Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Finding the right fit: four womens' stories
Finding a bike that fits well can be quite a challenge if you don't match the average (read: male) body size and shape. It's even harder if you're small. Here four women talk about how they tackled the issue
Lesley Kind (57, 159cm, from Wollongong, NSW) got professionally fitted before buying a bike over the internet, then went back for a second fit and adjustments.
Susan Jones (46, 157cm, from Adelaide, SA) used a website for fit advice and, although she eventually bought from her local bike shop, she couldn't see the bike in her size before committing to purchase.
Vicki Campbell (49, 162cm, from Launceston, Tasmania) bought a custom-built mtb/touring bike, after having difficulty finding a good fit with off-the-rack bikes. In particular, she found the seat-tube angles too steep.
Melissa Nicholls (36, 148cm, from Melbourne, Victoria) found it impossible to find an off-the-shelf model to fit her well, so opted for a custom-built frame.
Lesley Kind (57, from Wollongong, NSW)
Lesley (159cm / 5'3") got professionally fitted before buying a bike over the internet, then went back for a second fit and adjustments.
What sort of riding do you do?
Recreational. I've done Around the Bay in a Day, the Big Rides and usually ride about 100km on a Sunday. I'm competitive with my running, but unless I have an event coming up, I probably do more running than cycling.
How tall are you?
At 5'3" (159cm), I'm slightly smaller than average and fairly lightweight, but no unusual proportions. I'm really keen on being fit - I'm also a runner, and also very aware of being injury-prone the more activity you do.
Why did you decide to get professionally fitted?
This was my first road bike - my first really serious bike (I had a Giant hybrid before that, and before than I just had any old bike). I think I spent around $2500 on it all up and that's why I had the fit, because I thought it was an investment. An acquaintance said if you don't do it beforehand, you'll probably do it afterwards. I did a couple of the big rides on my hybrid and I had aching shoulders and problems with my right wrist.
Can you describe the process of being fitted?
I took my hybrid to Steve Hogg in Sydney. He put it up on the trainer and did a quick assessment. He did a lot of adjustments to my hybrid and put dropped bars on it, then got me to cycle at different speeds and different intensities etc. From that preliminary experience, he said he could tell I was too hunched and that the action of my foot was too cramped. On the basis of that quick assessment, I made an appointment to go back and have the proper bike fit.
That was the good bit. He did really extensive testing: he looked at my skeletal frame and did all the measurements - each major bone. And he took notice of the way I naturally stand and he noticed that my hip was dropped on one side and one knee was locked and the other wasn't and one foot pointed at a different angle. I did lots of flexibility tests.
He got me to march on the spot with my eyes closed while he talked to me and by the time he finished, I opened my eyes and I'd done almost a circle - he was showing me that I was more right-brain dominant and pushed harder with one side of my body (we looked at my bike and found the seat was twisted more to one side and worn down on that side), which helps explain why I tend to get wrist and shoulder pain on that side.
He took down a list of what I already have. He said he didn't want to sell me any particular bike, but made me aware that if he put a bike together for me, I'd be looking at around $4000. I considered that, but decided not to.
He said I need to go out and look at all the bikes I think I like the look of and come back and he could tell me whether he could set it up for me, based on my stats (he had a list of dimensions that he reckoned would suit me).
What did you end up buying?
My friend went online and got me a bike (a Learsport 8500) from Dean Woods based on my dimensions, then we bought a seat and bars (most bars were much too wide). Dean Woods changed the seat and the bars before sending it up to Wollongong.
I took it back to Steve Hogg, and he put it back up on the stand and still changed a few things. He still thought I was too hunched, so he put on a higher stem to raise the handlebars slightly; he wanted to take the pressure off the shoulders. He had it all electronically set up so I could do a virtual lap of Centennial Park!
Have you noticed much difference with your new setup?
I've been riding on it for about a year. I didn't notice any immediate problems. The cycling seemed much easier, I could go much much faster - although I had a much better bike as well. The only time I get shoulder pain is after quite a few days, but nowhere near as bad as before.
