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Road Cycling, Comfort, and the Setup of a Road Bike; A Detailed Overview of the Bike Setup Pitfalls that Effect Comfort

In the photos above, I’m on two entirely different race bikes.  On the left, I’m in front of the guy in black and florescent yellow on my secondary “rain” bike, a standard 58 cm frame, in the drops.  On the right, I’m at the back in the red and black on my good bike, a compact 56 cm frame, on the hoods.  If you use the stack and reach method of measuring a bicycle, where you measure off set objects (a wall or the floor), the setup on both bikes are almost identical (saddle is the same height off the ground, same distance from the wall, handlebar same height off the ground, etc.).  There are a couple minor differences, but they don’t effect the ride of either bike.

And it’s taken one hell of an education to get my bikes to where they’re comfortable.  With this post, I’m hoping to shorten the time span it takes to accrue the knowledge and simplify the intricacies.

size of bike/frame
I can’t think of much more important than frame size when it comes to the comfort of a bicycle – and a road bike is that much more important because once a cyclist finds out how much fun the speed is, said cyclist will spend a lot of time on said bicycle.  With the wrong frame size, compensations must be made in order to get a person on the bike in something that mimics comfort but isn’t quite it.  For examples of what not to do, click here.  Actually, I’ve got my bikes on there too, as what to do, also.  Now, where this gets interesting is when you look at my knowledge, which is exceptional for an avid enthusiast, contrasted with someone who builds/built bike frames for a living.  Folks, I know a lot about bikes but I’m an ignoramus next to a frame builder when it comes to knowing the angles and tube lengths, etc., etc.  The owner of our local shop put my wife on a 54 cm Alias when I was sure she’d need a 56 (she’s 5’10”).  My standard frame race bike is a 58 while my compact frame race bike is a 56.  A qualified person will take angles and geometry into account that we mere mortals simply don’t have the equations for.  Unless you really know what you’re doing, it might be best to leave frame size to the pros.


saddle fore/aft position
This is an easy one.  Keeping in mind that the setup of a time-trial or triathlon bike is different, a standard road bike position is fairly simple.  With the crank arms parallel to the ground and you in the proper position on your saddle, the leading edge of your front knee should be directly over the pedal spindle.  Use a level or a plumb-bob to line you up.  It’s as easy as that.

saddle width
The saddle width can be an enormous issue that, if too wide, can lead to severe pain.  Look at me.  Severe.  Said pain will radiate all the way down into the hamstrings and you’ll think something else is the problem.  It happened to me.  Whether or not you’ve had problems, I can’t recommend getting measured enough.  It’s a really big deal.

saddle height
With the fore/aft position squared away, we’re going to dial in the saddle height.  This shouldn’t blow up anyone’s skirt, but saddle height matters.  Too high and you’ll feel like you’ve got a saddle stuck in your butt.  Too low and your power output will suffer.  Also, as a rule of thumb, if the front/top of your knee(s) hurt, lower the saddle.  If the back/bottom of your knee(s) hurt, raise it.  With your bike on a trainer, put your heels on the pedals.  Your legs should straighten out – perfectly straight – without rocking your hips.  Micro-adjust from there (and re-check the fore/aft position).


crank arm length  
Short crank arms aren’t a pain/comfort issue as much as long crank arms are.  Long cranks are a huge problem if your legs are too short.  I’m 6′ and I could take a 175 or a 172.5 – I go with the shorter.  My wife is a 170, she’s 5’10” but has shorter legs.  I have a friend, Jason, who just found out that, at 5’7″, he’s a 170 and that 172.5’s are painful.  Suffering through short cranks isn’t such a big deal, you simply spin more and don’t get as much leverage on the pedals.  Too long is a huge problem and, if left unchanged, can lead to severe knee problems.


cockpit/stem length
If your cockpit is too short, you end up jammed and can’t breath right.  Too long and you’ll ride in weird positions because reaching for the hoods or drops isn’t comfortable.  If you prefer to ride hands on bar top rather than hoods, you’ve got a problem.  The problems poor cockpit sizing can cause are almost too numerous to list.  Numb hands, sore shoulders, sore neck, sore ass… sore just about anything else.


width of handlebar
Now this one might be a bit of a surprise.  Handlebar width, typically 42-mm for a male, 40-mm for a female, is one of those issues that won’t appear to be a big deal until you ride a bike that has your proper handlebar.  I rode, comfortably, a 44 for years before settling into a 42 and heaven on a bicycle.  Riding on a bar that’s too wide or slim didn’t present any pain problems, but the proper width sure felt better.

reach and drop of handlebar
The reach and/or drop of the handlebar can be a factor if the cockpit isn’t quite set up properly.  Case in point; my gravel bike.  I bought a 56 cm Specialized Diverge because my Venge is a 56.  What I didn’t know is that the gravel bikes have a relaxed setup to them so I didn’t have the same reach on both bikes.  The Diverge was more upright.  I put on a longer stem but it’ wasn’t quite long enough (though that was by design – I didn’t want to ride so low I’d have a tough time seeing and dodging potholes).  Then, out of the blue, I decided to buy a Bontrager aero handlebar for my rain bike.  That meant the standard bar I had on the Trek could be swapped for the compact bar that came on the gravel bike.  Just like that, my cockpit issues were fixed.  Switching from a compact to a standard bar made my gravel bike a lot more enjoyable to ride.

location of hoods/levers on handlebar
Now this one’s a little on the tricky side.  To be “stylish”, the hoods should be parallel to the ground.  Sometimes this simply won’t work as you end up putting too much weight on your hands.  If your hands go numb, or you have other problems, you might want to try raising or lowering your hoods relative to the handlebar.  I raised my hoods on my Trek a bit and the bike went from “meh” to “spectacular” just like that.

handlebar rotation
In that last item about the location of the hoods, equally important is the rotation of the handlebar relative to the ground.  Basically, you want the drop portion of the bar close to or maybe not quite level to the ground.  You don’t want the bar rotated enough that the bar ends are pointing up to the rear of the bike – you’ll be overcompensating for another problem by doing this.  Fix the other issue rather than rotating the bar too far forward (see above and below).


pedals, shoes and cleats
The cleat setup on a shoe is so vastly important it’s hard to understate just how meticulous the setup process is and its value to creating a comfortable ride.  Eventually, with enough miles on the saddle, you might become good enough to work on your cleat position (I do), but the best answer to cleat and pedal setup is to use ISSI cleats which are compatible with Look Keo pedals and cleats.  The ISSI cleats are two-piece, so one piece can be removed at a time, insuring exact placement ever time you change your cleats.  For my initial setup, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I always have the owner of our local bike shop set mine.