Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
How to set your bike up for maximum energy efficiency and comfort
An incorrectly set up bike can lead to muscle strain, injury or discomfort. Cycle tourist Lisa Dempster tells you how to set up your bike for maximum energy efficiency and comfort
The right size
One of the most important measures in making sure your bike fits you is having the correct frame size. When buying a bike, the two things you will need to consider are that it fits your height and that it is has a comfortable 'reach' from the seat to the handlebars.
The frame size of your bike is determined by your standover measurement. That is, the distance when you are standing over your bike between your crotch and the top tube. The right sized frame should have at least 6cm clearance.
Buying a bike to fit your legs is usually fairly straightforward. But it can be harder to find a bike that also fits your torso, especially if you are buying a road (racing) bike. Most bikes are designed to fit men, meaning that women can end up straining to reach the handlebars. This effect will be especially noticeable for women who are 162cm (5ft4in) or shorter, so take extra care. If you are buying a hybrid or mountain bike, it will be easier to find a good fit because of the more upright sitting position that the bike allows.
The increasing availability of bikes designed specifically for women means that finding a bike with correct reach has been made easier in recent years. However, women's bikes might not be best for your body type and size. Try sitting (or riding if possible) on a lot of bikes until you get a feel for what is comfortable for you.
If you set up your bike to distribute your weight evenly, you should be able to ride many hours a day with little or no discomfort. If you have aching neck or shoulders, get pins and needles in your hands or finish a ride with sore knees, then think about adjusting your bike for a more comfortable ride.
It is worth noting that what feels and works best for you will depend on many things, including what sort of bike you ride (on a hybrid bike your posture is likely to be quite upright, whereas on a road bike you will be in a crouched posture), your cycling experience and your health (pregnant women usually prefer to readjust their bikes to they are riding in a more upright position, for example). Below is a guide to helping you find what works best for you.
Your handlebars should be at the same height as your saddle, or just slightly below. Handlebars can be raised or lowered by adjusting the handlebar stem (sometimes called the head stem), the part of the bike that attaches the handlebars to the frame. There will be a bolt at this point, sometimes covered by a small plastic disc, which you can loosen with an allen key to reposition the handlebars. Make sure you tighten the bolt securely afterwards!
Your handlebars should be about shoulder width apart, so that your arms are parallel.
Brake levers should be positioned so that your wrist is straight when you squeeze the brakes.
If you ride a mountain or hybrid bike and your hands feel too stretched when reaching for the brakes, then your levers are too far away. You should be able to pull the brake levers with your first two fingers and each hand. Many brake systems will allow you to unscrew them and reposition the levers closer to the bar.
If you ride a road bike, try braking from atop the brake hoods. If you don't come quickly to a full stop, the levers are sized incorrectly for you, which could be unsafe if you need your brakes in a hurry. If this is the case, a bike shop will be able to install short-reach levers for you.
Saddle (seat) height
Make sure your saddle is at the correct height. With the balls of your feet on the pedals, your knee should be very slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
If your leg is straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke, or your hips rock from side to side as you pedal, your saddle is too high.
If your leg is excessively bent when pedalling, your saddle is too low, which is harmful to your knees and can be excessively tiring.
With the pedals horizontal, the bit below your kneecap should be in line with the pedal axle of your front foot. If not, slide the saddle slightly forward or back until it is.
A correctly fitting saddle should support your weight on your 'sit' bones (the bones under the flesh of your bottom) with little pressure on the soft tissue in between.
Women's saddles tend to be wider and shorter to fit their wider pelvises. Many saddles have cut-outs and holes in the middle or are made of soft material. These design elements are to reduce pressure on your softer tissues.
There is a limit to how high you can raise the saddle and handlebars. Both the seat pole and the head stem will show a 'minimum insertion point'. This can be hard to see so look closely, as it's very important - if this point is visible, then you've raised it too far for safety.
Lisa Dempster is a communications professional who enjoys getting about town on her mountain bike and dreams of a two-wheeled, around-the-world adventure.