Being short has its benefits – I can fit into kids shoes, wear unicorn onesies designed for 12 year olds, and easily duck under toilet barriers for a free pee.
If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll know that I’m more than a little bit vertically challenged. Standing not-so-tall at a whopping 4ft 10 (probably 9), I’m shorter than most 10 year olds and regularly have my head used as an arm rest by normal sized friends who haven’t seen me for ages.
“Have you shrunk?” No, I’m still child size. You just forgot.
Being a short arse has never been a problem for me until I bought my beautiful road bike, the Liv Avail Advanced 1, in the 2017 Christmas sale, online. That’s mistake no.1, by the way – buying a bike online without going into the shop to try for size. The thing is, the bike I had before, the Giant Avail 3 2014 model – the one that got stolen booooo – was XS in size and fitted me fine, so I assumed the same frame size from the same brand would be fine.
Spoiler: it wasn’t. And I didn’t realise just how much the bike didn’t fit me for nearly a year.
How do you know if your bike doesn’t fit you?
In short – it hurts. But not straight away. It sneaks up on you.
Riding a bike shouldn’t be painful. I’m not talking about the ride-up-hill-can’t-breathe-legs-hurt kind of pain, that’s fine. It’s the lower back pain or tight shoulders and neck pain from stretching forward to reach the handlebars that shouldn’t happen. Aching hips, pins and needles in your feet, pain in your knees – these are all signs that your bike doesn’t fit you.
I was doing regular commutes to Worthing for one of my freelance clients and getting really bad lower back pain just five miles in. I couldn’t properly reach the hoods on my handlebars so my ‘comfy’ position was sat more upright near the flat part of the handlebar, and I had to move forward to use the brakes every time I wanted to slow down or stop. The brake levers themselves were nearly out of reach for my tiny little hands, and I couldn’t ride on the drops at all either.
None of this was ideal, obviously, but as the bike was already an XS frame I worried I had nowhere else to go in that regard so was stuck with it.
A proper bike fit is important for comfort, injury prevention, efficiency and performance.
It took a good few months of pain and putting it down to the fact that I was cycling with a heavy rucksack (hey #freelancelife), making tweaks myself (flipping the stem, raising the seat and moving it all the way forward, tilting the handlebars, moving the brake levers closer), before I finally booked it into the Giant store in Shoreham for a full bike fit.
Run by Cadence Performance, the bike fit is run out of a separate room at the back of the store and took about three hours.
The bike fit includes:
- Physiological check – Simon from Cadence Performance assessed my hamstring flexibility, checked for leg length discrepancies (I have one leg 4mm shorter than the other since breaking it coming off my BMX as a kid!), and looked at my feet pronation (the way the arches of my feet roll in our out when standing, walking and landing). We also discussed the type and amount of riding I do as well as the ridiculously tight left hip that plagues me daily.
- Cleat fitting – Incorrect cleat fitting accounts for most knee issues so correctly aligned shoe cleats are critical to ensure comfort and maximise power into the pedals. Mine were in the wrong position for four years!
- Adjustment Whilst sat on the bike we looked at optimum measurements for saddle height reach to the handlebars.
- 3D Analysis A Retul/STT 3D analysis tracked my knee angles and hip flexion during pedal stroke, giving measurements on the screen for further adjustments. It was all very technical and really interesting!
- Measurement After the fit I was sent a report showing 17 different measurements for my optimum bike fitting, including before and after photos of my position on the bike.
I went into this bike fit feeling pretty hopeless about the potential outcome. I’d already moved my saddle as high as I could have it, and as far forward as it would go, just so I could reach the handlebars, and still had so much pain. What more could be done, really?
Turns out, a lot. And pretty much the opposite of what I’d incorrectly adjusted.
Throughout the assessment I had sensors stuck onto my feet, ankles, knees, hips, wrists and shoulders, and was videoed pedalling to record the hip / knee flexion and other angles and measurements of my body during each stroke.
There were lots of numbers and figures that made no sense to me – many of them uneven on each side because of imbalances in my body – but when Simon first saw my position without even looking at the numbers the word he used to describe it was ‘awful’.
He didn’t beat around the bush:
“The initial “awful” position I identified was characterised by a saddle that was too high (causing rocking on the saddle), bars which were too high (causing excess tension in the shoulders and back extensors, which in turn compromised torque through the hips – hence the back problems).
