May 13, 2008

Who says size doesn't matter?

[By Merry]

"I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood." - Susan B. Anthony 1896

I've been reading a lot about the importance of good running shoes. But I haven't seen anyone writing about the importance of buying the right size bicycle. Just because you're not pounding it into the ground with your feet doesn't mean you shouldn't care. If you're into cycling at all, you're going to be spending a lot more time with your bicycle than you will with your running shoes.

Men and women both have different problems with badly fitted bicycles, but the most common problem for both sexes, among people who only ride occasionally, is the distance from the seat to the pavement. It's almost invariably too low.

Most people who start out riding sit on the bike like they were, to quote one cyclist, 'about to go to the toilet.' Basically people squat on the bike. The feet can reach the ground without having to tilt the bike to one side or another, but it puts more strain on the knees.

There have been a lot of studies about the effect of cycling on men, especially with regards to male fertility. You don't hear much about the effects of cycling on women. If you're a woman you sure feel them, but there aren't a lot of studies out there on the subject.

It's true there's a vas deferens between men and women. (That joke never gets old, at least not to me.) To quote the WOMBATS website (Women's Mountainbike And Tea Society), women often have shorter torsos and longer legs than a man of the same height. Just because you and your boyfriend are the same height doesn't mean you'll be comfortable riding his bicycle.

A few things to bear in mind if you're shopping for a bicycle:

  • Women have wider pelvic areas. The "sit" bones on a man are closer together than they are on a woman, but most bicycle seats don't take that into account. So while a man can sit on a bicycle seat and have his weight supported by his skeletal structure, a woman who sits on the same bicycle seat is having a lot of pressure put on a very sensitive area of the anatomy. Ouch. A woman's bicycle seat is generally shorter and a bit wider.
  • If you're buying a road bicycle, remember that a man's shoulders are generally wider than a woman's shoulders. If you're on a city bike, a hybrid, mountain bike, any bicycle that has one long handlebar, this isn't an issue. But a woman on a man's sized road bicycle can find herself holding her arms at a wider angle than can be comfortable. This sort of detail can matter after you've been on the road for a couple of hours.
  • For both men and women, there are times when it pays to be average, and buying a bicycle is one of them. If you're under 5'4", then there aren't as many choices out there. (I'm sorry, I don't know what the upper range of average is. I've read 5'9" but that seems a bit low.)

If you're short, the best option seems to be a Terry bicycle. (Personally, I found the Terry's gear shifting affected my tendinitis, so I ended up going with a Bianchi Eros. But most bicycle sellers will point you toward a Terry.) Regardless of the brand, any bike seller worth the name will want to work with you to make sure you get the right size.

Obligatory note: I am not a professional cyclist nor do I know anyone who plays one on T.V. I used to hang out with people who thought nothing of cycling several hundred miles a week. (Note: I said 'hang out' not 'ride with'... a more accurate term would be 'ride behind'... far, far behind...)

If I sound preachy it's because I think it's really, really cool to go for a long bicycle ride out in the country where there aren't a lot of cars but there is a lot of nature. You get to see things you never when you're driving a car, plus it's easy on your knees and you can get a workout while sitting down!

I know a lot of people are suffering from BIBD and similar disorders. But it's spring! Any minute now it's going to stop raining and it'll be good riding weather. Any minute now. Anyone up for a bike ride?


  1. Oooo! I'm first to comment on a CF post, ever! Can I bask in my accomplishment for a moment before getting back to the topics of bikes. See, this is what you win when you have insomnia. I'm so easily entertained. Ahhh!

    Ok, now I forgot what I wanted to say about Uh yeah, bikes are cool!

  2. Crap, Sneaky Stephanie beats me to a CF post and I LIVE here!

    Great post Merry, and quite timely too because after a few weeks now of intermittent cycling my ass still hurts. I'm thinking I've got a boy's seat and a girl's butt and only one of those is easy to change.

    Also, I suspect my seat is still not high enough.

    And weirdly enough, when I go up hills my legs hurt. What's up with that!!??

  3. wow.

    I had no clue about any of this (and I should living in the land of the cyclists).

    Id like to pout and say I DONT CARE since I appear unable to win a bike :) but I wont.
    I shall merely google TERRY bikes and be on my merry (ha ha. a cranky fitness pun-almost!) way.

  4. I really need to stop reading health/fitnessy blogs because then I get all excited about the proper equipment for exercises I don't even do (currently I don't have a working bike and this post is poking at me to maybe remedy this).

