Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 1 - Get Fit

When I first got into cycling, I knew nothing about the sport. Doubles, triples, group sets, geometries, they were all greek to me. So I did what I usually do - closed my eyes and dove right in. I picked a 52 cm Specialized Allez Elite as my first bike based mostly on the deal I got. I ended up with an aluminum frame, Tiagra shifters, and a compact crank that fit like a dream. Little did I know I had blindly chosen an excellent starter bike.

I was lucky. Many others aren't. Online bike forums are filled with people questioning the fit of a new road bike or wondering why their hands go numb on long rides. I've been inspired to start up a series of articles dedicated to helping a new roadie get started cycling on the right foot. In this first part, I'd like to break down the most important question a beginning cyclist should be able to answer before they walk into a bike store - how should I get fit.

Most people refer to getting fit as throwing a bike on a trainer, pedaling, and having a shop attendant adjust saddle height and stem angle until the pedal stroke is smooth. I would rather refer to this process as "fine tuning fit." All the components on a bike are adjustable except one - the frame. Handlebars can be exchanged, a shorter stem can be added, a longer crank arm can be used. The one part of a bike you're stuck with is the frame. Pick the wrong one and all the component swaps in the world won't make it fit.

The first ingredient in a good fit is understanding the terminology. A bike's geometry is comprised of the lengths of the tubes on a bike frame and the angles they create. These tubes and angles dictate the position a rider assumes and the fit a rider can achieve. Basically road bikes break into two groups, compact and traditional. Compact frames have a sloping top tube that creates a lower center of gravity and a shorter wheelbase. Compact frames are known for their handling ability while cornering. Traditional frames have a flat top tube and a longer wheelbase making them more stable and in some cases more comfortable.
The Basics of a Bike's Geometry

Now that you know a little about geometry forget it. Because most manufacturers measure their angles and lengths differently, geometry numbers don't translate well from one company to another. The first thing a prospective rider should do is pick whether they want their bike to have a more aggressive and aerodynamic riding position or a more upright one that's more comfortable. The geometry of a competitive road bike (Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR, Cannondale CAAD9) puts the rider in a lower riding position. It's a faster and more powerful position, but it takes some flexibility to maintain it comfortably for a longer period of time. Endurance frames (Specialized Roubaix, Giant Defy, Cannondale Synapse) have a taller head tube and more upright riding position which can be more comfortable over longer distances or rougher roads.

Sizing is typically referred to by one measurement - the length of the seat tube. The "size" of a bike is the distance from the top of the seat tube to the middle of the bottom bracket. So a "52" has a seat tube that extends 52 cm from the middle of the bottom bracket to the top. However, this is only one number and perhaps not even the most important according to some experts. Equally important is the length of the top tube. This dictates the distance a rider will have to reach to comfortably hold the handlebars. For women or shorter riders this is a key measurement to pay attention to. The only way to decide on the frame that fits you is to try them out.

Many shops these days are equipped with fancy computers that can measure a rider's vital statistics and spit out a "perfect" frame size. These systems are a great starting point, but don't be fooled into thinking this is definitely the best size for you. Try out a variety of frames and sizes to see what fits you best while riding. Very often what's supposed to be the perfect size on paper doesn't translate that way in real life. The most important factor in fit is how a rider feels on a bike and only a rider can determine that. That's why long test rides are so important. Many people can compensate and feel comfortable with a poor fit on a short ride. However, the longer a ride is, the more obvious and exaggerated any flaws in a bike's fit can be.

So with that said, it's very important to try out bikes. When I say try a bike out, I don't mean two laps around the parking lot. Would you buy a car only test driving it around the dealership? The same should be true for a road bike. A good bike store should have models for you to try for extended periods of time. Some even allow customers to leave a deposit and borrow a demo model for a weekend so they can take a long ride. The longer you can test a bike, the better you will know how it will fit you. A 5 mile ride is different from a 40 mile ride. And a 40 mile ride is nothing compared to a 100 miler. Be realistic about your riding plans, and try out your bike accordingly.

The bottom line - if you want a good fit, test as many models and sizes for as long as you can. Eventually you'll find a bike that feels just right. It's almost as if the bike whispers, "I'm the one." You feel relaxed, comfortable, and the riding position feels just right. Then and only then is it time to jump on a trainer and get your perfectly fitted frame dialed in.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and even better idea for a series. When I got my bike I was a total noob as well and had no idea what to look for or what to get. Like you, I ended up with a beginner bike that was lacking in features that were available when I got it 15 years ago. I know a lot more now but only after doing a lot of reading/learning on my own. I'll be much better informed for my next bike purchase. Whenever that will be.