A Beginner’s Guide to a Proper Bike Fit: 7 Simple DIY Adjustments

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A common misconception is that new bikes come set up and ready to ride “right out of the box.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is why a proper bike fit is arguably one of the most important steps when buying a new bike.

A proper bike fit is all about adjusting a bicycle to fit a specific rider’s body. The goal is to optimize the rider’s position in a way that maximizes comfort, efficiency, and performance while preventing injuries. The ideal riding position will vary from person to person and can be impacted by factors such as physical characteristics, riding style, injuries, goals, and so on. The good news is, regardless of these factors, a proper bike fit is easy to achieve.

Whether you have experience working on bikes or you’re completely new to cycling, this guide will walk you through some simple adjustments that will help you dial in that ideal riding position and get you out on the road enjoying your new bike.

1. Choosing the Correct Frame Size

A proper bicycle standover height ensures you can comfortably mount and dismount without any restrictions or risk of injury. Friends Stock/Adobe Stock

When it comes to a proper bike fit, frame size is crucial. Having the wrong frame size can make it extremely difficult to dial in the perfect fit, even after making the adjustments discussed in the following sections. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to help you identify the correct frame size.

One of the easiest ways to determine the correct frame size is by using a bike size chart. However, it’s important to keep in mind that sizing methods can vary for different types of bikes. For example, frame sizes for road bikes are typically shown in centimeters. Whereas mountain bikes are most often shown in inches. Hybrid bikes, on the other hand, can follow either of the above methods. Additionally, some manufacturers have even started using the more consumer-friendly standard sizing format (XS-XL) instead of traditional numerical sizing.

Sizing can vary between brands as well. It’s not uncommon for one brand’s road bike to fit very differently than another brand’s in the same size. Because of this, it’s always recommended that you use the specific size chart for the brand of bike you’re considering purchasing.

Standover height is another method for helping determine the correct frame size. It’s essentially the distance between the ground and the top tube. When checking the standover height, make sure to wear the shoes you regularly ride in. This will provide a more accurate indicator of the bike’s size.

It’s important to have some clearance between your crotch and the top tube when hopping off the bike. For bikes with a top tube that’s parallel to the ground, you want approximately 1 inch of clearance. For bikes with a sloping top tube (such as a mountain bike), 2 inches or more of standover room is recommended.

When buying a bike online, compare your inseam to the bike frame’s listed standover height. The difference between the two numbers should align with the above-stated targets (e.g., if you have a 32” inseam, you’ll want a road bike with a 31” standover height).

A bike fit calculator is another excellent alternative. It’s typically more reliable than a bike size chart because it takes additional measurements into consideration. The other nice benefit is they’re extremely easy to use. Just key in your measurements and click submit. Two great options are the Jenson USA and Competitive Cyclist bike fit calculators.

2. Setting Your Saddle Height

When making adjustments to your saddle height, be sure not to go more than 3 mm up or down at a time. Elizaveta/Adobe Stock

Saddle height is one of the most important aspects of a proper bike fit. It plays a significant role in both comfort and cycling efficiency. When your saddle is too low, you have to work harder when pedaling. This can cause you to fatigue faster and result in knee pain or even injury. On the other hand, when your saddle is too high, reaching the pedals can be difficult, leading to discomfort in your hips or lower back.

To find your correct saddle height, start by taking your inseam measurement and then multiply it by 0.885. This is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of your saddle. Be sure not to raise the seat post above the minimum insertion mark on the side. If you have to go beyond this point, it may be an indication that you need a different frame size.

To check this measurement, you can either connect your bike to a bike trainer or lean it against a wall. Once you’ve done so, hop on and assume a normal riding posture. 

Take your leg that’s opposite the wall and slide your foot forward until the back of your heel is lined up with the back of the pedal. Spin the pedals backward until the crank is fully extended (in the 6 o’clock position).

If you’ve set your saddle height correctly, your leg should be fully extended and just barely locked at the knee. If you find yourself having to reach, your saddle’s too high. Conversely, if you’re not able to lock your knee, it’s too low. 

Lastly, shift your foot back to its normal placement with the ball of your foot centered on the pedal. Your leg should now have a slight bend at the knee.

It’s important to note that saddle height can also be affected by other adjustments made to your bike. For example, shifting your saddle forward will decrease its height, whereas moving it backward will result in an increase in height. Additionally, changing your crank length will also have an impact. It’s important to always remeasure your saddle height after making any adjustments. 

