I'm tall. How do I make sure a bike fits right?
July 3, 2016 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm 6"2, and I just lost a bike that always felt too small for me. Now I'm in the used-bike market, but I want to avoid making the same mistake twice. Frame sizes confuse me, and I'm starting to think there's more to this equation. What's the best way to fit my next bike to my body?

My new Trek 7.2 just got stolen - my own fault for leaving it overnight at a Brooklyn subway stop - and despite the shittiness and waste of the loss, I have this horrible guilty feeling of relief, because the damn thing always felt uncomfortable and small, even though it was the biggest frame size the salesman said they had. I told the salesman at the time that it felt small, but he said that could be fixed by adjusting the seat and handlebars.

For many years, I rode a great big 2007-era Trek 7000 in Toronto, before I moved to New York, and it fit me like an old pair of jeans. I'm unsure of its dimensions, though, being separated from it. I'd like to recapture that magic in a newer, less ungainly form.

So, my questions are:
- What are the most important factors to look at in bike sizing? Is it just frame size, or other?
- How can I tell if a bike is the right size on a test ride? I worry that it's like shoes... it's so hard to tell how they'll feel once they've been worked in, when I'm walking around the store in them.
posted by bicyclefish to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The bike salesman was lying. He meant that "This is the biggest bike I have on the floor in your price range that I can sell you TODAY." Hopefully someone here knows Brooklyn bike shops and can point you towards one that isn't staffed by jerks, and will find you a bike that fits, even if it means ordering something.
posted by rockindata at 10:36 AM on July 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Pretty much every really tall / long limbed person I know rides a Specialized, a brand which seems to fit tall people well. If you're all torso it might be different. At 6'2" you'll be between a L or XL or 58-60cmish on most bikes. The design matters too but buying used old only bother looking at those sizes at first. I'd ask other tall people what they ride and start there.

My test for bikes is if I feel like I coukd ride with no hands easily and nothing is adjusted to the extrem: seat post, seat rails, handlebars etc. That seems to make it balanced from day one and also give me room for adjusting. I generally buy new grips with multiple positions for the same reason.
posted by fshgrl at 10:44 AM on July 3, 2016

I discovered how much of a dark art/complicated science bike frame sizing is when I got a bike built up from frame. Basically, it's not just height, but also the combination of leg to torso ratio and length of your arms. From there, it's about what feels right to you-- some people like the smallest frame they can get away with plus a long stem, and some like the opposite. A lot of places will do a real fitting for you when you buy a bike, on a trainer, watching you pedal, and that's really the best way to find out what is "best" for you long-term. Some frames just will never fit you no matter the size, which I learned to my great sorrow-- the frame that I wanted to get build up just wouldn't have been right; getting the right reach would have meant that the standover height is too tall.

Frame size is generally related to reach/top-tube length in a complicated and sometimes arbitrary way.

Keep looking. Honestly, for a short-distance (<20 mi) flat-bar commuter, you need it to feel good on a test ride. Don't assume that it will get better as you get used to it. A full Retül fitting, e.g., to tell you the precisely most comfortable long-term geometry is probably overkill (though certainly an option; I thought it was overkill for me, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
posted by supercres at 10:50 AM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

The important factor is the length. As long as you can comfortably stand over the bike, the frame height is not very important.

Finding a frame with the right length is really about test riding and feeling comfortable on the bike. Test ride a bunch of bikes and see what makes you feel comfortable. Fortunately, you can make some adjustments to length by using a different length stem (or a stem with a different angle might make you feel more comfortable). A good bike shop will be willing to let you ride a bunch of bikes and will be willing to put a longer or shorter stem on a bike that you are interested in for that test ride.

If you are feeling uncomfortable because your shoulders are a lot wider than the bars, bear in mind that you can always get wider bars. I recommend a bike with drop handlebars because it gives you a lot more positions (both higher and lower and shorter and longer). Being able to use multiple positions is a lot more comfortable than just one, even if that one is a "perfect" fit.
posted by ssg at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything that everyone's said about bike fitting. In addition, I've found that problems on a test ride get worse with more time in the saddle, not better - that mild irritation turns into a proper muscle strain after ten miles or so. Make sure you go for a decent test ride, I usually do a proper 20mins or so on local roads to get a decent impression of the bike. A quick spin round the car park is useless.
posted by tinkletown at 11:07 AM on July 3, 2016

I had this problem too, and frame geometry has changed over the years. Surly makes big frames, but the "taller" the frame the longer its top-tube is, and I always felt overstretched. I ended up getting a classic touring frame from the early 80s when they made taller bikes that didn't have really long top-tubes, and that one fits me like a glove.
posted by borsboom at 11:09 AM on July 3, 2016

This may take a bit of time, but reverse engineer your hunt. Start by going to a good bike shop and saying "I need a bike that fits my body" and don't get into any specifics about brand, style, price, etc. Let them show you a few different types and brands, and throughout the process, make note of things that feel good and things that don't, and of brands that feel better than others. Then, leave the bike shop. Don't buy anything.

