How to choose a great fitting bike

Posted by Sam Archer on

Most people rarely go shopping for bicycles. They're durable and expensive, and for many, having more than one bicycle is a luxury. If you're shopping for your one bike, with so many different types and options, at different price points, where should you begin? We say, start with fit.

Our experience of matching thousands of beginners with great bikes tells us that the most important quality of any bike is how it fits you. Bikes are just as individual as bodies. They are all made up of familiar parts, but the particular dimensions of each are different, and specific to the individual. Imagine shopping for a new outfit of clothing. You might not be comfortable with your new clothes if you judge them by looks or function without paying attention to their sizing and trying them on to see how they feel to wear. Like articles of clothing, bikes of the same nominal "size" can still fit very differently; and like with clothing, some amount of adjustment or modification is possible to "tailor" the fit of a bike, but in many cases it is easier to try a few different bikes and see if one feels like a good fit. A good fit for you will likely be different from the person helping you; trust yourself.

Comfortable stand-over

To start, just choose a bike that looks about the right size, and see if you can stand over it with your feet flat on the ground, one on either side. Squeeze one of the brake levers to keep the bike from moving while you put your leg over. Don't try to get up on the saddle yet, just straddle the top tube with your legs on either side, feet in front of the pedals. You should have a comfortable amount of clearance, at least 1-2 inches to the top tube (though, some bikes will have more, depending on the frame shape). If you are sitting on the top tube, or leaning to one side in order to clear it, you know that the frame is too tall. Don't settle.

Adjusting the saddle height

While you're standing over the bike, someone can grab onto the frame and steady it, so you can step up onto the pedals and into the saddle. Backpedal a bit and pay attention to how your legs and hips feel. You should be able to complete a stroke without rocking your hips or locking your knees. If you experience either sensation, try lowering the saddle a bit. You should also be able to comfortably extend your knees and not feel cramped. If you have that feeling, try raising the saddle a bit. The saddle height might be a bit higher than you're used to, especially if you're not used to dismounting and straddling the bike when you come to a stop. It's ok to set the saddle a bit lower than the "optimal" height, for your comfort, but practicing properly dismounting the saddle is a good idea for safety.

The reach dimension

Now notice the position of your hands and arms: how far or near, high or low, wide or narrow are they? What is the natural position to grip the handlebars? Here, some of the differences between hybrid, road, and mountain bikes come into play. One medium bike may have you stretched out over the front wheel, while another will have you resting back in the saddle with your back perfectly straight. On a test ride, you will have the chance to pedal the bike and feel how each position rides, as opposed to just how they both look. While you're still considering which bike to choose, try more than one; there's no other way to know.

Considering which bikes to try

Once you have a good idea of your size, you can really start shopping. Features like accessory mounts, wheel size, tire clearance, suspension, and componentry all differ and affect the utility, performance, and cost of the bike. Now you can consider multiple, differently equipped bicycles around your size, in order to choose one that fits the way you want and has the features you need, at a price you can afford.

Don't be discouraged from trying as many bikes as you like. Bikes that are of a different style than you had in mind, or outside of your price range, can still be an informative experience to test ride. Although there are broad categories in the bike industry, a wide spectrum of bikes exists, made for both general and specific purposes. Features from road and mountain bike categories are continually blended and recombined into hybrid categories. And there are a large and growing variety of affordable ebikes, each of which have their own differences in fit and features. With some patience, it is now easier than ever to find your perfect bike.

Tips to sizing by bike type

The bicycle industry has produced several standards for sizing, which generally (and somewhat confusingly) apply to different categories of bicycles.

Road bikes (cm):

Take the measure of the length of the seat tube of the bicycle in cm, from the center of the crank spindle, to the top of the tube, not including any part of the seat post. This is the standard for measuring and expressing road bike sizing. This size is often, but not always, an even number; new bikes come in a size range within a model group, usually separated by 2cm increments. It is really useful for sizing bikes with horizontal top tubes.

Older MTB, hybrid, and American/British bikes (in):

Also a measure of the seat tube length, but in inches rather than centimeters. It is often translated to cm for ease, but due to differences in frame shape, the seat tube measurement for properly sized hybrid and mountain bikes may be shorter than on road bikes.

Newer MTB, hybrid, and electric bikes (xs, s, m, l, xl):

Often combined with one or the other of the above measurements in newer bikes, these generalized sizes are just meant to simplify the increments and reduce complexity for beginning shoppers.


Also jokingly called one-size-fits-none, these are often special purpose bikes, like cargo, folding and electric bikes. They are often designed with special frame geometry and features like adjustable stems and extra long seatposts, so that they can be quickly adjusted to fit riders of many different heights.

BMX, cruisers, and kids bikes (wheel size):

These give clues to sizing through wheel size; kids and BMX bikes may commonly have 16", 20", 24", 26", 27.5", and 29" wheel/tire sizes. Like one-size-fits-all bikes, these are often singular models, rather than a model group, and typically undersized compared with other categories of bikes, in order to accommodate the widest range of riders.

Though standard measurements are widely used, they really only tell you how the bike fits your lower body. Different bikes of the same size will have different reach and drop/rise, too, and these dimensions are less adjustable than saddle height. All of this is intentional, so that there is a great fitting bike out there for everybody, and it is also a big part of why it's so important to test ride before you buy.

What does a great fit feel like?

Talk of sizing and other particulars tends to obscure the fact that fit is ultimately something you feel while riding the bike. So what should you feel on the bike? I always start with two things: feeling comfortable, and in control of the bike. Can you pedal comfortably, both sitting and standing? Can you reach the handlebars and controls from a comfortable position? Do you have a good grip and leverage for braking? While you're out on the bike, put it through its paces. Try every gear combination, pedaling hard and soft. Try feathering the brakes, and also try stopping rapidly. Here, your preferences and your conditioning are important factors. You don't have to optimize your bicycle for speed to take advantage of its marvelous efficiency; a bicycle that is comfortable for you to ride and easy for you to control will be one that you want to use, and that will take you further than any one specific feature. Many bikes that are a fit for you will be adaptable to fit your purposes.

Great, now my problem is that I like too many bikes...

Great problem to have. Come on down and try a few to find the one that's just right for you! Take your time, and your patience will be rewarded. We're just here to help you choose!

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