Get set!

Let this be written in bold characters, since it’s the god’s honest truth every time you sit on a bicycle. How much fun you have on a bike depends on what kind of a bike you’ve bought and how it’s set.

First of all, don’t go spending too much on the bicycle and the equipment, even though there is a huge difference between how expensive and cheaper equipment handles. Even the brand of the bicycle is not that important. A perfectly good bicycle of a less known brand will cost you maybe half the price of a better known model. The type of terrain where you intend to ride your bicycle is worth well considering. This is entirely up to you, of course – just as long as you get out in the fresh air. However, if you decided to buy a mountain bike, there are a few points you need to be aware of. You can decide between models with full suspension and the so-called “hard tail” models with suspension only in front. If you think you will ride primarily in the asphalt and well maintained macadam roads, buying the “hard tail” is more advisable.

The following rule is well worth remembering: “Just like shoes, bikes too come in different sizes.”

There are at least three price ranges of bicycles in the market. In the lower price range pickings are rather slim when it comes to different frame sizes – usually this means two or three different sizes (the same goes for handlebar, pedals etc.). Accordingly, you will pick the bicycle which fits your desires closest and hope for the best. Still, it is well worth your while to check what your options are when buying and what’s on offer.

In the middle price range the situation is much better. Bicycle frames are available in different sizes; this is marked in centimetres by European designers whereas American designed frames are distinguished by even numbers (50, 52, 54, and 56). You can also choose from different pedal and handlebar sizes.

The higher price range offers even more, however, bicycle dealers will usually order your bicycle from the factory only after you’ve confirmed the purchase. All the more reason to be absolutely sure about the size of the frame that will fit you.

Lately a very popular model of frame is the so-called “slope”, which differs from a regular bicycle frame in the angle of the top tube. This is slanting downwards at the back of the frame, which makes the issue of frame size somewhat less dramatic. Picking the right frame size is not that tricky anymore since the top tube is “sloping” anyhow. Generally speaking, sloping frames provide better balance and versatility, while classic frames provide more comfort and stability.

Most (high-priced) fabricators produce no more than five or six sizes of sloping bicycle frames, ranging from (XS), S, M, L, XL to (XXL).

sizes of “slope” frames - road bicycles



46, 47, 48


49, 50, 51


52, 53, 54


55, 56, 57


58, 59, 60


61, 62, 63

The situation is similar with mountain bikes. Fabricators produce five or six different sizes of frames; after introduction of aluminium the most popular shape, again, is the “slope”.

sizes of frames - mounting bikes

frame height


frame height





















Pros and cons

This all brings us to a much debated issue of proper bicycle settings which is a matter of very subjective preferences both in professional and recreational cycling. Should you have trouble regarding this problem, you can get some advice already in the dealers’ store since you will find a good number of former professional athletes working there; they will gladly help you with their extensive experience and understanding of the sport.

The question of settings is, if we exaggerate just a bit, similar to the situation in the Formula One Championship, where not even a single car is 100 % perfectly balanced and set for each race.

Different settings of a bicycle will affect the number and speed of revolutions, maximum strain, endurance, comfort etc. Now and then you will notice cyclists virtually torturing themselves trying to ride their bikes in near impossible positions; true, people are different, however, there is absolutely no need your body should suffer excessive strain during any kind of sports activity. Does anybody disagree?

Position of a cyclist’s body is of utmost importance – both for serious cyclists who spend quite some time on their bikes as well as recreational cyclists who only want to enjoy themselves occasionally. Ideal position will greatly enhance a person’s well being (both physical and mental) while cycling.

So what is a good posture on a bicycle? Certainly a good combination of aerodynamics, comfortable seating position and pedalling – these three things should be in harmony; when you sacrifice, say, comfort for better aerodynamics, the result is growing discomfort which sooner or later becomes intolerable for any cyclist.

In cycling sport the so-called position of a cyclist is defined by relative positions of the saddle, pedals and handlebars. We will stress the following specifications particularly important for optimal bicycle settings:

  • handlebar position,
  • saddle position,
  • saddle height,
  • length of pedals,
  • cleat settings on your cycling shoes.

