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Buying a Bicycle -- A Basic Guide: Setting Up Your Bike

Setting Up Your Bike

When you buy a new bike, it should of course be adjusted to your size at the shop. However, after a little riding, you may find that one thing or another is not set optimally for you, and although you can go back to the shop to have it readjusted, it will be better in the long run if you learn how to make such adjustments yourself. This skill is also required if you buy a secondhand bike, or if you ever lend your bike to someone else.

Let’s first recall the discussion in Section 4 about sizing the bike. Here you’ll be shown how to go about the following adjustments: saddle height, forward position and tilt, and handlebar height and tilt. In addition, you’ll be shown how to adjust the brake levers for the most effective operation. The subject of adjusting the gears will be treated separately in Section 8.

Adjusting the Saddle

First make sure the top of the saddle is horizontal. Place the bike on a horizontal surface and use either a level—the air bubble must be in the middle of the gauge—or a 3-foot ruler, which you visually align with any convenient horizontal surface, such as a kitchen countertop.

Saddle Angle Adjustment

To correct the angle if the seat is not horizontal, undo the bolt (or bolts) that hold the saddle wires to the seatpost, wiggle the seat into horizontal alignment, and tighten the bolt (or bolts) again. On most modern bikes, you’ll do that with an Allen wrench, while simple old bikes may require an open-ended wrench.

Saddle Height Adjustment

The correct height of the seat, as measured from the pedals, depends on your leg length. Use one of two methods to establish the correct height—either the one based on your extended leg while sitting on the bike, or the one based on a formula and your measured leg length. Most people find the first method the most convenient.

FIG. 1. Determining The correct saddle height on The bike: pedal down, knee almost straight.

FIG. 2. Multiply your inseam leg length by 1.09 to determine the saddle height by “The 109% rule.”

To use it, support yourself, for example, in a door opening while sitting on the bike, your heels on the pedals, wearing flat- heeled shoes. Sitting in the saddle, you should be able to pedal back (assuming the bike has a freewheel—you’ll have to actually ride the bike, pedaling forward, if it has either a coaster brake or a fixed wheel) without having to rock sideways, yet straightening the knee almost completely as shown in FIG. 1. If necessary, raise or lower the saddle.

To use the second method, first measure your inseam leg length as shown in Fig. 2. Make a note of the height of your crotch above the floor without shoes on. Multiply this figure by 1.09. This will give you the distance between the center of the bottom bracket and the top of the saddle. Although it works well for most situations, it looks more scientific than it probably is: for example, it doesn’t take into account the effect of different crank lengths.

Whatever method you use, the ultimate measure will be your comfort. Use the position found this way for a couple of weeks, or at least 200 miles of riding, then be guided by your comfort to decide whether to raise or lower your seat a little (do that in steps of about ‘/ inch at a time—no need to split hairs with millimeters).

To raise or lower the saddle, first undo the clamp that holds the seatpost in the frame’s seat lug by loosening the binder bolt, On mountain bikes, this clamp is held with a quick-release binder bolt, while on other bikes it’s simply a bolt with a nut at the other end (nowadays usually an Allen bolt, so you’ll need a matching Allen wrench to loosen or tighten it). Don’t under any circumstance raise the saddle so high that the maximum extension marker on the seatpost is exposed; at least 65 mm (2 1/2 inches) of the seatpost must be clamped in below the top of the seat lug.

Saddle Quick-Release Operation

To operate a quick-release binder bolt, used on most mountain bikes, twist the lever from the “closed” to the “open” position. It should now be loose enough to move the seatpost up or down in a twisting motion.

When the seat is at the desired height and straight, tighten the quick-release by flipping the lever into the closed position. Check to make sure it’s actually tightly locked in place—if it’s not, first flip it back open, tighten the thumbnut on the other side by one turn, and flip it closed again (repeat if necessary).

Saddle Forward Position

You’ll probably be comfortable with the saddle positioned so that the seatpost is about in the middle of the saddle. However, you may want to move it further back or forward for comfort. Generally, it’s recommended (on most models other than recumbents) to have the knee joint vertically aligned with the center of the pedal spindle when the crank is in the horizontally forward position, as shown in the illustration.

To make adjustments, undo the clip bolt (or bolts) under the saddle by which the saddle’s wires are held to the seatpost. Then slide the saddle back or forth, and tighten the bolt (or bolts) again, while holding the saddle horizontally and in the desired location.

Handlebar Adjustment

The safest way to adjust the handlebar height is by choosing a stem that has the right amount of rise while being clamped in all the way. On bikes with a conventional threaded headset, the height of the handlebars can also be varied by raising or lowering the handlebar stem, but it’s safest to avoid raising it by more than about an inch, leaving at least 65 mm (2 1/2 inches) clamped in. On bikes with an Aheadset, it can only be achieved by replacing the stem by one with more or less rise. Since the height of the handlebars is largely a function of rider experience, I therefore prefer conventional headsets for novice riders.

For all bikes except recumbents, the optimal handlebar height, measured at the highest point of the handlebars, is no higher than the height of the saddle, measured from the ground. Just how much lower than the seat is a matter of comfort and experience, but this gives you a starting point.

To adjust the handlebar height on a bike with a conventional headset, loosen the stem binder bolt in the top of the stem by three or four turns. If the stem does not come loose by itself, tap on the top of the bolt with a hammer to loosen it. Then move the stem up or down in a twisting motion until the handlebars are straight and as high as you want them, providing the maximum height marker on the stem does not show (the stem must be held inside the fork’s steerer tube by at least 21/i inches). Tighten the expander bolt again, holding the handlebars in this position.

