Is my bike too small??

by andrewfurlow   June 11, 2009  

Earlier this year I bought a brand new (but 2006-frame) Condor Leggero and in many ways it's a brilliant bike. But I've had back problems with it ever since. My lower back hurts - sometimes more, sometimes less - after about 20 miles or so and it's really made me a worse cyclist. I'm much more comfortable on my old Langster which is a real shame as the Condor cost a hell of a lot of money.

I'm about 5'9" and it's a 52cm frame. I've tried making every adjustment possible but none seems to make much difference. The Langster is 54cm.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Is my bike too small or is there something I can do to be able to cycle proper distances again?? Anyone had lower back pain that they've got over (without getting a new bike)?

cheers
Andy

19 user comments

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First off: 52cm does sound a bit small if you're 5'9". The simplest test is to measure the reach of the bike with your forearm: resting your elbow against the nose of your saddle with your arm and hand stretched out along the top tube, then place your other hand at a right angle flat across those outretched fingers, the rule of thumb is that the outside edge of your fingers should be about paralel with the middle of the fork steerer. If the bike is too short (or too long) it can be a cause of back pain. Obviously there's not much you can do to the frame, but you can fit a longer stem and/or push the saddle back on the rails a centimetre or so to get a bit more cockpit room. Small differences can have a surprising effect.

I suffer from lower back pain on test bikes all the time: ones that are just the right size, ones that are on the small side and ones that are too big (though they're rare!). I can get rid of it every time though, just by tilting the saddle very slightly down at the nose. I ride all my bikes with this setup now, certainly works for me. I've also heard people sing the praises of yoga/core strength work to improve flexibility and strength in the midriff as a way to beat the back pain.

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7468 posts]
11th June 2009 - 14:37

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Another way of getting a rough idea of the right size is as a proportion of your inside leg measurement.

This article by Dave Moulton is quite informative regarding how he measures people for a bike, may help give an idea of the correct size for you.

Dave Moulton Bike Fit

Complicating matters since 1965

DaSy's picture

posted by DaSy [649 posts]
11th June 2009 - 15:07

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Thanks both, that's really helpful

andrewfurlow's picture

posted by andrewfurlow [37 posts]
11th June 2009 - 15:20

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The most likely problem with a small frame causing back problems tends to be the saddle to bar drop.

Usually, as the heatube is shorter, to scale the frame down for the samller rider, this can create quite a big drop, as you have to have the saddle at the correct height for your leg length.

Assuming the steerer tube has already been cut, you could correct, or improve this by getting a positive rise stem (often just flipping your current stem over will help)to reduce the drop and therefore reduce the amount you have to bend your lower back to reach the bars.

Complicating matters since 1965

DaSy's picture

posted by DaSy [649 posts]
11th June 2009 - 15:43

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dave_atkinson wrote:
I suffer from lower back pain on test bikes all the time: ones that are just the right size, ones that are on the small side and ones that are too big (though they're rare!). I can get rid of it every time though, just by tilting the saddle very slightly down at the nose. I ride all my bikes with this setup now, certainly works for me.

I was wondering why the saddle was at a funny angle on your picture of the Kinesis test bike.

It is difficult to give advice about lower back pain, because everyone is different. Some people have spines which are too convex in the small of the back, which sounds like Dave. For others, like me, they are too concave. For me cycling helped cure the lower back pain I was suffering from sitting at a desk all day, and a horizontal saddle is comfortable. One of my colleagues has his saddle tilted so far down that I don't understand how he doesn't slide off the nose.

Andy, I would guess that the drop to your bars is too big. You see the pros riding with horizontal backs when on the drops, but I've heard that very long distance cyclists recommend having you back at 45 degrees.

How about getting someone to photograph you from the side when you're riding your Condor and your Langster, and comparing?

two wheels good; four wheels bad

posted by cat1commuter [1367 posts]
11th June 2009 - 17:02

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Quote:
I was wondering why the saddle was at a funny angle on your picture of the Kinesis test bike.

heh. guilty Smile i was fine on it for 65 miles on it though when I took it out for a spin before it went off for proper testing, despite the fact that if I was buying a KR510 I'd go a size bigger.

cat1commuter and DaSy are right - the drop to the bars is one of the most likely things to be a problem, and it's fairly easy to play about with that. Specialized do an excellent stem, the Comp Road, which uses three shims to allow a variety of different angles, both up and down. It might be worth investing in something like that (maybe get one that's a size longer than the one you're running now, too) and trying a few positions.

