Bike fit: Take your position seriously

Erik Moen explains the finer points of fitting a bicycle to a person's body and vice versa. All the while and without looking, he uses a forearm as a curb to force cyclist James Watkins to stop bowing his left leg as he pedals an anchored bicycle.

Moen, a cyclist, coach and physical therapist, is well-known around these parts for the attention he pays to emphasizing the ergonomics of bicycling. When a cyclist comes to see him, often complaining of pain, Moen checks the positions of the saddle, handlebars and pedals. Then he watches how they fit with the rider's style.

Watkins, a Microsoft employee, is a distance rider who owns eight bicycles. He even takes one on business trips. He first felt pain around his right knee last summer in a long benefit event (which he admits he considered a race). So he brought his favorite bicycle as he paid a visit to Moen at Kirkland (Wash.) Physical Therapy.

Moen first tested Watkins' flexibility, strength and some other neuromuscular markers. Then he watched the rider pedal and immediately noticed Watkins' veering left knee. The right leg moved properly.

He measured the angle of his knee and the low point ("dead bottom") of the pedaling motion and found it less than optimal. Watkins' knee motion ended at a 40-degree angle. Moen likes 30 to 35 degrees because it compresses less of a load on the knee and allows for more muscles to be used during pedaling.

Watkins' seat was tilted forward, which Moen said led to too much weight being placed on the handlebars. It was also positioned 15 millimeters too low. Moen says these minor changes can make a big difference in the long run. He believes Watkins' problems are part joint inflexibility but also over-relying on his quad muscles.

Getting the right fit

While such tinkering and exactitude is foreign to most of us, the American Physical Therapy Association says dismissing bicycling posture and mechanics leads to overuse injuries. If you fit your bike, muscles and joints work in sync. That translates into a smooth, healthy ride. A poor fit leads to bad habits and imbalance, which in the long run create pain in the knees, neck, back and elsewhere.

Pain, like Watkins' tricky right knee, can be caused by a number of things, but Moen says poor bike posture is often at the root of the cause. Perhaps he is depending on the quadriceps too much or they have muscle imbalance, say strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings.

Neck pain can be caused by handlebar and saddle positions, which can also cause a sore neck. Lower back pain can be the result of anything from inflexible hamstrings to handlebars set too high or low. Weak or inflexible hamstrings or equipment problems, like bicycle cleats out of alignment with the pedals, can cause knee tendinitis.

"Bicycle fit is an individual matter that reflects a person's coordination, flexibility, strength and skeletal parameters," says Moen.

The most common fitting errors include allowing the saddle to sit too high or low, adjusting the handlebar reach too long or short, and letting the pedal and shoe alignment be off.

Fit tips

Here are some general tips on what to look for:

  • Saddle: It should be level for endurance and recreational riding. If the seat tilts forward, you will be inclined to put too much strain on your arms and back. If the seat is tilted backward, you may strain the lower back.
  • Handlebars: The location of handlebars should be adjusted based on your height, strength, coordination and goals. Higher handlebars lead you to put more of your weight on the saddle. Taller riders should have their handlebars set lower in relation to the saddle height. Handlebars set too forward often lead to back strain.
  • Conditioning: Flexible hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes are crucial because those muscles generate the majority of the pedaling force. "Proper stretching, balance and flexibility exercises help with coordination of cycling-related skills such as breaking and cornering," Moen says.
Changes in riders' strength and flexibility affect the ability to find and stay in certain bicycling positions, so how the bike fits may have to be changed over time.

Tips for cycling more comfortably

Here are some pointers, furnished by cycling expert Erik Moen and the American Physical Therapy Association:

  • Knees should be slightly bent when you are at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and your hips should not rock while pedaling.
  • Hand positions should be changed often for greater upper-body comfort.
  • Try for a higher cadence and easier gears. Aim to get 80 to 90 revolutions per minute.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer at The Seattle Times. Send questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition to him at: Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or e-mail rseven@seattletimes.com. Past columns can be found at http://www.seattletimes.com/onfitness/.

Discuss This Article