Fettle on a Bike

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I’ve never been too obsessive about position on a bike. I’ve had my position down for a long time and just tweek it a bit every once in a while as times change. It has to be this way because I switch between so many bikes on a weekly basis. Nowadays, I could be riding up to 4 different bikes in a week, with two cross bikes, a road bike and then a MTB bike. Historically, I can switch between them without a blink.

But recently, for some reason, my bikes don’t feel like they fit me correctly and I’ve been changing position nearly on a daily basis. I’m not doing a ton of adjustment, just a little. And it doesn’t seem to be helping. Yesterday, I moved my seat on the cross bike I’ve been riding forward a couple millimeters. It felt better, but the key is if it is better.

Like I stated originally, I honestly think exact saddle position and reach is not something that you need to go crazy over. I believe that there is enough fudge factor in your position that you have by movement forward and backward on your seat, that you’ll find the sweet spot for each condition naturally. I know a lot of you aren’t going to agree with me on that, but I’ve experienced enough to realize it is a fact.

I remember when I was riding for the Levis Team, Roy Knickman would come back from Europe every year, early in the Spring after getting his position set on his bikes. He’d then proceed to tell me I needed to chance my position. I would just give him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do. He’d raise my seat .5 centimeters, then shorten my stem the same. Whatever, I’d just get on the bike and race it. It was all good. Then, the next season, he’d do the same thing all over again.

A couple times in my career, I’ve had to make bike changes to bikes with completely different setups. Two times come to mind. First, is the Road World Championships in 1985. I broke a chain and got on a bike of a team mate, Tony Palmer, who road his saddle 5 or 6 centimeters higher than mine. It was so bad for the first 30 minutes, but eventually I got used to it. I had more problem getting used to my seat position, once I got my bike back an hour later. I initially thought that the mechanics had lowered my seat.

The second time was in Philidelphia at the US Pro Road Championships. I was riding an aluminum frame and it cracked on the down tube about 30 miles into a 156 mile road. I was there on my own, so had to use a Mavic support bike. They only had a 53 centimeter frame, with a MTB seatpost and a quick release. I got the seat adjusted right pretty quickly, but the reach was beyond short. Every time I stood for the first hour, I would wack my knees into the handlebars. Eventually after 5 more hours, the bike felt like it was mine. I finished in the field and sprinted pretty good.

I’ve been riding my seat at 81 centimeters (center of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat) for over 30 years. That is pretty much the only number I know on my position. I’m not sure how I got that number, but that is the number. I sometime have it a smidgen lower on my cross bikes, depending on the conditions. By that, a couple millimeters.

All this being said, I think that the feet position on the pedals is super important. Bad cleat adjustment can be the cause of lots of problems on a bike. I pretty much ride the pedal spindle exactly under the bone on the ball of my foot. But more important than the forward and back position of the cleat, is how much your heel is in or out. That is what dictates whether your legs go around unencumbered without putting any stress on your knees and hips.

I ride my heels in a lot. The heels of my shoes nearly scrap the chain stays. I think a great way to set this is to walk down a beach in the sand normally. Then go back and look and see how your feet connect to the ground. You could even draw a line in the sand and take a measurement of what angle your feet are at in relation to the direction you were moving.

The Q factor thing is a little more of a puzzle. I try to keep the spacing of my feet close to the same on all my bikes. That means riding my cleats a little further apart on my road bike than I naturally would and trying to get my feet as close together as possible on my MTB bikes. It seems to work best this way.

Anyway, I have no idea why I feel so out of sorts position-wise on my bike right now. It seems to get worse when I’ve been sitting in a car all day and when I get on my bike, it feels foreign. But, that is exactly what I’m going to be doing all day today, driving back to Topeka from Dallas.

Maybe I’ll take some measurements when I get home and see if I’m in the general ballpark of what I’ve done historically. Hopefully, soon, I’ll be pedaling normal again and not be thinking about it.

Eddy Merckx was a stickler for position, especially during towards the end of his career. I don’t know how many pictures I’ve seen of him adjusting his seat position on the fly.

17 thoughts on “Fettle on a Bike

  1. Jason

    I bet you got to that 81 cm from Ned. In his mountain biking book he describes, using a book between your legs, how to find the saddle height from the bottom bracket up the seat tube to the saddle.

  2. Joe Saling

    Agree completely on the “fudge factor”. You body has the ability to adjust a few milimeters here and there to move to the “sweet spot”. I have heard some pretty credible people agonize over a millimeter. What happens when it is 30 degrees out and you put on the extra clothing thereby taking up some additional space? I cannot recall anyone ever re-adjusting the saddle to take care of that difference. Our holiday best wishes to you and Trudy. “Push Hard and Pedal Fast!” and see you in Louisville!

  3. Jpete

    MArk Hodges did a study cited in LeMond’s book where he determined most effecient saddle height based on a percentage of inseam.

