The Folding Society

Riding in comfort


Introduction

Being comfortable on the bike makes a big difference to one's enjoyment of cycling, and that involves not only the saddle, but also the overall riding position, hands and feet.

As far as the saddle goes, it's not uncommon to see letters on the internet or in magazines asking for advice. I can't help feeling this is often rather a waste of time, as different saddles suit different people - we are not all shaped the same. I also think that the rider needs to get broken in to the saddle - it's not just a case of the saddle needing to be broken in. This has two significant implications - keeping changing saddle in the hope of finding a more comfortable one can be counter productive, and using different types of saddle on different cycles, if you have more than one, can make them all seem uncomfortable.

Personally, I have found the old faithful Brooks B17 the most comfortable saddle, but it is very heavy, and with a folder this is a drawback not only when riding, but also when carrying the bike. I therefore use a very light Flite Titanium saddle on almost all my bikes - the exceptions are the Brompton and SP, on which, due to the rather upright riding position, I find the slightly wider Brooks Swift more suitable. However. the two Swift's are very different in performance, the one on the T5 being quite flexible and comfortable, while the one on the SP is much less flexible (note the deliberate choice of word) and less comfortable (Michelle Whitworth and Derek Carpenter were very unimpressed [perhaps that should read impressed!] by it when they tried the SP at Portmeirion).

Anyway, the intention of this article was not to cover old ground, but to look at another aspect of comfort - riding position. As with all aspects of comfort, this is very much a personal thing. Some people like an upright riding position, others prefer the bars further away and lower, giving a flatter riding position, at the same time lowering wind resistance. Then there are those, like myself, who use different positions depending on the type of bicycle and riding - the flatter position for faster solo day rides, more upright when riding in groups. commuting, shopping, viewing the scenery.

So, is there a 'right' riding position? As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this depends on the size and proportions of the rider, but also on the riding style. While a preference for a very upright or very flattened riding position is very much a matter of personal preference, there is widespread agreement that the best saddle height for normal riding is such that with the pedal at its lowest position, the rider has his or her leg just straight when the heel is placed on the pedal. This gives an efficient pedalling action, though for rough off road riding and other special requirements a slightly lower saddle height may be preferred, even if it is less effective. Speaking for myself, I have always found this rule works for me.

A second factor in setting saddle position is its position fore and aft. This adjustment is not meant to allow adjustment of the distance of the rider from the bars, even though that is how it is most often used. The general rule to be applied is that with the rider in the normal riding position, and with the pedals parallel to the ground, a plumb line dropped from the centre of the rider's forward knee should pass through the axis of rotation of the pedal. Generally I have not found this quite such a critical factor as correct saddle height, and on most bikes the fore and aft movement has been used primarily to get the correct distance from the bars, as in many cases this makes much more difference to riding comfort, and it is not easy to adjust it in any other way. However, if you do have the means of adjusting stem reach without moving the saddle, it's a good idea to apply the above rule.

Whichever position you favour, you want to be able to set the bike up to suit your preference. The main factors here are top tube length, handlebar extension, handlebar and saddle height. On most bikes, the only one of these that can be readily adjusted after purchase is the saddle height (and limited adjustment fore and aft of the saddle), and there may be limits on this for short and tall riders - the former is less a problem with small wheeled folders, but the latter can be significant on such machines for larger riders. Top tube length and the ability to alter handlebar extension (reach) can also present problems on small wheeled folders. Owners of AM and New Series Moultons fitted with the wishbone stem are most fortunate in their ability to adjust the reach and height of the bars - although the fantastic range of adjustment can make finding the correct setting quite difficult!

A strange feature of trying to set up the bike is that different positions seem to work better on different bikes. Of course there are many other features of the geometry of the bike which contribute to this, notably the position of the saddle relative to the bottom bracket, but measuring how a number of bikes are set up, all of which feel about right, can lead to surprises. I recently checked some of my bikes, and although the height of the saddle was almost identical in each case, as one would expect, the height of the handlebars and their distance from the saddle varied considerably more than I expected. Below are some measurements - note that I deliberately measured reach from bars to the centre of the seatpost, NOT the saddle, as this gave a better indication of the bike size; moving the saddle fore and aft means that the actual reach can be adjusted to reduce differences, but also moves the position relative to the bottom bracket.