I have to concede that some of the improvement and joy of riding is from getting a better quality bike, but what I feel really reassured about is that I can make a follow-up appointment for a free tune-up - because he says that you always evolve and your riding can sometimes change after getting a fit. I'd still like to take it back for another fit.
What did you spend on being fitted up?
It might have been $200-300 all up, but compared to the overall cost of the bike, it was nothing.
Would you say it was worth doing?
Definitely. I couldn't recommend it highly enough. So many people I know, they buy a bike, then they buy another one then they buy another one. I've made the investment and I don't need to keep upgrading, because I've got the bike that is right for me. I felt really reassured, mostly, because he didn't push particular brands.
It was a big step to resist the commercial push, of going to get it off the shop floor, already there, a definite brand - I did find it difficult to go against that. The attraction of just walking in and buying a bike was quite strong!
None of my friends have been fitted - only my acquaintance who races. Now some of them are starting to ask me more about my experience, but none of them have had it done - and they all seem to spend so much money getting their bikes adjusted! I've got the reassurance that if I need to I can go back for a follow-up service.
Susan Jones (46, from Adelaide, SA)
Susan (157cm / 5'2") used a website for fit advice and, although she eventually bought from her local bike shop, she couldn't see the bike in her size before committing to purchase.
What sort of riding do you do?
I do road riding, mountain biking, bike-path riding, commuting and touring.
What prompted you to look for a new road bike?
I had an Orbea road bike that was stolen last year. The first job was to get quotes for the bike (which was worth around $4000 including accessories).
I couldn't get another 46cm Orbea - they'd stopped getting them in. So I looked around at different brands. One bike shop had a bike worth $5000, but I was not prepared to pay that.
Have you been fitted by a professional fitter?
I've heard about people getting professionally fitted and some have been happy, but others not, so I was reluctant to do it. I used a website called www.wrenchscience.com, which takes into account the length of your arms and legs, your shoe size, weight, flexibility etc and I used that to get a good guide.
I think it did a pretty good job and I've heard of other people being happy with it. Having that knowledge helped in dealing with the shops.
What was the main challenge?
Trying to find a bike that fitted! I think that's partly being short - for example, Specialized have a 44cm and 48cm frames, whereas I would have liked a 46cm. In the middle range there's much less of a gap between sizes. I think tall people have the same problem.
Were you able to try many models or did you do online research?
I had to do a lot of online research. There was one shop where I could try a Cannondale carbon fibre frame, and it was the wrong size for me, but it gave me a feel for carbon (my old bike had been aluminium with carbon forks and seatpost).
Finding out the specifications was really difficult with different brands providing varying amounts of information and different methods of measuring frames - if the top tube is sloping it makes it different to the way you would measure the traditional frame size.
What in particular were you looking at?
The main thing was top tube length, and the size of the frame.
I did come across bike shop owners who would talk about American vs Italian geometry, but really I couldn't see much difference. I think it depends on the brand, and even on specific models. It seems to be very brand-specific and model-specific. I think they say Italian geometry has shorter top tubes, but I didn't find that in comparing bikes.
What did you end up buying?
I actually bought the Trek Madone WSD in 47cm. There were none in Australia so it had to be bought over from the US - I had to wait 6 weeks, and it cost the bike shop $200 to bring it over.
Did you have to commit to buying it before you had seen it?
I didn't have to pay a deposit, but he wouldn't have been happy if I hadn't bought it, put it that way! It's one of two shops I regularly go to so not buying it might have broken some of the customer-shop relationship. He did say, "are you sure you really want this bike?"
And were you certain?
It was more a case of not being able to find anything else. I hadn't really wanted to pay that much money (around $5000). And I am really happy with it, but at the time I was a bit nervous about it.
Did you consider a custom frame?
I guess so, but the custom builders I'd read about were mostly interstate. I did write an email to a website where coaches would respond (can't remember which one). I was a bit disappointed because they never replied.
Have you had to modify anything since buying the Trek?
