News, views and guidebooks for walking, trekking and cycling
Whether you’re on a brand new bike or you’ve dusted off an old one, a vital and yet frequently neglected issue is getting the riding position right. Jon Sparks, author of The Lancashire Cycleway, sets out some points to consider regarding the correct riding position.
Cycling might require effort at times – all exercise does – but it shouldn’t be continuously uncomfortable, and there’s no need to make it harder than it has to be. All too many give up after a few outings because their knees or back always hurt. It’s simply tragic that so many people have never experienced the pleasure and sense of ‘rightness’ of a bike that’s set up correctly for their individual dimensions.
A decent bike shop will be able to help you: in fact, if they don’t take the time to fit your new bike to you, they aren’t a decent bike shop. A real bike shop will also help you check your position on your existing bike. A basic assessment can be done in five minutes, and many bike shops will give you a quick once-over for no charge, especially if you’re buying new tyres or other bits and pieces. However, if you’re planning on riding far, or fast, or both, then the finer points of your riding position assume greater importance.
A full bike-fit is a serious and skilled business, and likely to take at least an hour. You can’t expect that level of attention for nothing, but it’s money well spent.
While a proper bike-fit requires skilled professional input, you can at least make a rough assessment for yourself. There are two essential elements.
First, get the saddle position right – not just height, but fore-and-aft as well. This is vital for efficient pedalling. Once it’s right, you’ll be able to ride faster for the same effort, or the same speed for less effort. A correctly set saddle also greatly reduces the risks of problems with your knees – usually when the saddle’s too low, or hips – more likely when it’s too high. The longer and harder you ride, the more important this becomes. As a very rough guide for saddle height, your leg should still be slightly flexed at the bottom of the pedal stroke. As a similarly rough check on the fore-and-aft position, set the cranks horizontal: you should then be able to drop a plumb line from kneecap to pedal spindle on your leading leg.
Second, get the handlebars set right. This affects stability, control, aerodynamics and above all comfort. Aches in the back, shoulders or neck (possibly all three!) are all too likely if this aspect is wrong. Again, both height and fore-and-aft placement need to be right. This may mean spending money on a new stem. Again, it will be worth it many times over.
If you find it impossible to get these elements even approximately right, it may be that the bike itself, and specifically the frame, is the wrong size. If it is, no amount of fiddling with saddle and handlebars will make it completely right. With so many different frame designs now available, it isn’t possible to give a short explanation of how to resolve this: consult your bike shop or one of the recommended books/websites listed in the guidebook.
With the riding position sorted, nothing can make or break your ride more decisively than the saddle. Choose one that’s too hard and the results are obvious. But too soft a saddle can be just as bad. It may feel comfortable to sit on, but pedalling isn’t sitting. There are many weird and (mostly) wonderful designs available nowadays, including cutaway types that may look like instruments of torture but actually relieve the pressure in crucial areas. Male and female anatomy differ significantly in these areas, and there is much to be said for gender-specific saddles. Saddle-fit is very personal, but is dictated above all by the spacing of your sit-bones (ischial tuberosities). This must be measured: you can’t judge it by eye or infer it from other vital statistics.
This is an extract from Jon Sparks’ guidebook to the Lancashire Cycleway, out now.