As soon as the snow and ice recede bikers take to just about any road with a decent shoulder. They could be out as a pair coasting along for some morning exercise or in a peleton of 10 to 20 riders as part of a local club ride. There’s no doubt the popularity of road biking on Long Island has increased over the last decade and with good reason. The terrain here is a mix of flat roads (South Shore), challenging hills (North Fork) with high winds in between and the group dynamic of a club tends to push riders. The good news is newbies don’t have to be part of a racing team to take advantage, but they do need rigs that fit correctly. Finding the right bike is analogous to getting a suit tailored to fit brilliantly–simply hopping on to see if your toes touch the floor isn’t enough.
Paul Schumacher, manager of Bicycle Planet in Syosset, said the most common mistake he sees people making when shopping for a road bike is picking the wrong size. “Sometimes with road bikes, [customers] feel like they want a small bike because it’s more appealing, but it can be less comfortable,” he said.
Schumacher and his team take a measurement of each client’s torso, arms and inseam to determine the best size bike before a test ride. The idea is to be in sync with the seat, pedals and handlebars. To take your own measurement start with the element on a bike that can’t be adjusted: frame size. Using the inseam as a guide, straddle the top tube while wearing sneakers or cycling shoes and pull the bike up. The rule of thumb is there should be about one inch of clearance between the wheels and the ground.
Seat height follows and is important because it relates to a rider’s leg extension. “The seat height determines where you get your power from,” Schumacher said. “If it’s too low, it can put too much stress on your knees; too high and your hips can rock more and be uncomfortable on your lower back.” The seat post is adjustable over several inches but the ideal height keeps the leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke about 80 to 90 percent fully extended—there should be a slight bend in the knee. The seat also moves closer or farther from from the handlebars. “In a good position, you can stay fresher for longer on your ride. When you have to make constant small corrections, it can start to wear you down faster.” Here the goal is to have the front of the kneecap even with the front of the pedal when the foot is at 3 o’clock. The seat also should be level.
Next is the stem, that length of metal that connects the handlebars to the bike frame. It determines how much bend at the waist is needed to reach the handlebars. “This is something that often goes against what people think is
comfortable,” Schumacher said. “You don’t want the distance to be too close, because that leaves the rider unbalanced and having to constantly rearrange themselves on the bike. A little more room creates a better foundation, making it easier to stay in position for a longer time.” A longer reach also puts the rider in a better posture for a faster ride. Reaching the handlebars with locked arms means the stem is too long. The best position is one where the rider’s back is at 45 degrees, head forward and arms bent slightly to absorb shock.
The bike shop should also determine the correct drop, or height of the handlebars. If a rider has neck or back issues, either from old injuries or just weakness from being a newer rider, a higher handlebar position is more comfortable. But to a more experienced rider, a lower position engages the core and upper body better, putting more power into the bike. Regular stretching and frequent riding can help a newbie stay limber and get strong enough to steadily lower the handlebars into a more aerodynamic position.