The Noob’s Guide to Saddle Height – Too High, No Comfort. Too Low, No Power… Some Variations on Getting it Right
I shared a post written by the Ragtime Cyclist a bit ago because it made me laugh. In that post, however, was a link to a BikeRadar article that explained a few different variations on how to achieve the proper saddle height. The biggest problem I’ve seen noobs make, especially on road bikes, is having the saddle set too low.
I was out with my wife at our daughters’ swim practice when I read the post and the linked article so I was intrigued to get home and find out how I measured up using the old heel on the pedal method, then dialing it in by feel over the past couple of years.
The three variations in addition to the old tried and true heel on the pedal and pedal backwards option are as follows:
The 109: Take your inseam, multiply that by 109% and that’s your height from the pedal.
The LeMond: 88.3% of your inseam and that’s the height to the center of the crank*.
The Holmes Method: Requires a tool that measures the angle of one’s knee – skipped it.
*They say there’s a flaw in the LeMond Method: It doesn’t work for people with long femur bones, and you’ll see that in action in just a second.
So, I got home and took a book, slid it between my legs, snugged it against the boys and took the measurement from the floor to the top of the book’s spine. 33.5″ on the nose. 109% of 33.5 is 36.515″….
First things first, set the pedals up so the crank arms follow the slope of the seat tube, like so:
Second, take your tape measure and make sure the tape follows the contour of the tube, like so (if you really look close at the photo, it’s a little off because it’s hard to hold the tape in the right place with one hand whilst snapping a photo with the other). Also, you want to choose and edge that you’ll be measuring with and run that edge up the center of the seat tube:
Bob’s your Uncle. 36.53125″ Less than two hundredths of an inch higher than exactly 109% of my inseam… In bureaucratic parlance: “Perfect – right on the nose”. Or if you prefer fly-over country lingity: “Good enough for government work”. My Venge has the same 36.53125″.
So, here’s the problem with the LeMond Method… 88.3% of 33.5″ is 29.58″. Now, keeping a tape in the proper place at the center of the crank (rather than set on the pedal) whilst snapping a photo actually is impossible. Take my word for it, the LeMond method is 1/2″ lower, and therefore too low. Apparently I have long femurs.
In the end, here’s what’s important: If you have to rock your hips, even a little bit, side to side to get the pedals around, you’ve got the saddle set too high. This will also cause intense nether-region pressure. Even a couple of millimeters too high can cause saddle sores. Worse, too low and you’ll feel like you’re riding through mud. Not a big deal if you’re on a mountain bike on actual, real mud. Not so good on a road bike on smooth, paved roads.
The secret cyclist – http://wp.me/p3JW5y-Gy6
Check it out if you ride a bike and need a good chuckle.
One of the guys I ride with is putting together a brand new Merckx San Remo 76 from the ground up. Bora Bright 50’s (near impossible to get in the US), Campy Record components… It’s going to be pretty awesome, indeed, though he lamented as he walked out of the bike shop with his frame the other day, “Yeah, I’m going to get it built and I’ll have to look at it sitting in the corner till Spring”. His project got me to thinking about my Venge as it sits in the corner…
My bike isn’t that special, it’s the entry-level Specialized Venge with some exceptional upgrades. Still, it is a Venge and there’s nothing bottom of the line about that… As a package, now that it’s done, it’s an exceptional bike, especially as looks go.
Looks are only a part of the equation though. When we’re knee deep in snow and I’m pushing the pedals ’round on my Trek on the trainer, my mind always drifts to rocketing down the road on the Venge. My good bike never gets time on the trainer (or outdoor miles before Spring for that matter) so remembering previous rides has to suffice…
When romanticizing the “inner child” became popular it drove me nuts because I had no idea what they were talking about. Inner child?! What kind of hooey was that?
It wasn’t until I bought a bicycle and started riding regularly that I finally got it. My understanding took a while to develop though. I started cheap as money was tight. Then came a winning streak, and with it nicer bikes. With each upgrade, from a $400 mountain bike to an $800 road bike, to a $2,500 road bike (all retail prices, I bought my first three bikes used and at a fraction of retail price), my enjoyment for the sport grew and my “inner child” got to play for the first time in decades.