  5. I've been riding my son's bike for the past several years. He's an inch or two shorter than I am, and I do feel it in a couple of key areas when I ride often, so I've ridden less and less lately. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Thanks for the explanation. I didn't know about these differences.

  7. Ha ha! I think Steph just did a "fisrt!!!!!!!!!" post;)

    Thanks for the tips Merry!

  8. Holy moly I am with you on this one! I tried to make due with my husband's bike but it was a total crotch masher. The pain! The pain! Now I have a lady bike with the right frame size, I went to a local bike shoppe and they were very helpful. Also got one of those puffy women's seats with the hole in it... the "flap gap" as some folk crudely call it :D

  9. (or should that be... make DO. make due!?)

  10. Great post! If one is going to be doing more than just occasional riding, it's worth the time and money to invest in a proper bike fitting. Not all bike shops know how to do it, or they'll help you get the right size bike but won't work with you on the fine-tuning part.

    A good bike fitter will spend a couple hours with you, making small adjustments to seat and handlebar height, pedal angle, etc.

    And as an aside, there are bike saddles designed specifically for women. I can't recommend these enough.

  11. I will bear this in mind when I get around to buying a road bike. So far, in the month I've had my stationary bike, I have noticed that more than ten minutes is really painful. Being a very cheap one, the seat only adjusts up and down, not back and forth, but it seems to be reasonably ok in relation to the peddles, if not the sort-of handlebars. Maybe a gel seat.
    I'm trying to use the stationary cycling charts from my old Aerobics for Women book, which is really really HARD, and I'm wondering why I think I should use them when the walking charts call for speeds I could never reach no matter how hard I pushed myself. But I don't want to rely just on how I feel: much much too easy to let laziness take over. My googling found nothing useful. Anybody have any ideas?

    Mary Anne in Kentucky where the pollen is still keeping me from exercising outdoors, which makes me twice as motivated to use the bike

  12. Ouh, perfect post! I am actually in the market for a bike, since I did not seem to be able to win any yellow bike...
    This is excellent advise, I really had no idea about these finer differences between male and female bikes. Thanks Merry!
    Perfect timing!

  13. **sheepish look**
    Alice, I specifically told the random generator to pull your name. Honest.

    Mary Anne, on most exercise bikes you can swap out the seat with a different one that might be a better fit. Most exercise bike seats are actually too wide, but your mileage may vary.

    I found it easier to get my butt used to riding a non-stationary bike. When I had a short commute to work, I'd hop on the exercise bike at the end of the ride to make it a longer ride. It was much easier to ride the exercise bike /after/ I'd been riding the movable bike for awhile. Trying to use the exercise bike first was more painful. It's like my butt had to get used to the movable bike first. Weird, I know.

  14. Bunnygirl is right, there are a lot of adjustments that a good bicycle fitter can tweak to make sure the bike fits just right.

    If you already have a bike, you can adjust the seat (especially the height of the seat or the angle, tilting it up or down or perfectly level) to see what feels best.

    p.s. Stephanie, congratulations! You get an extra (virtual) cupcake for being the first commenter :)

  15. Ack! Must -- stop -- making comments!

    Crabby, if your bike seat is too low, it makes it harder for you to use the full range of motion when pedaling, which can make it more of a pain to climb hills.

    I haven't been riding all winter, but I went on a 30 mile ride with a fairly fit runner who insisted on riding a very low bike. We got to the hill, and the poor woman couldn't ride up it. This is a woman who can (and does) blow me away when we go on hikes, so it's not as if she's not physically fit. A low bike really can hurt you.

    (Also, it helps to have more than one gear on your bicycle?)

  16. Crabby,

    The leg issues when you're riding could definitely be that you seat is too low. It could also be that, on a hill, your gear is too high and you're going really slowly up the hill. In spinning classes at the gym, we emphasize that it's important to stay between an rpm of 60 and 100. As an example - Timbaland's "The Way I Are" is about as slowly as you'd want to pedal (if you're pedaling with the beat of the music). If you go too much slower, with high resistance (which the hill creates), it puts a lot of pressure on your knees. So what you can do to alleviate that is turn the gear down on the hill, or stand up off the seat.

    I don't actually get out riding on a real bike too often, and I keep meaning to! It definitely feels different than a stationery bike.

