It's Spring! Fit Your Bike to Your Body ... and Take a Joy Ride

Energy Express

EnergyExpress 0323

March 2024 Issue
Energy Express by Marilynn Preston

It gives me the willies when I see some people riding their bikes, grinding out their precious knees. "Raise your seat!" I want to shout to them, and sometimes do, especially to the young ones, who like to pedal with their knees high and their pants low, spinning round and round, their legs never extending the way they should.

Yes, biking can make you fit, but if you don't fit your bike, you're asking for trouble. You lose power, invite fatigue, and can end your ride feeling sore and achy without realizing why. This spring, besides cleaning up your bike—checking the brakes, the spokes, the cables—pay attention to the fit.

You can always adjust the handlebars, the saddle, the gears and the brakes. But the frame of the bike has to fit from the get-go. Too big or too small, and you're not going to ride safely or comfortably. To be sure you've got the right frame for your size, straddle the top tube, assuming it's a "man's" frame, with the tube running from the handlebar stem to the seat. With both feet flat on the ground, there should be about 1 to 2 inches of clearance between the top tube and your groin. Mountain bikes should have more space, about the width of your hand across your fingers. Mixte frames—the step-through kind—are more forgiving, but if you're uncertain, make a friend at your local bike shop.

Check yours out, even if you've been riding the same bike for ages. Ask someone to support you while you sit in the saddle. If you can place both feet flat on the ground, your seat is too low. Set it to a height that allows your leg to extend until it is almost straight when your foot is on the bottom pedal, at the lowest point.

To maximize your power and prevent muscle fatigue, you want a slight bend. Not too much; not too little. Also, be sure to (re)adjust your bike seat so it's level. You don't want that feeling of sliding forward or slipping back. And finally, you should be able to move the seat back and forth in relation to your seat post. Fine tune it, so that your weight is centered and the bottom of your kneecap is aligned over the ball of your foot.

This adjustment allows you to ride easily and comfortably, without straining your wrists, back, shoulders or neck. You may have to experiment a bit until you get it right. As a general guideline, on a road bike, the top of the handlebars should be a little lower than the tip of the saddle—maybe 1 to 2 inches—if you want a more aerodynamic ride.

If you're riding a mountain bike, lower the handlebars to 3 to 4 inches lower than the saddle to give you a lower center of gravity and a more stable ride. Mountain bikers often rise out of their seat to ride over bumps or logs on the path, and lower handlebars make it easier to balance and distribute your body weight over both wheels.

If you're cruising around town and aren't looking for speed or high performance, you might prefer a more upright position, with the handlebars set to 1 to 2 inches higher than the seat. A lot depends on your riding style and level of aggression: Racers want to be aerodynamically correct; cruisers want to savor the scenery.

Your stem length determines how far you have to bend at the waist and reach in order to properly hold the handlebars. Too much of a stretch creates strain; too little leaves you hunched and unable to breathe fully. Again, have someone steady you while you sit on your bike seat and hold the handlebars. If you have to fully extend and lock elbows to make contact, your stem is too long. Road vibration will pulsate through your locked arms and create strain in your neck and back.

Imagine your handlebars are piano keys. You want to be able to play them, with a bit of a shock-absorbing bend in your arm. If your stem is too long or too short, fix or replace it.


“The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else.”
— Susan B. Anthony —

Marilynn Preston is the author of Energy Express, America's longest-running healthy lifestyle column. Her book All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being is available on Amazon and elsewhere. For more on personal well-being, visit 
© 2024 Energy Express, Ltd.

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