt the rider.  The setup not set in stone, the nature of the setup is though.  The idea is to get it close and then fine tune it over a bit of time.  I was lucky enough that my Venge hasn’t changed much since that BG fitting (new parts, yes, but the replacement bits that went on the bike were the same size/angle as the parts they replaced – or very close to it).  While the body can adapt to small differences, there are some things that don’t have a lot of room for error.

So far, none of what I’ve written should blow up any skirts.

Where this gets fun was my test ride of a new bike the other day.  I’ve written a bit about the tandem my wife and I were looking at (we’ve gone from “looking at it” to “put a bow on it, please”).  The test ride wasn’t supposed to be anything special, just get an idea as to whether or not we liked tandem riding enough to give the bike a try.  We went for just 21 miles.  To some 21 miles is a pretty big deal and I understand that.  Two my wife and I, 21 miles is a nice, little jaunt around the block.  We put in some miles – I average a little better than 150 miles a week during the early spring and more than 200 for the rest of the season into November.  Those 21 miles on that ill set-up tandem hurt me more than a century on my Venge does.

I always find it interesting when people say that a hundred-mile bike ride must hurt.

I think this may be the root of all cycling evil: An ill-fitting bike.

Just based on the saddle being 1″ too far forward, 1″ too low and the stem about 1-1/2″ too short, I ended up with a sore ass, a saddle sore and numb hands – over just 21 miles, a little more than one hour on the bike.  Once I raised the saddle, at least, we were able to get a little bit of speed, but I was still hurting when we pulled into the shop.

A bike is just a bike, but at the same time, it’s a bike.

We all remember as kids, we got a bike, we set the saddle on it so we could reach the pedals and that’s the last we thought of it for a decade (and one to two feet of growth).  We rode just fine back then, no?

Well, not really.  Almost every kid I knew was on an ill-fitted bike so we were all slow and it never mattered.  As adults, it’s different.  First, if you want to ride fast, you’ve gotta have the saddle in the right place so you’re actually comfortable placing your butt on it – and 1″ too far forward and 1″ too low definitely will not do.  Add to that another 5 cm on the stem and it’s surprising my butt didn’t stage a revolt by the time I hit the 10 mile mark.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why bikes hurt.

While there are other minor issues, saddle width for one, everything painful can usually be traced to a flaw in the setup.  Feet hurt?  It’s probably a cleat placement or angle issue.  Arms go numb?  Too much or too little reach.  Hamstring hurts?  Saddle is too wide.  Front of the knee hurts?  Saddle is too low.  Back of the knee?  Saddle is too high…  Neck hurts?  Too much drop from the saddle to the handlebar.

Now, there is a simpler explanation for all of these as well – especially if you’ve already had your bike fitted:  Saddle time.

All things improve with saddle time.  Please my friends, you can’t ride hard if you always feel as though you’re sitting on barbed wire.  If you haven’t done so, get your bike(s) fitted and find out what you’ve been missing.

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10 Comments

  1. I fully agree bike fit is the most important part, I read post on Facebook and Slowtwitch.com all the time people asking should I buy this bike or that bike. All the people that have ridden bikes for any amount of time, simple say go get a bike fit then decide which bike.

  2. MJ Ray says:

    I’d put another corollary in: if the fit is wrong, you can still ride it averagely and not hurt, but if you try to go fast then you’ll be in a world of pain.

    I’ve ridden miles on hire bikes that didn’t have enough adjustment range for my height (I’m only six foot) and been OK, but I accepted that I wasn’t going to climb any mountains and wouldn’t set any records on it… except maybe some low speed ones!

    And I found hamstring pain was due to a too high saddle, whereas too wide hurts the upper back of the thigh.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That seems plausible, especially for kids, though I don’t know any better either way. My average on a leisure bike with a granny seat on it is 15-16 mph. I don’t go slow on anything. Oh, and yes… 15 mph on a leisure bike with a granny seat on it hurts like hell. Especially the lower back.

      I did have some hammie problems related to too wide a saddle myself.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Yeah, averagely is more like 10-12mph average, not 15, at least on European cheapseal or asphalt, but your roads are smoother, simpler and emptier than ours, from what I’ve seen on my visits (although I’ve not visited Michigan) and your photos. You rarely seem to have to do the sorts of contortions at junctions that we often do, such as turning funny angles or slowing and crawling out past the corners of houses until we can see.

      • bgddyjim says:

        We do, but I live out in the country so it’s usually once every mile where you’d be closer to once every block. There’s no doubt we’re lucky when it comes to traffic. We have to trackstand a corner every now and again (I did just last night) but it’s pretty rare.

      • MJ Ray says:

        I’m what’s regarded as “out in the country” for England but I just traced the simplest clearest route that I possibly can. 11.5 miles, but 25 road junctions and 2 level crossings in that. I traced another that I thought was quieter/simpler/straighter, but it had 40 junctions in 12.5 miles.

        The furthest I could find between junctions was 3 miles (out near the no-hills pic I showed you a while ago) but you still have to get there, of course. We’re a country with a gnarly road network, for sure – no wonder your ride speeds seem higher than many of our racing clubs 😉

      • bgddyjim says:

        Yep. We can go for miles without having to stop but a few times.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Ah, we don’t often have to stop, but we ease up just in case, cover the brakes and try to time the arrival to coincide with no other vehicles being present. Riding through most junctions at full speed is just too damned risky. Even when the paint and signs say we have priority, some motorists just don’t see it that way, tons of metal win in a collision and traffic police are rare out here 😦

      • bgddyjim says:

        I’ve heard that about the UK… We play by the same rules here but generally speaking, there are few blind intersections in my neck of the woods – normally we can see for a half-mile in either direction long before we get to one so we have an easier time rolling them without incident. This isn’t to say we aren’t cautious, we are because your assessment is right on… No sense in fighting a battle with a few tons of steel on a bike.

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