  17. It's a tricky thing to get a proper fitting bike when you are shorter...I had youth bikes for years unti lI saved up for my Uber bike. Some of the better bike likes make 5 sizes of frames so you can get the frame that suits you. I had the guy who ran dhte shop help me pick the right height for me. And having a girly style bike with the lower top bar is nicer when you're short too - you can have the seat at the right height and still stand when you're not riding it without being on your toes...and I splurged on a good seat. I even picked the proper tires and gears and handlebars such for what I like and need...and I *lurve* my bike.

    The guy at the bike shop said you'll run the chance of odd stiffness and strain
    Save up for a bike made for you - it makes riding it a wonderful thing! I ride mine to work all summer and it's worth it. No more stiff neck and wierd sord butt and legs from a wrong size bike...

  18. I rode my bicycle this past weekend after not riding one for months. Since then I've decided to switch the bike seat for a tractor seat --- Much more accommodating for my rear. I love bike riding. It's great fun. And I'm not exactly a spring chicken.

  19. I suffer from my feet going numb when I ride more than a few miles. I can't decide if it's the fit of my bike, or my shoes. Anyone have the same problem? Numb feet?

  20. Super Healthy,

    I've never had that happen when I was on a bike, but my pinkie toes have gone to sleep while doing step aerobics, so I think it was totally my shoes. First, make sure your shoes aren't too narrow for you. You might also want to stop by a bike store and ask them to check out the fit of your bike if it's not your shoes.

  21. That's a good point- never really thought about the right fit for a bike before! I've never had a new bike that was properly fitted... I've always had my sisters hand-me-downs. I wonder if there'd be a big difference in my riding ability if I went out and sought a bike that was "the perfect fit"? :)

    Bike ride sounds good right about now!

  22. Another great way to judge if a bike is right for you is to make sure you have a slight bend in the knee, when you are pedaled out, without having to raise the seat up to high. You don't want to have to lock your knees or keep them bent a lot while pedaling.

  23. I have a second hand bike and I am sure that it is not the right fit. I went for my first ride last night though and fell pretty good today, so I didn't lose too much tone over the winter. One day, I will be able to afford a good bike.

  24. THANK YOU for posting this. It's sooo important. I was lucky enough to have a great bicycle tech fit me for my bicycle. Before that I was riding a bike that was way too big and was thrashing my knees. Now I can ride forever on my Jamis Nova. And often I do!

  25. Oh yeah, and speaking of my Jamis, I wanted to add that Jamis' CEO and President is a chick so the company is extra intent on making sure their bikes work for us laaadies. And Jamis is also the bike of choice for mountain biker Kathy Pruitt.

    And on an added extra special note, I'm a shorty and can vouch for the extra pain in getting fitted for a bicycle. Luckily the Nova came in a pint-sized edition that fit my frame like an aluminum glove.

  26. “on most exercise bikes you can swap out the seat with a different one that might be a better fit. Most exercise bike seats are actually too wide, but your mileage may vary. ”
    Thanks Merry--I have a feeling, without having checked yet, that my very cheap exercise bike does not have a seat attachment anything like a normal bike seat. Certainly when I assembled it I thought the way it was attached was completely unfamiliar. I’m not sure that it’s too wide, but it’s a really strange shape--high in the center and sloping outwards all around. The big problem is that there’s no adjustment for tilt, and it tilts forward, but the pseudo-handlebars are high (and also not adjustable.) This morning I tried sitting as far back as I could go without falling off, and it was a better fit that way; also I didn’t slide endlessly forwards. Cheap is always troublesome, but in this case it was cheap or nothing.
    The good news is my knees are completely happy with this.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  27. Mary Anne in Kentucky, I think I have that same cheap made in China exercycle. The seat made my rear go numb! Yes they are too wide and basically worthless.

    I got a cheap seat post and a smaller Serfas gel seat for it. I also got some white PVC plumbing pipe to fill the gap between down tube and seat post to prevent slip[ping or rocking, cut a length, slid it into the down tube, drilled a hole through the exterior shell of the down tube and the PVC pipe and the seat post, slipped a bolt through all of them and secured them together. The down tube is what, on the exercycle, goes up and down to raise or lower the seat height, so bolting the seat post and everything together allows use of a real bike seat. Which, if you get a good one, moves forward and back as well as nose up and down. On a real bike it is the seat post that moves. It all cost about $40., and I did it because I valued the very small footprint of this machine. Not bad considering I need to use the exercycle when I can't ride my real bike, a fully suspended Specialized Stumpjumper with disc brakes and an $80 aftermarket seat that I cannot find another of! So it is getting pretty worn but it is so comfortable, and it is skinny but cushioned just right. And Italian and leather. ;)

    So there is an option for anyone with the same problem.