Why are these specifications so important? Because that’s where the body is in contact with the bicycle!

This is important: saddle height and other settings will take you quite some time to figure out – if you want to spend longer periods of time on your bicycle without having to endure discomfort such as pain in the neck, shoulders, arms and knees.

A perfect position is a cyclist’s Holy Grail – it’s near impossible to find. Even mathematics won’t do much good – getting everything just right only seldom happens in the real world.

Creating a bicycle according to our image (or rather: according to our shape)

How do you size up a standard geometry frame which will suit you just fine? How high should the saddle be? To know this, you have to know your crotch height. Alas, very few dealers have a measuring tool for this purpose. Too bad – this very simple and easy to make measuring scale would save everybody a lot of trouble...

You can measure your crotch height by yourself – by standing next to a wall with a book (or a similar object) wedged as high as possible between your thighs; then mark and measure the highest point of the book. Once this is done, multiply the measured value by 0.65 (the so-called Huggi factor, by far the most quoted and used): the result will tell you which frame size is the right one for you. The frame “size” signifies the measured distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat tube (in classic frames). In Italian-designed frames, which are still very popular in Slovenia, the top tube is equal length in smaller sized frames or about one centimetre shorter in larger sized ones. Other designers make the seat tube and the top tube equally long. Exception to the rule are custom made frames.

Equally important is the length of the handlebar. Finding the right setting for the handlebar will be discussed further on when we talk about setting your saddle back/forth.

Should you decide for the so-called sloping frame, you will find the right size frame for you in the chart.

Let’s just add that most professional athletes choose frames about a centimetre too small, because they are a bit more rigid. In recreational cycling, however, this is of minor importance, but you can still compensate by readjusting your seat and handlebar. The standard seat tube angle is 72° or 73°; this is used by most competitors, however you will also see frames with different seat tube angles (ranging from 71° to 75°) being used, which is due to anthropomorphic peculiarities of certain individuals., such as abnormally long femur bones. Generally speaking, the angle of the seat tube is wider in smaller sized frames, and vice versa in the larger sized ones.

Frames with the wider angle of the seat tube are more “aggressive” and are generally used for short, fast disciplines (racing track, chronometer).

Frames with the narrower angle of the seat tube are more modern and are more “street-worthy”; they are generally used by competitors for longer trials or in roads of lesser quality.

If you computed the height of the frame, this chart will help you find the proper length of the top tube. Now you still have to measure your arm and torso length and add it all up.

Arm & torso length (cm)

Top tube length (cm)






















































Saddle height

The saddle and the rider are destined for each other: a seat can be a cyclist’s best friend or his worst enemy.

The selection of bicycle seats is very good indeed. They come in different shapes and sizes for different purposes: seats for street bicycles, mountain bicycles, recreational models, competition models, male and female models... Still, it won’t do you much good if you spend a small fortune on a new bicycle seat and fail to set it properly; it will only give you sore knees, arms, neck and back – not to mention a sore crotch.

You can use two different factors when setting the height of your saddle: the Huggi factor (0,893 – but you have to add the thickness of your shoe soles, about 12 mm), or the factor 0,885.

How do you set your saddle? The correct answer to this question deserves no less than the Nobel Prize for physics; competitors, too, usually spend their whole careers trying to solve this problem. Regardless all different kinds of factors, it is quite customary to lower the saddle up to 15 mm, so there really is no 100 % proof computation. Very few competitors respond well to the mathematically set saddle height; in recreational cycling, then, it is also recommendable to set your saddle a bit lower than the computed saddle height, but don’t exaggerate. Also, do not neglect the fact that a softer saddle will give in more – eventually lowering the seat some 5 mm.

Experience will also come in handy when setting your seat. A good way to find your ideal saddle height is the following: sit on the bicycle and extend your leg so far that you can barely reach the pedal with the heel of your shoe. Turn the pedals backwards; if you managed to turn the pedals without having to move your pelvic area, while still keeping in contact with the pedal, your saddle height is more or less ideal. If your pelvis tilts while turning the pedals, this means that your saddle is too high.