Take that knowledge and start from there, with the brands that had the best fit and feel in your price range.
posted by pdb at 11:42 AM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Like they said, it's top tube length, or length of the frame that's important. That relates to your torso and arm length. It can be tough if you're not "average". I'm not especially tall but have a long torso and had a frame built years ago out of frustration.

Every brand is different. It's like clothes. One brands Large shirt is going to have longer arms than another, but they are both shooting for some range of average. If you have un average measurements you're going to have trouble finding a shirt sized L, M, S that actually fits, you need one with neck and collar sizes.

The old Fisher Genesis frames had long top tubes I think, and some were known for short ones, you have to do some research. Sloping top tubes made it so the front end could have a certain height but the back could be lower to fit people with shorter legs.

Stem length can make up some difference, but not totally for me. I got tired of going over the bars since my center of gravity was so far forward.
posted by bongo_x at 11:43 AM on July 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Unless you have really long legs, then you need a short top tube and a more upright bike. I'm tall but I can't ride surly because they stretch me out too much. If you're buying used I'd borrow or test ride some bikes and limit your search to bikes you KNOW will work so you don't make a bad impulse buy. I buy used, I'm looking for a used gravel/ cyclocross bike right now, and I have two or three models I know I can just buy without riding and Craig's list searches set up for them.
posted by fshgrl at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2016

There's an unspoken issue here of what kind of bike you're really looking for and what you want to do with it. A particularly important question is how you want to sit. I'm a little taller than 6'2" and I've ridden mountain bikes and street bikes all my life at various times and places but the best fitting bike I ever owned was a Danish upright commuter bike. It was literally built for people with our frame to sit on upright and ride in the city. I used to ride it in Brooklyn and Manhattan and I've never been more comfortable riding a bicycle in the city. Upright is the way to go for city biking in my view, but many will vehemently disagree, it's quite personal. So, I would think about posture and seating position, the frame size you have will depend entirely on how you want to sit as you ride, and which type of bicycle you really want. There are models of the Trek 7000 that are commuter oriented and that might be why it was such a good fit. There's a world of upright cycling blogs, you could start exploring it at Copenhagenize.
posted by jardinier at 1:32 PM on July 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

You could probably find an old Trek catalogue online and deduce, from the 3 or 4 sizes it would have been produced in, the frame size of your Trek 7000.
Come to think of it, I'm also 6'2 and used to ride a Trek 6000 that fit me perfectly too (a sweet spot of being just big enough, but not so big as to be clumsy or unmanoevreable), and looking at the remnants of the ebay.co.uk listing from when I sold it, I believe it was a 21.5" frame
posted by Flashman at 4:13 PM on July 3, 2016

I'm also 6'2" and had a three-month long period of trying to get a bike that fit.

First off, there's a pretty standard measurement process that gets your basic geometry down — this I found mostly useful to eliminate bad fits sight-unseen from catalogs.

Second, my experience was that there were rarely very many bikes to try at any given time in any store. There's often, like, one or two "This is the tester for a tall guy" but not a tremendous amount of inventory.

Third, you gotta be OK with saying no to bikes that almost fit, because (at least if your Trek fit you like mine did) the difference between almost right and right is tremendous, obvious and kind of hard to describe — the same way that shoes labeled with the same size can still not fit, but you instantly recognize when one actually does fit.

I ended up with a Bianchi Lupo hybrid commuter, right at the upper end of their frame sizes. Between that and a slightly long stem, it's perfect in a way that I didn't realize was possible while I was still trying all the other Specialized, Surly, Trek, etc. etc. etc. bikes.
posted by klangklangston at 6:47 PM on July 4, 2016

If you're looking at used bikes, you're probably getting less attention from the sales people than if you were buying new.

I told the salesman at the time that it felt small, but he said that could be fixed by adjusting the seat and handlebars.

I agree with Rockingdata and the others above, you were not getting good service.

Look at lots of bikes, and don't buy a bike until it's already been adjusted to fit you and you've had a test ride that made you happy.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:45 AM on July 6, 2016

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