Setting up comfortable cycling position

Basic level

Basic things

This post will explain basic things about setting up a comfortable position for relaxed cycling. For a detailed explanation and for more experienced riders, take a look at this post: Setting up riding position.

Riding position on any given bicycle can be altered to suit one’s needs and “size”. The way to do it is explained in this post. If, however, a bicycle frame is by far too large, or too small, there is a point past which a bicycle can’t be made to fit and the bicycle (or the frame at least) should be replaced for a better fitting one. Detailed explanation is here: How to chose a correct frame size.

0. Contact points

Comfort on a bicycle primarily depends on placement and distance of contact points of rider and bicycle: saddle, pedals and handlebars.

Contact points, marked

Contact points, marked
Picture 1

Folding bicycle. Wheels are small like on a kid's bicycle, but a full grown man can comfortably sit on this one. Seating position is upright, for slow urban riding.

With adjustment of saddle to pedals distance (and position) and distance of bars from the saddle, even a (folding) bike with such a small frame and wheels can be made to fit a grown person.
Picture 2

The following chapters explain how to set the contact points to suit the rider.

1. Saddle angle (tilt)

Saddle should be level when the bike is on level ground.

Saddle in a level position.

Saddle in a level position.
Picture 3

2. Saddle height

Saddle too low will put more stress to the knees. Saddle too high results in lower back and buttocks/groin pain.

Height of pedals from the ground. Bicycle 1 - vintage design Bicycle 2 - most modern bicycles Picture 2

Height of pedals from the ground. The red line is parallel to the ground.
Bicycle 1 – vintage design
Bicycle 2 – most modern bicycles
Picture 4

Vintage bikes had pedals placed lower than the bike 1 in the picture 4, so one could reach the ground while seated, without placing the saddle too close to the pedals for comfortable riding. Modern bikes have pedals placed higher up (bike 2 in the picture 4) – when saddle height is adjusted so one can reach the ground from the saddle on such a bike, during riding knees will be awkwardly bent, like riding a too small kids bike.

Optimal saddle height. Heel is placed on the pedal, with a straight knee, so that the rider is neither pushed off the saddle, nor the pedal is too low so it can't be reached with a heel and a fully straight leg. Picture 5

Optimal saddle height.
Heel is placed on the pedal, with a straight knee, so that the rider is neither pushed off the saddle, nor the pedal is too low so it can’t be reached with a heel and a fully straight leg.
Picture 5

Placing the saddle on the bike in picture 5 so that ground can easily be reached makes for a bit less comfortable riding position.

Saddle too high. The heel doesn't reach the pedal when it is in a position furthest away from the saddle. Picture 7

Saddle too high.
The heel doesn’t quite reach the pedal when the pedal is in a position furthest away from the saddle.
Picture 7

Placing the saddle lower, or higher than optimal position will make pedalling harder and less comfortable. Some will find this less, or more problematic.

3. Fore-aft saddle position

A common mistake is trying to adjust distance from the bars by altering saddle position – usually by moving it forward. Saddle should be positioned relative to the pedals, regardless of the bars position. Why?

Try leaning forward while standing with your back against the wall. Can you easily keep the balance, or are you tipping forward? Try the same standing a few cm from the wall. Do the buttocks move towards the wall when leaning forward? It is similar on a bicycle. Unless the backside is moved a bit to the rear, all the weight will be on the hands, causing pain in the palms, hands, and shoulders.

Moving the saddle too far back, on the other hand, causes too much bend at the lower back and poor leverage on the pedals.

Correctly placed saddle fore-aft position:

A plumb bob from the knee cap should point the pedal axle. Picture 4

When pedals are level, a plumb bob from the knee cap should point the pedal axle (middle).
Picture 8

Green marks - amount of fore-aft saddle movement that enables the seat post to clamp the saddle securely Picture 5

Green marks – amount of fore-aft saddle movement that enables the seat post to clamp the saddle securely
Picture 9

4. Bars

Only after the saddle is positioned correctly, the bar should be set in the desired position. Placing the bars closer and higher results in a more upright riding position and vice-versa – placing the bars further and/or lower, results in a more leaned position.

Changing bar height and distance, changes the riding position. Picture 6

Changing bar height and distance, changes the riding position.
Picture 10

For altering bar height and distance there are stems of various angles and lengths, as well as stem height adjusters (i.e. riser stems). If a stem is longer, it will result in a more bent over and stretched over the bars position. If a stem is placed lower, it will have a similar effect. Shorter and higher placed stems create an opposite effect. That is shown in the picture 9.

Stems that are angled, depending whether the angle is upward, or downward, place the bars higher and closer, or lower and further from the rider, roughly speaking.

Effect in picture 13b could have been achieved with a shorter stem and a riser stem from picture 14.

Adapter for changing bar height. Picture 8

Adapter for changing bar height.
Picture 14

These are the basics. For a more detailed instructions on how to set the bars themselves, along with all the levers on the bars, read the appropriate posts:

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