    And I would ride my bike everywhere, but everything on it is quick release, it has a few hundred more in upgrades on it, and I live in a town full of hoodlums and bicycle thieves, and an unattended bike will lose its quick release everything within 5 minutes of an owner walking away, even locked through wheels and frame. Since my bike would cost about $3,000. plus tax for a new comparable model (i have an '02), I don't often let it out of my hands or turn my back on it, and I don't park it anywhere without another person's (biking buddy) hands on it. It's that bad. We have our neighbor's beater bikes for destination travels, but they are hideous to ride.

    And to adjust a bike, get a good bicycle book from the library that illustrates how to fit yourself to your bike, then set seat height, degree of seat tilt, forward/ back adjustment, handlebar height, see if you need to roll the handlebars or move the controls to get the correct wrist angle (little or none) from bar grip to brakes and shifters, (start with what feels good, then you may retweak in smaller increments until the bike feels like part of you), and make sure there is the correct amount of air in the tires. Also lift the front and spin the tire, there should be NO wobble side to side. Do the same to the rear. If there's wobble, the wheel is out of true and needs the spokes adjusted, otherwise you can get a dangerous vibration at high speeds.

    And everyone wear a helmet, even if you think it looks stupid! You can get them in colors to match both your bike and your neat bicycle jacket and gloves.

    Blah, enough bike "mom".

    But in closing, I also love my bike like crazy! Her name is Hornet. She's pearl yellow and Prussian blue with silver accent stripes, and she has new Specialized Crossroads Armadillo tires coming, with reflective silver safety stripes. She's my honey. Always keep your bike happy and it will keep YOU happy! :D

  28. No preachiness perceived at all! That was good and much needed info! So, thanks! :)

    Now, if I just had a bike, I'd be set! ;)

  29. That Bianchi looks like a really nice bike. My seat goes up and down so between my roommate who is 6+ inches taller than me and even my boyfriend, everyone seems to be ok riding it for short periods of time (or at least don't complain).

    My biggest qualm about my bike (be it a great one :) ) is the seat. It's uncomfortable, especially on long rides. I've toyed with the idea of getting a new one for awhile, but alas the money I would spend on the seat = the money it would take me to get to the bike shop in gas. How 'bout them apples.

    As for bike riding, you'll have to check out my blog. I'm about to depart on a 50 mile ride with my family this weekend!

  30. I recently bought my first bike in 22 years (a Trek and I love it!) and have been riding pretty much daily. I haven't had problems with my sitbones or chafing or numbness of the girly parts, but I do have the sorest tailbone there ever was.

    Just today I visited two new (to me) bike shops and got some good advice. Before I invest in a new saddle, I'm going to have the angle of my current saddle adjusted, as well as the handlebars. Despite my bad back, I should be able to lean at least a little more forward to take the pressure off that area. It will put more pressure on my hands, but I can live with that tradeoff, and gloves can be cheaper than a new saddle. If I do end up getting a new saddle, I was told to try one with a cutout in the back.

    I hope I get this pain in the coccyx taken care of soon. It's seriously hindering my progess. If it weren't for the pain, I'd probably be doing 3x as many miles daily as I'm able to now. The rest of my body is yearning to keep going, and the darn pain in the ass just won't allow it!

  31. TK, thanks! Instructions copied to file for further thought. (After I pay my quarterly health insurance it'll be a while before I can scrape any spare change together, so I'll have time to be inventive.)

    I second the helmet advice. For years after I tried borrowing a friend's bike and my knees objected, I had a helmet in the top of the closet, so when a different friend's helmet was stolen at work, I said "Here, take this." Only a day or two later he skidded while avoiding being doored, and landed with his head on the curb.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  32. Well, when I buy a bike of my own I'd like to get a really good one and get fitted for it and everything.

    However, seeing as our income is 1500 per month and our rent alone is 700... I'll continue to use my husband's old bicycle from when he was in highschool. Probably a depressingly long time... on the bright side, we can't afford a car either so I am riding it everywhere!!

  33. Well, I won one of the Lipton bikes! I'm fairly average for size, 5'7" so with luck it will be fine. At least I'll hope it fits OK.

    I doubt I'm up for the task of assembling it when it arrives, so with luck, the shop I use to get it assembled can help me with adjusting it to best fit my body.

    The real trick will be learning to ride again after thirty years of NOT riding, LOL! With all the extra weight, I'm pretty sure my sense of balance has NOT improved any.


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