Mick's Tips - Saddle Height Adjustment

If your saddle isn't set right it's impossible to pedal properly. MICK ALLAN looks at the ins and outs of saddle adjustment.

Professional cyclists obsess about the height of their saddle to the nearest millimetre. For good reason; the way your bike fits is crucial to your comfort and efficiency.

A guy came into the shop I managed a few years ago. He was a beginner cyclist and had recently bought a second hand road bike to compete in some short triathlons for charity. He had done plenty of training and completed two or three events. The bike was the right size for him but he was finding every mile tortuous and going up hills felt like he was pedaling through treacle. He arranged to have himself fitted to the bike and over the course of an hour the following Saturday we adjusted his saddle in two directions, moved his brake levers, rotated his bars, raised the handlebar stem and moved his aero-bar elbow pads further apart. We even moved his clip-in pedal cleats backwards a few millimetres and rotated them one or two degrees in his race shoes, but by far the most crucial of the adjustments we made was simply to set the pedal to saddle dimension to suit his inside leg measurement.

Two weeks later he came back into the shop smiling like a Cheshire cat. The tweaks had enabled him to knock fifteen minutes off his ‘on the bike' time. Fifteen minutes is a big chunk to a triathlete. Undoubtedly some of the improvement was down to a reduction of his aerodynamic profile, some of it was down to his improved fitness but he said he just felt ‘right' on the bike, he felt part of the bike. Because, finally, it fit him properly.

Improvements of such magnitude are rare but it helps immensely that we can actually make adjustments like these. In the Olden Days, when High Wheelers (Penny Farthings) roamed the Earth, the fastest racing cyclists were those with the longest legs. Before the introduction of gears it was the size of the wheel which determined how far a bicycle wheel would travel for one turn of the pedals so the longer the legs - the bigger the wheel - the faster the bike (and the higher the rider's head from the ground). The implication of this of course is that back then each bike, including its front wheel, was individually manufactured to precisely fit the owner's inside leg measurement. There were no adjustments to be made, your saddle height was set in stone.

Thankfully the introduction of chain driven transmissions brought things down to earth. We are so familiar with the shape of modern bikes that we rather take them for granted but the evolution of that double diamond shape was a long one. The pedals, saddle and handlebars are suspended on a collection of tubes between two wheels. Right in the centre of the frame and holding it all together is the seat tube. It connects the bottom bracket shell (where the pedals go) via a telescopic connection with the seat post to the seat itself. Adjusting the saddle height involves loosening the seat post binder bolt, moving the seat post up or down inside the seat tube and retightening the bolt. It couldn't be simpler. So why do so many people get it wrong?

“Sit on the saddle, place the flat of your foot on the pedal, and adjust the height of the saddle until you can just straighten your leg. When pedalling the ball of the foot should be directly over the middle of the pedal and your leg never quite straightens”. These words are repeated in bike shops across the planet thousands of times a day. It's the Universal Bike shop Saddle Height Adjustment System mantra and it works pretty well. There are other systems, a few cycle stores employ advanced computer aided rigs, some do it by eye and some do long calculations on the back of envelopes using archaic pythagorean formulae. One traditional method for pro cyclists is to set the saddle too high and then drop it in small increments until the rider's hips stop rocking. However, the UBSHAS will get your saddle to within 5mm of ideal, and that's good enough for most people. And for those who want even better accuracy it's a great method of setting a datum point for further fine tune adjustments.

There is a tendency for beginners to want their saddle set way too low, it feels precarious perched up there when you are not accustomed to it. And some regular cyclists with over tight ham-strings hear that message and put their saddle too high. The more miles you do the more attuned you will be with your riding position and the more accurately you will be able to place your saddle. Before too long you'll be aware of the difference in the thickness of soles between two pairs of shoes (and of the resulting difference in efficiency). If your seat is too low you'll find it a challenge to get any power into the pedals. If it's too high you'll be forced to pedal too slowly.

Humans are very adaptable, we can jump on a bike and make it go along even if it is completely the wrong size for us. It doesn't take a lot of effort or specialist knowledge to optimise our biomechanical efficiency, but doing so will enable us go further and faster in more comfort.

Dont adapt yourself to suit the shape of your bike, adjust the bike to suit the shape of you.

Read More on Fit

The Fundamentals of Fit

Children's Cycling

Women's Cycling

Saddle Height (Blog Post)