Then I saw this, in the most prominent display at the local bike shop, above and behind the counter:
I had to have it. For the first time, and after months of great numbers, I pulled some profits out of my company so I could walk out the door with it, free and clear. I plunked a thick stack of Hundred Dollar Bills on the counter and walked out with my bike.
Now, finally, I have a firm grasp on what all of that hoohah about an “inner child” was all about – actually, I think I get to do that one better; riding a great bike is being able to.play again. Not unlike heading outside to play when I was much younger, but with much nicer toys. It’s not feeding some tucked away, separate part of me, it’s the real deal.
Super-bikes are like any other luxury item… Not having the means to own one doesn’t exclude people from participating in the sport. Not having one doesn’t preclude one from the enjoyment of cycling. As long as one’s bike is clean, in good working order, and ridden well, I’ve never seen someone discriminated against for having a lesser steed. Having a super-bike simply makes the sport that much more enjoyable, and that alone makes them worth it (assuming one has the means).
With temperatures currently about 1 degree F (-17C), being firmly entrenched in some form of hibernation, all I’ve got while spinning on the hamster wheel is a good movie and memories of warmer days, blasting down the road with my friends… and that’s sweet enough till warmer days return.
I can’t remember the last time we knew it was going to be a white Christmas in southeastern Michigan. A few years ago the temperature went below 18 degrees on the 18th of November and it didn’t rise above that point again until late February but we had sparse snow until January. I remember this because it’s tied to my sobriety anniversary.
This winter is a different story:
This year, we’re getting pounded. Record cold, lots of snow.
Last year, while it was cold, we were at least cycling into January. This year, without picking up a fat bike and some studded tires, we’re stuck inside on the trainers:
There are obviously worse places to be… After suffering a sprained ankle at work a couple of weeks ago, I still haven’t regained full range of motion. On the other hand, I only took one day off riding. It was painful, cycling, but not ridiculously so.
A few points on that front:
1. I truly believe that, were it not for the stability/strength of my legs created by cycling, the sprain would have been much worse. I’ve sprained my ankles in the past, much worse, wrenching them less violently.
2. I was pain-free after a couple of weeks, standard for a decent sprain. I did, and didn’t, “listen to my body”. I iced my ankle withing three hours of an unsuccessful attempt at “walking it off”. The walking didn’t help, the icing did, immensely. I didn’t listen to common practice and take a week, or more, off. The way the ankle felt after intermittent icing for the entire afternoon/evening didn’t warrant being laid up.
3. Recovery is to blame for this way of doing things. I learned that truth is not always comfortable, or what I want. I learned that honesty is the easiest path to happiness…
All too often I see people and read of people overusing injury to warrant lethargy. It is indeed rare to see someone work around ailments to stay fit.
I am afflicted, as most are, with that melon committee member who constantly advocates doing less, pushes for more couch time, more food, more fat, and an easier gear on my bicycle. I know the difference between listening to my body and listening to the committee. I know my enemy.
There are, without question, those ailments that require rest. Not many can’t be worked around though. Besides, I want to drop below a 2,200 calorie a day diet like I want a hit in the head.
So, I’ll hit the hamster wheel once again, sometime this morning, because in a little more than two months, it’s going to be spring again and I will be ready to enjoy riding the roads with my friends once again. Doing what I love requires that I am fit, and I won’t miss a beat.
To do that, I’m willing to put up with a little pain and boredom on the trainer because I know one important truth:
The only thing more painful than exercise and exertion is sitting it out.
One final note: Yesterday was Fit Recovery’s fifth anniversary. Pretty cool methinks.
I have tried to make it a point to understand everything I can about road bikes, yet next to someone who works in the field, I know just enough to be dangerous. That’s usually a bad thing.
That said, there are several simple things that a noob should know when considering the purchase of a road bike. Let’s face it, they’re anything but cheap. In this post I’ll try to cover what is important, without getting too deep into the intricacies. My goal is simply to help one make an informed decision rather than try to cram a 5-year apprenticeship in frame geometry into one post.
