Posted by: audaxing | March 7, 2011

Long Distance Ride Bike Fit Tips

One of the most important comfort factors on a long distance bike ride is how well the bike fits.

What is “bike fit”?

In this context it is making the rider as comfortable as possible on the bike. Other disciplines take a different approach, for example a time trialist might give up a lot of comfort in search of better aerodynamics. But on long rides, the key to success is comfort. All my (limited) experience is with drop bar road bikes with no suspension so this is what I’m writing about below.

Contact Points

There are three contact points between the rider and the bike. These are the saddle, the handlebars and the pedals. All of the riders weight is born on these points. The key is that the weight is born appropriately by each of the pedals, saddle and bars.
As a ride progresses the balance of weight will alter. For example, if you are a fast rider over shorter distances initially there will be more weight on the pedals and less on the other contact points. As the rider tires less weight is on the pedals and so more on the saddle and bars. The bike has to be comfortable to a rider that is not pressing on the pedals as much as on a shorter ride.

Reach and saddle height

The parameters on the bike that can be adjusted to give better fit are the reach and the saddle height.
The reach is the distance from the saddle to the bars. Usually the rider stretches their arms to hold the bars. Holding the top of the bars is nearer than being down on the drops. Reach can be adjusted by having a larger bike with a longer top tube, by using a different sized stem or by adjusting the saddle backwards or forwards. The stem size is usually in the range 80mm to 130mm. Going outside this range will make the steering feel odd. If the stem is too short it will feel twitchy.
Stems also come in a number of angles of “rise” which will raise the bars higher above the ground.
Saddles can usually be adjusted fore and aft by a total of 25mm. This has to be done with caution as it will also effect the distance to the pedals.
Saddle height is more usually altered by raising or lowering the seatpost.

Stem and Saddle adjustment

When making adjustments, do small alterations and then do a test ride to check if there is any improvement. A small adjustment in saddle height is 5mm or less. A small adjustment in reach is 1cm or less. Note that all the points are related. If a problem pops up, think “what did I alter last?” often a change from a few days/weeks ago can suddenly cause a problem. Remember that altering one bike setting can have unintended consequences. For example, fitting a shorter stem alters the position on the saddle. Some saddles slope so the height of the saddle is also unexpectedly altered.

Pedal adjustment

I only use “clipless” (that’s clip in) pedals for long distance riding.
The only pedal fitting adjustments I ever make is moving the cleats back as far as they will go! Having the cleats further forward can give better leverage and more efficient transmission of power. But having the cleats near to the centre means that the pressure on the pedals is spread out better. I Also use pedals without “float”. I try to set the cleats so they are at a neutral angle compared to my dangling foot.

Initial basic setup

First do the saddle. Raise the saddle until the backside can just about lift a tiny amount off the leg with the pedal fully down and the foot on the pedal. Next, consider the bars. On “A head” systems it is difficult to raise the bars but the starting point should be with the bars level with the saddle.

Problems and what to adjust

Problem Symptoms Fix How
Shoulder and Neck Pain Aching in shoulders and neck after a certain distance Alter reach, usually reduce it flip stem to raise bars, fit shorter stem, move saddle forward
Saddle pain pain in buttocks/sit bones shift some weight to bars/pedals. Raise saddle or lower bars or saddle is too narrow, use wider saddle raise saddle and/or raise stem
Leg rubbing pain in upper thigh reduce friction Shave Upper thigh, wear better shorts, use narrower saddle
Saddle pain pain in frontal/perineum move weight to sitbones Drop nose of saddle, use saddle with cut out hole, use Adamo saddle
Wrist pain ache in wrists Reduce weight on hands raise bars, use gel bar padding, use padded mitts
Numbness in fingers lack of sensation in one or more fingers Less pressure on hands raise bars, use gel bar padding, use padded mitts
Knee pain pain in front of knee, persists and gets worse with distance Less stretching movement in knee saddle too high, lower saddle
Knee pain pain in back of knee, persists and gets worse with distance Ensure knee moves over full comfortable range saddle too low, raise saddle
Achilles tendon pain pain in Achillies tendon immediately on cycling Do not over stretch tendon saddle too high, lower saddle
Hot foot burning sensation in ball of foot reduce pressure on ball of foot ensure shoes are not too tight. Wear appropriate socks. Move cleats towards rear of shoe
Lower back pain aching in the lower back, especially when climbing or pushing hard Muscular response from leg effort Probably not a bike fit issue


  1. The knee pain things are the wrong way around. It should be front of knees saddle is too low, back of knees saddle is too high.