If you experience pain in the back of your knees (the sinews under your knees), this is usually because the saddle is set too high; lowering it a millimetre or two is usually quite enough. If, however, you experience pain in the front part of your knees, this means the saddle is set too low.


Raising or lowering the seat

The following is well worth remembering. If your seat is set too low, you should raise it gradually little by little, reducing the intensity of physical exercise each time. When lowering the saddle you shouldn’t experience any trouble, however, doing it gradually is recommendable again, especially if you’ve been riding your bicycle with your current setting for a longer period of time (or if you are of higher age).


Settings of the seat on the seatpost

Setting your saddle back or forth is easiest done with the help of a sounding line – you will also need someone to assist you. Sit on your bicycle (you should be on a perfectly even surface and next to a wall for support) and place your feet flat on the pedals (crankarms horizontal) so that the legs have a slight bend even when the pedals are at their furthest distance. Sit straight, full weight on the saddle. Ask the person assisting you to level the sounding line with the kneecap of the extended foot. If the kneecap is up to two centimetres afore the pedal spindle, your saddle setting is suitable, or should we say, neutral.

Each saddle can also be adjusted fore and aft up to about 5 or 6 centimetres. Setting of the seat fore or aft greatly affects the movement of the legs.

Moving your seat further towards the handlebar will enhance the number of revolutions per minute, since pushing the pedals in such a position is easier when trying to compensate the so-called dead angle, when the pedal is vertical. This means you will perform better when riding in lower gears, however, this position is rather aggressive and unnerving; it works well in short races with lots of changes in pace but greatly reduces comfort and endurance. It can also cause backbone pain and discomfort in the arms, because the balance of the body is too far in front. Furthermore, driving performance of the bicycle is affected as well: you will lose some stability when cornering.

Moving your seat backwards (farther from the handlebar) will give you more power. You will achieve greatest thrust in the position when the vertical line from the kneecap is levelled with the crank (when the pedal is in horizontal position). This setting will provide more comfort, arms are less strained and the bicycle handles considerably better when cornering. However, this position greatly reduces the ability to maintain high revolutions per minute; accordingly, this setting is normally used for long races.

There are other facts you have to be aware of when setting your bicycle saddle. For instance, the saddle should be nearly level. You will achieve this with the help of a spirit level, however, bear in mind that all seats do not adjust the same. When adjusting the well known Concor model of the designer Selle San Marco, the levelling point is 1,5 centimetre under the back end of the seat.

What kind of trouble can you expect when the seat is not level? If the saddle is tilting forward, you will tend to slide off the saddle, which will put a lot more strain on your legs and arms. In addition, you will lose some of the much needed support for your back. If, however, the saddle is tilting backwards, you will eventually start to experience discomfort in the groin; during heavy exercise the body presses against the saddle full weight until, eventually, the pain becomes intolerable. Another unwanted effect is your body sliding backwards off the saddle when cycling uphill. Granted, you will handle higher gears better, but the strain on your muscles will be so high that you won’t be able to keep constant pace.

As we have shown, different settings cause the style of cycling to vary, however, it is recommendable to adjust your seat as described in the beginning, which means the saddle should be positioned so that when the crankarms are horizontal and the feet are on the pedals the kneecap of the forward leg is approximately above the pedal spindle in a vertical line. When riding the bicycle, you will adapt to current situation; this means you will slide a little to the front at high speeds and vice versa when riding uphill.

Since this is a very important topic, it will be discussed again a bit further on.


Setting the height and length of handlebars

Again, this is a very important topic, no matter what kind of a bicycle you’re riding. Handlebar settings greatly affect the rider’s comfort and therefore body performance as well. The rule that handlebars should be positioned 6–8 centimetres lower than the highest point of the saddle still applies. Lower set handlebar enables the rider to assume an aerodynamic position so it’s no wonder that competitors have their handlebars set very low, as much as up to 12 centimetres, however, they have to change body positions during long rides, preventing fatigue.

