How to Adjust the Fit of Your New Bike
So you have a new bike! You will ride longer and farther and be more comfortable when your bike is adjusted to fit your body correctly. If you purchased it from a bike shop, they will have made adjustments so it fits you before rolling it out the door. But as you bike more, get more flexible and use new muscles you might need additional adjustments. If you purchased a pre-owned bike or somewhere where there was no bike fitting, you’ll need to make adjustments yourself. Here are some guidelines for fine tuning your bike fit.
Tools Required for Bicycle Adjustments
Most of the adjustments you can easily make can be done with a standard bike multi-tool. It is useful to have a torque wrench to make sure any bolts you loosen are properly tightened.
The bike saddle supports at least one third of your full body weight with the handlebars and pedals providing the remaining support. If your riding position is upright, like on a comfort hybrid or cruiser bike, you may have more weight on your saddle making it even more important that it be adjusted to fit properly.
To start, verify that your saddle is level. To do this place the bike on a level surface and if you have a carpenter’s level, the type with bubbles in the center, place it on the center of the saddle where you sit and check the alignment or just visually inspect it as best you can. If there is a cut out down the middle or a raised tail don’t use that as a reference because you want to use the overall sitting surface. Best practice is for the saddle to be level, but you might want to fine tune it by tipping it up or down slightly for comfort, no more than 3 degrees. If you tip it down too much you will slide forward when riding which puts extra pressure on your arms, hands and knees and if you tip it up you may experience pain in your lower back and soft tissue.
Another fine saddle adjustment is its position on the rails. Best practice is to start with it centered on the rails over the seat post and from there you can move it forward or backwards to adjust the reach and position of the knee on the pedals. The best way to measure the fore/aft seat position is by dropping a plumb line (a string with a weight on the end like a metal nut or washer) from your forward knee cap. Put the right pedals in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position and center the ball of your foot over the axle of each pedal. Ideally the string will intersect the pedal spindle.
Saddle height is another adjustment you can fine tune to have a excellent fitting bike. You can start out with a gross adjustment of the saddle next to your hip bone. You want to adjust the saddle to be high enough so that your leg almost fully extends when at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and not high enough so that your hips rock when you pedal. Make small adjustments until you find the right height. It is better for it to be a little low rather than too high initially. Also make sure the minimum insertion mark that is etched on the seat post is not showing after you're done.
If in spite of these adjustments you find your saddle is not comfortable, you might need a saddle with a different shape. Since it is not possible to know if a saddle will be comfortable for your anatomy by looking at it, the best approach is to replace the saddle with another one through a saddle demo program at your local bike shop. You would select a new saddle of a different shape, ride with it for a few weeks and if it is comfortable, you are done, otherwise return it for another model and repeat the process.
Handlebar reach, height, and width will have a major impact on your riding position and comfort. Improper setup may result in neck, shoulder, back and hand pain.
Whether you can easily make adjustments to the handlebars for more comfort will depend on the components that came with your bike. If you have a quill stem, it may be possible to raise or lower the handlebars by loosening the center bolt. Just be aware of the minimum insertion point that is marked on the stem. Other handlebar systems, such as a threadless stem, will require swapping parts for new ones. You can impact the reach by replacing the stem with a longer or shorter one, adjust height by adding or removing headset spacers or adding a stem extender, or change to a different shape handlebar with a different width or rise. For these changes it is best to seek help from a professional bike fitter at your local bike shop where they can make the fine measurements, order and install the new parts. Just be cautious about making severe changes to your bike that makes the geometry different from how it was designed.
If you have flat handlebars, you can easily adjust the position of the brake levers so that your wrists are straight and in an ergonomic position when you want to squeeze the brake levers. You don’t want to have to bend your wrists up to a severe level to apply brakes forcing you to lean forward, nor do you want to rotate your wrists down forcing you to drop your elbows and lose stability. Most of the time you can rotate the entire handlebar by loosening the bolt(s) on the stem and then tightening the bolts when you have the brake levers positioned properly.
If you have drop handlebars with one set of brakes, a different braking system can make a big difference to your riding position and comfort. If you have cross top brakes, you can add road bike levers that allow you to ride and brake in a lower position while your hands are in the drops. If you have road bike levers you can add cross top brakes to allow you to ride and brake in a higher position on the top of the handlebar. These brakes are dual-pull, i.e., you can use either set of brakes to slow down or stop. Installing a second set of brakes requires adding new components so it is best done by collaborating with a bike shop that can order and install the new parts.
Fine tuning your new bike setup either with minor tweaks or new components that fit you better will provide you with new momentum to enjoy your new bike.
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