I had the standard. The seat was changed to a Selle Italia Lady Trans Am.
Does the Trek fit as well or better than the Orbea?
Yes, I think so. There are some things I like better. On the Orbea, I had Campagnolo, whereas on the Trek I have Shimano Ultegra, which I find easier for my hands. In some ways the Campagnolo was easier (I sometimes find I really have to make sure my hand sweeps across), but I prefer the comfort on the Shimano.
Are the levers women-specific?
They're supposed to be designed for women. I always need to adjust brakes so they're a bit softer so I can actually hold them a bit.
Have you tried using wedges to bring the levers closer to the bars?
No, I always just adjust the brakes.
Do you commute on this bike?
I do some days, but take the front wheel up with me to my desk. And I've been riding my old bike - also a Trek road bike.
I realise that the old bike doesn't fit properly - the headstem is too short! I think as one learns more about bikes, one learns to ask more questions in shops and you learn who is good to go to and talk to about fit, and get a better fit. It's not just about who to trust, it's the depth of knowledge of the bike shop owner. Some people in shops will say they can make the larger size frame fit you, but I wasn't interested in that.
Vicki Campbell (49, from Launceston, Tasmania)
Vicki (162cm / 5'4") bought a custom-built mountain/touring bike, after having difficulty finding a good fit with off-the-rack bikes. In particular, she found the seat-tube angles too steep.
What sort of riding do you do?
I ride a mountain bike for commuting, touring and mountain biking.
Why have you found it difficult to find a good fit with off-the-rack bikes?
I'd have to say that this is a bit of a puzzle to me. I don't really know how my body dimensions compare with the 'average' (if there is such a thing!), but I've never thought of myself as having particularly unusual proportions. So yes, I do find it a bit strange that everyone else can seemingly go into a bike shop and come out with something that suits them. Though, to be fair, I didn't realise this was an issue until I had a professional bike fitting.
I'd done a little bit of cycling on-and-off, on various bikes, quite a few years ago, but hadn't ridden consistently over an extended period. In 1999 I bought a new bike and started riding more regularly. I had been riding this bike for a couple of years, before having a bike fitting.
What prompted you to have a professional fitting?
I can't recall having any particular problems at the time - I think I decided to have the fitting as much out of curiosity as anything. Until then I'd been riding around quite happily, probably because I didn't know any better!
What did you learn from being professionally fitted?
After the fitting, I changed to a seatpost with a lot of offset, and a saddle with longer rails, which put my seat back quite a bit further than it had been, and this made a world of difference. Now that I've become used to riding in this position, I would find it very hard to go back to a bike with a more forward seat position.
What do you find is the problem with a steep seat-tube angle?
I feel as if I am sitting too far forward over the pedals, and therefore feel quite cramped (particularly in the quadriceps), and not really able to get the most out of the full pedal circle. To compensate for this, I find myself sitting right on the back of the seat, or even almost hanging off the back.
What seat angle does your custom bike have?
What prompted you to go for a custom-made bike?
A few things really. Firstly, although I'd been able to modify my other bike to make it reasonably comfortable, that bike was always a bit too big (particularly off-road). The seat angles on that brand and model were a little more slack than what I've seen on current models. As I was looking for a smaller frame, the seat angles would have been steeper than on the old (bigger) one, so although I had been able to modify the old bike, I doubted that I would be able to do this on a smaller bike with a steeper seat angle.
I also thought that if I was buying a new bike, it would preferable to have a frame which was the right size to start with, rather than having to seek out unusual seatposts, etc. in order to make the bike fit.
Other than the seat tube angle, are there other problems with off-the-rack bikes?
If I was to buy a small off-the-rack bike and ride it without any modification, I think I'd also find the frame too short. Though making changes to the seatpost and saddle would effectively lengthen the top tube.
Is anything else on your custom bike different from off-the-rack models?
My frame is quite small, as I wanted an off-road tourer, and hence wanted reasonable clearance over the top tube. The top tube length is probably longer than it would be on an equivalent sized off-the-rack bike (though this is partly due to the slacker seat angle).
