Riding Better Through Proper Bike Set-Up and Posture

By Ian Buchanan of Fit Werx, Road & Triathlon Cycling Specialists

Have you ever noticed how some people make riding a bike look almost effortless, gliding along the road with a smooth and natural motion that they were seemingly born with?  If you are not one of these riders, cycling can feel like a struggle and it can be frustrating seeing others that can make it look easy.  However, the good news is that by making sure your bike is well set-up and that you understand the basics of how your muscles work when pedaling, you too can become one of these ethereal bike riders!

While working with a qualified professional bike fitter is the most reliable and fastest way to make sure your bike is set-up properly, some bike set-up basics that are key to encouraging an efficient pedal stroke are as follows:

  1. Correct saddle height.  If your saddle is too low or too high, your ability to fully recruit muscle groups will be limited.  For example, a saddle that is too low almost forces the rider to depend on a limited range of the quadriceps and makes it more difficult to recruit the hamstrings.  While there are many variables that can affect proper saddle height for an individual rider, in general, correct saddle height will allow for full leg extension without hyper-extension.   Depending on the rider, an angle of 145-155 degrees between the hip-knee-ankle when the knee is at its maximum extension point in the stroke (around 5 o’clock) accomplishes this.
  2. Saddle fore-aft position.  If your saddle is too far back or too far forward you will not have a neutral and balanced center of gravity on your bike and imbalanced muscle recruitment patterns will be encouraged.  Ideally, you want a position that encourages your quadriceps to fire efficiently through the dominant power phase of the pedal stroke and then encourages a smooth and efficient transition to your hamstrings and glutes as you head towards the recovery phase at the back of the stroke.  While riders can pedal powerfully further back there are some potential compromises that should be taken into consideration and thus a good joint-neutral starting point that is stable and balanced is to align the center of the knee over the center of the pedal at the front (3 o’clock) of the stroke.
  3. Handlebar position.   Making sure your handlebar is positioned within your range of motion is important because you will not be able to pedal smoothly if you are being forced to stretch beyond your capabilities.  For example, if your handlebar height is too low you could exceed your hip flexion range as your leg enters the top of the pedal stroke and a “dead spot” will happen as your pelvis rocks to try to create room for your leg to pass.  “Dead spots” equal lost momentum and energy.  Likewise, if your position forces you to stretch beyond your normal range of motion, it could create a stretch that is just too deep for your muscles with every turn of the pedals.  Riders who are uncomfortable are rarely smooth.

While the positioning based items are important in pedaling technique, it is up to the rider to actually hold their posture and pedal in a way that allows them to recruit the muscles efficiently.  An efficient pedal stroke allows you to apply power with the big power producing muscles, without over using them.  Some technique and postural keys to this are as follows:

  1. Develop a rapid cadence.  Especially for newer riders, a slower cadence can often feel more powerful.  However, this is just a muscle memory and technique issue; the slower your cadence, the more likely you will be to depend on single muscle groups and the harder it is to use momentum to transition to all the available muscle groups throughout the circle.  A cadence of 90 is a good target for most riders and will help you develop a more balanced stroke that recruits all the muscles available.
  2. Rotate your pelvis forward (anterior rotation), but not too far…  Your hamstrings need to be at about a 90 degree angle or more to your pelvis to fire effectively.  To demonstrate this, think about what you do with your pelvis when standing up out of a chair or standing in the “ready position” in a ball sport – you rotate your pelvis forward and engage your hamstrings so they can balance out your quads as you stand.   The same thing happens on the bike.   Roll the pelvis forward enough to engage the hamstrings early in the stroke, but not so far as to create undue pressure at the nose of the saddle.
  3. Use your core muscles.  Many riders don’t think about their core when riding, but they should.  Accessing deep abdominal muscles, like the psoas, is important to the power and efficiency of your pedal stroke while using muscles like the obliques to stabilize and support your pelvis and torso helps to reduce strain on the back, neck, hands and groin.
  4. Think about circles.  It may sound obvious, but you want to think about pedaling as more of a circular motion and not just a lever motion.  The front of the pedal stroke will always be where the majority of your power is produced when riding, but you want to unweight (not pull/yanking) your foot through the recovery portion (back) of the stroke so that you are not unnecessarily lifting the extra weight of the opposing leg through the active part (front) of the stroke.

By focusing on bike set-up and your posture while riding you can develop your muscles to work efficiently and in harmony with each other on the bike.  This means using less energy to propel your bike forward, greater comfort and less fatigue.   All things that can make a long ride that much more enjoyable and help you become one of those riders who “floats” down the road!

Note:  Charity riders are eligible for $25 off bike fittings at either Fit Werx location (MA or VT), just mention this article…   Fit Werx has a Team Fit Werx for Charity Event Riders with great benefits – just contact marty@fitwerx.com for information.   All bike, equipment and service purchases at Fit Werx qualify for the Fit Werx Gives Back program which will donate up to $100 a year in your name to your ride and this amount is doubled for Team Fit Werx members.

Ian Buchanan is co-owner of Fit Werx, Road & Triathlon Cycling Specialists, a bike shop with locations in Waitsfield, VT and Peabody, MA.  Fit Werx was ranked the “#1 Bike Shop in the USA” by The Active Times and one of the “Top 100 Bike Shops in the Nation” by Bicycling Magazine.  Fit Werx works with riders of all experience levels and offers a full selection of bikes, cycling products, service and bicycle fitting services.  Fit Werx can be reached at one of their locations or through the Web at www.fitwerx.com.