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How I Set Up Different Bikes with Different Geometries Across Different Species to Feel Alike… Or, At Least, To Be Comfortable.


December 2022

Que Mission Impossible music…

It’s not. Please give me a minute…

I have become the bike setup guru for my wife and me. I have watched countless videos (and by countless, I mean that), spoken with experts, and conversed casually with more avid enthusiast cyclists than I can list in my pursuit of setup perfection. I am a middle-aged, Lycra-clad kid on a toy worth several Thousands of Dollars (how many Thousands of Dollars depends on which toy…).

Originally, back several years ago, I was all about speed and a sleek, low cockpit with the brake/shifter hoods parallel to the ground. Today, with a few extra barbecue pounds on board, I’ve tempered that need to have a bike that looks cool with something that more approximates my age and, erm… flexibility.

Now, contrary to popular opinion, we’re not stuck with one exact geometry that should work across multiple bikes. We can set multiple bikes up identically, or we can also tailor each bike to a different need. This is exactly what I’ve done with my wife and her three road bikes and a gravel bike, and my two road bikes and a gravel. And let’s not forget the newly most important of all those, our tandem!

My wife’s bikes were super tricky because each has a spectacularly different geometry and size for each bike. One compact 54cm frame with a triathlon-specific geometry (a Specialized Alias), one classic 54cm frame (a steel Assenmacher), and a 56 compact frame (a Specialized Secteur). There’s no way to set all of those identically.

My road and gravel bikes were easier to set up alike but I chose to set each one up for specific purposes. I didn’t have the triathlon geometry to mess with. I have two compact 56cm frames and one classic 58.

Then there’s the tandem!

Point is, that’s a lot of bikes to set up with different pedals, cranks, cleats, shoes… etc.. Anyway, the saddle height can be different betwixt gravel and road pedals and shoes.

I started with my bikes because I could feel what I wanted or needed. That was a problem when moving over to my wife’s bikes. I tended to leave my wife to the local shop owner, a good friend of ours, because he was a pro and I was lost without having the benefit of feel. In the end, I came to realize nobody could put the energy and attention I could to my wife’s comfort like I could, so I learned some new tricks. Learning to set my wife’s bikes and the associated setups was exceedingly difficult because she didn’t have the same database of knowledge or the same dictionary I did so we had to work on both of our vocabularies to get things situated.

Delving right into this, the areas of importance, assuming we’re on a properly sized bike, are as follows:

Crank arm length is first. That can be within a little bit one way or the other, but I’m still with the old camp that says you want to be pretty close to that recommended crank arm length without going (too) far over it. Without that, I feel it’s too difficult to get anything else right. Then, saddle height, saddle setback, saddle tilt, stem length, stem rise, spacer stack, handlebar reach and drop (this has to do with the actual handlebar reach to the hoods and the drop depth). We don’t need the cockpit right to get the saddle set properly, as long as the handlebar is close enough and high or low enough to rest our hands on the top of the handlebar as we get started. Then I work in that order… going back to height after setback and tilt are done. I’d say the bike I had the toughest time nailing down was the tandem. First, you’ve gotta get everything a little more close than any other bike because you’re in the saddle so much on a tandem. You don’t get the same out of the saddle climbing relief because, unless you and your rear admiral are experts, climbing out of the saddle is HARD on a tandem (you can’t rock the bike like you would on a single bike, not without falling off of it). Saddle height, setback and tilt are exceedingly crucial.

For my wife, it was a challenge because her road bikes are so different. Her gravel bike, I got right by pure luck. Had no idea what I was doing, we adjusted height, setback and tilt a few times and all of a sudden, Jess was like, “Hey, that’s perfect!” The tandem took a lot of work because she had a lot of symptoms that had to be addressed. Saddle height first, because the saddle on the tandem is substantially lower on the tandem than it is on her gravel bike. Same with her road bikes. In fact, I think she’s got four different saddle heights on five different bikes! Again, though, only her trainer bike and gravel bikes are close in geometry (and they’re the two that are closest in saddle height).

The key takeaways from my experience with setting my wife up are that saddle height can change, sometimes dramatically, across a range different geometries. Meanwhile, the setback can be vastly different depending on the geometry of the bike (my wife’s Specialized Alias, the TT-road bike mashup) but can be made to feel like the others if the order above is followed.

In my next post I’m going to look at just the cockpit… because I’ve evolved over the last twelve years.


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