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A Plea for First Timers: Adjust your Seat

by Ted Johnson

Hey new bike commuters! Are you fixing to ride to work? Maybe for the first time ever? Congratulations!

If you’re prepared, you have been listening to lots of advice, and maybe you’ve read our entire Commuting 101 section.

I’ve never met Warren T, but I’ve seen his legs, and now so have you.

Here’s one last thing that will make a world of difference: Properly adjust your dang seat height.

If it’s too low, you will be making yourself more tired than you otherwise would be. If it’s too high, you will put stress on your knees and lower back. Here is our article on the topic.

I have few pet peeves about my fellow cyclists. I don’t care what kind of bike you ride, whether you are in street clothes, Lycra, or nude. Helmet or no helmet. I don’t care if you call it a bike seat or a saddle. If you are on a bike and being being safe, civil, and legal (listed in order of priority), you are okay by me.

But seats that are too low really get to me. It’s one thing that screams to me in my mind when I see it, This person doesn’t know what he is doing!

By which I mean, This person is teaching himself to hate being on a bicycle!

I know it’s nice to come to a stop and put your foot down and not have to get off the seat. And there are bike designs that allow you to use your legs efficiently and still put your foot on the ground while you remain sitting. You probably don’t have one of those bikes.

Trust me and just get used to the idea that you will have to leave the seat when you come to a stop.

On the Montague Boston 8 bike I’m riding, the seat kept creeping down below my favorite position. I tightened the quick-release on the seat post collar. Then I tightened it some more. Then I stripped the little bolt that makes it possible to adjust the seat post at all. I was halfway to work. Five miles to go.

I pulled over and pondered my dilemma under the shade of an acacia tree. The obvious answer: Just ride in the rest of the way low-rider style.

No! Anything but that!

I will try anything. Ride anything. Wear anything. But the idea of riding with my seat down and my knees up in my face like a clueless noob? That would be humiliating.

I took an inventory of what I had with me. Were there any parts I could cannibalize from the bike? No.

I had a Planet Bike headlight. Could I use the handlebar mount to squeeze tight the seat post collar? It kept slipping off.

Planet Bike Headlights

Strike one: Headlight mounting bracket

I had a tube with a Presta valve. Could I use the valve stem? Nothing to tighten onto the threads.

Valve Stem

Strike two: Valve Stem

I had a guitar capo. Not enough pressure.

Guitar Capo

Strike three: Guitar Capo

No choice but the ride of shame.

Ted in Lowrider Mode

Making my ‘Slingblade’ face. “Some folks call it a saddle, I call it bicycle seat.”

I tried my best to remember “The Beginner’s Mind.” There is something I can learn from this.

Nope. I only learned that all of the people who advise new cyclists to properly adjust their seat height, well, they’re right.

I had less power. I was sitting on my tailbone and it hurt. And I even had a disadvantage over the people who don’t know any better: I felt like an idiot.

After work I rode another four miles in this manner to Ordinary Bike Shop and replaced the seat post collar. Damn it felt good to be up where I belong.

But on the way there, at least once, I found myself thinking, It is kind of nice to just put my foot down when I stop.

 
Burley nomad 229

23 Responses to “A Plea for First Timers: Adjust your Seat”

  1. Joel says:

    To offer advice, or not offer advice, is it wiser to appear like an arrogant know-it-all in an effort to help them, or is it wiser to be quiet and hope they eventually read, hear, or see how it is done properly?

    I am fortunate in that I love to read and research how to do things. With all of the information available on the web, it is hard not to think that someone will not eventually find the information if they want to.

    The real problem is for us know-it-alls to be patient as newbies find their way. They will ask questions when the time is right for them. If I am patient, set a good example, and show camaraderie when I ride with them, then they might approach me with a question. I will do my best to provide a right answer or direct them to a source for the right answer.

    It is hard to watch when you want to help so much but we have to be patient and not scare them aware by being bombarded with advice.

