Buyer’s guide: everything you need to know about bike fit

Why have a bike fit, what to expect, how to choose the right fitter, and much more

Some say bike fitting is a dark art. Others claim it’s firmly grounded in science. What is absolutely clear, however, is a comfortable position can not only make your time on the bike more enjoyable, but also improve the power and, therefore, speed, you’re able to generate.

The trouble is, if you think you’d benefit from having a bike fit, there’s no set procedure from one bike fitter to enough – whether it’s the philosophy behind the fit or the technology (or sometimes lack of it) used to reach any conclusion. However, when you think about it, it makes sense. A human being is a complex organism, and when one factor affects a number of others, including when personal preference is added to the mix, different methods and results are almost inevitable.

So, if you’re thinking of getting a bike fit, or wondering if a bike fit is going to help you improve your riding, what should you expect? And what’s the best way to go about getting a bike fit?

If you’re thinking about having a bike fit, then read on

Why have a bike fit?

According to many experts, a bike fit is key in order to get the most out of your cycling. Spending hours in the saddle, in what is fundamentally an unnatural position and moving your limbs under force in a way which  is equally unnatural, is a powder keg which could lead to injury, and in turn compromise performance.

– Six symptoms of a bad bike fit… and how to fix them –

“A bike fit draws the connection between the rider’s current physical state – range of motion, flexibility, functional movement, and so on – and what it is they want to achieve,” says Phil Cavell, director and senior analyst at Cyclefit. “Doing this right helps reduce potential pain and chance of injury while maximising output on the bike.”

In short, the benefits of a bike fit – or rather, a correctly-fitted bicycle – include:

  • Reduced fatigue
  • Reduced chances of injury
  • Reduced symptoms of pain
  • Reduced pressure at contact points
  • Greater power output

At the top end of the sport, Cavell says the benefits of a bike fit can also be felt on a psychological level.

“Interestingly, one of the most beneficial aspects of having a bike fit is the psychological boost it can give a rider,” says Cavell, whose Cyclefit brand works with the Trek-Segafredo WorldTour team. “It’s of huge value to pro riders, just the knowledge that they’ve made the correct decision in choosing a new saddle, or adjusting their bar height by a couple of millimetres.”

However, as Cavell points out, for the everyday rider it’s important to not get too obsessive over the super-fine details of a bike fit. “In my experience, it’s good to be pedantic about details, but it’s not so good if you take it step further and become obsessed with each and every detail,” he warns. “It can be that the detailed nature of bike fitting plays to those with an obsessive nature, but you should always keep in mind the overall bike fit, rather than worrying about a millimetre here and there.”

A bike fit should start with an assessment of the rider’s goals and aspirations

Having a bike fit, though, isn’t just about optimising your position on your current bike. As James Thomas of London-based retailer Sigma Sport points out, a bike fit should be a key part of the process of buying a bike in the first place.

“If you’re not on a well-fitting bike to begin with, you’re always going to be chasing a good fit,” says Thomas. “Having a bike fit gives you the power to make more informed decisions regarding buying a new bike. It’s about decompensating the cyclist, instead of building up lots of interventions to make the bike fit them.”

What should a bike fit include?

Let’s dispel a commonly held belief right from the outset: a bike fit isn’t an exact science. That means, each bike fit experience will be different for each individual. That being said, alarm bells should be ringing if a thorough screening and assessment of your aims and physiology aren’t carried out as a starting point.

“Our job is hold up to the light three key things: the rider’s aspirations, their current physiology, and the link between the two,” says Cavell. “That means a discussion about what the rider wants to achieve – their end goal – should happen, then an assessment of their current physical ability.”

The pre-fit process may also include an assessment of the rider’s flexibility and physiology

That includes variables such as range of motion of the key joints, flexibility of muscles, and functional movement range. “After that, a good bike fit joins the dots to allow the rider to achieve the best position for their goals,” Cavell adds. “Sometimes that means looking at what a rider wants to achieve and its associated position, and them training their body to meet the demand.”

As a result, no one point-by-point checklist covers every bike fit. Instead, having a bike fit should be time spent observing and understanding the body to arrive at an optimum solution. And, inevitably, body shape, size, weight and goals change over time, which means the optimum bike fit changes too.

– Beginner’s guide: how to set your saddle angle –

Once your measurements and functional movement ranges are taken, you can expect to be placed on an adjustable ‘jig’, which, according to Thomas, jig is used to simulate a variety of positions which might suit the rider, with almost unlimited variability at the contact points with the bike. It’s here that the type of riding and goals of the rider are matched with their physical capabilities over the course of the fit. The fit may also take place on your current bike and a turbo trainer, though this won’t allow for as complex a range of adjustment through the fit itself.

Some bike fitters will offer a follow-up appointment after a set period of time, to ensure that the modifications made to things like handlebar height and rotation angle, stem length and angle, saddle choice and its height, setback and angle, cleat position and float recommendations, as well as the position the rider adopts on these newly changed contact points, remain comfortable and are providing the improvements hoped for in the riding experience.

A dynamic jig allows the fitter to fine-tune the rider’s position according to a number of adjustable parameters

What technology should I look out for?