Cycle Handlebar height (mm) Reach (front of bars to centre of seat post (mm))
Bike Friday New World Tourist 910 650
Birdy 940 700
Brompton/SP 970 600
Brompton T5 1030 630
Project Y (modified Micro) 930 680
Moulton APB 890 670
Thorn Audax (dropped bars) 890 660

Before taking these measurements, I had thought that the set up of all the bikes was reasonably comfortable, but the results have given a better insight into why some feel more comfortable than others, and as a result I'll be adjusting the riding position of some, where it is possible to do so easily, to bring them closer to what seems my personal optimum, which is about 900mm bar height, 660mm reach. Preliminary tests with the New Series Moulton, which offers very easy adjustment of most settings via its wishbone stem, has already resulted in me achieving an even more comfortable position on that bike.

What this means is that being able to adjust the riding position to meet your individual requirements is important, and that lack of adjustment makes it difficult to be sure you have the ideal position, so we will now consider how well some of the leading makes cater for people of different sizes and riding styles.

Airnimal

The Chameleon comes in 2 frame sizes. Experience suggests that the handlebar height is very low for most people - this can be compensated for by using a very tall stem (stem choice is specified to suit owner height and reach at the time of purchase). With the smaller (shorter) frame, the reach is dependent on the chocie of stem (see above), but should probably be satisfactory for most people. There is plenty of saddle height adjustment available, but unless the saddle is reasonably high the bottle mounting bosses on the seat tube become of no use, as there is insufficient space to get a bottle into this space. I have no experience of ride position on the Joey and Rhino models.

Bernds

The Bernds is a bicycle of which I have no experience. It seems to cater for a reasonable range of rider heights, and does not look to have a particularly unusual saddle to bar reach measurement. If any owners can elaborate, we'll provide more details here at a later date.

Bickerton

Saddle height adjustment of the Bickerton should accommodate even the shortest riders, and at the other extreme seems sufficient for riders of above average height - I'm not sure what the practical maximum rider height (or more accurately leg length) is. The folding mechanism for the handlebars means that the range of adjustment for height, reach etc is enormous, but is quite difficult to set accurately and restore after folding. Anyway, the bike flexes and moves so much in normal use that the position varies as you ride, and the concepts of riding position and comfort are not really meaningful - sorry if I have offended any Bickerton fanatics!

Bike Friday

Most Bike Fridays are custom built, although the Metros come in two fixed sizes. This should mean that they are a good basic fit, but of course you may not always be sure of the precise sizing required when you order, you may have bought second hand, or the bike may be used by more than one person. Saddle height is easily adjusted, and there is usually plenty of adjustment available, so unless you bought a used bike intended for someone a very different size, you should not have problems. Bike Fridays suit a very wide range of rider sizes - under 5ft to over 6 1/2 feet. Horizontal position of the saddle can be varied in the usual way through a couple of inches, but of course this should really be used to get the correct position relative to the bottom bracket, rather than for adjusting handlebar reach, even though it is the latter which most people probably use this for. Handlebar height used to be fixed on those models with the elegant and light swan neck stem, but it now provides several inches of height adjustment, though the reach is fixed, and as it does not use a standard stem insert at the top, you cannot change the reach without buying a complete new swan neck. If you do have the swan neck stem, and it does not suit, replacements are available, but of course at a price. I believe that in the USA Bike Friday make it easier for those purchasing this type of stem to find out just which size they need, but this does not seem to apply in the UK.

