Bike Fit vs. A Bike That Fits

So my blog post on bike fits certainly caused some controversy, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. Being forced to critically think about your position on something instead of just going with it because it is how it has always been done is vital to the growth of a sport.

However, as always the internet is a double edged sword. While it allows me to get thought provoking views on mountain bike training into the conversation, it is very easy to misinterpret what I write. In this case, I think that I need to clarify what I mean by a “bike fit”.

When I hear the term “bike fit” I think of a situation where someone has you sit on your bike (key word being sit) and then proceeds to use everything from their eyeballs to lasers to determine your optimal seated pedaling position. Your seat height, stem length/ rise, handlebars and, in some cases, frame size are all manipulated to get you into the best position possible when sitting down and pedaling.

This same process is used to alleviate pain in the knees, hips, low back, shoulders and neck. I think that this is a pretty well understood definition for the term “bike fit” within the bike industry. While I can respect your personal definition of a “bike fit” for the sake of the discussion we need to establish exactly what we mean.

What a lot of people were referring to in the comments to the post is not a bike fit but simply getting a bike that fits. There is a huge difference between the two – getting a bike that fits simply means getting the right frame size and general stem length so that you are comfortable on the bike. This could also mean optimizing the bike’s set up – like putting a shorter stem on to optimize steering and descending position.

We all need a bike that fits but not everyone needs a “bike fit”. However, I know that a lot of riders are being sold on the value of one, both as a performance enhancer and way to address pain from riding.

I have had countless riders who possessed glaring movement dysfunctions ask me if I thought a bike fit – as defined above – would help them out and this tells me that there is a disconnect in the perceived and actual value of a bike fit. The elephant in the corner of the room for most riders is that they simply can’t move well from poor mobility and strength.

So, if you think that a longer stem feels better then fine, however if you are being told that you need one to optimize your pedaling position based on some sort of bike fit then perhaps you need to think about a few things before you blindly follow that advice. Hopefully this clears up some of the confusion as I think that some people thought I meant that you don’t need any thought put into your position in the bike when that is not the case.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Brete says:

    Here, here!

    It’s frustrating when I hear of some bike shops using stem length to “fit” a bike, when that’s not what stem length is about.

    Reply • January 6 at 5:01 pm
  2. WAKi says:

    There is only one good bike fit strategy, not a cheap one if you want to do it alone.

    1. would be… Listen to someone like James what frame size and cockpit choice to make but not all of us are so fortunate to reach this site.

    So again:
    1.Buy a frame according to producer recommended size (if you are at the edge of two – an internet forum will make you feel you made a wrong decision anyways, instead of providing the only right answer: “it depends”)
    2.Do some bracketing: get two pairs of stems and two pairs of bars. 50mm stem and 100mm stem, 650mm bars and 750mm bars. Ride each combination for at least 10 rides ( a month or so) Then choose what feels best. It takes a year – sorry nobody said it was easy
    3.It takes a year to find out that… safe choice was getting a 70mm stem and 720mm bars. Then eventually go to the direction that feels better.

    Bike fit is a pish made for bike sellers to make their clients feel better about buying at their store and not at the other one. If you buy a bike at our place you get a bike fit for free – doesn’t that sound like a great deal Mr Smith?

    Reply • January 7 at 6:15 am
  3. neil says:

    The right size bike is very important as you mention James. And contrary to some reviews you’ll read, it’s not about seat post position in relation to the bars/cranks it’s ALL about where the cranks are relative to the bars. You can slided the seat around on it’s rails, but not move the crank [+ pedals] relationship with the bar without possibly moving away from the stem you wanted to fit to suit your riding discipline. The bike HAS to fit when standing to pedal or when it gets gnarly.
    I think 2 bikes with reasonably similar head angles and fork lengths feel real similar if the downtube length matches, the real size of a bike is definitely not about top tube length as that changes with seat tube angle. [Some makers now talk about “reach and rise”, it’s a better way of measuring the same thing but tougher to measure easily].
    SO many times I heard or read someone talking about how the seat tube angle affects climbing or lifting the front wheel – come on, think about it – even, if you ARE seated for those actions, your seated position over the cranks can be altered by sliding the seat.
    I reckon the best advice is to look at a pro rider in your discipline who is your size and build and what size he / she rides, if you can look at a few and try work out why they might ride different sizes, maybe their style is different – then set up your bike the same and go learn to ride it.
    Get flexible. Follow James, he can help you for sure.

    Reply • March 27 at 11:21 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Great points, thanks for sharing. On the trail having a bike that can handle well is your top priority and most of that happens when standing. I actually wish a bike manufacturer would have the balls to come out with a bike suspension set up for standing pedaling since that is where all the action happens on the trail.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:41 am
      • TonyE says:

        I am old school and purchased my frame size based on how tall I am. To me there is no point someone measuring me up to sort out stem length and seat post height because I am never in one position on the bike. The seat post goes up or down depending on how confident I feel when faced with a technical section. I can’t change the stem length mid ride so I opted for a shorty because I feel I am more in control with this when descending and I prefer comfort and control to meet up to the danger. Who ever lost control churning up a 15% gradient at 6 mph?

        The other thing I think people get wrong – and this is again fed by bike shops – is spending a fortune of component upgrades to “improve their speed” or “decrease the weight”. In my opinion, I would rather keep the money and get stronger to make up the difference and besides, when we are talking a 2 minute improvement when the ride is 6 hours long covering 70 miles, who really is going to notice.

        I think it is great that you bring things back to reality James. Keep it up.

        Reply • June 27 at 6:41 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          The reality of the trail is something that often gets forgotten when talking about how to get better at mountain biking, just trying to keep things focused on what really matters.

          Reply • June 30 at 3:30 pm
  4. sb66er says:


    Reply • June 27 at 8:26 am

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