  2. Christine says:

    Thank you, Ted. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way about ill-positioned saddles. On the one hand, I’m glad that these people have taken that first step of getting back on their bike (as opposed to some other form of transportation). I’m always happy to see more cyclists on the road. On the other, their saddle heights can often be a cringe-worthy eyesore.

    But then I have to remind myself that for many people, it’s essential to feel a sense of comfort on this two-wheeled thing (even if that effort is misguided) before they can graduate to a proper saddle height. Let’s face it: for those who might be jittery about commuting for the first time, having to learn (and then worry about) that additional step of sliding on and off the saddle at every stop could potentially discourage them further.

    Joel: I agree with you. I think newbies should grow as cyclists on their own terms when they feel ready. At the same time, I think the form of Ted’s criticism – a blog post, as opposed to barking at people directly on the street – is a fair place to vent about this kind of thing. Any newbie who finds their way to this site is probably open to improving their commute somehow, and if Ted’s diatribe is thing that convinces them to raise their saddle height, I don’t see any harm in that.

  3. Eric says:

    My wife just got a new bike not too long ago. We ended up at (gasp) Costco, getting one of their comfort bikes. The components were at least branded, and I knew I could adjust things and tweak them to make them work for her.

    I even had her saddle height set right about where it should be. When she tried it out the first time after I finished the final at home assemble (and adjustments) required, she insisted I lower the seat so she could put her foot down when she stops w/o getting off the saddle. My suggestions that her saddle be higher and explanations why were met coolly, insisting my advice was applicable to pro cyclists, but not her. I decided the fight wasn’t worth it and just let it go with her seat way too low for her. I hope she ends up changing her mind after she’s ridden a bit.

  4. The saddle height issue is frustrating to many experienced riders and mechanics. I agree with Ted that one avoidable outcome is the learning-to-hate-cycling aspect, or at least not moving toward greater power, comfort, and getting a good “drape” over your bike, however humble or grand it may be. That’s a good goal to want to share with new cyclists.

    The idea that Joel mentions, “is it wiser to be quiet & hope they eventually…see how it is done properly” is a fair one, as we do well to let others learn or advance (or not) at their own pace. However, in a teaching role (if they ask) I’ve found it is important to remember that many motor skills are reinforced habits, from which it can be hard to break free after an unknowing period of self-taught exploration. As a mechanic and ‘concierge’ of sorts to customers buying, and using bicycles, I remind riders of all kinds that good habits forged early are especially useful while cycling. Getting the many small attentions our bikes need to be “second nature” is the road to comfort, skill, and enjoyment. Riding and manipulating several controls, needing to be alert and responsive to hazards or course conditions, is greatly enhanced when our application of power (better with decent seat height) and our shifting & braking, are set up right and well-maintained. Not a source of consternation every time we climb a hill or start from a stop light, shift a gear or try to remember which brake is rear or front. (don’t remember: always use both.)

    The handy “kickstand leg” ability from having a low seat is compelling, as Ted admitted. But this makes it a harder habit to break, bettter not indulged past a short familiarization period with a new bike. As I tell riders, this only helps you with a tiny percentage of your riding needs, (stops) and sets you up for difficulty for the main activity: that of riding down the road or trail.

    Nowhere in our helpful instruction is there a need to stratify each other as “newbies” vs “experts.” And I daresay we bonafide experts needn’t worry so much about how we look…or how “they” look. The vanity of cycling glory days might die hard, but courtesy and fellow-feeling goes a long way to making our cycling lifestyles truly enjoyable.

  5. Joel says:

    Very good observations. One suggestion to those who feel the need to “touch the street” without leaving the saddle is to stop near a curb if possible. the 8 inch difference is perfect to rest flat-footed while still in the saddle.

    I too cringe when I see people doing a cadence of twenty five per minute in tenth gear with their knees jutting outwards. The strain on the knees must be tremendous.

    If someone is reading this comment, they are already on their way to improving their style by being on this website.

    Cheers.