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7468 posts]
11th June 2009 - 21:13

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Everyone is different in geometry and comfort but as a guide I use a 51/52cm bike (depending on manufacturer) for time trial/tri riding when down on the aero bars but when riding a normal road bike I have a 56cm. Seems to fit me fine and Im 5ft 9"

not all carbon is the same.

Jon Burrage's picture

posted by Jon Burrage [1081 posts]
12th June 2009 - 1:13

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Having adjusted my seat a little last night following dave_atkinson's sage advice, I can feel that that might well help. A long ride at the weekend will tell and I'll be adjusting my bars too so that I'm nearer a 45 degree angle.

Thanks again

andrewfurlow's picture

posted by andrewfurlow [37 posts]
12th June 2009 - 11:14

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let us know how you get on...

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7468 posts]
12th June 2009 - 11:25

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Rode 30 miles on Saturday and 50 yesterday and sadly adjusting the seat may improve things a little but after 20 or so miles I was pretty uncomfortable and hard-pushed to say I was enjoying riding. Some pilates is probably next on the to-try list...

andrewfurlow's picture

posted by andrewfurlow [37 posts]
15th June 2009 - 9:15

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I can't comment on the bike sizing, but I can relate to the low back issues.

I've been battling low back pain for about a year now. My doc is kinda dismissive about most gripes, and when I asked him why all the sudden my back was hurting more and more, he said, "you're out of shape... work on your muscle tone." That was a little insulting considering I had been training my arse off for the previous 3 months and I was performing very well on the bike, but I digress.

After some more discussion (mostly me pleading my case about my fitness) he acknowledged that it wasn't that I was weak overall, but rather that I was imbalanced. He told me to get to a chiropractor who works with athletes, do some serious work on core strength, and get a professional bike fitment.

The chiropractic care has helped. Not just the manipulations, but my chiro insists that proper stretching and core strength exercises can mitigate most of my pains. He's adamant about it. I was skeptical at first, but after a few weeks of blind faith I really started to see improvement. I got lax about the stretching and core strength stuff as my pain subsided and sure enough the pain crept right back in. Got back on the routine and sure enough things got better. I'm convinced.

In particular, I find that a few sets of hip bridges and a solid 5 minutes of psoas muscle stretches after a ride (or an unfortunate day of sitting alot) leaves me feeling a lot better the next day. I also have a set of core strength exercises that help balance me out and keep my cycling (and sitting) from distorting my spine as easily.

posted by TheBigMong [218 posts]
28th March 2012 - 14:22

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Take the bike to a local shop that will assess your fit.

Core stability work rules, and does genuinely benefit.

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3410 posts]
28th March 2012 - 15:11

1 Like

Try checking the saddle height on the Condor vs the height on your Langster (factor in whether the cranks are the same length too). I get some lower back pain if saddle height is even a matter of a few millimetres higher than my usual set-up

posted by Sadly Biggins [266 posts]
28th March 2012 - 15:37

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If you can, try a compression shirt, I found that really helped me. For a core exercise, try planks. Take minutes to do but are dead effective.
Dave, could you explain that elbow/hand thing again please? Thanks

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing..."

Cooks's picture

posted by Cooks [491 posts]
30th March 2012 - 20:29

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I'm 5' 8'' and a bit and I have a 56cm road frame and I don't have any problems although I sometimes think it's a fraction too big. Tried a 54cm and it seemed a bit small. Would prefer a 55cm but it wasn't available for the bike I wanted.

Could there be other factors such as vibration? Are the frames made of different materials? (I don't know anything about your brands but I assume the Langster is steel and the Condor is carbon.) I tried a Boardman carbon frame and found it rather harsh. I ride the cheapest Specialized Secteur (aluminium with carbon forks with those funny things in them) and find it pretty smooth even when riding on small Fenlad roads not renowned for their tarmac.

