The Obscure Art of Road Bike Set-Up

Setting up a road bike without professional help (or at least help that’s far more competent than you are) is a minefield. Even when the bike feels good there’s always a nagging temptation that it could be better; more efficient, more comfortable and quicker to ride. Someone like me, with only a dim grasp of the physics of riding a bike quickly, can be easily convinced that a particular adjustment to some part of the bike – a matter of millimetres – will see me transformed from bog standard no-mark local rider to impressive hot-shot.

Setting up your bike is a science – but only if you have access to the right sized bike, some decent scientific theory, the necessary measuring devices, and a suitable amount of brain power. Most of us are missing one or more of these key ingredients and so the process is transformed into an obscure art form, or a kind of mysticism on a par with astrology or witchcraft.

There are plenty of bike set-up guides available which talk about inside leg, arm and torso length, shoulder width, stem size, seat height, seat tilt and on…and on… Sometimes through a combination of well thought out adjustments and blind luck you seem to get things just right; you’re not overstretching, your arms are gently bent and not supporting your entire body weight, and you feel nicely balanced on the saddle. Add to this the fact that any neck, back and knee pain has all but disappeared and you think…that’s it…i’ve done it! And so you tighten everything up and leave it in the sweet spot.

Bicycle Frame Set-Up (Photo: Keithonearth - Wikimedia - Creative Commons)
Bicycle Frame Set-Up
(Photo: Keithonearth – Wikimedia – Creative Commons)

And then…two weeks later, for some inexplicable reason, you think ‘hang on, if I just tweaked my seat a couple of millimetres…’

…and it all comes undone. The minor tweak has a knock-on effect which leads to a domino effect of small adjustments…and an hour later your sweet spot is a distant memory and you’re back to square one – sitting on a bike that doesn’t feel quite right (which is surely the reason you’re not riding too quickly at the moment).

There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story about Eddy Merckx tossing and turning in bed at night, troubled by something, until he’s jolted by a light bulb moment. He jumps from his bed and dashes to his bike, considers his options for a moment, before tweaking his seat position a couple of millimetres. Then he returns to bed relaxed and happy, to sleep the sleep of a man who’s convinced his bike is now sitting in the garage in optimum condition, waiting to welcome him like an old friend.

It’s also said that Merckx carried an allen key in his jersey pocket even when racing, and was known to occasionally pull over to the side of the road to make little tweaks and adjustments on the hoof. If Eddy himself fretted over this stuff, what hope have we mortals got?

I sometimes think how nice it would be to spend a few hundred quid on getting measured up and getting a proper professional bike fitting. But what’s the point?

After a couple of weeks I’d only start fiddling with it, and unravel the whole thing like a kitten with a ball of wool.

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8 comments

  1. Oh how you should rethink your conclusion. I had the full Specialized workup done and it was well worth it. Turned out I had my saddle 1.5 mm too high… That minor adjustment made a huge difference in comfort (none in speed, alas).

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  2. I was trained to do fittings at the shop where I worked. It was always interesting to see how setting a bike up properly for someone completely changed their entire nature on the bike. Their body completely relaxes into place and their more supple on the bike.

    One thing you’re right about is the fact that its more wizardry than anything. I was taught how things were supposed to be, and I was told why, but I never really “got” why it worked.

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    • That’s really interesting that you say that – wizardry is a good way of phrasing it – even when you’ve been trained to do this stuff. I guess it comes down to the fact that we are all different and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another…oh, and a lot of us buy the wrong sized bike to begin with!

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