3. Checking Your Saddle Position

Both your riding style and goals can have an impact on saddle position. Brizmaker/Adobe Stock

In addition to setting the proper saddle height, it’s also important to ensure your saddle is in the correct forward (fore) or backward (aft) position.

Start with your bike connected to a bike trainer or leaning against a wall. Next, hop on the saddle and adjust your seated position until it feels comfortable. Then spin the pedals until the right crank arm is parallel with the ground (in the 3 o’clock position). If the fore/aft position of your saddle is correct, your shin should be slightly tilted forward with your knee aligned over your forefoot.

An easy way to check your knee alignment is to drop a plumb line from the bottom of your kneecap. If properly aligned, it should fall straight to the ball of your foot and through the center of the pedal.

Lastly, you’ll want to check the angle or tilt of your saddle. Although many professional cyclists have started dropping the nose of their saddles a few degrees to help relieve pressure when riding in a more aggressive position, the traditional recommendation is a level saddle. If you’re unsure where to begin, start off level and then make minor adjustments as needed.

4. Fitting Your Bike Cleats

Floating cleats provide a small degree of rotational movement that allows the foot to center itself during the pedal stroke. Egoitz/Adobe Stock

Cleat placement is an often overlooked component of a proper bike fit. Place them too far forward on your cycling shoes and it can lead to knee pain, Achilles discomfort, or hotspots. Too far back, and you won’t be able to optimize your power output.

The easiest method for fitting cleats is, with your shoes on, to locate the bony protrusions on the inside and outside of each foot. Mark each with a sticker, then on the bottom of your shoe, draw a line connecting both points. Lastly, center the cleat on this line.

Additionally, the direction of the cleat is important as well. You want it to match your normal stance. The best way to determine this is to sit on an elevated hard surface and let your legs dangle from the knee down. When doing so, your feet will naturally turn in or out, even if just slightly. Then set your cleats to match the respective angle of each foot.

Once you have the position dialed in, make sure you trace the outline of the cleat so you know where to put them whenever you get a new set.

5. Adjusting Your Handlebar Setup

An improper handlebar setup can lead to pain and discomfort as well as reduce stability and control when riding. Aleksander/Adobe Stock

Your handlebar setup plays a significant role in determining your reach and, as a result, is critical to achieving a proper bike fit. Whereas saddle height and position are more black and white, the ideal handlebar setup can vary based on factors such as rider flexibility, riding style, and personal preference.

For example, if speed is your main objective, you’ll want a more aerodynamic riding position. This can be accomplished by either lengthening the stem or lowering the height of your handlebars. On the other hand, if you prioritize comfort, you may want to raise your handlebars or use a shorter stem. This will not only put you in a more upright, relaxed position but reduce strain on your arms.

The angle of your handlebars and the placement of the hoods affect your position on the bike as well. Rotating them forward will increase your reach, whereas rotating them backward will have the opposite effect. Handlebar shape and size also have an impact. The wider the handlebars or, the deeper the drop, the longer the reach.

Handlebar setup is definitely more of an art than a science. It’s important to experiment with different positions until you find the one that works best for you. However, before making any adjustments to a new bike, it’s always recommended that you ride it first. This will give you a baseline to work from and help you identify any issues with the current setup.

A good starting point for a road bike is to position your torso at a 45-degree angle with your hips and a 90-degree angle with your arms. For bikes with a more relaxed frame geometry, such as mountain and hybrid bikes, these angles aren’t as critical.

It’s important to note that adjusting your saddle position to compensate for a shorter or longer reach is not recommended. Both the upper and lower body are equal components of a proper bike fit and should always be treated separately.

6. Working With a Professional Fitter vs DIY

Some professional bike fitters utilize 3D motion capture to analyze aspects of your pedaling mechanics. Nejron Photo/Adobe Stock

Although there’s no shortage of opinions on the subject, many industry professionals agree that for the average cyclist, following the basic fitting guidelines listed above is typically all that’s needed to enjoy years of comfortable, pain-free cycling.

However, for cyclists looking for ways to improve performance and efficiency, more advanced bike-fitting techniques are going to be required. In some cases, working with a skilled bike fitter can be the difference between just finishing a race and standing on the podium.