Birdy

Saddle height is easily adjusted on the Birdy, and should accommodate even the shortest riders; there seems plenty of adjustment for tall riders, though I have not examined this in detail, and if you are exceptionally tall, you might need to check on the available adjustment. Reach is more of a problem with the Birdy. The seat tube is behind the bottom bracket, and is angled so that raising the saddle moves the saddle back further than would be the case for a similar amount of raising on most bikes. With the standard bars, the reach is long for shorter riders, and because of the seat tube angle, it remains long for taller riders as well. It is no accident that every photograph of the Birdy in their literature, and every other picture I have seen, shows the saddle moved as far forward as it can go. The standard bars are not adjustable for height either, and as they do not have a standard bar stem fixing, this cannot easily be changed. There is an alternative Comfort stem, which brings the bars closer to the rider, and this also has the advantage of being adjustable for height. Unfortunately, for me this moves the bars too close, and I settled for the standard bars, which suited me quite well for height and reach - perhaps 1 or 2cm less reach would have been better. If you are buying a Birdy, it is well worth examining the Comfort stem - it is an option when new, and it is cheaper to have it fitted then than to have to buy one later. Note that the Comfort stem seems to have become a standard option on the 2006 models, and some reports suggest that the old Standard stem is now adjustable for height too.

Brompton

The Brompton is characterised by its rather upright riding position - I'm not very keen on this personally, but I have never found it uncomfortable, even on quite long rides. Saddle height as standard will suit anything from very short to about average male height. The optional long seat post or telescopic seat post extend the range to cover anyone who is not a giant - some VERY tall riders use Bromptons with these seat pillars. Reach is normally rather short - as standard Bromptons are (or at least used to be) fitted with a small forward extension for the saddle, which makes the bike more compact when folded. Most people remove this to give a slightly less constrained riding position - it is still too short in reach for most, but an improvement, and only adds about 3cm to the length when folded, and only at the top of the saddle. The extension can actually be reversed to increase reach, but this puts more load on it and the post, and further increases the folded size, so it is not recommended. The saddle generally will be put as far back as possible, but even then for most riders the reach is on the short side. The bars can be angled very slightly forward, but the fixing for the bars limits this adjustment, and with stubby bar ends, these foul the front wheel when folding if the angle is increased. Don't be tempted to fit a quick release and twist the bars forward when unfolding and back when folding - you will scratch the bars, and the resulting stress raiser makes a handlebar breakage much more likely - very dangerous. The best solution on reach for most people is to remove the forward extension on the saddle, put the saddle as far back as it will go, fit stubby bar ends, and keep the bars angled as far forward as is practical - it may still feel rather upright and close, but it is acceptable and not uncomfortable. 

Bar height cannot be adjusted, and for riders of average height or less the bars may be higher than they would like. The tallest riders may, I suppose, find the bars a bit low. Fitting different bars is not easy, as most would reduce the bar height by more than you want, and, additionally, the standard bars are shaped the way they are, and deliberately have a small amount of flex, to help soak up the discomfort which can result from very small wheels on an unsuspended bike. If you are still not happy, there are some third party alternatives which improve the handlebar positioning. Steve Parry uses a suspension seat post and a shim fitted to a cut-off and modified Brompton stem. This provides some height adjustment, from rather lower than the standard Brompton position to rather higher. It does not provide any reach adjustment, and in fact brings the bars a little further back if anything, but I find the overall result is better than the standard system. Perhaps more importantly, it gives better insulation from road irregularities, and is very stiff the slight bending of the bars and stem felt on a standard Brompton when pulling on the bars is eliminated, at least unless you are particularly brutal. This stem is fitted by Steve to his 2-speed and 12-speed SPs, which are Brompton based, but although he does sell some parts separate from complete SP bikes, the stem is not amongst them. However, something which appears to be very similar is available from Kinetics, and is sold as a complete replacements stem unit which replaces the Brompton unit. Kinetics also offer an unsuspended stem with adjustment of height and reach, which looks as though it should cater for the needs of those looking for something lower, higher and/or with a longer reach, albeit perhaps with a rather harsher ride in the absence of suspension.

Useful contacts for the Brompton modifications mentioned above are:

Avon Valley Cyclery 01225 442442, web pages at http://www.bikeshop.uk.com
Kinetics - web pages at http://www.kinetics.org.uk
Steve Parry 01934 516158 specifications and other information on SP bikes and modifications can be found on our web pages at http://www.foldsoc.co.uk/sp.html

Fold-It

I have no experience of the Fold-It, so I can't comment at present on this, but if there are any Fold-It owners out there who can provide information, I'd be happy to publish this here at a later date.

