By Kunyi Mangalam
After struggling many kilometres on the road, with aching arms and hands from hunching over a too-large bike, I started searching for a bike that would properly fit my 5’1” frame. Fortunately, I had Diane Stibbard and Keith Honeyborne to lead me in the right direction. Here are a few things I learned along the way in my search for a better fitting bike.
One: do not expect to be understood by your average bike salesperson
Unless the person selling you the bike is under 5’4″, (extremely unlikely if they are male), they won’t have a clue about why a bike with 700cc. wheels (what is now a stock bike) will not fit a short person. And, since most of the bike business comes from men taller than 5’4″ they don’t have the need to educate themselves about road bike geometry for short people. Couple this with a general dismissive attitude toward women in many bike stores, and the result is a bike retail industry that is not oriented toward serving shorter women — or women in general, as it turns out, since the average height of women in Canada is just under 5’4″. Though most of the people in my local bike stores are very sincere, the answers I received when I started my long search for a properly fitting bike were in the realm of “well, it SHOULD fit you”, or “she’s short, and it fit her just fine”, or “they just came out with an XS bike that should do the trick”, without really knowing about geometry, or fit.
Two: the bike industry is not set up to serve a short woman
Think of where the money is… it’s in manufacturing the fewest number of frames that will serve the greatest number of people. Bike shops make more money when they can carry fewer parts — fewer sizes of tires, fewer models of bikes, fewer tube sizes. I’m not saying that they should be set up to serve me, just that they have a vested interest in NOT serving me in terms of how they make money on their stock. As nice as they are, they will try to sell you what they have. And what they have does not fit a short woman. So beware.
Three: you will need 650 cc. wheels
There’s only so many ways to make a bike with 700 cc. wheels — the current road bike standard — fit a small person. The problem lies in getting the front wheel under the diagonal tube that connects the top tube and the seat tube. Two things compromise the fit and feel. One, the top tube has to be placed at quite a severe slant and the front forks curved slightly forward to accommodate the larger wheel. This leaves a lot of the bike far out in front of the rider. You can feel the difference when you ride a bike that is actually underneath you, one with a 650 cc. wheel. It’s more responsive and safer. It feels ‘solid’. Second, there is really no way to make the top tube short enough using a 700 cc. wheel. Once you do the math, or find the actual dimensions, 50 cm is as short as it gets. And even if a bike frame lists the top tube as less than that (and I would be suspicious), the other compromises would make me stay away.
Four: You may not be able to ‘feel’ a good fit.
Unfortunately, if you’ve been riding a too-big bike, what will feel familiar, and therefore, “right”, will actually be wrong. You may not intuitively know what fits you well. You’ll need the services of someone who can fit through experience, and observation. I was fit by two different approaches: the first had an extremely cool, technologically advanced dynamic bike jig. It was controlled by a computer, and worked much like an optometrist’s set-up: an adjustment was made, and I was asked “better or worse?” It sounded great. But the fit came back exactly the same as the bike I already had, even a little longer in the top tube. The reason? I had unknowingly directed the fit to something that was familiar to me. I was too stretched out over the top tube with my shoulders hunched forward, hip angle closed, chest cavity collapsed. And the fitter didn’t know enough to ‘see’ how I was riding.
The second fit I had was with Heath at La Bicicletta in Toronto. Heath took one look at my riding conformation, corrected my tucked under posture by opening my hips (like doing a squat), which brought my chest up, aligning my shoulders and neck with my back. In this position, I could no longer hunch and stretch to reach the handle bars. Presto, the bike geometry changed enormously. This “open” position has increased my comfort on my bike dramatically. I sit ‘around’ the saddle, not balanced on top of it. My weight is supported more evenly through my pelvis, not only by two points in my glutes.
The first fitting approach may work fine for someone who is not already contorted. But for someone who is already riding improperly it doesn’t work. You don’t know what a correct form feels like, and so you’re unlikely to adopt one. You need someone with an ‘eye’ to see what is really happening.
Five: Small changes make a great deal of difference.
I’m talking mm here, not inches. When Keith first did a comparison of how my old bike geometry differed from what he estimated would be a good fit for me, many of the measurements were so small I discounted them. Though some were in the cm-worth of difference, others were in the mm-range. I was a disbeliever until I felt it. Small differences in frame make a big difference in fit.
Six: Spend money on the frame geometry
The main focus of where to spend money is on getting a frame that fits. This might mean ordering a custom frame (expensive), and getting cheaper components and wheels. I was prepared to do this but at the last moment Keith found a new 2010 frame on eBay (God bless him), that would fit me. Manufacturers have stopped making frames to fit 650 wheels; it was Keith’s consistent searching that saved me the expense of a custom frame. Still, I would have purchased the custom frame if I had needed to.
Seven: Get a bike whisperer — or be prepared to be one yourself
I had the supreme luck to be working with Diane Stibbard and her bike geometry and data wonk, Keith Honeyborne. They were relentless in their advocacy and insistence on getting the right fit on my behalf. I would not have been able to get a correctly fitting bike without their experience. But even if you have someone that can help you, my advice is: read a lot, educate yourself. There is a lot of information out there if you want it. And a lot of misinformation also such as, you will go slower, or the ride will be bumpier, or you’ll never be able to find a tube for a smaller tire. All myths. Get familiar with terminology. Face your fear of geometry (I had to read and re-read until I understood). Find the actual dimensions of the frame, not the size that the manufacturer slaps on the bike (they are hugely misleading and like jean sizes, often convey nothing about how it will actually fit you). Beg, steal, or borrow a 650 cc. wheel bike and at least sit on it for a bit. And be relentless in your pursuit. Expect it to take a while. In the end, you’ll end up with your hands in the right position, and the chance to get off the bike without looking like Quasimodo.
Kunyi is an enthusiastic road cyclist with the bike diva cycling group in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She’s a partner in the creative research company, k2discovery, that specializes in revealing the connections between people, ideas, organizations, brands, and products. If she’s not on the road, you can find her at www.k2discovery.com.
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