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You may notice that bicycle seat heights can vary greatly, from the ultra-bottom style of casual low-riders up to the seemingly impossible height of road racers. Which raises the question: Why are road bike seats so high?
Seats on road bikes are set very high to allow for the most leverage possible from a rider’s legs, therefore generating the most power possible to move bicycles faster. It’s about pedaling efficiency, and to a lesser extent avoiding pain in the knees.
Known as saddle height, the elevation of a road bike’s seat is usually too low for beginning road bikers — and for almost all bicyclists for that matter. It’s a trend that starts when young while riding tricycles, progressing as a person grows and gets used to the sense of safety to feel the feet touch the ground.
However, eventually road bike riders need to learn how to properly mount and dismount, which eliminates the hesitancy to raise the bike seat. Higher road bike seats are optimal for leg extension and power-pedaling, to get the most energy possible from each pedal stroke.
Bicycle Enthusiasts Shed Light into Seat Height
While some bicycling experts claim there are formulas to determine optimal bike seat heights, in reality it depends mostly on the rider and comfort. When a road bike seat is too low, typically your thighs and other parts of the legs will let you know relatively quickly.
Some cycling experts suggest raising a road bike seat a little at a time, maybe a half-inch to start, and then ride a bit to test it out and get used to it. Keep doing it until you get to a point where you know it’s probably just right, or even at that point maybe a little too high.
Need verification? Check online cycling forums, and you’re bound to see statements like these:
- You want the legs to be nearly fully extended at the bottom point of the pedal stroke, because this generates more power and helps reduce pain in the knees.
- No serious road bikers have saddles they can sit on and, when not moving, still touch the ground. If they do, they do so barely, with just the toes.
- When stopped, get used to sliding forward to get off the saddle and plant your feet when needed.
- You will be pedaling much, much more than stopping and standing. Remember this and set the seat high for maximum power and pedaling efficiency. Learn to stand over the top tube when stopped.
Road Bikes 101
Road bikes are slim and sleek bicycles designed with a focus on taking riders fast and far. In the old days they might have been called simply “10-speeds,” or later “15-speeds,” but nowadays not only are there road bikes but a variety of bicycles for a range of riding desires. Bicycle gears or speeds now can go as high as 27-speed.
They’re called “road” bikes because that’s the surface they are designed for: on roadways. At first glance, one might say road bikes have looked the same for at least a half-century. However, upon close inspection today you can find savvy adjustments to frame designs, use of high-tech materials like carbon fiber to reduce weight while improving strength, and more.
Modern road bikes are simply faster than those of yesteryears, for a number of reasons including improved rider training and diet, and the technological advancements on the bicycles themselves as noted above. Nowadays even the rims and tires are different than the old-school ultra-thin, as designers discovered that adding a little width actually improves aerodynamics to go along with a smoother ride.
Why the Low Seats on Other Bikes?
You might notice that many mountain bikers ride on low saddles. This is to allow easier movement around the bike and for riders to more easily maneuver over or around off-road obstacles. They also don’t sit when riding very often, like road bikers.
Cruising and “Townie” bikes have seats set low for slow riding and leisurely comfort.
Ride and Test for Settling on Best Seat Height
It’s not best practice to try to figure out the best road bike seat height while sitting still. Each person has different parameters for this equation including the length of legs, sizes of feet, how foot parts sit on pedals, etc. Even the thickness of shoe soles and pedal system types can play a part.
Additionally, a quick ride around the block probably won’t suffice, either. Set a new saddle height, and ride with it for an extended period, and pay close attention to your stamina, and joints. Changes might not jump out at you, but over a little time you should be able to notice differences.
High Seats and Aerodynamics
Ride a bike with a high seat and you’ll probably notice how far and low you have to lean to hold the handlebars. This actually is an advantage for road bikers as it reduces the amount of a rider’s body that is exposed to wind, reducing air drag and therefore helping to maintain speed.
Leaning forward and low boosts a rider’s aerodynamics when rolling very fast. Watch any touring race and you’ll see every rider tucked very low when they’re on long, fast downhill stretches. Such stances also can help pedaling as it shifts weight off the legs, and onto the hands and arms. The lighter weight on the legs can make it easier for riders to pedal faster.
High Road Bike Seats and Handlebar Choice
Almost hand-in-hand with the high saddles on road bikes are the handlebars, which also are selected for a combination of performance and comfort. Road bikes typically have what are called drop handlebars — those curving, curled steering bars that kind of look like rams’ horns.
Drop bars give riders 3 options to choose from, ranging from gripping the straight section near the stem for a more upright, comfortable riding position, to leaning down and forward to hold the very ends good for control on fast down slopes.
Then There are the Bike Seats
While there are a number of super-padded bicycle seats available on the market, those are aimed at leisurely riding and comfort and not for the hard cycling associated with road bikes. Road bike saddles usually are very narrow, to accommodate more active thigh movements, and hardly padded.
Think impact to the soft tissues in your inner thigh and underside, sometimes called the sit bone area. Since the size of the latter is different for each rider, bike saddles are offered in a variety of sizes and shapes and it’s wise to try to test one or two out before settling on a seat long-term.
Road bike riders spend a lot of time anchored on top of those seats so it could be among the most important purchasing decisions you’ll make involved with the sport.
Question: How do you know when a road bike seat is too high?
Answer: Trial and error. Adjust road bike seat heights a little at the time, and ride around after each time and take notice of how you feel. Remember, it’s not just about performance, but also comfort as your rear end will be set on it for hours at a time.
Q.: Why don’t road bike manufacturers produce bicycles or bike frames to make it easier to mount and dismount?
A.: They do, and are. In recent years adjusted frames with lower top bars nearest the seat are more common on road bikes, resembling a lot of mountain bike frame styles. Some are delivering frames with seat tubes angled to allow the feet to be comfortably placed on the ground while stopped.