How to Be Properly Fitted for a Bike to Avoid Soreness and Crashes

By choosing the right configuration, you can be a safer, more comfortable cyclist. Here we offer some easy solutions.

Trek bikes Photo: Trek

There’s a part of buying a bike that’s not like other purchases: proper fit for your whole body. Your hands and butt, and to a lesser extent, feet, have to be balanced on the bike for you to be safe and comfortable, and if they’re not, you’re going to be sore and possibly have less control while riding. 

Fortunately, bikes come in various configurations, and they can often be adjusted to suit your needs. Most commonly, this involves bringing your torso upright, easing pressure on your hands and reducing pressure on the low back. Better bike shops know this and know how to fit cyclists for the kinds of riding they want to do. 

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For Billy Denter, owner of Overlook Bikes in Woodstock, N.Y., that has practically been his life’s work, destigmatizing that cycling has to feel uncomfortable and painful, pushing riders to contort like a professional racer. “In my view so many cyclists were scarred by those awful bikes in the 1970s, where even kids were put on these really tall frames that bent you way over.”

Denter, who has attended several bicycle-fit schools that focus on physiology, says one sure sign that a cyclist is trying to accommodate a painful position is that they come in wanting an oversized seat. “It has to do with reach,” meaning that the rider is stretching out uncomfortably toward the handlebars. “The bars are too low and too far away, and so they’re unable to sit on the large part of the saddle. They’ve had to scoot way forward.” 

Fortunately, Denter, and Bryan Richardson, owner of Utility Bicycle Works in Kingston, N.Y., who specializes in rehabbing old bikes rather than selling new ones, say there are relatively easy solutions for making a bike fit you properly. 

“I get a lot of customers who come in with their road or mountain bike from the 1990s and maybe they’re just wanting to chill out more,” Richardson says. “You can’t make that into some sort of cruiser, but there’s so much we can do to get people more comfortable.” Richardson and Denter agree that comfort comes down to sitting upright, with less pressure on the rider’s hands, their head up, and their torso relaxed. 

Here’s a quick walk-through on what a good bike shop should be aiming for. Note that this might cost a few hundred dollars, both in labor and parts, and thanks to supply chain challenges, some parts might take a while for the shop to acquire. But the payoff will be more efficient, safer, and less stressed pedaling, as well as a reduced chance of developing repetitive-use injuries in your wrists and knees. Especially the latter, because pedaling at 70 to 80 rpm over the course of an hour means that the proper saddle height, among other factors, is critical not just for pain-free pedaling but for joint health.

It’s All in the Wrist 

If a customer comes in with a bike they already own, as is typical for Richardson’s business, he first looks at the bike and rider, and asks questions. “Maybe it’s an older mountain bike or road bike. I just want to know how they want to ride it now.” Mountain and road bikes that are 20 years old or more, he explains, typically have long handlebar stems that extend off the front of the frame. This position stretches the rider’s back, “so they’re out there like Superman.” That long extension probably doesn’t work for that rider anymore, Richardson explains. “The bars are flat and narrow, the seat is really high. It was all about racing, and probably that rider wasn’t racing even 20 years ago.”

Denter agrees with Richardson’s perspective. He wants to put his customers on the bike in a static position; he holds the bike still, so the customer can climb aboard, and just has them sit upright. Then he has them reach for the bars to see how they have to alter how they sit. 

“You know, you have a biomechanical advantage if you have a slight bend in your elbow,” Denter says. “What we’re driving towards here is that you can absorb the shock of a bump and stay in control, and wrists are very sensitive, so if you’re straight-armed, now you’re rounding your shoulders and all your body weight is on your hands.” Denter and Richardson are trying to get their customers sitting more naturally, “and we do that by uprighting the triangle of your arms and torso,” Richardson says, giving his customers a visual example. That doesn’t mean he weighs one solution above another. Both he and Denter say that first steps include a positively angled stem, which brings the bars up higher, and possibly a wider bar as well. If that bar is straight rather than a drop bar like on a racing road frame, ergonomic grips that have a wide, dampened surface to echo the square of your palm are recommended. This final piece is because a cupped hand doesn’t form a cylinder, like most old-school bars, but instead is gently curved and needs support across the entire surface. 

