Bike Fit & Why it’s So Incredibly Important

June 28, 2018

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Emery, host of Hear Her Sports Podcast.

Elizabeth Emery's custom Clark Kent Bicycle

I’m riding a new bike and thinking a lot about fit.

It’s actually a very old bike; one made in the early 90s just for my 5’4” short self. Clark Kent, the bike builder, sponsored Screaming Yellow Zonkers, originally a four-women team made up of riders in the New York Cycle Club Spring Training SIG. Lisa Hunt (Episode 3) was one of the SIG leaders. The rest of us were learning. Screaming Yellow Zonkers was the first sponsored team of CRCA (Century Road Club of America), an historical fact that gets lost.

The bike is new because for decades it’s been in Florida at my in-laws stuck in a time warp of my race days. For the past several years, we didn’t ride much when visiting, so I had no idea how much I loved this bike. But I had an inkling, which is why it made the trip back to Cleveland.

Fit has always been an issue because, at 5’4”, I’m at the cusp of being able to easily get a well fitting 700c wheel bike. Trying smaller wheels intrigued me but the switch seemed such an undertaking and pretty much impossible while on a cycling team with all the other riders on 700c wheels.

Bespoke bicycle builder Caren Hartley joined me in Episode 4 of Off The Front, women’s cycling podcast. She is known for making bikes for women, but was emphatic, when we spoke, that she makes bikes for everyone including short people and tall people.

“I don’t like to specifically say they’re bikes for women because I don’t believe that there’s a huge difference between a short man and a short woman when it comes to the bike.

In her more recent venture, a collaboration with Talbot Frameworks, Isen Workshop, builds handmade bikes in stock sizes with the goal of making excellent bikes at a lower price point. A secondary goal for Caren is to be able to focus on extraordinary custom bikes under the Hartley Cycles name. At Isen Workshop, bikes 51 cm and smaller use 650c wheels to avoid having to make all sorts of compromises in the seat and head tube angles. 

What stayed with me from the conversation with Caren is her description of riding the first 650c bike she made for herself. She suspected it would be nice to ride smaller wheels but was surprised by just how much. Elizabeth Emery's custom Clark Kent Bicycle

“When everything is out of proportion you do actually notice that. You wouldn’t notice it necessarily if you’ve never ridden a better proportioned bike, but if you’ve got the comparison it makes a huge difference.”

The Clarke Kent has a longer top tube than the Schwinn Paramount I’ve been riding. However, just as Caren talks about above, because it’s custom built we were able to keep the head tube angle as steep as possible and have no toe overlap. As a result, again as Caren mentioned, I’m much better positioned over the wheels. 

To get the Clark Kent ride ready for some quick test riding, we changed the saddle, replaced the rear wheel because of a few broken spokes, and replaced a bolt disintegrated in Florida heat and humidity. The biggest change was changing the unbelievably tiny cog I used when racing.

Immediately, I felt great. Zippier, more agile, quicker on the hills, better in corners, and overall 100% more excited to ride. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.  And it’s life changing. My knees are not great anymore so riding is one of the ways I can still exercise. And now, being able to do so with verve and joy is a sweet treat every time I go out.

In another episode of Off the Front, Diane Jenks, the host of the cycling radio show Outspoken Cyclist, also talks about fit. She owned a bike shop for decades so the discussion comes from that perspective.

Clip from Diane Jenks about why women don’t ride:

Diane’s clip raises the idea that there are many women who have been ill fit for a bike and consequently don’t enjoy riding because they are uncomfortable or because they feel unsafe on the bike. I do wonder if I would have stuck with cycling for as long as I did, if I had started out on the Paramount, for example. I love cycling, so probably, but somebody on the fence, somebody needing convincing might not have.

Sure, I could corner and climb on the Paramount, but it wasn’t much fun. I certainly wasn’t excited on the bike. And most importantly, I didn’t love my bike and feel confident and ready to conquer the world. 

My take-away from this experience is that bike fit isn’t just about being comfortable. It’s essential. It’s about being confident, skilled, safe, and excited to get out on the road year after year.

Quick note: I do not do my own mechanical work. My husband, an excellent and passionate mechanic, does.

The changes he/we made to the Clark Kent are:

  • Salsa Cowbell handlebars
  • Nitto quill stem adapter
  • Felt Superlite 6061 stem
  • King bottle cages
  • DT spoke double butted Ultegra hubs
  • H+Son TB14 anodized rims
  • 700×28 Panaracer Gravel King tires
  • TA chainrings
  • Nitto seat post
  • Brooks c15 Cambium saddle
  • microSHIFT 10 speed bar end shifters
  • Dura-Ace rear derailleur
  • IRD 12-28 10-speed cassette
  • KMC 10-speed chain
  • Topeak master blaster frame pump
  • TRP brake levers
  • New derailleur & brake cables & housing

 

 

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, comment below or shoot us a message!

 

 

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