Micro

The Brilliant/Pashley Micro is strictly for people of average male height or less - at least in terms of saddle height; at its lowest position, even the shortest riders should be happy. The handlebars are normally very high indeed, even with the saddle at maximum height, and the reach is on the short side, resulting in a very upright riding position. I have discussed the Micro and the changes I have made to mine in past issues of Folding Society News. If you choose to risk making similar modifications, and you are of average male height or less, you should be able to achieve a very comfortable riding position, despite the limited adjustment provided on the standard machine.

Moulton

The original Moultons of the 1960s provide plenty of height adjustment for taller riders, but very short riders find that the saddle may be a bit high at its lowest position, and the reach may be a bit extended. The bars are mounted in a standard stem, so longer or shorter ones might be fitted to suit. Very small riders may find the sizing of the Moulton Mini range of that period - 7/8 scale versions of the standard models - more suitable. The less common Mk III Moultons were also sized to make them more suitable for shorter riders, though the range of adjustment should still make them suitable for all but the tallest riders. Of these early Moultons, the full size Stowaway was of course the only one to separate - all the others had fixed frames.

The original Moulton AM range too provides adjustment of saddle height to suit all but those of exceptional height. Handlebar height is altered in the normal way, but as the bikes are a standard size (like all Moultons), short riders may find the bars a bit on the high side, and tall riders, or those who like a very upright riding positions, may need some form of extender to raise the height. As the stem is standard on these models, such devices are available, and stems of different reach can easily be substituted. The latter AMs such as the Jubilee, Jubilee L and GT have the wishbone stem, which can be adjusted easily for reach and height. This stem is available with 3 different lengths of arm to suit different sizes of rider - 90 mm for shorter riders, 140mm for those of average size, and 190mm for taller riders. The various adjustments provided by the wishbones and stem mean that choice of arm length is not very critical - you can achieve almost any position you want with this system, and you can even adjust it for different types of riding - perhaps lower for fast rides, and higher for touring or commuting. While the length of arm chosen is not all that critical, due to all the adjustments provided, replacement arms are very expensive, so it is best to avoid any gross error when specifying the arm length. The New Series Moultons are just as adaptable for riding position as the models like the GT, so almost anyone should be able to achieve an ideal riding position on one of these machines. One common criticism of the Bridgestone Moulton is that it is a relatively short distance from the seat post to steerer - this is usually compensated for by using a fairly long handlebar stem.

Strida

The riding position of the Strida is one which many people find awkward - though for the short distances for which it is really intended to be used this may not be too important. There are two issues with the riding position:

As mentioned before, the Strida is really intended for fairly short distance riding, so these issues of the riding position may not be as much of a problem as might otherwise be the case.

Tactic Panache

The Tactic Panache is yet another machine that I have not been given the opportunity to test. From reports elsewhere, it seems to handle a reasonable range of rider heights, to have a reach acceptable to most people, and also has a telescopic stem, so that height can be adjusted to suite the rider. I'd welcome any comments from anyone with more direct experience.

Conclusion

Cycling should be an enjoyable experience, even when just commuting or going to the shops. Achieving a comfortable riding position is crucial to this, and its worth taking the time to make sure that your bike is set up properly. With a folder, it is sometimes difficult to keep this position, as folding often involves moving the saddle, bars etc, so it's a good idea to mark the ideal position with an indelible marker pen (don't file grooves in components - that will weaken them and could result in a breakage) to make it easy to get the right position every time. Some bikes are designed so that you don't lose the correct saddle position etc when you fold - Bike Fridays are particularly good in this respect. A trick some people use with a Brompton to make it easier to get the right saddle height each time is to put a small rivet or screw with a very small head into the seat tube near the bottom of the pillar, so that pulling the pillar right up gives the correct height every time - the screw head or rivet stops at the collar at the top of the seat tube.


Folding Society home page| Making the most of your folder