Check to make sure it’s straight and tight by clamping the front wheel between your legs while trying to twist the handlebars — you should not be able to twist them except with great force.

On a bike with an Aheadset, the only way to change the handlebar height would be to install spacers under the stem or to find a stem with more rise. These are things you should leave to a bike shop mechanic if you are not familiar with this work.

Handlebar Angle Adjustment

Like the saddle, the handlebars can be rotated to some extent. On bikes with drop handlebars (road bikes and touring bikes) the angle can seriously affect your comfort. Here the principle is that the lower the handlebars, the more nearly horizontal the handlebar ends should be. If you keep the top of your handlebars as high as the saddle, as you might do on a touring bike, the handlebar ends may point down by about 10 degrees. A racer with really low handlebars, on the other hand, will want them perfectly horizontal.

To adjust the angle, loosen the binder bolt (or two bolts on some bikes) with which the stem’s collar is clamped around the handlebars. Twist the handlebars in the desired orientation, keeping them centered. Then tighten the binder bolt or bolts.

FIG. 3. Relaxed posture for handlebar height and reach adjustment. The angle of your arms relative to your upper body should be about 90 degrees. Hold mountain bike bars on the bar-ends.

Brake and Gear Lever Adjustments

After you’ve finished putting the handlebars in the position you find most comfortable, you may find that the brake levers are no longer in a position that’s easy to reach. To make the necessary correction, look for the screw that clamps the lever’s housing to the handlebars. On mountain bikes and hybrids, this is usually easy enough to find, but on drop-handlebar bikes you may have to refer to a more detailed bike maintenance guide, such as my Road Bike Maintenance—or get it taken care of at a bike shop.

Remove and Install Wheel

You’ll need to know how to remove and install the wheel, whether it’s to carry your bike in or on a car, or to fix a flat. Since quite a few accidents have happened due to incorrect handling of that seemingly simple process, here are detailed instructions.

To transport the bike, you’ll usually remove the front wheel only, but if you have to fix a flat, it’s at least as likely to be the rear wheel. Most modern bike wheels are held in with quick- releases.

Tools and Equipment:

  • Usually none required


If it’s the rear wheel, first place the chain on the smallest cog and small chainring with the derailleurs, while turning the cranks forward with the wheel lifted off the ground.

2. Release tension of the brake cable, either by means of the brake’s quick-release (on a road bike with sidepull brakes) or by lifting out the cable (on a bike with cantilever or direct-pull brake).

3. Move the quick-release lever into the “open” position, and only loosen the thumb nut at the other end if the wheel does not come free. On most front forks, there are retainer tags at the ends of the fork that stop you from getting the wheel out at this point. To overcome them, loosen the thumbnut until the quick-release is open wide enough to slip over them. The idea of these ridges is to safeguard you against the wheel from falling out if the quick-release is not tightened properly.

4. On a rear wheel, twist back the derailleur for the chain to clear the cogs as shown in FIG. 6.

5. Raise the bike (unless it’s held upside-down), and remove the wheel.

6. To install, proceed in reverse order. On a rear wheel, hold back the rear derailleur to allow the wheel to return to its proper position and the chain to wrap around the cog and the derailleur. On a front wheel, your fight with the retainer tabs will start again: make sure the quick-release is opened far enough to fit over those tabs.

7. Put the quick-release lever is in the “open” position, and hold the wheel exactly aligned in the center between the fork blades or stays. Tension the quick-release by twisting the lever to the “closed” position (but first retighten the thumb nut if you had to loosen it under point 3 above).

8. Check to make sure the wheel is all the way in to the end of the slots in the fork or the rear dropouts, and that it’s held firmly with the quick-release lever in the “closed” position.

9. Re-tension the brake, and make any other adjustments that may be necessary.

Remove and Install Pedals

That’s a job you may have to do when transporting a bike, especially if you’re not carrying it on a roof-rack but in a box.

Tools and Equipment:

-- pedal wrench (a long, skinny open-ended wrench) or long-handled Allen wrench

-- cloth and preferably some grease

Removal Procedure:

1. Place the pedal wrench on the stub between the right pedal and the crank (the right crank is the one with the chainrings), or the Allen wrench in the recess in the pedal’s threaded stub, reached from behind the crank.

2. To unscrew the right pedal, turn the wrench counterclockwise (“to the left”) as seen from the pedal side, restraining at the crank.

3. To unscrew the left pedal (which has a left-hand screw thread), turn the wrench clockwise (“to the right”) as seen from the pedal, again restraining at the crank.

FIG. 4. Quick-release detail. It not tight unless you notice resistance just before you feel it snap into the “closed” position. If necessary tighten The locknut first.

(left) FIG. 5. Releasing cable at direct-pull brake. When reinstalling, make sure The spring end is hooked in at The brake arm. (right) FIG. 6. Holding back The derailleur for wheel removal and installation. Note -- The chain routing.

Installation Procedure:

1. Clean both the screw-threaded hole in the crank and the pedal’s threaded stub thoroughly and lightly apply grease.

2. Establish which is the right pedal—it is usually marked with an “R” and if not, it’s the one on which the thread seems to rise to the right when you hold it up to the light.

3. Carefully align the right pedal’s threaded stub with the threaded hole in the right crank (the one to which the chainrings are attached) and screw it in by hand as far as possible, turning clockwise (“to the right”) as seen from the pedal side. If you notice resistance, make sure it’s aligned properly—if necessary, start all over again.

4. Do the same with the left pedal on the left crank, turning it counterclockwise (“to the left”).

5. Tighten both pedals fully using the wrench.

FIG. 7. installing pedal using a pedal wrench. Hold the crank for leverage; FIG. 8. If you grease the pedal stub, you can remove and install it with an Allen wrench.

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