  6. JaimeRoberto says:

    This story made me laugh. I’ve had the same debate with my wife. I tell her that riding with the seat that low is hard on her knees, but she usually ignores my advice until someone from her homeland gives her the exact same advice. We’re going to watch the Tour of California tomorrow, so maybe I can get Peter Sagan to explain proper seat height to her.

  7. BluesCat says:

    Well, because I’m such a lazy old s__t, I like to stay in the SADDLE when I’m stopped … so THERE … rather than labor with hopping down to the ground, hopping back up into the saddle, down, up, etc., etc.

    With my recumbent, there’s absolutely no problem with doing that. You stop, put your foot down, grab a swig of water, wink at the pretty girl in her BMW, etc.

    When I’m riding one of my DF’s, I’ll either use the curb — like Joel suggested — or whatever else is handy: a “Rex” parking lot bumper; putting my knee on top of a hydrant or irrigation structure; leaning against a handy pole; or propping my left-rear pannier against the grill of that guy’s brand new Cadillac (“Hey! Shut up! The light’s gonna change in a second and I’ll be out of your way! NEXT TIME, don’t blow by me, cut me off and allow me to catch up to you at the next light!”)

    As you can see, I’m always extremely safety conscious.

  8. I guess I am now a bike snob because it does indeed drive me crazy to see bicyclists pedaling on a too-low saddle. Not only does it look really goofy, but the very sight makes my knees ache.

  9. Elaine says:

    So…I’m not exactly a newbie (warm-weather commuter for 10 years or so, using ‘wet-weather’ and ‘fair-weather’ bikes) but after reading this article, I was willing to wonder if one of those saddles was too low. I raised it to “can’t keep my foot on the ground when stopped” height…and gosh. Garmin says I moved faster than usual. I have to consciously think ahead about unclipping and unseating myself, but one reason I like to ride is so that I can be so conscious – habits are great, and motor-memory moves us along, but I don’t like to sleepwalk when I’m on my bike.

    And I like the view from a little higher than it was.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Great comment, Elaine.

      Not only do you confirm that higher is better, but you challenge my notion that people will be turned off of cycling if they have their seats too low. Commuting for 10 years is a long time, and you stuck it out in spite of your low-ish seat height.

      I don’t clip, so I don’t have to think about that. But getting off the seat at stops is really a small inconvenience for the better efficiency while you are moving — and the benefits of bike commuting are about how bikes move you, not about how comfortable a chair the bike is when you are stopped.

  10. Papa Tom says:

    I think the best line in this post is that people who ride with the seat too low are “teaching themselves to hate bicycling.”

    Sure, I agree that people need to find out certain things for themselves, but as the statement above suggests, newbie cyclists are almost certain to give up riding altogether before they come to the realization that the reason they were so unhappy is that their saddle height was wrong.

  11. Matthew says:

    Ha, ha. Nice work. I just don’t get those ‘youth’ (just to make me look old), who ride around on their BMX od dead-flat ground in the CBD with the bike seat below the top of the rear wheel. How can you even do that without getting nasty skid marks on the back of your pants???

  12. Joel says:

    Matthew,

    It’s “dem yutts” courtesy of the Movie, “My Cousin Vinny.”

    8)

  13. Eli says:

    I’ll bite: how is it possible to adjust your saddle to a height where you cannot have even one foot on the ground, and still be able to mount it?

    If you are able to swing yourself up onto your saddle to mount (presumably with one foot remaining on the ground–or are you leaping into the air to mount?), then you must be able to touch the ground with one foot while seated on the saddle (even if you must lean the bike a bit to do so).

    What am I missing?

  14. Eli says:

    Moreover, the photograph in your own article on seat adjustment shows the rider seated on the bike with one foot on the ground.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Eli: Depending on the geometry of the bike frame, and the size of the wheels, it may be possible to touch your tippy toe on the ground. Some people may be able to be flat-footed. The point is not to raise your seat until your foot can’t touch the ground, the point is to use your legs efficiently so you don’t get tired too soon, or hurt your knees or lower back — which often means raising your seat until your foot can’t touch the ground.

      Here is a good article from Sheldon Brown with text and video showing how to mount a bike with a seat that is properly adjusted.

