Touring bicycle sizing and fit

Irrespective of what bicycle you chose for touring or long distance riding, how that bike fits you is of paramount importance. You could be spending up to ten hours a day in the saddle, so it goes without saying that you need to be comfortable.

Cycle position with cranks horizontalThere are numerous factors to consider when setting up a bicycle, and a good bike shop will be a huge help. All my bikes are based around the first fitting session I had at Richardsons Cycles in Essex when I bought my first ‘serious bicycle’, a Dawes Galaxy.

I have tweaked these dimensions according to experience, style of riding and machine. The basic measurements we established during those 40 minutes of fettling, though, have stood me in good stead since.

The main points for consideration are:

Frame Size
Saddle position
Handlebar type and position
Reach

(Note: A more attractive and athletic model was not available for these pictures, so you’ll have to make do with me. The rugby player physique looks a little out of place on a bike, I know.)

Which frame size?

Like a good tailor, a good framebuilder will have an idea of what sized bike you require when you walk into the shop. Subsequent measurements will refine that sizing and your weight, amount of luggage you wish to carry and riding style will dictate tubing specifications. Like a good bespoke suit, it will fit your perfectly, be comfortable and last many years… at a price.

Not everyone has money to spend on bespoke frames, though, and this poses no real problems as good bike shops will select the best-sized off-the-peg frame and then offer range of options to tweak the fit. Varying handlebar design, stem length and angle, steerer length of the fork (sometimes) and saddle position and height will all help to fine tune the riding position.

An off-the-peg frame will fit most riders fairly well, but these sometimes-subtle changes can make an OK fit a very good fit indeed.

Frame sizes are usually a measurement of the length of the seat tube. The traditional British measurement is taken from the middle of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat tube. The European method records this figure from the centre of the bottom bracket to the centre of the intersection of the seat tube and top tube.

It’s useful to check how frames are measured for comparative purposes, but most manufacturers offer a range of dimensions for each frame size to help with selection.

Good bike shops will check how you fit on the frame and whether the bike looks ‘balanced’ for you. A good place to start is to check whether the length of bike head tube matches the amount of seat post showing. This is roughly true of my Thorn Audax (see picture).

If you are stuck between two frame sizes, then it’s generally better to pick the smaller size. The frame will be lighter and have a lower centre of gravity, which could be an important consideration when carrying luggage.

Saddle position

There are three points of contact on a bicycle: the saddle, the handlebars and the pedals. Weight distribution across them (particularly the first two) is important when establishing a comfortable position for touring.

Saddle height is important for efficient pedalling, too.

A very basic measure is to sit on the bike and rest your heel on the pedal with the crank in the downward position. Your leg should be straight and this will serve as a good starting position (see picture). A range of other factors can then come into play and you may wish to adjust saddle height accordingly. However, adjustments should be made in increments so muscle groups can adjust to changes gradually.

(Note: looking at my picture, my saddle height seemed a little low. I checked the position and found that it had not been put back in the right position after being transport in the car.)

Saddle position is also governed by fore and aft adjustments and angle or tilt. Again, experience comes into play here and a good bike shop will advise you. Greater adjustment can be achieved by using layback seatposts and certain kinds of saddle. For example, my favoured Brooks saddle gives slightly less aft movement than my old San Marco Rolls. My compromise has been to use a layback seat post.

Again, as a rough guide, your forward knee (bony bit) should be directly above the pedal spindle when the crank is horizontal.

Handlebar height

Look at the peleton in a pro road race and you’ll see riders hunched over their sleek carbon machines. Their bars will invariably be quite low relative to the saddle, improving aerodynamics and power transfer.

This position is unlikely to be comfortable for bicycle touring when absolute speed is not the chief consideration.

And if, like me, you suffer from lower back problems then low bars could do more harm than good.

I have two bar positions for my bikes. On my touring cycle, the bars are just lower than the saddle. I find this comfortable for day-long riding and weight distribution remains well balanced between hands, pedals and saddle. On my Audax, my riding position is marginally more ‘sporty’ with slightly lower bars and a longer reach (more of that later). However, the position is still very relaxed and, importantly, my back is not set in an uncomfortably cramped position.

I have always been a big fan of dropped bars as I prefer to ride on brake hoods and the tops. On occasions, I will ride on the drops or ‘hooks’ in very windy conditions and my slightly higher bars mean I can reach this area in comfort. I chose drop bars that roughly match the width of my shoulders.

Straight bars are becoming popular with more and more tourists and you may prefer them. However, these may require a longer stem or longer top tube to provide adequate reach.