Younger recreational riders should observe the rule that handlebars should be positioned 6–8 centimetres lower than the highest point of the saddle; older riders, however, should set their handlebars no more than up to 6 centimetres lower than the saddle.


Drop it!

Picking the right handlebars depends on the length of arms and torso. If you miss by a centimetre or so, it won’t considerably affect your comfort; however, bigger difference will prevent you from enjoying the ride. Too short a handlebar will compromise your position on the bicycle; it will also cause the loss of balance in the corners and downhill sections. Not to mention sore arms. If, however, your handlebar is too long, you will constantly have to move forward in the saddle in order to reach brake levers, and you will eventually develop neck and back pain.

So how do you pick suitable handlebars for yourselves? Body height is an important criterion, however, picking and adjusting handlebars in relation to the settings of the saddle is even more recommendable. After having adjusted the saddle as described, sit on the bicycle and hold the handlebar in the lowest point. In this position ideal length handlebar should obstruct your line of sight towards the front axis. It is quite clear that this very individual technique of picking and adjusting handlebars will certainly require lots of trying.

After having purchased a bicycle take time to follow all these instructions, however, it is recommendable that you take some tools with you a couple of first rides to readjust the saddle and handlebar for maximum comfort, which is, after all, the most important thing no matter what.


Crankarms length

You will find standard-length crankarms in the market, so it is entirely up to you which length you pick; picking the ideal length depends on crotch height, age, genetic predisposition, cycling experience etc. Picking your ideal crankarms is particularly important if you plan to attend races – even on an amateur level. Standard length crankarms are available in dimensions from 165 to 180 millimetres (2, 5 mm grades). Designers usually fit their bicycles with standard dimension crankarms ranging from 170 to 175 mm. In road bicycles and mountain bicycles standard length is 172, 5 mm and 175 mm (rare but occasionally used dimensions are 170 mm, 177, 5 and 180 mm); if you pick one of these two (according to your crotch height), you can’t miss by much. However, if you want to find your ideal dimension, things get complicated. Again, there is no mathematical formula, but you can resort to the chart provided below:

Crotch height (cm)

Crankarms length (mm)

do 75


75 – 80


80 – 85


85 – 90


90 – 95


over 95


It looks simple, but it’s not. Consider this: two competitors ride identical bikes, but one of them is using 170 mm long crankarms, while the other is using 175 mm long crankarms. In the case of the first rider the pedal spindle makes a rotational motion 106, 8 cm long, whereas in the case of the second rider this rotational motion is 109, 9 cm long. The difference of mere 3, 1 cm seems negligible, but it’s really not. A simple calculation shows that the total number of revolutions in a 100 km trip with the 39 by 17 transmission is no less than 20.284, which makes the total difference between the two rotating spindles 629 metres of rotational movement.


Direct transmission

Let’s cut to the chase. Longer crankarms provide more power transmitted to the chain, but it compromises the dynamics of revolutions; with shorter crankarms the situation is opposite. Again, individual specifics need to be taken into account, such as muscle structure and the capacity of one’s cardiovascular system. An individual with a greater ability of keeping a higher pace of revolutions will strain his/her cardiovascular system more, but is used to it, so he/she will naturally opt for shorter crankarms. If, for instance, your crotch height is 94 cm, the chart readout for ideal crankarms length is 177, 5 mm; if you are among those who can keep up with a higher pace of lower gears, you will choose shorter crankarms, for instance 172, 5 mm.

Individuals capable of maintaining higher gears for a longer period of time have the muscle structure which can take the strain, so they will opt for longer crankarms. Usually these individuals have a stronger bone structure and an accordingly developed muscle tissue. If, for instance, such an individual’s crotch height is 81 cm, the chart readout for ideal crankarms length is 172, 5 mm. Since we’ve already established that he/she can keep up with the pace of higher gears, he/she can choose longer crankarms, for instance 175 mm. Some very successful competitors who would ideally need to use crankarms 170 mm long, have been known to go for much longer crankarms, even up to 180 mm long.

