Cycling legend Jens Voigt once told another rider that his handlebars were too wide. The rider disagreed so Jens told him his shoulders must be too narrow. Jens was pointing out the importance of a well matched bar width to shoulder width to have a cockpit you can ride in all day long with a smile. When looking at bike fit, it is important to consider not only the macro setup, but the micro details as well. This entails the size and shape of each contact point and how it will “contact” the body.
Jens says, “Your shoulders are too narrow!”
Each of the bike’s contact points for your hands, your bum, and your feet need to be selected to best match your specific size and shape at each contact point. Only then you can achieve a good, solid connection at each point which makes it easier for the body to operate best by reducing localised pressure and excess motion, increasing stability and comfort.
We all know that every body is unique, not only on the outside but the inside too; from the the size and shape your skeleton to the chemicals that control the size of your blood vessels. This means that the contact points need to be suitable and set-up well for the individual’s body. They need to accommodate the type of bike, cycling discipline, and the rider’s personal style of cycling. The result of changes to a contact point will cause more or less stress to your body while riding the bike. Less stress to the body yields more energy for riding.
While cycling, you feel the bike through your contact points; this is your body’s proprioception. How the body functions on the bike is determined the quality and strength of the signal at each nerve ending. If there is smooth even pressure at the contact point and the proximal joints are relaxed and not over-extending, the body should be in a position to ride with minimal stress.
Let’s take a closer look at the three contact points: the shoes and cleats, saddle and handlebar.
Feet, Shoes and Cleats
Shoes and cleats need to work together to provide your feet with a platform to push on the pedals.The best combination takes into account the rider’s feet and what works best for their type of riding. The shoes will have a unique shape: straight, banana, high heel, low heel, narrow or wide. It’s best when the overall shoe shape looks like the foot.
Foot beds are also important, they need to provide the foot with enough support to keep the kinetic chain well balanced all the way up to the neck even under significant pedalling load. This is completely dependant on your individual foot function, strength, and range of motion.
The cleats are intended to allow you a way to place the shoe on the pedal in exactly the same way every time, and also helping the delivery of power in bumpy and unpredictable situations. The position of the cleat needs to be orientated to suit the skeleton of the foot. Fore and aft, side to side, and rotational adjustments can be made. The hip also needs be considered when positioning cleats as the alignment of the foot will have an effect on the hip and knee motion.
Cleats can also be wedged and shimmed to change the entire orientation of the foot on the pedal. This affects the kinetic chain above and can help increase stability when correctly set-up.
Bums and Saddles
Saddles are critical as they are in contact with a very sensitive area of the body and, in most cases, bear most of the body’s weight. Bike seats come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, just like we do. A good saddle will provide the rider with a stable and comfortable podium from which to pedal from.
When selecting a saddle, the physical aspects to determine the right shape and size include the rider’s pelvis size and shape, the position on the bike, the discipline, and the rider’s personal preferences. The saddle width, for example, should be wide enough to support the rider’s pelvis, but not too wide to cause chaffing at the edges. This will change as you lower your upper body in the cockpit or as the you climb; your pelvis will rock forward and the width of the skeleton you are supporting will change, usually getting narrower. Sometimes an entire race or ride can be ridden rolled forward in the pelvis and low in the front end, for example, in a time trial event.
Mapping saddle pressure points
Saddle width can determine pain or pleasure
This makes saddle selection as much about bone structure as it is about body position. I always recommend testing saddles out on the road before purchasing. Things always feel different after a few rides.
Hands and Handlebars
Handlebars are the rider’s contact point for the hands and include all of the necessary controls to steer, brake, and shift the gears on the bike. A good set of bars which are well suited to the rider and the type of riding will make it easy to position the hands in a way that allows for a comfortable and neutral wrist joint. This means that the rider retains good blood circulation and proprioception. Wrist and shoulder position is affected by the overall width of the handlebars and should not be either too wide or too narrow, but should rather reflect your shoulder width, plus or minus depending on discipline and personal preference. For example, a rider with a touring style mountain bike will have narrower handlebars than on their downhill mountain bike. The downhill bike needs maximum force and control while a touring mountain bike needs maximum comfort and in comparison has less demand on control.
The controls on the bike typically include the gear shifters and the brake levers. On a mountain bike, there can also be controls for suspension and seat post height. These controls are best set-up and positioned so that the rider doesn’t have to change the hand position to operate them. For example, if your fingers can reach the brake levers in their natural position, and you can operate them without having to move your hands, you retain both your great hand position and complete bike control.
Grips and bar tape are the icing on the cake and should be chosen to reflect your style and to ensure you have a comfortable contact point.
In the following articles I will address each of the contact points individually and take a more detailed look at the positioning and fitting. As a general guide it is not only the shape and size of each contact point, but also the position of the contact points and how they relate to the rider and to each other. Getting the contact points right is crucial to getting the bike fit dialled-in correctly. Getting it wrong can mean discomfort, adding stress to your body and ultimately pain.