Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

So, how do you really know if the bike fits?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

JOHN ESPLEY e-mails with a query. He wants to replace his "decent hybrid" with a proper road bike. He doesn't to waste time or money making bad decisions, but he can't find a book that will tell him everything he needs to know. (He's particularly concerned with frame-size, comfort and gearing.) What advice can I offer?

Where do you start? John is right that there is a dearth of good general cycling books. As regular readers will know, this column's bible is Richard Ballantine's Richard's Bicycle Book, which is sadly and inexplicably out of print.

It's odd that more publishers aren't straining to cash in on the growth in cycling. Matt Seaton published a book this summer called On Your Bike, which aspires to do the same job as Richard's. I will try to get a copy and report back.

The cheapest option is a second-hand copy of Richard's on Amazon or abebooks.com. But given the swift pace of change in cycling technology in the past 10 years, make sure it's a recent edition.

If the books aren't out there, the websites are. But the disadvantage of the internet, compared with a book, is the quantity of conflicting advice.

I've always thought of sizing as reasonably straightforward: look for a bike that you can stand over and still have a couple of inches clearance under your pubic bone and go from there.

But Rivendellbicycles. com's "Bicycling 101" series of tutorials argues that most shops and manufacturers sell their customers frames that are a couple of inches too small. And the advent of the sloping top-tube means that the stand-over rule is often irrelevant.

The great Sheldon Brown, at sheldonbrown. com, thinks that you should go for the bike that gives you the best top-tube length - in other words, make sure that you have a comfortable stretch forward to the handlebars, then just adjust the saddle height.

And then, what do you do about handlebar height? The boys at CycleFit, who gave my riding position such a thorough going-over a few weeks back, say that having the handlebars slightly lower than the saddle gives better cornering.

Rivendell reckons most people will feel more comfortable with the handlebars slightly higher than the saddle. I'm pretty sure they're both right - it's a question of priorities.

A lot of the time, the best thing is to place yourself in the hands of your local bike shop. But not all bike shops are equal. I've had conflicting advice from different shops, and even from different staff in the same bike shop. And if you buy Rivendell's line on sizing, they're all telling you the wrong thing anyway.

Too often, as well, the assistants can't get to grips with the needs of the older, stiffer rider. The trick is to keep scouting around. Try different shops and different people until you find someone who seems to talk your language.

I do have some positive thoughts, though. One is that there is a pretty good website, cyclestaffordshire.co.uk, that should help John find his ideal bike shop (if anybody has any tips, let me know and I'll pass them on).

Another is that if John's hybrid is a good fit and has gears that are up to the job (from what he says, they just about are), he can be putting in plenty of miles on the moors while he's looking around for a replacement.

A final thought (though from what he says, this doesn't apply to John) is that there are hybrids and hybrids. Some of them are clunkers, and a lot of them force their riders into positions that won't feel at all comfortable after the first 15 miles. Some have pretty nice, lightweight frames; all you need is a change of tyres, and maybe new handlebars.

Ah, but that's a whole new can of worms.

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