Outside the Curve Part II - Bike Shopping Tips for the Petite Bicyclist

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Image: Machiko Yasuda

Finding the perfect bicycle at the right budget can sometimes be harder than finding the perfect pair of jeans. When you're under 5"3' or over 6", it may seem downright impossible.

Many bikes on the market nowadays come in a few generic sizes: L, M, S and maybe an XS - and even that may be too large for some of us. When sorting through Craigslist for affordable, used options, it can be even harder to figure out what will fit.

Wheel size and frame design all affect the way a bike rides, turns and handles speed and weight. Whether you want a bike for beach path riding, hauling groceries or taking your daughter to school, there are certain questions that should be addressed when assessing whether a bike fits or not:

  1. On fit: When you're standing over your top-tube, can you lift the bike up?
  2. Can you stay seated on your saddle and still reach the ground with your feet? An issue tackled by the Lovely Bicycle here: http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011/06/putting-your-foot-down.html.
  3. On comfort: Do you feel like you're reaching too much to get to your handlebars?

Especially to beginners, this kind of discomfort may seem like something one can "get over" after they've put more miles in on the saddle. Being able to come to a comfortable stop and stand over your frame, however, is an important skill that comes with being well-fitted on your bike.

Two years ago I started reading books, blog posts and talking to bike mechanics and designers about frame geometries for shorter riders like me. Here are some tips I've learned for those looking for a bike for your size and budget.

Practical Tips for Shorter People Looking for Small Frames:

  1. Look beyond 700C wheels — Consider frames that are designed for smaller-sized wheels. Mountain bikes or vintage bikes in smaller sizes often come with 26-inch wheels. Read the label on the rim or tire to figure out what size it is. Here's Sheldon Brown's handy bike tire size chart.
  2. Foldable bikes, like Brompton's or Dahon's, mini-velos like Soma's, are all non-700C options that may fit your needs and budget as well.
  3. Shoes make a difference — Before going out and test riding bicycles, remember to wear the shoes and clothes you'll most likely be wearing when you typically ride. Whether you ride in loafers, boots, or clipless pedal bike shoes, the thickness of your soles and size of the shoe make a difference in how you stand over the bike and whether your toe clip could strike your front wheel.
  4. Check for toe-clip overlap — What is toe-clip overlap? Veloria from The Lovely Bicycle has a great post about it. Sometimes on smaller frames, the bicyclist's toes can strike the front wheel when making a slow turn. Bike enthusiasts debate whether toe overlap is an issue - but it's one way to compare how various different bikes ride (see link below).
  5. Note the position of your foot on the pedal and the angle at which the front wheel and pedal will strike. Is it an extreme angle? Or not so much? You can decide whether it's a dealbreaker or not. Any accessories on the front wheel, like fenders or panniers, may exacerbate the problem as well: http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011/01/whos-afraid-of-toe-overlap.html. 
  6. You can change more than just the saddle height - Bike seems to fit, but doesn't feel quite right? You can tweak your bike fit. If you're buying a bike at a shop, don't be afraid to ask to swap parts. On most bicycles, handlebars - everything from the type of bars, the reach and height of the bars - can be changed. Handlebar stems, the part that connects the handlebars to the frame, come in many heights and lengths. You probably know that the saddle height can easily be adjusted, but the saddle can be adjusted horizontally to sit closer or farther from the handlebars as well.

Bikes to Consider:

Outside the Curve Part I - How to Find the Right Bicycle Fit for the Extra Petite

Over the past few years, I have become somewhat of a Goldilocks of commuter bicycles. I'd go to swap meets, read every blog post review online about certain frames, drive all the way to Santa Barbara to test ride bikes and check Craigslist regularly to find what I thought would be my "perfect" fit bicycle. 

As a petite girl standing at 5'2", I was frustrated by what seems like a bicycle industry fit for taller people. I'd set my search alerts for small frames, scanning for "48 cm" sized bikes. 

Last month I visited Japan, a country full of all sorts of bike riders. And after watching so many Japanese students and even grandmothers, shorter and younger than me, casually and gracefully ride around town, I'd realized I'd been looking for the wrong thing. 

Even on rainy, snowy winter days, I'd watch people pedal up and down the street with only one hand on the handlebars - and the other hand balancing an umbrella. 

How did these bikers achieve perfect balance, while hauling their book bags and groceries?

When I test-rode my high school cousin's bike, I realized one thing off the bat -- the smaller wheel size. With smaller wheels, I could pedal easily on a heavy bike with a basket full of groceries, even with an umbrella in my hand. That's something I could not do on my road bike, even though it has a basket. 

As I'd started to read more about bicycle frames and geometries, particularly Grant Peterson's Just Ride guidebook, I'd come to the conclusion that I'd have to find a bike with smaller wheels too, just like those Japanese student bikes. Peterson explains it quite simply: for the smallest of us riders, a smaller wheel is necessary.

Unfortunately, most bikes on the American market these days have the industry standard 700 C wheel, which is 622 millimeters in diameter (Take a look at Sheldon Brown's bike tire size charts) And we can't fly out to Japan just to buy a bike. Stay tuned next week for shopping tips for the petite, critical commuter!