      Starting and Stopping

      Notice in the video that when the rider pushes down on the pedal to mount, she automatically lifts her body and butt to the perfect level to sit in the saddle. This is the definition of proper seat height.

  15. BluesCat says:

    Eli -

    Here’s how it’s done, according to the legendary Sheldon Brown: Starting your bike correctly.

  16. NYCeWheels says:

    It really is amazing how much harder it is to ride a bike with the seat even a few inches too low. I’ve also been learning more and more how important it is to keep your seat at the right angle. In general flat is the way to go, feeling like you’re falling forward off of your seat is never a great riding experience – jack

  17. John M. Hammer says:

    When I see someone in my area riding with their saddle set way too low there’s at least a 25% chance it’s because they just boosted the bike… Anyway…

    BluesCat sorta covered this already, but if…
    “I found myself thinking, ‘It is kind of nice to just put my foot down when I stop.’”
    …then maybe you should try a recumbent. There’s really nothing better for stop-and-go city and suburban riding for just this reason.

    You don’t have to go for some SWB low-racer speed-machine. I get by just fine and plenty fast enough on my low-end Sun EZ-1. It’s great for commuting in terms of its size, carrying capacity, eyeball height equal to most motorists, low bottom bracket height for easy stops and starts, and comfort. Pretty much all CLWB bikes and the smaller LWB bikes have these same characteristics.

    Most metro area CraigsLists frequently have EZ-1s or similar low-end bents for sale for under $400, sometimes for a lot less. That’s cheap enough to make it worth trying and they’re usually easy enough to resell for nearly the same price if you decide to dump it because it’s not for you – or if it is for you and you want to upgrade to something newer or nicer.

  18. Brim Stone says:

    It’s all about the lean. I guess folks are so fixated on keeping the bike upright and vertical when riding they don’t realize it is perfectly OK to lean the bike over when stopped.

    Lean it over to one side with that foot on the ground (I always lean left with the left foot on the ground) and keep the opposite foot on the pedal. Move the pedal around until it is level with the ground. Bonus- you can sit on the seat with one foot on the ground! In fact with a bit of practice you can balance the bike while tilted between your legs thus freeing your hands to do stuff like take a drink.

    Now to start up again push up and forward with the ground foot (making sure it is clear of the rotating pedal), STAND on the pedal with the other foot thus lifting your butt off the seat and allowing you to tilt the bike upright again.

    Easy-peezy!

    Also note it is much easier to mount and dismount by leaning the bike because you don’t have to lift your leg as much to get it over the bike.

    Of course real riders, and those balancing Bichon Frise’s on the rear rack, never put down a foot at all till they reach their destination because they can ‘track stand’ through a five minute red light.

  19. Brim Stone says:

    “There is something I can learn from this.”

    Yep. And this is your take-away lesson:

    Always carry duck tape.

  20. tb says:

    So, here’s the thing: My 4-year-old is almost always on the back of my bike, in a Yepp seat. So I am VERY fond of having my seat just a little on the low side so my toe can hit the pavement and my butt can stay on the seat at stops. We need that little extra stability to both feel comfortable and keep the bike fully upright.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      You may very well have your seat properly adjusted, tb. As I said to Eli, being unable to touch the ground while seated is not the hallmark of proper seat adjustment.

      The hallmark is being able to use your legs efficiently — so you don’t get too tired, and don’t experience pain in your knees or hips.

      On the Montague bike, I can just barely touch the ground with the tip of my toe. Sometimes this is how I stop — but it seems a bit of a strain, and not nearly as stable as being off the seat at stops.

      With 35 pounds of four-year-old kid on the back, the idea of stability is a bit different. You are using your leg as a big long kickstand propped to the saddle. When you are off the saddle, I imagine more of that stabilizing effort comes from your arms.

      Yet it’s that 35-pound kid that would make me want to use my legs as efficiently as possible — or sacrifice as little efficiency as possible for the stability I’d want when stopped. Maybe you’ve found the right balance.

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