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How to Set up Your Bike - A Newbie's Guide

One of this things I failed to appreciate when first starting out with road cycling was the utter ball-ache it can be setting up your bike correctly.

I'm not talking about the process of actually building your bicycle. No-siree! Relatively speaking, that's the easy bit. What I'm talking about here is the endless tinkering to get everything in the right position, hight and angle for optimum cycling comfort and performance.

A seat post, handlebar or cleat that's several millimetres out of whack can be the difference

between the sore muscles you'd expect during any post-workout recovery period, to intense shooting pains in backs, necks, shoulders and knees.

In an ideal, 'money-no-object' world (which, unfortunately, very few of us live in) it’s always best practice to leave any bike fitting to a professional, but I appreciate it’s not the cheapest option and much of your cycling budget will have been eaten up elsewhere… like purchasing the bike in the first place. So, I’ve put together a few tips to help you get started on setting your bike up safely and efficiently for your rides.

Before we go on, I just want to say that I’m by no means a qualified physiotherapist, so the tips I’m about to share are simply from my personal experiences – and they seem to have done the trick for me over the last decade. I’m still in one piece, at least. And secondly, listen to your own body, it’s very good at telling you if something isn’t right… So, if after a couple of rides you’re in severe discomfort, then it’s time to start making some adjustments to your bike set-up. Remember, mild aches and pains are part-and-parcel of cycling, so don’t go mad with the Alan key and start ripping your bike to shreds after just one ride because your arse is sore. Your arse is gonna hurt after your first two - four rides. You’re just going to have to deal with it.

Your handlebars:

Don’t overstretch your handlebars, but at the same time, try not to be too scrunched up, either. Set them up so that you’re able to sit on your saddle and hold your handlebars in a relaxed and comfortable position - both when you’re sitting upright and when you’re in the drops (holding the bits that curl down towards the road and back to you).

Your saddle:

The saddle height should be set up so that when you’re sitting on it there’s a little bit of flex in your knee when your pedal is at its lowest point with your foot on it /clipped in.

You don’t want it to be too high, to the point that you’re trying to complete the pedal rotation with your tip-toes, and on the flip-side, if it’s too low, you’ll struggle to fully extend your leg which will not only make it feel like you’re on a BMX and not a road bike, but it’s a sure-fire way to lose a lot of much-needed power in each rotation.

There should still be a slight bend in your knee when at the very bottom of your pedal stroke - not too much - you don’t want your knees sticking out to the side like wings when you’re riding along.

If you start to experience severe and /or sharp pain in your knees, hips or back, it might be a sign from your body to adjust your seat height or cleats position.

As already mentioned, listen to your body and make the adjustments, it’ll make your cycling experience so much more enjoyable when your bike is set up perfectly and your body is finely calibrated to it.

Here's a helpful video from the GCN guys that will help you set up your seat and handlebars:


Your cleats are a very difficult one to get right as everyone’s feet, and the way they naturally fall when you push downwards, varies vastly from cyclist to cyclist.

A professional fitter once told me to consider the way I walk, paying close attention to the way each foot naturally points when landing on the floor when I walk in a straight line. So, for example, are you someone whose feet naturally point in the 10-to-two position? Do your feet point inwards? Take a look. In fact, have a go now. C’mon - if you’re on the train, in bed, or the middle of a packed office, don’t be shy… Have a little stroll. Look at your feet or have someone look at your feet position as you walk towards them in a straight line... Now you look silly, but you do have a better idea of how to set your cleats without the help and expense of a professional fitter.

diagram showing how to position your cleats
Image courtesy of Bikefit

In addition to knowing the best angle for your cleats you also need to work out how far forwards or backwards to screw them to your shoes. Again, this will be trial and error without a professional fitter but without one, try this - Imagine you’re sitting on your bike looking down at your pedals. Now picture a line going horizontally across the middle of the pedal from the part of it that’s nearest the bike frame and going away from it in a straight line. Try to position your cleats so that when you push down you can feel the balls of your toes sitting on that line.

Now you’re armed with this newfound understanding of your precious tootsies, it’s a case of trial-and-error when it comes to setting them.

Adjust them to suit the way your feet fall naturally is a great starting point, then it’s just a case of making slight adjustments until you’re perfectly comfortable and pain-free after several rides of decent distance. Again, any pains in your ankle, hip, knee or back could be a sure-fire sign that the positioning of your cleats, or wider seating position needs adjusting.

Top Tips:

When you eventually have your cleats in the perfect position – one that’s remained comfortable for you over many miles and rides – then grab a marker pen and draw around them on the bottom of your shoes.

All cleats will need replacing at some point, so this tip will make it much easier to put your new cleats in the same position as your old ones. It means you won’t have to spend miles and miles enduring more aches and pains to find your cleat sweet-spot again.

You can apply a similar method to your seat post too. Once you find a seat height that’s remained comfortable for a few rides, mark the bottom of the post with a bit of tape. That way, if the seat ever slips or needs replacing, you’ll know the exact level you need to return it to.


(This content originally appeared in the book, 'Road Bike Cycling - The Ultimate Beginner's Guide: Your Road Bike Wingman from Unwanted Moobs to Cycling up Mountains' If you'd like to learn more, you can download the full eBook or Audiobook on Amazon - HERE)

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This bite-sized beginner's guide doesn't take itself too seriously and, whilst written in an amusing way, includes excellent advice that provides everything you need to know, to get the most enjoyment out of your new road cycling hobby from day one.

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