I see people, particularly novice cyclists and those returning to the sport after absence, obsess about bike seats all the time as a key to comfort. And I’m not going to debate the special joy of a good bike seat — I have been using the same brand and model for more than 10 years now, and resist change because I like this seat.
But the seat is often the least of people’s worries relative to comfort. The number one most important factor for comfort on a bike is size/fit of the bike. A lot of people think standover height is the be-all and end-all of selection, and that is unfortunate and wrong.
Here are a few of the areas where fit tweaking can be the difference between fast and poky, happy and ouchy, 10 more miles or ibuprofen. These tips are almost universally true for road and mountain bikes, with some variance that occurs when discussing cruiser-style bikes or recumbent trikes, which have their own rules:
- Seat height: Okay, swell, you have a nice seat that suits your type of riding and your tuchus. Where’s the seat post set? You need to be able to get full extension of your leg on the pedal downstroke without locking your knee. At the fullest point of extension, you want just the tiniest kink in your knee. This is the best way to get maximum stroke power and prevent knee injury.
- Reach: Standover is just one element of fit. How far you have to stretch your torso from the seat to the bars is another, and is based on the length of your torso. Too short a frame and you hunch up. Too long and you have to streeeeetch out. Neither is good. There are ways to tinker with this beyond the frame using the handlebar stem length and height. Any good shop should be able to help adjust what you have, or help you install longer/shorter options.
- Crank length: Yeah, the pedal cranks. Again, these come in multiple sizes to accommodate multiple size people. Having the right size increases your pedal power and comfort.
- Handlebar width: Width of your bars should equal your shoulder width, or thereabouts. Lots of people ride bars that are too wide or too narrow. They often adapt via hand placement, which can limit brake access in emergency situations. Putting in new bars is easy and it makes a difference in how your shoulders feel post-ride.
- Gearing: Gearing isn’t usually included in discussions of bike sizing, but I think it should be. Most sets come in multiple gear sizes. Depending on where you live, your riding goals, and your native power, different gearing setups are available to give you options that increase ability and comfort.
Almost all fit adjustments and suggestions can happen via a good local shop. A good shop will work with what you have and help swap in parts.
Many tweaks can be done on an existing bike. While they may not bring a bike up to perfection of fit, they can bring the level up considerably. When a bike feels better, you ride it more. When you ride it more, you start thinking of a new bike that fits your new fitness, ability and goals. And then… you buy something perfect. Or maybe you don’t, if your present bike meets your goals, and the added comfort from adding stem adjustments or additional gears takes you where you want to go.