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Finding a bike that's the right fit

Proper adjustments to height, handlebars and seat can help prevent injury and discomfort.

June 13, 2005|John Briley | Washington Post

Seemed like when we were kids, everyone rode a bike. But if you haven't cycled since the last oil crisis -- or maybe even if you have -- you probably need a refresher on how, exactly, your body should fit on a bicycle. Improper fit can cause discomfort and promote injury. It can also make you give up on a fun and healthy form of activity.

Todd McDonald, membership assistant at the League of American Bicyclists, a 125-year-old Washington-based advocacy group, offers these pointers.

* Sitting on the seat, you should be able to touch the ground with your toes, but not your whole foot. If you can stand flat-footed while seated, raise your seat.

* While seated, put one foot on a pedal and extend that leg down: Your knee should be slightly bent -- at a 10-degree angle. A fully locked knee can cause injury, and bending it much more than 10 degrees reduces efficiency.

* Straddling your cycle while standing flat-footed, you should have about an inch of clearance between your crotch and the frame for a road bike and about two inches for a mountain bike. (The extra inch for mountain bikes accounts for the uneven terrain of mountain bike riding, McDonald said.)

* When pedaling -- seated or standing -- your knees should not crowd the handlebars. If you have ever whacked a knee on a gear shifter, you know the reasoning behind this rule.

* How far forward you lean to reach your handlebars depends on how aggressively you want to ride. A more-forward lean is more aerodynamic but may be uncomfortable for many recreational cyclists, McDonald said. "Comfort" bikes of recent vintage often leave you nearly vertical. "People should do whatever is comfortable," he said.

* A super-padded seat may feel great in the shop, but it will require you to work harder because some of your pedaling energy will be transferred to the cushy seat, not the pedals. Still, the rock-hard seats favored by racers are too severe for most weekenders, so shoot for something in between -- such as the gel seats that have gained popularity in recent years. Padded bike shorts also help reduce saddle soreness. Expect some muscle soreness after the first ride or two but not joint pain, which could result from poor fit or an old, unhealed injury.

* There is no solid proof that bike seats cause sterility in men, McDonald said, despite reports over the last decade. For cyclists who remain concerned, numerous manufacturers make seats with strategically placed depressions.

* Your bike helmet should fit snugly but should not pinch the skin; the front of the helmet should rest two finger-widths above your eyebrows. "Many people wear their helmets too far back," McDonald said. "Odds are, if you come off the bike you will fall forward." Replace a helmet after just one crash, even if you cannot see obvious damage.

* Ensure correct tire pressure (recommended pressure is stamped on the tire sidewall) and check your brakes by giving yourself a push on a flat surface; squeezing the brakes should stop you abruptly. Check brake pads for excessive wear, and cables for rusting and fraying.

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