by Megan Helm
Illustrations by Jon Brett
REMEMBER THAT HOLIDAY MORNING WHEN A LARGE, ODDLY SHAPED, POORLY WRAPPED PACKAGE WITH A KICKSTAND WAS BALANCED NEXT TO THE ALUMINUM TREE? The sparkly vinyl banana seat and chopper style handlebars screamed “Spring!” It was easy back then when bikes were one-size-fits-all. Today, as a grown up rider ready to hit the trail, size matters more than ever.
Mountain biking can be rough business. The body bumps and bounces over tough terrain. Over the course of years and hundreds of trail miles, a poor fit can cause chronic knee, shoulder and back injuries that over time could require physical therapy or even surgery to correct. It’s worth it to spend a little time learning about bike fitting before you hit the bike shop.
As a petite person, I struggle to find the perfect fit. I called on my high school friend and Mizzou alum, Karin Gembus, co-owner of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (GravityBolivia.com). Her company takes fearless riders down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” and has been featured on Lonely Planet . I contacted Karin at her villa in La Paz, Bolivia. “Bike fit is super important to me,” she said. “If I’m riding a gnarly downhill course, I always opt for a 15” frame, even though I’m 170 cm tall. If I’m riding something more cross country, with some good climbs, I use a light 18” frame. The great thing about cycling these days is how wonderfully specific you can achieve your build.”
With so many component parts, models, and sizes, finding the perfect bike for your height, strength and ride frequency can be tricky. Each bike shop is going to carry their own preferred brands, similar to an auto dealer. Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in Lawrence carries Specialized and Trek products. The River Market Cyclery (rivermarketcyclery.com) carries Cannondale, Giant, GT and Schwinn. Volker Bikes (volkerbicycles.com) offers customers the Santa Cruz, Scott, Pinarello, Jamis, Soma and Surly lines. With dozens of locally owned shops in the metro, research is necessary. Most lines have frames designed specifically for women, although some women prefer male models. (Badum ching!)
Ashton Lambie at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in Lawrence KS knows exactly how to help large and small size-challenged people. Sunflower offers two types of fitting services. A “sizing” is a general interview, trying out a few different frame sizes and making general adjustments like seat height. The more comprehensive “fitting” includes physical assessment which looks at skeletal and muscular traits, range of motion, previous injuries, foot arch levels and angularity and flexibility. A fitting will generally take two to two and a half hours and cost around $200.00. “A fitting is best for people who spend a lot of time on their bikes or are investing in a good first bike for recreation or commuting. “
Frames come in a variety of sizes from “t-shirt” sizing in XS,S,M,L,XL,XXL to inches for American bikes and mountain bikes and centimeters for road bikes. Someone 5’ to 5’5” in height might like an XS or 13” frame, while a professional basketball player would go with an XXL or a 23” frame. “We recommend the really big men to get bigger tires.” Bikes are sized proportionally, so an extra large bike will have extra large everything. Seat height is one of the more important considerations when sizing a bike. The height of the seat stem, which is easily adjusted with a quick release lever, determines how much force the leg will use to push the pedals. A seat set too low won’t allow the leg to extend and can create knee and hip problems down the road. The goal is t o use the leg muscles as efficiently as possible. Seat discomfort is the number one reason people often give up the sport, which is sad because seats are easy to switch out and there are many shapes and padding options available. Fitting a seat will involve making sure a customer’s “sit bones” are square on the seat and well protected. And don’t overlook the necessity of a good pair of bike shorts or pants. Ashton concurs. “You get what you pay for and make sure you don’t wear anything underneath them.” A pair in the right size with a high quality shammy will wick away sweat and provide that blessed cushioning everywhere it is needed. (Secret confession: If I could wear my bike shorts everyday under my clothes I would be the happiest woman alive!) Get them!
Even though seats are tilt-able, Ashton recommends a level position. “When a customer starts to play with seat tilt, it can interfere with all of the other size considerations and create different problems.” CO-OWNER OF GRAVITY ASSISTED MOUNTAIN BIKING The rail position determines how far forward or back the seat is in relation to the handlebars. Different size rails can be purchased to accommodate the larger or smaller among us but changing out a rail is rare.
Handlebars are another important component for comfort. How wide a person’s shoulders are, or how large their chest is, can impact how far apart the hands rest on the bar or the length of the bar entirely. Brakes and gear shifters can be slid closer to the hands for better control, and grips can be larger or smaller depending on hand size. Small adjustments like these can make a world of difference for an avid rider.
Pedals come in three varieties: flat, with cages, or for use with shoes designed to clip onto the pedal. The clipless cleats, as they are known, offer the firmest connection to the pedal and can reduce shock when hitting a tree root on a trail. Keeping your foot in place is a good way to increase control.
Suspension forks are a mountain bike add-on that can improve a ride if you ride a lot. They aren’t cheap and they can add extra weight to an already fairly heavy frame. According to bikeradar.com, “light, tight forks will suit climbers and other cross-country riders, while super-plush traction Hoovers are worth the extra weight for progressive envelope pushers.” Forks are complicated bits of machinery so a trip to the bike mechanic is highly recommended. When 5’0” Keely Waller — CEO at KG Consulting and a fitness enthusiast — bought her first bike, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “I went to Capp’s Bike Shop in Topeka. They had a stationary bike there that they have you get on so they can see what size bike/handle bars/pedals you need. While at the store, I went and rode around the parking lot to feel it out. They also helped me adjust the seat, handlebars and clips, pedals to make sure it was perfect for me.”
Keely chose a Giant hybrid. “So I could switch out my tires to mountain tires and use it more as a mountain bike if I wanted. It’s a little heavier than some road bikes but that’s okay for me. It’s comfortable and reliable and I love doing fun rides and races with my friends! My next purchase may be a higher end mountain bike.” Whether you are looking to commute, race or just hit the trails, finding the best fit is a personal journey worth taking. So be a kid again and get back on that bike!