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The saddle height and setback conundrum

Saddle height
Saddle adjustments are best achieved in small increments, instead of large margins (Image credit: Shimano)

It might not have any moving parts or contact with the road, but the saddle is a vital power and comfort component on your bike.

Without an ergonomic and correct seat position, you’ll always be producing sub-optimal power and probably compound your pedal stroke into an injury.

Setting your seat height and angle might appear to be trivially simple, but many riders underestimate how much difference a few millimetres or degrees can make. Incorrect seat height or angle can ruin the joy of a promising new frame choice or boutique bike build.

To ensure you achieve the best possible riding position, it is worth understanding how seatpost height and saddle angle influence your riding. 

Although the fundamental purpose of a bicycle seat is providing a fixed position on the bike, where a rider is not required to support their own weight, it is amazing how influential small discrepancies in its position can be.

Optimising your saddle position should follow a sequential tasking: height first, then angle. Incorrect seat position will induce a misery of consequences, including knee pain and possibly lower back cramping.

Realising the best saddle height on your bike is perhaps the easiest adjustment you can make, yet many riders make the mistake of setting their seat height too low. This is understandable, as we have a natural inclination to seek a lower centre of gravity on any bike, boosting cornering and unclipping confidence.

The issue with a seat set too low, is that it will compress the pedal stroke dynamic and generate pain around the front of your knee. Putting your seatpost at a position which is too high, and you’ll trigger the inverse: stretching your pedal stroke too far and provoking pain around the back of the knee.

Keep it simple 

So how do you get seat height at a position where your knees are at low risk of cadence induced pain and pedal stroke dynamics are enhanced? 

If you don’t have access to Retul Bike Fit specialists like Bora Hansgrohe, or the budget to allow a professional biokinetic bike fit, there is a time honoured method of establishing ideal seat height. All you need are a few minutes, a wall to brace against or a robust bike stand to provide stability.

Take station on your bike, with the cranks at their 12-and-6 position. Set your heel on the centre of the pedal axle. Now adjust the seat so that your leg is straightened in this posture. Simple, isn’t it?

The above remains your best simple method of achieving amateur home-fit seat height adjustment. The moment you move your foot back from that heel-on-axle position, there will be a slight bend in your knee, which allows for the flexibility to power through your pedal stroke.  

With your seatpost extension now expertly set, how about angle? The margin of adjustment required to secure an ideal seat angle is even smaller than those millimetres involved in seatpost height.

If saddle height balances the pedal stroke, seat angle is your comfort index. The angle of your saddle, tipped up or slightly nosed down, is what keeps you comfortable on a long ride and avoids numbness between the hips or cramping in the upper body.

The issue with saddle angle adjustments is that not all seats are shaped with a similar tip-to-tip profile. Certain brands produce virtually flat saddles, while others have greater contouring along their length.

Angling the saddle slightly upwards has been a traditional error of most riders, seeking to reduce saddle pressure. The industry has largely solved this issue with its selection of cut-out and centre-channel saddle designs, which eliminate traditional seat pressure points.

Where saddle height is less dependent on your cockpit geometry and measurements, saddle angle correlates strongly with the length of your stem and shape of those handlebars. If you are confident of having set correct saddle height, and still experiencing lower back pain, angle your seat slightly more towards level.

Those hands cramping or shoulders going numb? Odds are that your seat’s nose is pointing too sharply down, shifting more weight onto the handlebars. Solution? Tilt it up a degree or two.