    • Tim, you are quite right. It’s been a while since I had these problems. I’ll correct it.

  2. Is a custom bicycling fit worth the expense?…

    Just to give the alternative answer to “yeah! bike fit! GREAT!” There is a point of view that the person fits the bike as much as the bike fits the person Consider a couple of difficult things: you need to get into an aerodynamic posture to go fast, …

  3. I notice you recommend moving the spd cleats all the way back. I assume that is as a substitution for a mid-sole position as extolled elsewhere?
    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this – does it reduce the load on the calves and what saddle adjustment do you think is necessary?
    I’m keen to give this a go . . .

    • Like I say in the article about bike fit, I am not an expert or scientist!
      This is just stuff that works for me

      Moving the cleat back is an attempt to get to the mid sole position. When I’ve used the cleat nearer the toe I generate more power but it isn’t as good for long distance. I don’t remember exactly what bit hurt 🙂

      As I think I’ve brought out in the article adjusting anything means that everything else needs adjusting. I would guess that moving the cleat position to the middle would imply the saddle going down slightly

  4. […] 1)Long Distance Ride Bike Fit Tips I think this was popular because it was widely linked to on various other sites. Although the information in the article is available in books or other places on the net, this article is a short practical summary […]

  5. A good chart of symptoms and causes.

    Another thing you can start with is adjust the highest possible saddle and most forward seat. From there you will get your most suitable reach before you begins to raise the handlebar, as any raise in handlebar is always related to reach which is the main problem in bike fits.

    Once the reach & hamdlebar height is settled, you can see if your stem is too long or short from your knee over paddle spindle positions to adjust the proper stem length.

    Raising the handlebar would be the last thing I would do.
    Seat height- reach- handlebar height-kops.

    That the correct sequence without confusion.

  6. My experience for years with several Time and Shimano pedal/cleat interfaces suggests the fore-aft isn’t that clear-cut. First, my size 40/7us typically force me to shove the cleat as far forward as possible, just to come close to achieving the ball over spindle; close inspection has convinced me the shoe/cleat folks really haven’t paid much attention to locating bolt plates properly for each size shoe, and wide ranges between brands support this.
    Second, when Shimano improved upon the orig. Look design, they basically took the rectangular side profile, tipped it into a triangle/diagonal, which let the cleat sit down so the shoe sole is much closer to the spindle. However, this tilt shifted the fore-aft position relative to the vertical ball plumb line, yet they just kept the same screw hole alignment they likely copied from Look. Result- everyone’s cleat-pedal tilts which moves the effective alignment significantly, without any commensurate readjustment by manufacturers to help users adapt to the shift. Average-to-large feet may not suffer, but smaller ones I think do have real problems ever correctly setting cleats on modern systems.

    • Moving the ball of the foot onto the spindle is excellent for power transmission but (and maybe I didn’t make this entirely clear) having the spindle in the middle of the foot over the arch means that the ankle flexes less and the pressure from pushing is spread out. This means less stress on the feet and ankles and that’s good news for long distance riding

      I’m not sure I follow the subtleties of your analysis on the trapezium shape of the Shimano cleat but I’ll certainly give it consideration

      Thanks for the insights

  7. […] Long Distance Ride Bike Fit Tips These brief notes on bike fitting matters are still proving […]

  8. Don’t agree when you suggest moving the saddle forward to reduce aching shoulders and neck. Yes you will reduce the distance between handle bars and saddle BUT by moving the saddle forward the rider’s centre of gravity is shifted further forward in relation to the pedals so the rider has to support more of their weight on his/her hands and wrist on the handlebars. Try standing with your back against a wall and bend forward without falling forward. As you lean forwards your bottom moves back to compensate maintaining your centre of gravity over your feet.

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