Giant came out with the sloped top tube compact frame TCR about two decades ago and it revolutionized bicycle frame building. With the standard (horizontal) frameset, sizing a person to a bike was a very intricate process requiring precise sizing. For instance, on my iconic Trek 5200 (1999), I must have a 58-60 cm bike at 6’0″ tall. The bike relies on stretch to get into an aerodynamic position:
With the advent of the compact frame, the geometry was vastly simpler to fit a cyclist to a bicycle while negating the need for so many frame sizes. My Specialized Venge is of the compact variety:
My Compact Frame Venge is a 56 cm frame and I’m told I could have been fitted to a 54. I picked the 56 for a specific reason though. I purchased the bike when I was 43 years old. I knew the 56 would give me a more aggressive posture on the bike when viewed against my 5200 but wouldn’t be so aggressive that I wouldn’t be able to ride it 20 years down the road at a crisp 63. The 54 would have meant a much greater drop to the handlebar and either more spacers under the stem or an egregiously sloped stem.
My 58 cm Traditional Frame Trek 5200 is about as small as I’d want to go, though with some tinkering and special parts I could have probably gone with a 56, but a 54 was absolutely out of the question. How do I know this? I’m glad you asked. I bought 54 cm Cannondale SR-400 on Craigslist (scroll down to the last bike). It was advertised as a 56 cm frame but once tape measure was put to frame we came to find out it was indeed a 54. I’ve ridden the bike for fun, on our annual night ride, but trying to fit my big butt on that little bike isn’t all that much fun. You should have seen how the owner of our local bike shop reacted when I wheeled that Cannondale in. It was priceless. He knew it was too small without me ever throwing a leg over the top tube.
In any event, having put more than 10,000 miles on each of the Venge and Trek, I can say unequivocally, the Compact Venge simply fits better. It feels better, rides better and is vastly more comfortable and more stable – and this is with the same wheels on either bike (I regularly ride the Trek with my good wheels on it, it only takes a swap out of the cassette).
I am not an authority on frame style though. There are plenty of people out there who still swear by the old standard frame. Choosing a bike and frame style is a highly personal thing so investigate prior to purchase. Just know, going in, if you pick a bike with the standard frame, you must get the proper size. With a compact frame you’ve got a little more room to play around.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to which style one prefers, there is only “like”. I like my compact Venge because the geometry feels vastly more comfortable to me. This doesn’t mean I don’t like my 5200, I just prefer the compact geometry over standard. I truly believe the compact suits my riding style a little better.
Now, what I won’t do is feed into conspiracy theories about the industry forcing everyone into compact framesets because it’s cheaper for manufacturers to make the frames (they don’t need to make as many sizes, it is cheaper). As I’ve been told about both, the advent of the compact frame, and its acceptance as pure awesome, it was a cycling team (Oncè) who pleaded the case for them to not be banned by the UCI, then rode the frames to glorious victory.
The nature of the conspiracy is that it’s industry driven, the move to the compact frame, because the manufacturers save money by not having to produce as many frame sizes.
Let’s say I look at a Specialized Venge, the 2017 version of my bike. 49, 52, 54, 56, 58 and 61…. The same frame sizes one would expect in a standard frame. However, let’s look at this differently, rather from a defensive posture; My undersized (by one size) Venge is vastly more comfortable (vastly) than my perfectly sized 5200 – and I am talking about the position of my body, not the way the different frames react to the road. I can ride more aerodynamically (lower), yet more comfortably, on the compact frame that the standard.
In other words, the compact frame benefits me, the cyclist, just as much (if not more) than it might the manufacturers (if they bothered to make fewer sizes I’m the first place). So forgive me if I roll my eyes when people complain that the industry is skewed. The way I see it, they’re skewed in my favor, and that’s a good thing.
What is important here, beyond the hoopla, is what is best for the cycling noob, who understands the words I wrote but not exactly what they mean.