In racing sport both extreme cases have been known. Ideal setting would, then, be somewhere in between the two extremes and the best competitor would be well suited for both situations. Finding the best setting is therefore a matter of fine tuning coupled with keen timing. Luckily, though, this is a matter of competitive cycling.

Then there is asymmetry of the legs. We’ve all got it to some degree, but this becomes a problem when the difference between both legs is more than one centimetre. In this case the pelvic area will move all over the saddle, the legs will be in an asymmetric, which can all lead to back and pelvic discomfort, as well as numbness of the legs because of the pressure to the nerves. There are several solutions to the problem. One can choose a shorter crankarm for the shorter leg in which case there will be some asymmetry in pedalling as well (the shorter leg will make shorter rotational movement). The more common solution is using a special spacer between the sole of the shoe and the cleat for attaching the shoe to the pedal; this is only a partial solution, since the spacer can only compensate about half the difference between the two legs. The rest of the difference can be compensated for with special shoe inlays.


Shoeing the rider

Attaching the cleat to the cycling shoe is a very important topic since the point where the cleat locks into a mechanism in the pedal is exactly where all the power is transferred to the driving system. The pressure to the pedal has to be evenly spread, because it can cause discomfort otherwise; needless to say that the whole mechanism has to be properly adjusted. Some say that this adjustment is even more important than proper saddle and handlebar settings. The number of injuries (mostly inflammation of muscle and tendon tissue in the knee and heel area) as a consequence of improper cleat settings is fast rising; in case of such an injury it is highly recommendable to stop the exercise and wait for full recovery.

So what is proper cleat adjustment? Find the ball of the foot (between the metatarsal joints of the big toe and the little toe), which has to be aligned with the cleat. Put on the shoe and pinpoint the ball of the foot again and possibly mark it with a pen; then fasten the bolts – not too tight though, because you won’t be able to move the cleat for further adjustments. Clip the shoe in the pedal and check if the mark you’ve made is aligned with the pedal axle. If it is, you still have to adjust the alignment of feet with the crank; this should be as neutral as possible, which can pose a problem, since heel angulation deformity – either inwards (varus deformity) or outwards (valgus deformity) – is not uncommon. In case of a mild deformity it is possible to compensate by cleat adjustment; then, finally, cleats can be tightly fastened. However, in cases of severe deformity it is not advisable to try overcompensating by adjusting the cleats in extreme positions, since such a solution can cause even worse problems, such as tendons inflammation or even trauma to the knee cartilage. In this case it is best to consult an expert who can make a footprint and fabricate custom made shoes. Extreme angulation deformities, therefore, should be compensated by partial inward or outward cleat adjustment and special shoe inlays, but if you’re really serious about cycling, the best solution are custom made shoes.

Time alone will show whether the sum of your decisions is a positive one; then, maybe, these settings will still serve you well later on, when you decide to start cycling more seriously. The newly gained experience will certainly be of great help if and when you’re buying a more expensive bicycle, which is not at all a small investment.


The magic chart

In spite of all the described techniques which can help you build a bicycle to your liking, it is still possible you will feel uncomfortable riding it. The following “magic chart” can help you with all your computations so that, eventually, you will find suitable bicycle settings for maximum comfort. But know this: a cyclist has always got wind blowing in his face and a sore bum! This sport is for those who can grin and bear it.

The magic chart for classic bicycle geometry contains:

  • o crotch height (from the ground to the crotch),
  • o frame size (crotch height multiplied by 0,65),
  • o saddle height (measured along the seat tube from the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle),
  • o distance from the saddle to the handlebar (measured from the tip of the saddle to the do joint of the stem and the handlebar).

crotch height (cm)

frame size


saddle height


Saddle – handlebar reach (cm)










































































































Don’t forget:

“As in life, in cycling, too, you will have to work hard for your happiness, joy and success.”

With permission of Gorazd Penko, the author of the manual “Man and his bike”.