Fit Your Bike For the Perfect Ride

Want to get more out of cycling? You’ll need to make your bike an extension of you. Here’s how.

The snow and ice have finally melted off the roads, and the wind cutting through the bike trails is morphing from stingy cold to balmy warm. And this year, you’ve decided you want to up your game on the two-wheeler from leisurely to somewhat more serious and maybe even Lance-like. Lucky for you, there’s a way to instantly improve speed, stamina and performance on a bike -- and it requires no exercise. It’s simply a matter of making a few adjustments to the handlebars and seat to get a more precise fit.

“A bike should feel like an extension of you as a rider,” says Christopher Kautz, who owns PK Cycling in the California Bay Area and also works as a professional … bike fitter.

That’s right, there are people who actually make a living customizing the settings on your bike so the cycle suits you perfectly. Their numbers are growing too, as pro cyclists and savvy recreational riders are realizing the importance -- and advantage -- of proper form and biomechanics.

Think about it: If you’re in a more powerful, aerodynamic and comfortable stance, you’ll be able to go faster and farther by using less energy, and feel less pain doing it. This concept isn’t rocket science, though the laser body measurements and fluid mechanics that fitters employ pretty much is.

Since you’re more likely a casual rider than the kind of pro who would actually need lasers aimed at the torso, all you really need is guidance on how to best set your bike yourself. Here’s how to modify your ride the DIY way:

1. Comfort is king.

“It should never hurt to sit on a bike, no matter what kind of rider you are,” says Kautz. “If your bike and body match, it definitely won’t hurt.” Some folks, though, try to soldier on -- even when they’re not fully at ease. “People sometimes tell me, ‘I can get used to this position.’ But you shouldn’t need to get used to anything.” So what’s a comfortable stance? When you’re gliding on a flat road, you shouldn’t feel any strain on your body at all -- it should relax and drape over the bike. How to achieve this? Read on.

2. Achieve optimal performance by adjusting seat height.

Proper leg extension is the initial step in maximizing power and comfort. Raise the seat enough so when you hit the bottom of a pedal stroke, you’re just barely extending that leg all the way. Craig Upton, a fitter and owner of Performance Labs in California, says people almost always ride a little too low. 

3. Don’t overreach.

If you need to stretch as far forward as possible to reach the handlebars, you may have a slightly more aerodynamic stance, but you won’t be able to steer or brake nearly as well -- or sit as comfortably. Adjust the seat forward so when you’re riding, your arms bend slightly. “Some people are timid down hills because they can’t quite reach the brakes. I’d also be hell-scared coming down a hill if I couldn’t reach the brakes,” says Upton.

4. Employ your body weight.

The biggest misconception riders have is that they should put no weight on the handlebars. “If you’ve got no weight on the front of the bike, you’ve got no steering,” says Upton. “You need some weight on the front wheel.” How much? Stand up and lean forward on a table, as if you’re reading a piece of paper there, keeping your arms slightly bent. “You know you can hold that position for a long time,” says Upton. That’s exactly the amount of weight you should have on the handlebars. To get it, just adjust the handlebar height.

by Greg Melville