  4. Calvin Jones

    Interesting article. (Loved the illusion of the huge road gutter in Eddy’s road race ). “Bike positioning” services are becoming a revenue source for retailers, using the various “fit systems” now available. Some people might say this is nothing but smoke-and-mirrors. I do think there is too much talk of position and not enough about posture. The two go together, as Charlie Hansen says; POSITION = FIT + POSTURE. The posture of the equation is how you hold yourself on the bike, it is a skill, not unlike yoga. Posture take practice, it is not just changing stems, or moving your saddle. Look at any magazine shot of a big peloton and you can see examples of good/adequate/horrible postures.
    (It would be fun to take Mr. Tilford and send him to 10 shops offering “positioning” services, and see the range of what he is sold.)

  5. Chris Gruver

    La Course en Tete is a really interesting documentary about Merckx, whimsical, intimate, interesting production. 1974 I believe. I think it indicates after a serious crash on the track he always had back pain and then adjusted position a lot to try to relieve it.
    Regarding cleat position, does anyone know why Shimano shoes have cleat tracks that seem completely out of position? On two pairs of mountain shoes (MW80 and M077), cleat plate jammed all the way forward almost gets the ball of my foot over pedal axle. Alternatively, I could move my foot about an inch and a half forward by moving plate all the way back and attaching cleat to the second row of bolt holes to have the pedal axle fully under the arch of my foot.

  6. Big E

    Hey Steve,

    I would wager a guess that the reason your position feels off has to do with your recent injuries. Between your shoulder and back I bet your body is over compensating and knocking your normal position out of alignment. Just a guess. I’m sure it will work itself out in the end. Thanks for the great blog,

    Big E

  7. timmer

    i go through something similar seasonally.. and it has become less of an issue.. and i determined that it was saddle sag that was causing a decrease is saddle height over time. the firmer the saddle the less of this you will experience but some saddles are bad as the cushion breaks down or the rails sink a little into the saddle shell requiring a slight raising of the saddle.. shoe insoles can do the same.. both accelerate when riding/racing in wet conditions. I have 4 well used fizik arions tt saddles and found my favorite road saddle to be a hard to find San Marco Cymano.. tt saddles i replace mid season as i dont like to fuck with wedge style aero seat posts on tt rigs to accommodate 1-2mm in seat adjustment. some chamois are thinker than others, some thin.. it all adds up to a seat height variation of 2-4 mm..

  8. Mike Rodose

    I agree with Injuries = Positional Discomfort thoughts.

    I also agree with your and Joe Saling’s willingnes to adapt to variances off any “prescribed” position…and winning! An elite ability and much admired.

    Steve…I think it’s your injuries and compensating positions that have you feeling off-center and questioning??

  9. Slater

    As a professional fitter a few of your comments made me cringe. To each their own, but having an athlete of your caliper experience a completely new and different fit can be eye-opening. You should get hooked up with a BGfitter (or Retul or Boulder Sports Center) and at least see what they have to say. Injuries can change your body so drastically that things that have felt “normal” for 20 years can ruin the tail end of a healthy cycling career.

  10. Greg

    I remember riding behind a guy in a local crit and noticing that his saddle height was off. I talked to him after the race and told him he should lower his seat by a couple of centimeters. He told me that he had just had his bike fitted at a local shop. I told him to give it a try and if he doesn’t like it he can always move it back.
    I saw him and his wife a couple of weeks later and he told me that after he lowered his seat his back stopped bothering him. He had been experiencing back problems for a couple of years.
    I think that it is hard to get a fit in a shop as compared to out on the rode. Have someone that knows what they are talking about go for a ride with you, so that they see how you ride.

  11. Grant Headley

    You know what is a crazy coincidence Steve…
    You just left Austin, a place I agree with you is awesome, where there is a man by the name of Jerry Gerlich at Castle Hill Cycles downtown Austin. So if you feel that you need help sorting out your fit, you already have an excuse to head back to Austin.
    I went to 4 different bike fitters including a Specialized BG fit and two physical therapists before going down to see Jerry for a fit.
    To try to sum up my experience with him, he has insane passion for his work and problem solving and without his help I would have not been able to return to riding and racing bikes. He takes a totally individual approach, no formulas or books. He has the expert skills of observation and the experience to know what modifications will tend to get someone closer to a more advantageous position. Beyond the actual bike fit modifications, Jerry has a training background and he designed an therapeutic exercise program to make changes to my body beyond what changing a few milimeters on the bike would ever do. I would say his appraisal of my physical deficits and the body work regime he put me on were just as important and something the puts him in another league from the other fit systems out there. Get in touch with him at
    [email protected]



  12. john

    Steve thank you for bringing this up as someone saw a photo of me on FB riding And commented that my saddle and reach was too high and too far. As I mentioned to him my position changes and when the photo was taken it does look that way but when riding hard my position is my to the front on my saddle so my weight is more over the cranks for leverage. My inseam is 30″ and my frame is 51 and saddle to petal is

  13. john

    71cm and never feel like i am swaying from side to side too much but you are right on about cleat positiin, it matters a great deal.


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