Beginner Basics: Tweaking Your Setup For That Perfect Fit

Sweet, you finally made it out on your first ride! But, you realize that something just doesn’t feel exactly like you wanted it to. What now – time to take it back to the shop and get another one? Not quite! Below, you’ll find a few easy tips to make your bike significantly more comfortable to ride — as long as you buy a small multi-tool (~$20), you should be able to do all of this stuff yourself. It may take a bit longer than going to the shop, but this way you not only save yourself a decent amount of money, you will also get a better understanding of how the machine works. Trust me, having something of an idea as to why your bike works (and what piece does what) will make any trail-side repairs you have to do significantly easier. There are some things you absolutely do not want to learn how to do in the pouring rain, 10 miles from your car.

A note to the reader: everyone rides differently, and everyone is shaped differently. A 2-inch adjustment for me may wind up being a 3-inch adjustment for you, so make sure to remember that these are just guidelines! Some of these tweaks may feel uncomfortable at first, so try to get some time in the new setup before you decide the change wasn’t right. As you ride more, you’ll get a better idea of what ‘different’ feels like, and what ‘bad’ feels like.

Set the seat height:
Adjusting your seat is one of the easiest ways to change how your bike feels. The higher the seat, the more efficient your pedaling will be. The lower your seat, the easier it will be to get up off the seat for bumps/rocks/roots/holes. This means that, in general, you will want a higher seat for climbing, and a lower seat for technical areas and descents. To find your maximum seat height, sit on the seat and put your heel on the pedal, then spin the pedal until it is at its lowest point. Raising the seat up until your leg is entirely straight will give you roughly the highest you can have your seat, while still being able to pedal. If you’re planning on primarily riding less technical, undulating terrain (i.e. the majority of XC), then you’ll probably want your seat to be a couple inches below the max height. The closer to full-extension your legs are, the more powerful your pedal stroke will be. If the seat is too high, though, you run the risk of not being able to properly shift your weight backwards if you run into a surprise obstacle. If you’re riding in a more technical area (rocks, roots, ledges), then a lower seat will be needed – a lower seat means you can get your weight farther back, allowing you to deal with the bigger features. It will impact your pedaling efficiency somewhat, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s easier to stop and raise your seat than it is to recover from whacking the seat because it was too high. There are some things that chamois shorts just don’t help.

Above, you will see “climb height” on the left and “road height” on the right (road height being just below maximum height). Note that since I ride fully-suspended, the effective height of the seat is lower when I’m actually on the bike. As you can see, my trail climbing height is much lower. Also note that, though the seat is almost flat while the bike is unweighted, the change in geometry due to suspension compression will have the nose pointing a couple degrees down while I’m on the bike.

Keep in mind that unless your seat is set for downhill biking, you probably shouldn’t be able to reach the ground with your feet while on the saddle. The easiest way to take a rest without getting yourself into a dangerous situation is to keep one foot on a pedal and put one foot on the ground, straddling the top tube. If the stand-over height is too tall for this to be comfortable, just lean your bike a bit towards whichever foot is not on a pedal.

Set The Seat Angle:
The seat angle is the slant from the tail (rear) to the nose (front) of the seat. This is somewhat more of a personal preference than a hard-and-fast rule. I like to keep my rig set so the seat is most comfortable at climbing height, which is a few degrees nose-down from where it would be if I set it from my usual ride height. I’m usually out of the saddle frequently enough that it’s no big deal, but again this depends a lot on personal preference. Your set up may also be different depending on the bike you’re riding. Generally, a steeper/more aggressive geometry (longer distance between seat and handlebars; more “leaned forward” position) will result in a lower nose angle being more comfortable, whereas a bike with a more slack geometry (sitting upright, like a downhill bike or a beach cruiser) will be more comfortable on a flat/nose-up saddle. This is something that’s best to fiddle with on your own, and spend a couple hours trying each set up.

Your typical ride length will also have an impact on where you like to have the nose. Back when the sun was actually out, I had my road bike set up as a commuter, and I averaged about five minutes in the saddle for any given trip. Trying to ride that setup on a real ride, though, had me practically falling forward out of the seat because the nose was too low. Sometimes a change will feel great in the driveway, but will feel awful once you actually get riding for any length of time. Sometimes the opposite will happen too, so don’t be surprised if you need a few tries to nail down the best nose angle.

There are two main ways to adjust the nose angle. Some seats use one large bolt and a grooved cradle-like setting, and others have two bolts that act in opposition to each other (one will be a large bolt, the other will use a small nut to tighten/loosen the bolt. To set the angle of the first type, simply loosen the screw enough that you can slide the cradle forward or backward, and then re-tighten the bolt when the angle is where you want it. If you have the two-bolt design, you will have to tighten one while loosening the other to allow the seat to move. It’s much simpler when you’re actually looking at your own seat, I promise.

Adjust your “setback”:
Setback is the distance from the nose of the saddle to the centre of the bottom bracket (the axle that your cranks/front chain rings spin around), and can be adjusted by sliding the seat’s rails forward and aft on the clamp. There are a lot of different theories about what is best, but at this point the prevalent one is (I believe) that the best setup has your knee over the pedal’s axle at the beginning of the downstroke. Steve Hogg has a wealth of information on the subject, if you would like to read up on it.. I prefer to have my full extension around the 5 O’clock position while at climb-height, so I usually set my saddle about three quarters of the way back on the rails. To adjust this, just loosen the main bolt enough that you can slide the seat forward or back, then re-tighten.

Adjust the stem angle/length:
The stem is the piece that connects the head tube (front-most vertical tube to the handlebars. Some bikes will have a bolt right in the centre of the stem that allows you to easily adjust the angle — the more upright the stem, the more upright your position. However, most high-performance bikes will not have this option. Some stems will be one straight piece (which are only adjustable by flipping it over, changing the angle from + to -), and others will be one be one bent piece (these can usually be seen on older road bikes, and are not adjustable).

Some bikes, like my lovely Attitude, will have a non-adjustable stem that can’t really be swapped out because it is A) really awesomely painted, and B) welded to the handlebars. The only way to adjust the length is to buy a new stem, and swap out your old stem. To swap stems, you will just need to make sure the diameters of the steerer and handlebars are compatible with the new stem, then use your handy-dandy multi-tool to take out the bolts and swap the stems! Be careful with this, though — the required torque for these bolts is pretty important, so you should probably save this until you’re more comfortable with your tools.

One last thing: when you’re riding, you want the balls of your feet over the spindle (centre) of the pedals! A pretty common rookie mistake I see is people riding with the arch of their foot right in the middle of the pedal. Don’t do that! It’s a great way to hurt your feet, and it’s not nearly as comfortable as it could be. It’s also much harder to pedal that way, because it completely removes any interaction between your calf muscles and the pedal stroke. The difference this will make is probably about equal to (in terms of efficiency and comfort) having your seat at the correct height. Seriously, everyone, this is important.

Have any advice you would like to share with the world? Did I mess up somewhere? Leave me a comment and let me know! Have some particular questions that you want 1-on-1 advice with? Shoot an email to me at!

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