I didn’t understand “sizing” five years ago, and that ignorance led to a poor choice and a waste of money. When dealing with a standard frame, size is incredibly important. If you don’t know what size bike you need, there are online calculators. Work strictly within the sizes recommended, the geometry matters.
When looking at a compact frame with a sloping top tube, if you want a smaller frame so you can ride lower, this is possible, though it’ll likely cost you money in replacement parts if you’re not ordering a new bike (a new, longer stem, and new crankset with longer crank arms for example).
In both cases, don’t buy a bike larger than your recommended size. I’ve never seen a credible reason to do that.
The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Road Bike Setup, the Intersection of Comfort and Cool – and More Important, How to Have Both
When it came to my road bikes, one of the hardest things I had to learn to accept was that I wasn’t flexible enough to have my bike set up like a pro cyclist. I’m close, but I’m not quite there. I’ve tried everything short of yoga but I’m as low as I can comfortably go on my Venge. I’ve got one 5 mm spacer left, but I tried to drop the stem that little bit and absolutely couldn’t get comfortable. It’s amazing what 5 mm will do, too. I’m comfortable for as long as I want to go with my setup right now, lower the bar 5 mm and I might last 20 miles.
Now, this gets interesting when one starts looking at normal setups where the saddle is only a few centimeters higher than the handlebar:
Comfort is King.
On one hand, I am not comfortable riding a bike that sets me too upright but this is counter current industry thinking. Many who fit people onto bikes tend to default to the “upright is better” way of fitting because the common thinking is that this is most comfortable. I didn’t accept that. The owner of our local shop told me to tinker with my bikes, that I couldn’t break them bad enough he couldn’t fix them, so I did. I started lowering my stem within a week of getting my bike home. Over time I trained my body to ride low, originally so I could be “cool” and more aerodynamic (why ride a road bike if it’s set up like a flat-bar hybrid?!). Today, riding with the setup on that Trek would be just as uncomfortable as trying to ride lower than my current setup.
The idea is to take what the shop gives you and then lower the handlebar from there, one 5 or 10 mm spacer at a time, getting used to the lower position on a trainer through the winter or through the spring base miles. Eventually, like I did, you’ll simply get to a point where you can’t drop the stem any more and hope to get used to the position.
Interestingly, I only know two guys out of 25-30 currently riding with our advanced group who can ride with a true “pro” setup. One guy is 67 years-old, but he’s nationally renowned in sprint triathlons. The other works at the local shop. This is his bike next to mine:
Understanding the definition of “cool” when it comes to cycling
I won’t bother going to the dictionary for this one, we all know what “cool” means… Or do we? Often, when it comes to cycling, noobs (myself included at one time) misunderstand, thinking that “cool” has a lot to do with the type of bike one rides, or the clothing one wears on said bike, or even what the setup looks like on the bike.
The biggest key is missing though: How one rides the bike they’ve got. Look, I don’t know of one cyclist who harbors ill will of anyone who can’t afford a super-bike or a $3,300 Enve wheelset. What really matters, what really defines “cool” is how a person rides what they’ve got. If you’re sitting too far upright or too low, you’re going to have problems with how you ride and this is where comfort enters into the mix.
I can have a $15,000 super-steed but if I’m a lousy cyclist, there’s no chance of being “cool”. I’ll just have a cool bike that I ride crappy. On that same note, four years ago all I could afford was a beat up, 14 year-old Trek 5200 shown above (I had it painted last winter so it’s not beat up anymore) that I bought used from the bike shop because the owner took pity on me… It took a lot of work but I learned to ride that bike well (and fast) and was accepted into the group as one of the guys. It wasn’t until later that I could afford the Venge – but I know for a fact, the bike didn’t have anything to do with my being accepted.
All too often, as noobs, we can be drawn into “The Rules”. The Rules absolutely have their place – when followed, you do look like the real deal – this truth is inarguable. However, before worrying the rules, worry about what’s really important: The Ride.
Of course, if one actually reads The Rules, one would already know that’s what it’s all about anyway.