A swept-back bar might also help, Richardson explains, and there are lots of options there, from a classic semi-circle, like on Dutch-style bikes, to the swept-back Jones H-Bar. The advantage to the latter is that it allows a very wide range of hand positions with a more natural arm bend, and as with stems as well, Denter and Richardson say there are a lot of product solutions for repositioning a rider.

Don’t Presume It’s the Saddle

Very often, customers entering Denter’s shop say their bottom hurts and want a seat that’s wider and/or softer. But that could be because they’re not able to sit on the widest part of the saddle they already have. That’s why he and Richardson test customers seated on their bikes, then do the reach test, to see whether that forces the customer farther forward, onto the narrow nose of the saddle. 

But there’s an important caveat both retailers mention: New bikes don’t necessarily come with a saddle that fits you. 

Your behind is as unique as your foot shape, and the right shoe for you probably takes some work to find. The same goes for bike saddles. Richardson notes that “Women generally have wider sit bones and need a saddle to accommodate their perineum area.” Both men and women are better off, he says, if the saddle has a sort of “hammock” area at the center, so the rider’s weight is on their sit bones, rather than soft tissue, and so there’s minimal rub or pressure at the center. 

Richardson cautions that that’s exactly the trouble with too-soft saddles: “A really squishy one’s like a waterbed, and all that material has to go somewhere, and typically with each pedal stroke it’s getting shifted into your crotch, causing even more problems.” 

Trek bike

Photo: Trek Photo: Trek

Pedal Right

The ideal pedal stroke leaves a slight bend at the knee at the bottom of each revolution. “If you’re hyperextended,” Denter clarifies, “your hips start to rock and you can see this from riders going down the road where their whole body’s bouncing.” By contrast, a cyclist whose seat height is correct has a very quiet upper body because the force of pedaling isn’t influencing their torso. Denter starts by having a cyclist on their bike pedaling backward to make sure there is a slight knee bend, but he’s also looking at their feet. Are those fat-soled shoes what they’ll be riding in? Is that adding to leg length? 

Serious cyclists typically like using so-called clipless pedals—a misnomer because these actually clip to the shoe via sprung cleats, much like a ski binding. But regardless of whether you ride attached to the pedal or on “flats” or “platform” pedals (those that don’t tether the shoe sole to the pedal), Richardson and Denter advise riders to have reasonably firm footwear with sticky enough rubber to maintain grip, even in wet weather. 

Richardson’s default is to get a customer comfortable riding flat pedals because he says most of the time he’s rehabbing old bikes to make them viable commuting tools, and it’s more convenient to wear a shoe you can walk in once you arrive. “The pedal just needs to have enough grip structure so it won’t be slippery.” You can evaluate that yourself to see if your pedals have small teeth that will engage with the outsole of a sneaker, or if they’re too smooth and slippery against the sole of the sneaker you intend to wear for riding.

Trek bike

Photo: Trek Photo: Trek

Investing in the Right Fit

Richardson sometimes finds customers too attached to their old bike and has to prod them to give it up for a machine that fits them better. “Maybe it never fit right in the first place, and it might not be something we can retrofit for even several hundred dollars.” 

That’s frequently because older bikes used different systems that are incompatible with more modern parts. Neither Denter nor Richardson wants to discourage the romance with aging steel or aluminum. However, they’re also very focused on rider enjoyment. Denter thinks if he’s managed to coax a customer to a bike that fits better, no matter how he achieves that, “I get the chance to help someone become a happier cyclist, which is ultimately my main goal.”

So when shopping for your next bike, pay particular attention to how it fits. Have a professional assess the fit, and consider options to tailor it to your specific needs. A bike that is comfortable will be used more often, be more enjoyable, and reduce injuries. 

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Michael Frank

Michael Frank is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on the intersection of cars and tech. His bias: lightweight cars with great steering over lumbering, loud muscle cars any day. You can  follow him on Twitter (@mfwords) and  Instagram (mfwords).