Each time I climb on a new bike I go through a process of adapting to the bike. We all do this. No one really talks about this process. The idea is that fit addresses this, that proper fit shortens the distance between your particular physiology and the touch points of the bike so that the bike feels as natural as possible. My experience as a bike reviewer, and having ridden hundreds of bikes over the years, is that perfect fit is rare, even when the numbers seem right.

Here’s what I notice when I climb on a bike: It’s not uncommon for the balance and handling of a bike to feel off. When too much of my weight is on the front wheel, the bike doesn’t want to turn. It’s as if the headset had been overtightened. Small shifts of my weight in the saddle combined with how much my elbows are bent and how much my hips are rotated can make perceptible changes in a bike’s handling. We do this out of the saddle as well. How far forward or back our hips are when we get out of the saddle will change a bike’s handling; just bring your hips forward a bit if the bike feels nervous. It’s something we all do when we begin riding a new bike.

What often escapes us is that once you’ve ridden a bike for 20 miles, muscle memory takes over and those adaptations begin to feel like the natural fit. And this only becomes a problem if that position you’ve adapted to asks more of your physiology than your body will accept. Tendonitis, pinched nerves, premature fatigue, your body can talk back in a variety of ways. Again, the better the fit, the less of this accommodation that takes place.

Fitters like to talk about neutral position. It’s the position that allows you to sit on the bike most naturally and to produce the best possible power for a given position on the bike. That is the goal behind working with a knowledgeable fitter, rather than just getting out a tape measure and guesstimating.

In more than 20 years writing review for bike publications, I’ve ridden several hundred bikes. I’ve learned that we are far more adaptable than we tend to think. The way we become accustomed to one bike teaches us to perceive any change in fit as a problem. That difference, the alien feeling, can convince us we won’t be able to perform as well on a bike. And while I’ve found that I have my limits—too much weight on the front wheel and the bike won’t turn, or too little will make the bike skittish—I’ve come to embrace how as my type of riding changes, so does my fit.

My fit on a traditional road bike, while higher than it used to be (I’m not the same rider I was in my early 30s), is lower than my other fits. My position for cyclocross and gravel riding is higher and shorter; it’s not the same reach just at a different height. And where mountain bikes are concerned my position on cross country bikes is lower than my position on a trail bike. I’ve come to see fit increasingly through the lens of what the bike is meant to do and not just the position from which I’ll produce maximum wattage.

It’s been a surprising epiphany, that there is no one, true fit.

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  1. Michael

    It is nice to read this, as I have read enough people talk about dialing in the fit on their bikes so it is identical for all bikes. I have ridden road bikes since about 1972, cross since about 1979, mountain since 1985, with touring bikes (for which I also like a different fit) since about 1974 and my commuter singlespeed for ten years or so. Oh, and there were the stingrays and paper-boy bikes before all that. Without thinking about it, each bike evolved to its own fit, all of which seemed to work right for me. Reading all these comments on fit, I once even tried to put my cross bike into a similar fit geometry to my road bike. It rode terribly and felt bad too. I have tried to make each bike be right for what it does and what I do with it. Of course, ideas on what frame geometry should be have changed over the years, as has the frame material, and so fit has to adapt to that a bit too. Thanks – now when someone asks why I am more upright on my cross bike, I can point at you!

    1. Author

      People are always pointing at me. At least they don’t laugh anymore.

      I think.

      On a more serious note, the cyclocross great Laurence Malone always advocated running the same size frame in ‘cross as on the road. However, he insisted that you run the shortest stem you could mount without your knee hitting the bar when out of the saddle. For many of us, that’s about 2cm shorter. That becomes 1cm for smaller riders, and 3cm for the giants. Malone was known for being able to ride through anything, so I think he advice remains relevant at least as a rule of thumb.

  2. jh

    I think your product reviews are among the very best.. What’s your opinion on crank length (for road). I ride 58cm road frames with 175mm cranks. a few years ago, when I was at my best, i always had a fast and smooth average cadence between 98-102rpm. Since a job change and some time off the bike, I’m getting more time on the road, however my average cadence has dropped to 885-87rpm, so I have to concentrate on spinning, with occassional slight knee soreness the next day. I also want to start riding the hills in and around LA, but I’m a terrible climber. Do you think I should switch to 172.5’s to help me get back to my fast spin? Will it help or hurt my already lacking climbing prowess? what are your thoughts on crank length in relation to climbing, bike fit, handling etc?
    thanks again for the awesome website and podcasts.

    1. Author

      Investing in new cranks just because you’re not able to train as much strikes me as a terrible investment. I don’t want that to sound insulting; I don’t mean it to. It’s just that most of us don’t have that much spare money to throw at our bikes and cranksets aren’t cheap. If you were thinking of moving from a standard crank to compact or something, I’d say sure. Or if it was going to be a chance to take the better part of a pound off your bike, that might be understandable, but there are multiple fit systems that don’t even look at the difference between 172.5mm and 175mm cranks. It’s only 2.5mm, which less than the thickness of many wedding rings. If anything, in losing fitness and strength, you might want longer cranks for the additional leverage they offer. Learning to spin with a longer crank will help with any loss in strength. Of course, some fitters will think I’ve lost my marbles. I’m okay with fewer marbles. 😉

  3. Kayce

    As a professional fitter, this is the view any one seriously into the science/ art should have. I know its not always the case. But like all things in the bike industry things are not as they should be. There is also so many subtleties that are ignored. The same reason the 11-25 cassette isn’t for every one and every bike, is the same reason that a reach and drop number isn’t a fixed thing.

  4. Jeff Dieffenbach

    Funny, I first read “Each time I climb on a new bike …” to mean climbing literally–that is, going up hill. Makes much more sense now that I read it “climb on” as “mount.”

    Now that I’m riding more or less equal numbers of hours on road, CX, MTB, and fat (plus the whole other category of commuting), I find that I’m much less sensitive to fit differences.

  5. Thom Kneeland

    I’d like to see bike fit talk about how fit has changed with modern equipment. On the road and CX side, the hoods are a much more prominent position and handlebar shape has become shorter and more shallow. Mountain bikes use wider bars and dropper posts coupled with much shorter stems. All those have affected how a bike is sized. Some companies have adjusted or compensated for the shift in geometry change, but many consumers still base buying decisions on old measurements.

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