The days are long, the weather is warm, the sun is on your face, and the call of the road is getting louder and louder. The springtime weather causes you to yearn for a change of pace from your winter training program. Yeah! You know what I mean, you know what I’m talkin’ about… it’s time to GET ON THAT BIKE (motorcycle or bicycle) and RIIIIIIIIIIIIIDE!!.. Whew! .. . Ok, I’ve calmed down. Let’s talk about bicycling.
In order to enjoy your ride your ride must fit your body. After all you don’t wear shoes 3 sizes too big or a hat that’s too tight. Why ride a bike that does not fit? There can be a lot of things to think about when purchasing or fitting a bike but let’s keep it simple. If you are buying a bike try it out, shop around, ask questions and don’t buy in a hurry. You need to carefully consider the implications of the relative positions of your hands, seat, knees and back on your bike. Number one: check out the frame height. For a straight top tube bike you will want clearance of about 1” between your crotch and the tube when you straddle the bike while standing flat on the floor and wearing your bike shoes. For an off road bike you might want a little more clearance.
Next, you will need to establish seat height. Your “down” knee should be at about 80-90% of full extension when you sit on the seat (about 20 degrees of knee flexion) with you foot on the pedal. Some advise that your knee should be at approximately full extension with your heel on the pedal. Seats can also be adjusted fore and aft so you will want to check that your seat allows your knee to be approximately over your forefoot or center of the pedal. Seat adjustment will also effect your trunk position. For most exercise or casual riders a trunk lean of about 45 degrees should be about right. You can check this by sitting on the bike in riding position (have a friend support the bike or take a short ride in the parking lot). You should be able to easily lift your hands off the handle bars without feeling as though you are about to fall forward.
Got it? Good. Now you can start to make the fine adjustments. Fore and aft saddle position is always a compromise in which you trade off aerodynamic efficiency (extreme forward lean) against comfort (sitting upright in a chair). As you move the saddle rearward you will increase your trunk lean. Racers tend to adjust the handle bar height to about 2-3” below the saddle height. Touring riders, your average recreational rider, tend to prefer a more upright posture and have the bars at about saddle height. Off road riders generally prefer a lower bar height. A general guideline is that you want the longest reach (most rearward saddle) and lowest position of the handle bars that you are comfortable with. The other variable that effects this position is saddle tilt. You should be able to “sit” on the saddle and not feel as if you are sliding forward. You should sit on your saddle with a neutral pelvis. The most common position of comfort is with the nose of the saddle slightly higher than the rear. Avoid nose less saddles…true they eliminate that, occasionally, uncomfortable pressure but you sacrifice a great deal of control of your bike with a nose less saddle.
Another area to look into could be crank arm length. Standard length is 170 mm and that is probably fine for the typical rider. Shorter crank arms tend to be more efficient leading to less knee stress but you most likely don’t need to get into this discussion unless you are a very experienced rider or have specific injury or anatomical issues.
Seat type is another topic that comes up and sometimes it seems that there are as many seat options as there are bicycles. As a general rule you want a seat without excessive padding that will allow your “sit” bones (ischeal tuberosities) to contact your seat and support your weight. Be aware, however, that wider does not necessarily translate into more comfort. Friction is a primary cause of discomfort in riding and a wider seat tends to increase chafing. Also, padded seats tend to increase pressure and chafing by bunching up into your “tender areas” from the compression of sitting on the padding. Seat comfort is a very individual choice and it may take some experimentation to find the right seat. There is a publication available (which I have not read) called “Finding the Perfect Seat” and is purported to tell you all you need to know about seat choice. My feeling is that it still comes down to trial and error and many seats are relatively (to the cost of the bike) inexpensive.
Handle bars also come in a variety of flavors but basically you will choose between straight bars and curved (called “drop”), trekking (“butterfly”), cow horn and upright handle bars. If you prefer a more upright position and do not plan to race or do long distance touring then straight bars should be fine although they will not give you as many position options while riding they will keep the brakes in an easily reachable position and are less expensive than their more elaborate cousins. There are also a number of options that you can add to your handle bars. Short extensions for the bar ends are most common and are a very inexpensive option to allow for the ability to easily change hand position when riding. You can also install a device called an aero bar which attaches near the center of the bar and allows you to lean your elbows on a padded support. I don’t recommend these as they make it difficult to control your bike in emergency maneuvers.
Once you have your bike fitted you will want to purchase some good quality riding shoes (your choice will vary depending upon whether you choose clip, clip less or flat pedals). In addition, you should buy a pair of padded gloves and of course a helmet. You only have one head and it does not like being struck against hard objects.
Are you ready? Let’s ride!
Dave Mansfield MSPT, CSCS