Bike Fit

Monday, July 1, 2013

We dream of effortlessly flying down a trail. The bike and you achieving a kind of harmonious unity until it's almost hard to tell where you leave off and your bike begins.

This union of bike and rider makes everything seem easier. You fly over obstacles, drift around corners, dance through obstructions and even climb hills with so little effort that it almost seems like you're dreaming. The trees fly past, the trails seem endless and the woods keep calling you, to ride deeper and deeper into some new reality where you're connected to everything on a level where . . . . .

Well, enough of that! It is possible to approach that unity, that oneness, but only if you have two things going for you. The first is a level of fitness commensurate with the needs of your ride. (That subject was covered in our last article.) The second is predicated on you being positioned in a comfortable and efficient position on your bike.

Would you enjoy a hike if there was a pebble in your shoe or enjoy a good book if you were reading it with dirty glasses? Would you enjoy a television show or a concert if there were some noise, almost below the level of consciousness, blocking some of the sound? Well, it's like that when your bike isn't set up right. You're either sitting in an uncomfortable position, working too hard, or forced to hold on to something that just doesn't feel right. Even if you've gotten used to these irritations, and even if they seem normal, your efficiency, your enjoyment and your comfort level will be taxed. Ahhhh, taxed. That's a good way to think of it. If something's not right, it's like a sales tax on your riding. 3%, 5%, whatever, even if you're having fun and enjoying your ride, even if you're not aware of it, you'd be enjoying your ride more if that tax was absent.

Let's look at five things that could make your riding easier. Then let's look at our bikes and see if we can make them better. Let's look at seat height, seat angle, lever position, and finally handlebar height, width and bend.

Seat height: There is a growing consensus of opinion that for the most efficient effortless pedaling possible having one's seat height approximately where it would be on a well set up road bike is best. Nearly everyone rides with their seat too low at least part of the time. There are a lot of reasons for this. Newer riders feel safer with lower seats. Lowering your seat on an extreme downhill or technical section makes it easier to move around on your bike. Some people still ride their bikes with their seats where they were when they bought them. But having your seat too low means that you're victimized by the 'terrible twos': you get too tired too fast.

The best height for your seat is when your knee is just a little bent at the bottom of your pedal stroke. You can test for this by putting one pedal down in line with your seat tube, placing your heel on your pedal and seeing if you can lift your butt off your saddle. If you can, your seat is probably too low for maximum efficiency. It's OK to lower your seat for technical terrain, downhills or jumps. But to cover ground at your highest efficiency, put it back up whenever you don't need it to be lower.

Seat Position: Most people ride with their seats flat, parallel with the ground. A few people, mostly with BMX backgrounds, ride with the nose of their saddles up a bit. This is fine as long as you don't overdo it. Keep in mind that raising the nose of your saddle tends to put more weight on your hips, while lowering the nose puts more on your hands. Whatever position you choose, the goal is to not feel too much pressure on either your butt or your hands. Most people will ride most efficiently with their saddles flat.  

Handlebar height: In the early days of mountain biking people were encouraged to ride with their handlebars 4-6 inches lower than their saddles. Over time this became known as the "launch position" as it put so much of one's body weight in front of one's front axel that launching over the handlebars was common. Fortunately things have changed, and now most people ride with their bars about even with their saddles, or for technical or downhill riding, well above it. Exceptions to this are racers looking for maximum efficiency who are trying to mimic their road bike position.

Handlebar width: It used to be that narrow bars were considered best, the narrower the better. Thinking has swung 100% on this though. Now the consensus is that bars should be as wide as can be comfortably ridden in the woods. This not only makes it much easier to control your bike, but it opens up your chest and lets you breath easier.

Handlebar Bend: Question, are handlebars actually designed for humans? Well, maybe not! Take this test! Sit on your bike and with your hands above your handlebars grasp a pair of screwdrivers like you would your handlebars. Then shut your eyes and pretend you're riding for about 30 seconds. Go over a couple of bumps, climb a hill, and turn a couple of corners. Fire up your imagination and get into it a little. Now open your eyes and look where your hands are. You'll probably notice that the screwdrivers are pointing at each other at an angle of around 13 degrees. That's your unconscious mind telling you what your best handlebar position should be. Now compare that to your bike's handlebars. What degree do they point at? If it's radically different, then you're forcing your body to hang on at an unnatural angle for the entire time that you ride. For more comfort and less wasted energy, buy handlebars with a bend more like what your body was built for.

Lever Position: Most bikes come from their dealers with the levers positioned parallel to the ground. This may look good in a dealer's showroom, but if forces the rider to 'reach' for their levers every time that they use them. A better position is to angle your levers down until they are almost hidden behind your handlebars when you're looking at them while seated on your bike. That way they're always within easy reach as well as being much more comfortable.

Comfort is the key to more effortless riding. If you're not comfortable, you won't ride as much, as often, or as far. The tips above are meant to improve a rider's position on their bike. That should lead to greater efficiency, more enjoyment and an approach to that harmonious unity described in the lead of this article. For an even better fit, other factors come into play, stem length, cleat position, crank length, knee drop and other more subtle things. For a better fit on your bike, consult a qualified fit technician who'll be found at better bike shops.

Then you can be sure that there will be no "taxes" subtracting enjoyment from your ride the next time that you're flying down that trail, in control, and dancing your bike through those obstructions.