Additionally, it’s not uncommon for some cyclists to have physical imbalances, such as one leg being longer than the other, one foot that’s a little more pigeon-toed, or one side of the body that’s less flexible than the other side. Although these imbalances may be slight and have little effect initially, over time, they can compound and lead to discomfort, pain, and even injury. Individuals dealing with these types of physical imbalances will also benefit from working with a knowledgeable bike fitting professional.

A professional bike fit can range anywhere from $100 to $300 or more, depending on the degree of complexity. A bike fit that follows the basic guidelines listed above will be on the lower end of this range. One that uses more advanced technology, such as Retül, will be on the upper end.

When it comes to choosing a professional bike fitter, it’s important to note that not all fitters and fitting processes are the same. Just because someone calls themselves a professional bike fitter doesn’t necessarily mean they’re truly qualified.

Before choosing a fitter to work with, be sure to look at their certifications, years of experience, and even fitting philosophy. It’s also essential to be clear on your cycling goals and why you want a professional bike fit. Some fitters specialize in working with competitive cyclists or triathletes, while others may be more suited to recreational riders.

Whether it’s a friend, a local cycling club, or a Facebook cycling group, a great place to start is by asking other cyclists about their experience working with a professional bike fitter. 

7. Fine Tuning Your Bike Fit

Pain and discomfort when riding are common symptoms of an improper bike fit. Beaunitta V W/peopleimages.com/Adobe Stock

Regardless of whether you do it yourself or choose to work with a professional bike fitter, a proper bike fit isn’t something you set and then forget. It’s an ongoing process. As your body adapts and your flexibility changes, what was once the proper fit can slowly be thrown out of whack.

In the beginning, it can take time to get dialed in, so be patient and don’t be afraid to experiment and tweak as necessary. However, when doing so, always make small adjustments. No more than a few millimeters at a time.

Additionally, when you do make changes, make sure you give your body time to adjust. Especially if your position has changed somewhat significantly. The new position may feel somewhat uncomfortable at first, but if done properly, it should start to feel better after a few rides. If it doesn’t, keep tweaking until it does. A good rule of thumb is you shouldn’t be uncomfortable when cycling. If you are, it’s time to do some fine-tuning.

Next Steps

A properly fitting bike not only maximizes comfort, efficiency, and performance while at the same time preventing injuries, but it makes riding that much more enjoyable. If you’re struggling with your current bike setup, make sure to implement the adjustments discussed above. If you’re thinking about taking up cycling and would like some help getting started, check out our buying guides and we’ll help you get one step closer to finding the perfect bike!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some signs of an improper bike fit?

Signs of an improper bike fit can include discomfort or pain in the neck, back, shoulders, or knees, numbness in the hands or feet, and difficulty reaching the handlebars or pedals. If you experience any of these issues, it’s a good indication that something’s off with your bike fit, and it’s time to make adjustments.

How often should I check my bike fit?

As a general rule, it’s recommended you check your bike fit at least once a year. It’s also important to check it whenever you experience any discomfort or pain while cycling. Additionally, you should always check your fit if you’ve made any changes to your bike or equipment, such as getting new shoes or pedals, changing your saddle, or adjusting your handlebars.

What should I expect during a professional bike fit?

During a professional bike fit, a bike fitter analyzes your body measurements, physical limitations, and riding style to optimize your position on the bike. Video capture is often used to assess pedaling mechanics as well. The fitter will typically adjust components such as saddle height and angle, drop and reach to your handlebars, and may even suggest changes to components such as a different saddle or crank length. A full bike fit can take up to three hours and often includes a follow-up after a few weeks of riding. A quality bike fitter may even offer a money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied with the results.

What happens if the bicycle standover height is too high?

If the bicycle standover height is too high, it may be difficult to straddle the bike comfortably. This can be especially problematic when needing to stop suddenly or put your feet down at a stoplight. It can also affect your balance and control when riding. It’s important to choose a bike with a standover height that suits your body proportions to ensure a safe and enjoyable riding experience.

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Hey there! I'm Michael, founder and chief editor of Bicycle Review Guru. I've been an endurance sports junkie the majority of my adult life and fell in love with the sport of cycling when training for my first Half Ironman triathlon over 10 years ago. My passion is sharing my knowledge and expertise to help you get the most out of your cycling journey.

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