Bike fit providers can use many different types of technology to provide their recommendations to clients (or none at all). Some use one or two types exclusively, while others make use of each piece where necessary depending on the needs of the rider. The technology you may come across include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Retul
  • Specialized Body Geometry Fit
  • Dartfish
  • Trek Precision Fit
  • Shimano

Each brand makes use of a range of assessment technologies, including 3D motion capture, saddle pressure monitoring, foot pressure measuring, as well as making use of a jig to simulate trial positions and solutions. However, as our contributing experts allude to, your decision should not be driven solely by guarantees of the use of this technology.

The use of technology has become an increasingly common in the bike fit process – but it shouldn’t be relied upon

Is one method ‘better’ than the other?

As we’ve already uncovered, a bike fit is a very individual process. As a result no bike fit method – whether it’s based on technology or the fitter’s experience – is necessarily better at arriving at a conclusion than another, but each may be used depending on the needs of the rider and the skill of the fitter.

As Cavell is at pains to point out, Cyclefit operates by having a “technology agnostic” approach, which means having all the technology available to use where needed, but the procedure the bike fitter uses isn’t defined by it.

“We may use any combination of Dartfish slow motion capture machine, 3D mapping, foot or saddle pressure mapping to help us analyse the rider,” he says.

– Five bike fit tips from British Cycling physio Phil Burt –

Sigma Sport’s Thomas agrees: “The problem with systemised approaches [reliant on specific technology] is that they’re restrictive, and can prevent you getting the results you need. Any good bike fit steps outside of those restrictions.”

Some bike fitters eschew the use of technology, preferring to use mathematics, experience and knowledge of geometry to inform their process. Giuseppe Gianecchini and Peter Cole, of Velo Solutions, have developed a system based around the former’s knowledge of architecture.

“We use Giuseppe’s skills as a trained architect, alongside his in-depth cycling knowledge, to analyse the geometry of the cyclist and bike to come up with a formula which enables us to verify what he does visually,” says Cole. “He uses his eye to come up with a bike fit, then analyses it mathematically. A computer accepts data in, then outputs data – what if the input data is wrong? Giuseppe does the mathematics manually.”

A fit may also look at things like cleat position and saddle choice

How important is the experience of the fitter?

The knowledge and experience of the fitter you use is key to a well-thought-out bike fit. As Thomas says, bike fitting is highly experiential: “It’s a lot like learning to drive,” he says. “First you learn how to ‘do’ it, then you really learn how to do it well as you gather experience. Those who simply go on a course, buy some equipment, then don’t develop and keep developing afterwards aren’t ideal.”

Experience can also come from a collection of individuals who each have a specialism, according to Cavell, as opposed to bike fitters who work in isolation.

– Beginner’s guide: how to set your saddle height on a road bike –

“We function as a partnership practice where people work together. It stops anyone with any kooky theories as there’s always a check against them,” says Cavell. “We work with bike fitters, and specialists in physiology and sports science among others. There’s never a shortage of expertise.”

As a result, investigating the bike fit provider – and ideally talking to the fitter who will actually be performing the bike fit before you take the plunge – can be an important step to working out where to go for a fit. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for International Bike Fitting Institute (IBFI) certified fitters, whose certification is provided on the basis of continued development.

How much should you spend on a bike fit?

There’s no one rule for the cost of a bike fit, although the prestige of the company and location can have an impact. However, Cavell says that for anything amounting to more than £150, you should expect some the latest technology to be available – though, once again, the fitter is key to the process.

“Moreover, they should also demonstrate a detailed knowledge of anatomy and be up-to-date with their professional development. Bike fitting is still an emerging science, so it’s incredibly important to be on top of the latest developments in the field,” says Cavell, who hosts the bi-annual International Cyclefit Symposium.

– How to improve your pedalling efficiency and technique –

“Recently, we had an expert talk to us about the nature of tendon injuries, and explained that how injuries of that nature will be dealt with in the future is very different to how they have been and currently are. That kind of input helps bike fitters hone the science of a bike fit.”

A premium cost is no guarantee of a good bike fit, with Thomas encouraging anyone looking for a bike fit to shop around and base their decision on conversations they’ve had various fitters in order to understand their methods and experience, rather than price alone.

“The problem with the bike industry is it can be narrow minded,” he says. “You shouldn’t be afraid to spend, or go cheap, rather than sticking to a price range. A £300 bike fit can be poor in one place, but very good in another. Again, it comes down to the individual fitter.”

The experience of the fitter is key, according to Cyclefit’s Phil Cavell

Beware: bike fit myths

Finally, there are a number of myths you should be wary of when you go for a bike fit, and both Cavell and Thomas point out they usually stem from fitters who haven’t stayed up-to-date with the latest developments in the industry, instead relying on an out-of-date systemised approach.

They include:

  • Always being able to see the front hub under the stem
  • Crank lengths should either be short or long
  • Relying on the principle of the upstroke (see our guide to pedaling efficiently)
  • Relying solely on goniometry (the measurement of angles) for finding optimal extension angles at joints
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