Bicycle set-up – a basic guide

Many riders, particularly of the non sporting type, do not seem to appreciate how important it is to adjust your bike to fit your body; they simply get on and ride.  A bike that is not correctly set up for you will require a lot more effort to ride and could result in strains to various parts of your body such as knees, neck shoulders ect.  This is a brief guide to to make you aware of how you can improve your seating position on your bike. 

Step 1 – Set your saddle height so that when seated on the saddle with you hips level, you can tuck your toe under the pedal when that pedal is closest to the ground.  This will ensure you do not rock from side to side on the saddle when pedalling, and also that you are not straining your knees by having the saddle too low.   You may require a spanner to loosed the clamp on the seat stem.

Step 2 – Seat yourself on the saddle ensuring the saddle comfortably supports your ‘sit’ bones.  Move the pedal cranks around so that they are horizontal.  Place the ball of your foot on the centre of the forward pedal; ideally your knee should now be directly over your ankle with your shin (that part of the leg between your knee and your ankle) vertical.  If your knee is behind your ankle, you will need to move the saddle forward; if your  knee is in front of your ankle, you will need your move the saddle backwards.  Bike saddles are supported underneath by two ‘rails’.  The rails allow you to slide the saddle forwards and backwards once you have loosend the clamp that holds the saddle to the seat post.  Once you have positioned the saddle correctly, retighten the clamp. The seat clamp also allows you to raise or lower the nose of the saddle.  I would suggest you set this initially so the saddle is horizontal.  Once you have the saddle positioned correctly and have ridden a few kilometres on it, you may them wish to try raising or lowering the saddle nose for improved comfort.

Step 3 – You may have to run through steps 1 & 2 a couple of times before you get you saddle correctly positioned as they are interdependant.  The position recommended is considered ‘ideal’.  However we are all different, and on a bike  small adjustments to saddle positions can make an enormous difference to comfort, so having set your saddle in the ideal position and ridden a few kilometres, you may wish to experiment further.

Step 4 – How do you like to ride?  Crouched over, head down and bum up?  Or perhaps upright on the saddle, viewing the road regally as you glide by?  Your choice of position will obviously affect your choice of handlebar, even your choice of bike.  If you intend to ride leaning forward placing weight on your hands, then the handlebars should be no wider than the width of your shoulders and the stem by which the handlebars are attached to the front forks should not be so long so as to risk pitching you over the bars when braking hard.  If you plan to ride sitting upright or leaning very slightly forward then it is simply a matter of deciding where you can comfortably place your hands.  There are a range of adjustable stems available, and you may have one fitted to your bike.  Once you get your seating position sorted this will allow you to experiment with handlebar positions to find one that suites you.  If you do not have an adjustable handlebar stem, your other option (apart from buying one) is to buy another handlebar which has sufficient rise for you.  This would be a cheaper option (unless you have an exotic taste in handlebars), but either option may require  longer brake and gear cables to accomodate the change.

Step 5 – I would always choose ‘tall’ handlebars over adjustable handlebar stems.  Two reasons for this.  The first is in my experience adjustable handlebar stems are heavy and after a while they creak.  By comparison a fixed handlebar stem coupled with ‘tall’ handlebars are light and if properly fitted should be silent for life.  If your bike has a ‘quill’ style stem, these usually permit stems to be raised or lowered in the forks by as much as 10cm. All quill stems have marks on them showing the minimum amount of the stem that must be left in the fork for safety.  Do not pull the stem out past this mark as you may otherwise find the handlebars detach from the forks whilst you are riding along which can be a very painful experience.  Remember that riders apply a lot of pressure to handlebars.

If you bike has the ‘ahead’ style of stem the adjustment process is different as the handlebar stem also form part of the bearing retention arrangements, so that any loosening of the stem will also loosen the bearing races.  Usually the stem has a series of spacers between it and the upper bearing race so that if you wish to lower the handlebars you will need to loosen the stem from the forks and move some of the spacers from below to above the stem, then retighten everything.  If you wish to raise the stem you will either have to replace it with a taller one, or you can buy a stem extender which fits on top of the fork tube allowing you to continue to use the existing stem with some additional spacers.

About the Author