How would you describe riding your custom bike compared with off-the-rack bikes?
It feels much more comfortable (most noticeable over a longer time/distance), and more efficient - that is, I seem to have more power with less likelihood of feeling sore.
Melissa Nicholls (36, from Melbourne, Victoria)
Melissa (148cm / 4'11") found it impossible to find an off-the-shelf model to fit her well, so opted for a custom-built frame.
What sort of riding do you do?
I mainly do road riding and racing, and some mountain biking and commuting.
Would you describe your proportions as 'typical'?
I'm very short and I think I've probably got a longer torso (short legs), but I think I'm probably in proportion.
Have you been professionally fitted?
Yes - I got a custom-made bike (made by Alchemy) through Bicycle Superstore. Neville, who apparently fitted a lot of the VIS girls, measured me up.
Prior to that, I did have a professional fit with another fitter on my original bike. I actually didn't really feel the fit was adequate, although I guess he probably did the best with the off-the-shelf bike I had, which was way too big for me.
So I looked for another bike, and didn't have a great deal of success. Then I met Neville who told me about custom-made bikes and gave me that option. He originally tried to sell me one of Anna Wilson's second hand bikes. It fitted me in terms of reach to handlebars, but the seat tube was too long.
What was the problem with off-the-shelf models that you looked at?
When I was looking (around 2003), there were only two or three brands (like Trek and Specialized) making women-specific bikes. I had a look at a couple of those, but they changed the seat angle.
The other thing they often do is to put a really short stem on, which changes the handling, and I didn't really want that. (I'm only going on what people have told me.)
Why is seat angle an issue for you?
They steepen the seat-tube angle to shorten the top tube, but this puts you further forward over the bottom bracket, so you're not able to pedal over the top of the pedal stroke - you're pedalling right on top of it.
I did a lot of research when I was looking and I'd go into bike shops and they'd try to sell me a bike - they just want to make sales. But I talked to other people I knew who rode bikes and they told me about the frame geometry. It made sense to me that you've got to be behind the bottom bracket to power with your glutes, rather than over the top, using your quads. I find it works for me - if I want power, I slide myself back on the seat to try and get that power.
What angle do you have on your custom bike?
I'd have to look it up - I can't remember. I think it was about 73° for the seat tube.
Is any thing else different on your custom bike from off-the-rack bikes?
I use 165mm cranks. I actually had injuries (pain in the hip joint) from 170mm cranks and I realised it was from long cranks when I got the 165mm cranks. It was because of the seat height I had to have to reach the bottom of the pedal stroke with 170mm cranks. I recently got a new groupset with compact cranks [smaller chainrings] and to get the 165mm cranks they had to go on special order because they don't bring the 165mm cranks into Australia.
I use standard [700C] wheels. People said to me that I should ride on 650C wheels, which would make it easier to fit, but I don't know many people who ride 650s in racing in Australia. I look really small in the bunch anyway and going to 650 I'd look even smaller. I just didn't think it would be the thing.
There's a lot of pedal overlap on my bike though, because of the large wheels and shortened wheelbase. A lot of the off-the-shelf bikes won't allow that amount of overlap - I think it's because of insurance. I think they avoid it by making the fork angle more relaxed and lengthening the wheelbase.
Why did you not want to do that?
It changes the handling, making it harder to corner because the bike wants to go straight, so It can be a problem if you want to try and corner at speed. The overlap is only really an issue if you're doing a really slow U-turn - I've only once got into trouble.
How did your custom bike compare in price with the off-the-shelf models you looked at?
I only bought the frame and the groupset and it was about $4000. The off-the shelf models I looked at were around $2500 to $3000.
What was involved in getting a custom frame?
It took months - he fiddled around with the position on my original bike to get me in the position for the custom bike, to check I could actually ride it in that position.
Most of the finer fitting I've done myself now, from how I feel on the bike. It's taken years, but you eventually work out what feels right on the bike. I know within minutes of riding if my seat has been moved (e.g. by the bike shop) even a millimetre or two.