The bars were also slightly too far away. The combination of these elements moved forward your centre-of-gravity which exacerbated each problem.
After lots of pedalling, measuring and adjusting over two sessions (I had to return for a shorter stem that needed to be ordered in), we finally got to a place where the bike actually does fit me, I can comfortably reach everything I need to reach (including brakes!), ride on the drops, and feel more relaxed on the bike.
Here’s what we did:
- Saddle lower and further back
This felt SO WRONG at first, I felt like my knees were right up in my belly every time I pedalled. After being up so high on the bike this was the biggest change felt I reckon.
- A way shorter stem (50mm!) and flipped back the right way
It’s nearly as short as the one on my mountain bike. Some people told me this would make the bike jittery to steer but actually it’s been fine and hey – I CAN ACTUALLY REACH THE HOODS WHILST RIDING!!! What a revelation.
- Remove ALL of the spacers in the headset
Slam that stem!
We slammed it all the way down. Not only did we remove all of the spacers, we also changed the bottom spacer for an even smaller one, bringing the stem snug right up against the headset. Most pros do this to get proper aero – I needed it to be able to just reach everything on my bike!
- Adjusted brake levers further
Not much, but enough to bring them in a tiny bit closer to make riding on the drops possible.
- Cleats adjusted to move them more to the centre of the foot
I’ve had my cycling shoes since I bought my first road bike in 2014 and it turns out the position was slightly wrong the whole time, right up on the toes and at slightly uneven positions on each shoe as well! This was causing my feet to be pointing down on each pedal stroke instead of being flat, definitely not helping with my tight hamstrings or pedal power.
It took a bit of getting used to but it’s SO. MUCH. BETTER. It’s not perfect as the bike is still a bit too big for me but it’s the best it can be now and I’m happy with that.
I didn’t realise how much the bike didn’t fit me until the guys at the Giant Shoreham worked their magic. After the first appointment, when we’d adjusted the saddle, some of the spacers and flipped the existing stem back to normal, Simon advised to take it easy on the ride home as a new bike fit takes a while to get used to and I might experience pain.
This is what I noted down when I got home and before our final session:
- Knee pain on ride home and afterwards
- Can reach the bars so much better 🙂
- Seat feels a bit too far back – I keep readjusting / pressure on soft tissue
- After hour ride including Ditchling Beacon – back pain during ride
Not gonna lie, my knees *really* did hurt when I got home! The new low position on the bike felt so low and so wrong compared to what I had set up before, even though it didn’t look that different in the photos. When I got home I had to put ice on my knees, but I wasn’t worried as Simon said this might happen. It subsided after a couple of hours and didn’t hurt again after that.
The seat was definitely a bit too far back on that first adjustment, so when I went back in for the shorter stem and smaller bottom spacer we moved it forward a little and now it’s much better.
I was sent a detailed report with measurements for my bike fit, some guidance and online videos on stretching and glute activation, and feedback from Simon. He said that every bike fit involves some squeezing of the bike in one area, and some stretching in another – and in my case the whole bike is squeezed – but it fits. Just.
“My aim is to have the position dictate that you ride with good form and pedalling technique; your body-weight supported by your feet, while relaxing your arms and shoulders and with a comfortable flex to the spine. This position maintains tension in the glutes resulting in better comfort, power and support.
From time-to-time it is worth reminding yourself to relax your arms and shoulders, and to sit in the proper spot on your saddle, to maintain this posture.”
Since the bike fit I’ve done a few long rides, lots of shorter commutes, some race training (which I have yet to blog about) and last month completed the BM Ride feeling nice and strong with no back pain whatsoever – WINNING!!!!!! I cannot describe how happy it makes me to know I don’t need to buy a new bike. I now feel more at one with my steed, and am not so terrified of taking on my first century at this year’s Ride London!
I also now have my optimum measurements in my personalised report that I can transfer onto any bike in the future.
- Don’t buy a bike online without trying it in the shop or at least speaking to them!
- Get a bike fit either before buying the bike or as soon as you have the new one. Don’t go through a year of pain like I did!
- Mayyyybe, just mayyyybe… don’t have such a heavy rucksack for a 12 mile commute and wonder why your back hurts…
Giant Shoreham offers full bike fitting services priced at £180. I was gifted mine in exchange for writing this review.