Getting the most out of your bicycle; Some finer points on enjoyment over exercise, and riding with others.
It had been 30 years since I pedaled a bicycle with any purpose in mind when I purchased a beat up Huffy mountain bike at a garage sale for $20 so I could ride it in a triathlon.
To say I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground when it came to cycling back then would be an understatement.
After my very first ride to our running club, just 10-1/2 miles from my house, one of the guys who did know a lot about mountain biking asked, “You rode that… All the way here?!”
I responded, “Yeah, I’m gonna train for a triathlon on it”.
Long conversation short, after an uncomfortable silence, he offered to sell me his backup, backup bike (that’s not a type-o). He said it would fit me a lot better. I didn’t know that bikes were supposed to “fit” the rider.
He was right. It did and my life changed immediately, I hope, forever.
Six years later, I still have that bike. It’s my backup, backup, backup bike. The one I set up for my daughter’s friends if they want to ride or the one I choose if the back roads are too muddy for my good mountain bike. It rides and operates better than the day I bought it from my friend. Within days of first riding that Trek mountain bike, my friend’s backup to his backup bike, I went from riding for fitness to performing a physical activity for fun.
Everything I’ve done to get faster, everything I’ve done to get leaner, everything I’ve done to get stronger, every bike I’ve bought (including those for my wife and kids), every cycling trip I’ve gone on, has been to further the enjoyment of cycling – and it worked.
Cycling, on whatever fitness level it’s embraced, be it anything from Sunday morning coffee trips to race training, is one of the more social fitness activities. Friends riding together is safer (at least as far as traffic interaction goes), and vastly more enjoyable if one can find a good group to fit into. This is the key, though it isn’t as daunting a task as many might assume.
My first two years, give or take a few months, were ridden almost entirely solo. The owner of our local shop invited me to ride with the Tuesday night group, comprised of a fair mix of categorized racers and advanced joy riders. It took almost a full year of Tuesday nights before I began catching invites to weekend rides and special road trips.
I enjoyed every one of those first year rides but my enjoyment level (and my mileage) went through the roof once I started riding regularly with the people who are now among my very best of friends.
The trick is the “how” of finding the best group for you. A few things to keep in mind:
- Know your average speed/pace, and don’t over exaggerate… If you can ride 25 miles in an hour and fifteen minutes, that’s 20 mph. You’ll have to ride between 22&25 mph to get that. Go with the average.
- Use a cycling computer. Any cheap cycling computer will do as long as it gives an accurate current speed. This will help you maintain the correct pace when you’re at the front.
- Stow your ego and knowledge of how awesome you are as well as your expert knowledge of bicycles. You can be an absolute horse, but if you’re no fun to ride with….
- Show some give-a-$#!+ for the others in the group. If I’m feeling like I want to be the center of attention, this is my cue to shut up and pedal harder. It works wonders, closing the mouth unless I’m laughing at someone else’s joke.
- Leave the whining at home.
- Learn to ride well first! Learning to ride in a group is hard enough when one can ride in a straight line.
With those out of the way, it’s time to find a group. The first place to start is Google. Search for local bike clubs and contact one or two. The second place, if that’s fruitless, is the local bike shops. The people who work there will be dialed into the club scene. Armed with the information above, the folks at the shop can match you with a group that’ll be a good match for your level of fitness.
Once you’ve got your group, all that’s left is to show up and be friendly.
Imagine your current way of trying to stay fit… say it’s going to the gym, but that’s getting old, kind of like that old Dunkin Donuts “time to make the donuts” commercial. If that’s how you look at fitness and exercise, imagine waking up on a Sunday morning, excited that you’ll be hanging out with ten other people who are just as excited to be out riding, just to feel the wind in your face as you rocket down the road to wherever lunch is going to be so you can all sit around a table and talk about how much fun you just had (and plan the next ride). This is cycling, and it’s why those of us who love it so much, do.
Oh yeah, and spending money on a cool ride is freaking at least half the fun!
And you’ll have a solid excuse to spend that money too: Riding a fantastic bike costs less than open heart surgery, by about 20-ish times.