Beginner’s bike fit: how to set up your bike

An one-on-one appointment with a professional will help you to find your optimal position for comfort and performance. But if you just want to be in the right ballpark, and avoid injury, we've got everything you need to know...

If ordering a brand new bike is exciting, then receiving it is the pinnacle of joy. So much so that it’s easy to whip it out of the box, set it up so it just about resembles a velocipede and get pedalling straight away.

A little time spent setting up your new bike is time well spent. You’re more likely to get greater immediate pleasure from your purchase and your first ride will be a pleasure as opposed to a process of problem elimination.

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In an ideal world, you purchase your bike from a local bike shop where you’ll have it set up for you in the shop. However, this service isn’t always provided – and it’s certainly not on the cards if you’re buying direct.

If your bike arrives in a box

If you’ve bought direct, your bike has probably arrived at your doorstep in a cardboard box.

set up a new bike

Image: Canyon Service

In this case, you’re going to need to build up your bike – there’s a detailed guide on how to do that here.  The basic process involves removing packaging, inserting the wheels, twisting the handlebars, inserting the seatpost and pumping the tyres.

You’ll need to fit pedals, too. Remember to apply a thin layer of grease to the pedal thread – this will reduce the likelihood of finding them immovable a year down the line.

The bike should have been assembled properly by a mechanic at the other end, so it’s reasonable to expect that the brakes are working and that the gears are properly indexed. However, it’s not uncommon for this to be overlooked. Before you ride the bike, check the brakes and run through the gears.

Read more: how to build a new bike here. 

Basic bike fit: how to get in the right ballpark

Now your bike looks like a bike: congratulations!

We’ve got a host of detailed guides on how to address individual elements of bike fit. The ideal set up is very individual, and based upon your needs as a rider, your personal goals, flexibility and core strength.

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However, if you’re starting with a blank canvas and just want to get into the correct ballpark – which should allow for comfortable, injury free riding – then here’s the skinny.

Get your cleats sorted

set up a new bike

Cleat set-up is crucial. Image: Dan Gould

If you intend to ride clipped in (and it is significantly more efficient!) then you’ll need to get your cleats properly set up – this is explained in detail here.

It’s easy to overlook cleat set-up, but get it wrong and the mistake will travel all the way up to the knee and the hip.

Ideal cleat set-up will vary between individuals but starting out with a neutral position should ward off injury.

To do this, pop on your shoes, mark (with a wipeable pen, or on masking tape) the point at which the bony knuckle sits below your big toe, this should be the ball of your foot. Draw a straight line along the sole of the shoe. Your cleats should have a marker line – and this needs to be set up to meet your line marking.

Read more about how to set up cleats in detail here. 

Next up: saddle height

set up a new bike

You want a slight bend at the knee when clipped in. Image: Dan Gould

There’s a selection of methods for determining the correct saddle height.

It’s very common for new riders to begin their bike riding journey with a saddle that is too low; largely because as children we’re told we should be able to put both feet flat on the ground. This approach will likely result in knee pain if you try to cover more than a few miles.

A saddle that is too low will generally result in knee pain at the front of the patella (kneecap). Too high and you’ll often feel pain behind the knee.

Instead, set the bike up on a turbo trainer or against a wall, hop on, and place your heel on the pedal with the crank to the seatpost (just past the 6 o’clock). Your leg should be completely straight. When you clip in, this will result in a slight bend at full extension; and for most people this position will allow them to touch the floor with the very tip of their toe.

Check saddle fore and aft

set up a new bike

Fore and aft is adjusted by sliding the saddle rails. Image: Dan Gould

Saddle fore and aft is just as important as saddle height. It refers to how far back or forwards on the rails the saddle is. Too far forwards, and you’ll put pressure on the front of the knee, too far back and you risk over-stretching the hamstrings or IT band.

The position advised for basic comfort is to have the knee over the pedal spindle (KOPS for short).

You can achieve this by having a friend hold a plumb line (or a piece of string with a weight on the end) from the knee. The back of the kneecap should be in line with the ball of your foot, which should be over the axle of the pedal.

Exceptions include those riding time trials, who will likely want to be positioned further forwards.

If you make changes to the fore/aft, it will affect saddle height, so repeat your saddle height measurement too.

You can adjust your saddle so that the nose points slightly downwards or up. However, doing this can put strain on your lower back so in most cases the optimum is a flat saddle.

Check the reach and handlebar height

set up a new bike

Reach and bar height affect comfort and control. Image: Dan Gould

Only start on the front end of the bike once you’ve got the rear end sorted.

The handlebar reach and height affects your control and comfort significantly – but it comes down a little bit more to personal preference. Once you’ve been riding a while, you’ll probably be able to assess if reach is too long or too short based on ride feel.

Until then, aim to set your bike up so that you’ve got a slight bend in your elbows. A handy test is to sit with your hands on the hoods, and look down at the front hub – if you can’t see it, then the reach is about right. If it’s behind the bars, the reach is too long, in front and it’s too short.

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You can extend the reach by fitting a longer stem, and reduce it with a shorter stem. The ideal length is relative to top tube, but going smaller than 80mm can make the handling twitchy.

Dropping your handlebar height will give you a more aggressive and aerodynamic ride, while keeping spacers below the stem will make your stance more upright. You can experiment with this via trial and error. Doing so affects the reach, so keep this in mind.

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You can buy stems with a positive or negative angle if you can’t get high or low enough using just the spacers provided – but if you’re needing to do this from the outset it’s questionable as to whether you’ve bought the right bike for your riding style.

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Handlebar width also affects reach – a wider handlebar moves the contact point further away. Typically, the ideal width will be the same as the distance between the two bony protrusions at the front of your shoulders.