Getting the “Feel” of a Bicycle Right… After It’s been Fitted to You.
There is one trick I used to getting a bike to “feel” right after it fits right.
I bought and installed a new stem on my old mountain bike yesterday, the final piece in getting my fourth and.last bike dialed in….
I had a little, stubby 60 mm stem that I threw on the bike just to get it on the road. I don’t ride the bike much but when it gets nasty out it’s good to have.
The bike used to numb my hands within ten miles until I dropped the stem some 15-20 mm to allow me a more aggressive position on the bike. I just did it for fun, just to see how ridiculously low i could go on a mountain bike but my hands no longer got numb. This little perk was entirely unexpected. After a while, as I put more miles on the bike, I couldn’t help but feel too cooped up in the cockpit. I needed to stretch out a little bit so after quite a bit of consternation about whether or not I should blow any money on the bike I went from a 60 mm stem to 110.
The same went for my 29’er Rockhopper. 100 mm stem (the 29’ers are a little different setup because of the bigger wheels, even though the frame is a half-inch smaller), slammed the stem and it’s a different bike altogether:
As opposed to when I first brought it home:
There are a few things that didn’t change though. Saddle height and the position (fore/aft) are where they are once they’re dialed in. After that, it’s all cockpit adjustments. Longer or shorter stem, more or less rise in the stem or more/fewer spacers under the stem.
Here’s what I did to dial in all of my bikes, except one:
My good road bike was put through a fit wringer. Three hours, lasers, video, tape measures, dexterity and flexibility tests… all by a guy who built world record class frames for a living. I went through it all and the bike is fitted so well it feels like a part of me when I ride it. After 11,000 miles I can’t imagine it could get any better. From there, I transferred numbers to my other rain bike and set that one up myself, as close as I could get that one to my Venge:
Once I had the 5200 dialed in (and checked by the aforementioned professional who confirmed that the bike was as close as it could be to the Venge), the next step in the formula was simple: Add miles.
I developed a keen feel for the two bikes. I can feel the power and torque moving from my legs to the crankset and to the wheels. My hands feel equally at home on any position on the bars; drops, hoods or bar top (though admittedly the Venge is just a hair better than the Trek on the hoods).
I rode the road bikes for two years before I started tinkering with the setup on the mountain bikes.
The Specialized was first. Again, with the saddle locations set, all that was left was to tinker with the cockpit.
The first thing I didn’t like about the feel of the Specialized was the wide handlebars. I don’t know when extra-wide bars became popular but I don’t like them. While they’re good for balance, they suck for getting around trees on a single track. The bar needed to go.
The second thing that had to go was the short stem which had me feeling like I had to be shoe horned into the cockpit. I put the old stem that came with the Venge, a high-end 100mm job, onto the Rockhopper and I put the shorter bar on that. The ride was much improved but something still wasn’t right after several hundred miles. That led to slamming the stem and another testing phase. That turned out to be just what the cyclist ordered. I could tell within 20 miles I’d hit it just right, just by feel.
Next was the Trek. Originally I was just going to relegate the bike to a backup for my daughers’ friends when they needed an extra bike but when my wife and I started putting in more winter miles I saw a use for it… that bike takes the abuse. Wet, nasty, muddy, salt or snow covered roads. Not to mention the fact that, with its 26″ wheels and geometry to match, it’s a punchier, quicker ride. That said, the bike took a lot of tinkering to get right.
The saddle was set properly, then it was on to the cockpit. I went through the same process but skipped the longer stem because I didn’t have one laying around – that modification would cost me a few bucks so I figured I’d hit that last. Dropping the stem helped a lot but it was still off and no matter how hard I tried to be okay with the setup, being crunched into the cockpit drove me nuts. I finally bit the bullet and bought a used 110 mm stem at the local shop. Now it’s perfect.
My trick is knowing how I should feel on a bike in the first place and there are three things that make that possible: A shit-ton of miles, having a perfectly set-up bike in the first place, and paying attention to what perfect feels like. After that, all that’s left is knowing how to get from what I have to what I want. Now, to an extent, the body will adapt to what one chooses to put miles on, within reason. That’s only within reason though. If the saddle is an inch too high, you’re simply going to hurt, all the time. If it’s too low, you’ll lack power (and your knees will hurt in both cases – front and rear of the knee respectively).
Truth told, I could have taken all three of my other bikes to the shop to get fitted up. I could have had an expert dial them right in, it just would have taken a bit more money but a lot less time. Only two things I had to consider:
- If I pay someone to do it for me, how will I ever learn to do it myself?
- Where’s the fun in #1?!