Fit, Sizing and Position
Of course, you know when shoes fit, because you've worn them since you were one and a half, or maybe even one (if you were advanced). A half size too small or big is obvious; no shoe-fitting PhD can tell you cramped toes or loose heels is A-OK.
But riding a bike and trying on shoes are not the same thing. When you sit on a bike, your body can lean, fold, bend, compress, extend, and stretch to meet the bike. If the bike fit is off significantly, you can still sit on the saddle, reach the pedals, and hold onto the handlebar. When you aren't really used to sitting on bikes, you don't know what constitutes a good fit, and you tend to believe the sales associate who tells you yeah, you look good now.
A keen-eyed salesperson can make a decent assessment of your position, but (1) not all salespeople have the skills to do that; (2) most are loathe to admit ignorance even when they have it in abundance; and (3) if a salesperson is accustomed to fitting people poorly and thinking "yeah, that's good!" then you're likely to get the same treatment. Sometimes he's been misfitting riders most of his adult life.
Sometimes a bike feels funny or uncomfortable, but the salesperson tells you that you're just not used to it, or you're using muscles you haven't used before, and it takes a few weeks to adapt.
Don't believe it. There's always some getting used to it, but right off the bat, sitting on a new bike that fits you and is set up right so that it gives you a good position should feel about as natural as sitting in a chair. Your hands on the bars should feel like hands on a table in front of you. There is something to be said for breaking in your bottom or whatever, but it should feel at least reasonable right off the bat. You shouldn't have to adapt to or tolerate discomfort even a little, not even when the bike is new.
Over time, you may find that you want the bars higher or lower, closer or nearer, and there may be some other minor adjustments that fine-tune your position as you start to form your own opinions based on your experience. There isn't a cycler alive who hasn't wanted to change stems or handlebars at some point or other. But when you buy a bike from us, we minimize and often eliminate the need to fine-tune. But you may want to do it sometime, because the need to monkey is deep in our genes.
Most riders are most comfortable when the handlebar is a few centimeters higher than the saddle. Some like it four or five inches higher. Some like the look of the bar lower than the saddle, but few riders over 35 like a low bar once they've ridden a higher one.
To achieve that bar height, it helps to start with a bike that's the largest practical size you can ride. We suggest you get the size that allows you to put the handlebar at least 2cm higher than the saddle. That works great for most people. You can always lower the bar if you find it's too high, but it's rare when that happens.
How much crotch clearance do you need?
The Consumer Products Safety Commission says when your feet are flat on the ground and you're straddling the bike, you need an inch between your crotch and the top tube. We interpret "crotch" as "pubic bone," and with our method of sizing, you always get that, and sometimes a lot more.
The bike's standover height is how high the top tube is, at the point where you'd straddle it (roughly the middle. If you know that and your pubic bone height (PBH), you'll know how much clearance you'll have. PBH is a huge deal with us, and everything related to sizing flows from it, so know yours. Here's how to measure it.
How to make a PBH-measuring device
Get two slats of wood, like paint-stirring sticks or anything, really. Put the lip of a metal metric measuring tape between them, and either squeeze the tape there so it doesn't slip out, or tape the sticks together. Alternative: Use a thin hardcover book, such as The Cat In the Hat.
How To Measure PBH
Stand with bare or stocking feet 10-inches apart on a hard floor. Put the tape-stick under your crotch, with one hand behind you and one in front, and pull up hard, as though trying to lift yourself off the ground. Have a friend read the measurement on the floor. That's your PBH.
If you repeat this a hundred times (you don't have to, but if you do), go by the largest number you get, not the average. It's impossible to pull the stick past your pubic bone, and so the largest number is the most accurate.
Just so you know you're in the ballpark: If you're 5 feet 5 inches tall, your PBH will probably be between 78 and 81. If you're 6 feet, it'll probably be between 87 and 91.
Us versus Them
Most bikes are sold too small. We see it all the time: bars way below the saddle, the rider leaned over 35-degrees with arms straight out as his hands are on the brake hoods. If he took his hands off the bar he'd flop down and smack his nose on the stem. It's not comfortable or correct.
When you come to us for a bike, we'll ask what size you ride now, and invariably put you on a bike that's two to five centimeters bigger. You'll still have crotch clearance, but your bar will be higher, you'll lean over less, and you'll be a lot more comfortable.
You don't need a Rivendell to get this position. Our bikes are designed to make it easy and to not require extreme measures to achieve it. So they look good while feeling good. But let's say you have a bike you like already, but you want to like it more; or you don't like it, but a new one's not going to happen for you, not right now. You aren't stuck, unless your bike is way too small and has a threadless headset and it's companion, the non-raisable clamp-on stem. Then, truly, you're stuck.
But if your bike has a quill stem, you have options up the wazoo:
Get a new stem with a longer quill, an up-angle, or both. We have them coming out of our ears, and your local shop may, too.
Can't afford a new stem, and don't care a whole heckuva lot if the bike looks semi-funkadelic, as long as it's groovily comfy? Then get a Stem Riser. It's an insert that goes into the steerer and then the stem goes into it, and it jacks the bars way up. It has solved a thousand problems, saved a thousand backs, necks, and hads. We got (in the stem section), and some bike shops do, too.