As a general rule, your back should be at an angle of no mare than 45 degrees from the ground, the steeper the angle the more relaxed the position. Your arms should be bent at the elbow and act as a shock absorber.

Reach

For the purposes of this article, handlebar reach is the measurement between the nose of the saddle (other measures of handlebar reach are from a perpendicular line from the bottom bracket centre) and the centre of your handlebars . This is a figure I’ve been asked to give when specifying three frames, including my Bike Friday Pocket Llama.

Although some will put their faith in bicycle fit calculators, numerous formulae do exist for checking bike fit. Although I am sceptical of these arbitrary tools (as humans, we don’t really fit formulae and they may be even less helpful for women riders – see comments) I have had some success with this ‘reach calculator’ as it resulted in subtle improvements to my position on my bike.

The sum involves measuring the length of your arm from the point of the shoulder to your wrist and from the top of your inseam to just below the Adam’s apple. Add these two figures together and then multiply them by 0.47 for a relaxed position. If you ride more aggressively, the multiplier ranges from 0.47 to 0.485 which provides you with a margin depending on your flexibility/sportiness etc.

In my case, the sums are:

Arm length + torso length = 127cm. X .47 = 59.6cm.

The actual reach on my Audax is 59cm, although slightly shorter on my touring cycle to achieve that relaxed position.

For more on bike fitting, check out Paul Hewitt’s site, or this excellent piece on Peter White’s site.

In conclusion

This article is not intended to be a definitive guide to bike sizing and fit, more of personal reflection on the topic. My position is governed by a number of factors, not least my twin spinal decompression which tends to take precedence over all other factors. Being 6’6” also tends to push off-the-peg frame fitting to the limit. If anything, I would benefit from a bespoke frame and one day I hope to have the funds!

bicycle fit and riding position

If you are starting from scratch, the best advice is to find a good bike shop owner who will spend some time discussing the bike fit options and, importantly, will listen to your requirements rather than trying to fit you to a standard manufacturer set up. The bike, after all, should be made to fit you rather than the other way round.

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15 thoughts on “Touring bicycle sizing and fit

  1. interesting points but I have just purchased a brooks flyer I have my saddle level with the back so the nose looks like it is up slightly I hope this is alright I had to play with the fore and aft so I wasnt crushing my boney part between my legs It felt extremerly uncomfortable it made me get off to take a trip to the bush I have it forward now seems to have taken the pressure off but time will tell the saddle has not completly broken in yet either so I dont know if my adjustments are right please help any feedback welcome Paul

    1. Hi Paul, The lack of punctuation in your post got me worrying that it might be spam (!). Saddles are a very personal thing. I know someone who simply cannot get on with a Brooks, no matter how much breaking in he goes through. It may be the case that it’s not for you… however, it will take 500 miles or so to break in properly. Most of the time, it’s worth the wait and pain!

  2. Hi Paul,

    I have a question for you
    With your drop bars as high as they are in your picture.
    How are they when you want to go full speed on downhills ,and level ground or for hill clmbs and sprints?

    1. The simple answer is, absolutely fine. Position is a trade off. Comfort is more important for me than the supposed aerodynamic benefit of lower bars, which I would argue is limited unless you are racing. I can still get out of the wind by riding on the drops rather than the hoods.

      1. Then we think a like then between comfort and areodynamics.
        My only concern was whether you could still get into the drops or be able to grab them when doing sprints and hillclimbs. So you answered that question.

        I cant tell in your picture, but how many inches away are the tip of your drop handlebars from the head tube?

        I shall steal your idea and see how it works.

        Thanks Paul, for the idea

        Delta

      2. Not sure I’m clear on the request here. If you mean the end of the bars to the tube then it’s a shade ove eight inches.

  3. The bike fit calculator at CompetitiveCyclist.com does not work for women. Please clarify that in your blog. I am female and measured myself and put in all the numbers in their calculator. For an Eddy Merckx fit I was given a seat tube of 50 cm and top tube of 53.7 cm. When I changed the gender I was given the same seat tube height but a top tube length of 52.4 cm. How can this be right? A woman typically has shorter arms and torso and longer legs than a man when both are the same height. How can a longer top tube be appropriate for women? I emailed CompetitiveCyclist.com and they never responded to me. It’s a shame. As a woman I want to get more into cycling but all the misinformation or simple lack of information out there for female cyclists is a major deterrent to being able to participate in the sport. Things need to change–potentially 50% of all cyclists are being neglected at the expense of the biking industry, which is losing out in perhaps millions of dollars because of the lack of support for women cyclists.

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