Is my bike too small?
July 17, 2014 4:43 PM   Subscribe

I am a 5'8" woman who rides a 56cm (large) Specialized Tricross. I do not race on this bike — I have it set up for commuting and use it to ride Houston's pot-holed streets. Or, I *would* use it to ride Houston's pot-holed streets, except riding it for any longer than a couple of miles is pretty uncomfortable.

I did have the bike fitted when I bought it, but I realize a bike shop can't judge how I'm going to feel riding it. I had the handlebars raised and tilted for my height, but when I ride I run into two primary problems:

I feel like I'm not sitting on my sit bones and I sometimes have to hang my ass off the back of the seat to not be miserable sitting on my girl parts, and

My wrists, forearms and shoulders KILL ME after a few miles.

I am not a super-experienced cyclist, so this might be a case of bike style — where I'm leaning forward quite a bit and just need to build up the muscle in my core to take the weight off my arms? I am also not a perfect square — my arms are shorter than my legs.

Or it might be a case of just needing to have the bike properly fitted. I really like the shop I bought it from and could definitely go back there to have it adjusted for free.

If it's the bike style that's the problem, I can consider switching to an upright bike, but I'd also like tips on how to build up the endurance to ride this bike, as I really love everything about it except riding it (ha). Someday I would eventually like to do a long ride on this bike.

Any tips on building strength and/or what to look for when they fit the bike are welcome.
posted by Brittanie to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total)
I feel like I'm not sitting on my sit bones and I sometimes have to hang my ass off the back of the seat to not be miserable sitting on my girl parts, and

This sounds like your saddle is too far forward. You might also want to consider getting a different saddle - possibly a wider one that supports your sit bones better. A leather saddle will mold to you and may be easier on your girl parts. Also consider a saddle with a cut out. Some info here and here. A good bike shop should be able to advise on this. Make sure you try before you buy.

I am not a super-experienced cyclist, so this might be a case of bike style — where I'm leaning forward quite a bit and just need to build up the muscle in my core to take the weight off my arms?

Very likely. This is a common problem for people new to road bikes.

I think you should get the bike refitted - that could solve many of your problems. Get it fitted at a shop that will let you ride it on a trainer for a while to make sure it's comfy.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:53 PM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

It may be too big, but it sounds like the fit is just off, period. From my own experience with this, my recommended order of fixing stuff is: first, fix the saddle height, angle, and fore-aft position, and maybe get a new saddle (are you riding the stock saddle? If so, trash it immediately, stock saddles are generally terrible. I hear a lot of women really like Terry Butterflies, but YMMV--saddle choice is of course highly personal [I've gone through probably a dozen saddles before settling on one I love]). Once that's done, worry about the bars: you probably need to flip the stem up, and possibly get a shorter stem or different bars. I have long legs relative to my torso, so my saddle is jacked up high. To accommodate that I ride a bigger frame with a longer top tube, so I ride bars that don't have quite as much built-in reach and drops that sweep far back. Once you do all that, then work on your arm and core strength. More strength will help a lot, but not if you're still fighting against the bike fit. Good luck!
posted by The Michael The at 5:46 PM on July 17, 2014

You're probably over-relying on your arms to support your weight. If your saddle isn't the right fit, that will make you over-rely on your arms even more, as you try to shift your weight off of your uncomfortable gluteal region. Getting your saddle and saddle positioning right is definitely the place to start. Stock saddles on unisex bikes (they say unisex, but...) are probably not wide enough for women, which fits with the symptoms you describe.

It could also be a reach problem. A 56 cm frame is actually on the big side for 5'8". "Large" unisex frames are usually for riders in 5'9" to 6' territory. If your legs are especially long it could make sense. In that case you probably need a stem that will accommodate your shorter arms; the frame is likely designed for someone with a longer reach. Did you try a 54 cm?

For maximum comfort on a road bike, the bar tops should be at a roughly even height with your saddle and close enough to your body that you're comfortably balanced. The marketing photo in your link looks pretty much perfect. For your bike, this could be a stem angle change, it could be a stem length change, depending on your saddle height. Tell the shop staff that you want the bike fit for touring, not aero.

"Tilting" the bars sounds potentially fishy, do you have a picture of what that means? That sounds like the kind of thing they might do because they didn't have the right stem in stock or were otherwise out of ideas for getting the brakes where you could reach them. You typically want a flat, parallel-to-the-ground surface in the tops/corners and in the drops.

Another (lesser) consideration, since I have experience with Houston's godawful roads myself, is tire pressure and riding posture over the potholes. The aluminum fork on your bike is very stiff and doesn't have the give of steel or carbon, so all of your shock absorption is coming from your tires and your body. (I'm really surprised to see an AL fork on a $1000 bike, tbh.) Your tires are pretty wide, which is good from a comfort perspective, but if they're rock-hard then you're going to be taking the whole hit on your arms and shoulders. That will definitely wear you out after a few Houston city miles. When you're going to hit rough stuff, get out of the saddle a bit. That will shift the shock to your legs, and getting your weight off the back wheel is easier on the hub and tube anyway.
posted by zjacreman at 6:47 PM on July 17, 2014

I am a 5'11" woman who rides a 54cm frame (Specialized Allez Elite). I ride this size of frame because I have longer legs and a shorter torso, so the bike is fit to my reach, i.e. the distance from the seat to the handlebars.