Had back problems in the past so I know the importance of sorting this out.

Tight hamstrings and hip flexors can also be a problem as they lead to more back rounding rather than holding a 'neutral' position. A study (Burnetta, A et al., (2004)Spinal kinematics and trunk muscle activity in cyclists: a comparison between healthy controls and non-specific chronic low back pain subjects - a pilot investigation. Manual Therapy: 9 211-219) found that cyclists who suffer from back pain tend to curl forwards more in their lower back.
[taken from 'Beating Back Pain' by Mark Alexander available from www.pponline.co.uk - this website has a lot of sports related info on a variety of subjects including cycling and core strength.] Flexibility and posture are as important as abs and there are various very small balance muscles that aren't affected by traditional core strength exercises that are better dealt with by Yoga, Alexander Technique, which is what I used when I had a back problem, and Pilates). It may well be that the smaller frame is leading to more back rounding and therefore back pain. Dave's saddle 'trick' may also have the effect of putting him in a more 'neutral' position.

If it's really a problem and the advice given here doesn't sort it out, bite the bullet and sell the Condor and get a 54/55cm frame instead. Your back is more important than your wallet.

posted by Alan Tullett [1461 posts]
31st March 2012 - 20:08

1 Like

sizing is a funny game i use 3 bikes one is a 90's 53cm with supper short head tube, a 54cm caad10 racing snake and a 56cm orbea aqua. and im 5' 9' . thing i found was finding a comfortable contact point zone and making everything fit to that so for example make sure your running the same bar/seat/pedals. then from you comfy bike measure top of stem to floor vertically, tip of seat to bar edge/hood. top of seat to centre of bottom bracket. then do what you can to make them match. this works to a point but other factors are steel/alu/carbon all behave differently. best ride for me over long distances is the steel bike, cannondale for sub 40 mile hammer time, or 40-70 miles on the orbea for a more relaxed ride with less weight than the steel. hope this helps a little

posted by russyparkin [579 posts]
1st April 2012 - 23:47

1 Like

russyparkin wrote:
sizing is a funny game i use 3 bikes one is a 90's 53cm with supper short head tube, a 54cm caad10 racing snake and a 56cm orbea aqua. and im 5' 9' . thing i found was finding a comfortable contact point zone and making everything fit to that so for example make sure your running the same bar/seat/pedals. then from you comfy bike measure top of stem to floor vertically, tip of seat to bar edge/hood. top of seat to centre of bottom bracket. then do what you can to make them match. this works to a point but other factors are steel/alu/carbon all behave differently. best ride for me over long distances is the steel bike, cannondale for sub 40 mile hammer time, or 40-70 miles on the orbea for a more relaxed ride with less weight than the steel. hope this helps a little

That's very similar to the method I use. I'm a long-of-body 6' and ride a steel Bianchi @ 57, a Zerofour Ti Audax @ 55 and an Alu Boardman Hybrid in Large (54???) All three have the same distances between the contact points at saddle top in line with seat post, bar and the crank bolt. I had a 53 alu carbon Bianchi and I found that (even with a 130 stem flipped up) to be THE most uncomfortable ride ever... my slightly leggier (but same height) mate loved it though!

My eyes prefer Celeste, my bum prefers titanium.

Jack Osbourne snr's picture

posted by Jack Osbourne snr [305 posts]
5th April 2012 - 7:21

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Interesting thread - I'm 5'8" and my bike is a rather nice made to measure custom build, and it's 48" It's teeny, but (obviously) fits me perfectly.

Granted, I am a slightly strange shape (the frame builder asked me about 4 times if I was absolutly sure my measurements were correct, as they looked so weird), but my old bike was 52" and that was WAY too big.

I think whatever various peoples opinions on here might suggest, you are unique so it won't (necessarily) work for you. Get a bike fitting done, and if you're bike is the wrong size it's not worth hanging on to.

posted by localsurfer [169 posts]
7th April 2012 - 14:45

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I'm doing some chiropractic ATM too, and it seems to be helping.

Hamstring stretches also. Smile

Sir Velo

Raleigh's picture

posted by Raleigh [1733 posts]
7th April 2012 - 18:51

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