A Bike-Fit Basic

There’s a lot that goes into a good bike fit and you can’t beat a professional assessment from your local trusted bike shop (which is considered an essential business in most places). However, if you’re using a borrowed, rented, donated, or bikeshare bike, here’s a basic tip that may help regarding the simple yet important question of how high your seat should be.

In general, you want it so that when your leg is fully extended to the bottom pedal, there is a slight bend in your knee (as shown in the photo above of my recent student Diana when I connected her with her “new” bike” from my friend Jon this week).

If your seat is too high, it will cause you to rock your hips and can lead to or exacerbate pain there. If it’s too low, it can lead to or exacerbate knee pain. Both too-high and too-low can impact your ergonomic efficiency, especially when climbing hills. This makes it “not fun” to ride a bike (and fun matters).

Your seat is usually easily adjusted with something you’ll see by it called a quick release lever (although older bikes may not have this and may require tools to adjust). Open the lever and you can raise or lower the seat post. The length of the seat post will determined how high or low it can go (and is usually marked to indicate the level above which it should not be raised).

Be sure to tighten the quick release lever when you are done. Checking all your quick release levers (there are usually ones on your wheels as well) to be sure they are closed is part of something called the ABC Quick Check (see Days 8 through 11 in my 2-minute-a-day free classes). (I also wrote a little poem about that.)

Also, note how Diana has a couple of fingers draped over her brakes so she is riding “brake-ready.” This positions her to be ready to stop, in general, and to do a potentially-lifesaving Quick Stop, if necessary. See here for how.

General braking tips:

  • Brake first — then put your foot down — when you stop;
  • Always brake with both hands or only your right hand, if necessary. Never brake with just your left hand as that stops your front wheel, on most bikes, and can cause you to fly over the front of your bike, especially if you are on a downhill;
  • If you are slowing down on a hill for a right turn, brake gently with your right hand and use the 90-degree-angle left-handed signal for a righthand turn. Start to signal early enough so that you can hold the signal for two seconds and then have both hands on the handlebar grips when you make the actual turn, as opposed to continuing to signal as when driving a motor vehicle.
  • If you want to just “cut” your speed rather than stop fully, such as when going downhill, you can “feather” your brakes (this also removes rain from your brake pads, thereby improving your braking ability in wet conditions). See here for how. See my Bonus Resources for more bike tips videos and other helpful information.

I digress . . .

Back to the seat height.

When you are first learning to ride, however, you want the seat much lower so that your feet can glide along the ground as you learn how to balance (this is why toddlers who are using glider bikes instead of training wheels are whipping around on two-wheelers at three years old, by the way).

If the seat of your bike can’t go that low, then you may want to learn to ride on a bike that’s a smaller size. Diana, for instance, rented a bike for my class that was appropriately sized for her— if she already knew how to ride*. It was not usable for learning to ride, however. She therefore learned to ride on my bike, as I’m four inches shorter than she is. Here she is, on her first ride, on my bike:

* I didn’t think to tell Diana this when she told me she would be renting a bike. My bad. Now I know.