So, the bike may be big for you or it may be the right size, depending on your proportions. ARe you riding on the hoods?

I love my Terry Damselfly seat. It may or may not be the seat for you. You may need to try a few out, per the above advice.
posted by TORunner at 7:43 PM on July 17, 2014

This sounds like a frame that is too big for you. Are your arms fully extended when you are on the hoods? Do you feel comfortable riding on the hoods, or are you restricted to the tops of the bars? (I see this bike has interrupter brake levers on the tops.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:43 PM on July 17, 2014

This article by Peter J. White contains much wisdom on bike fit. The only thing I would add is that the large size for the Tricross is probably too big for you, based on your height and the fact that women tend to have shorter torsos relative to their height than men. (You may be an exception.)

It is a real shame that bike manufacturers size bikes by the seat tube length. The effective top tube (the length the top tube would be if it were horizontal) is a much more useful metric.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:05 PM on July 17, 2014

It sounds to me like the cockpit (saddle->bar) distance might be too long for you. Here are a bunch of questions that can help us pin down what's wrong.

Do you know how long the stem is?
When you're riding with your hands on the tops are your arms totally straight?
would you consider yourself to be long legged, long torso'd or just averagely proportioned? Generally women are thought of by bike fitters and companies as having long legs and short torsos but that certainly isn't always the case.
It is somewhat unusual to have anyone who is 5" 8" be riding a 56 though there are certainly body types where it could make sense. I'm a 5' 11" male and I tend to ride between a 56 and 60 depending on the era and intended fit of the frame in question.

Oh also, got any pictures of the bike?
posted by miles at 9:56 PM on July 17, 2014

I had a 60cm Cannondale that fit me (6'2", male, long legs) perfectly. It broke and I got a different model, also 60cm, as a replacement. The first frame had a short, criterium-oriented geometry, and the new one is a road racing frame. The new one is too large for me, because it's longer and I have to stretch out too much, which puts more weight on my arms, bends my neck and rolls my hips forward. So, the frame size is important, but within size ranges, even within brands, there can be huge differences in length. I got a shorter stem, but what I *should* have done is got a smaller frame. It's easier to adapt a small frame than one that's too large.

Having said all that, most of the time when I see a woman riding a road bike, it's way too large for her and yours probably is too. The fore-aft position of your seat is important for adjusting the reach to the bars, but you must also be in the correct position over the pedals, so you don't have that much leeway. If you're having too much pressure on your tender parts -- and assuming the tilt of the saddle is reasonable -- you may be rolling your hips forward which is a consequence of extended reach. You can try a shorter stem, and you should absolutely get your sit bones measured (you sit on a little etch-a-sketch device that registers the depressions from the bones) and get a properly-sized saddle. But a too-large bike is too large.

On the subject of upright-ness, I'm not a believer. The best position is one that gives you a good balance between weight on your butt and weight on your hands, but also gives you a powerful efficient position for moving the bike and ducking the wind. An too-upright bike will put more weight on your butt, not less (though it will save your arms) and slow you down.

The best advice I can think of, ultimately, is to find a store that has a fitter that has a lot of experience fitting women. These kinds of things are best discovered by word of mouth.
posted by klanawa at 12:14 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's really impossible to solve fit questions without seeing someone on a bike. So like any bike fit question, seeing a good fitter is best. Depending where you are, you might find a shop that does really good cheap/free fit evaluations. You might choose to shell out for an in depth, high dollar fit.

The first thing I would solve is the seat. A properly fit bike really shouldn't have you riding on girl parts. I've often seen people with their seats too high decide the real answer is to move their seat back. When you're riding the bike, you do whatever you can to make yourself more comfortable. Since the seat height is bolted down, you can't move down, so you try scooting back and it sorta helps, until that starts killing your arms. Another thing that people do when a seat is too high is to roll their pelvis forward (on to girl parts), obviously a bad idea.

I'd also consider if you need a wider seat. It's really hard to make fit decisions when someone is unable to sit firmly on the seat and ride. More times than not, that means a wider seat.
posted by advicepig at 7:06 AM on July 18, 2014

Response by poster: klanawa — it definitely feels like I'm tilting my hips forward /sagging my low back/belly to ride. Thanks for giving me language to describe what's going on!

I'd say 90% of the time I ride on the tops but do switch to the hoods for varied hand position. However, riding on the hoods puts a lot of pressure on the webbing between my fingers and thumbs. My arms are pretty much straight on the tops and the hoods feel like a bit of a reach.

I have a longer-than-average torso and long legs, but I gotta admit — it never occurred to me that my bike was too big.

This guy was recommended to me for fitting. I don't do centuries or tris, so I'm going to see if he can give me an abbreviated fitting. Thanks all for the advice.
posted by Brittanie at 7:45 AM on July 18, 2014

Feeling pressure on the webbing of your hands is a sure sign that the reach is too long. When your hands are on the hoods, the force should be headed down, not ahead. But work out the seat position and style first, it will affect everything else.

There's a lot one can do to fine tune fit, but at some point, a frame may just be too big for you.
posted by advicepig at 10:55 AM on July 18, 2014

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