bike fit

Fixing Bike Fit Issues for Cyclists Over 50


by Renee Eastman
MS, CSCS, USAC Level 1, Retul Fit Level 1,
CTS Premier Coach

Bike fit issues affecting aging athletes are largely related to unrealistic expectations. For some, that manifests as a desire for a certain aesthetic, like the high saddle and low handlebar look they see from pros and limber amateurs just out of college. For experienced cyclists, the problem is often reticence to change a saddle or handlebar position they’ve had for years, even decades. After a dozen years as a RETÜL bike fitter, I can confidently say that either rationale does more harm than good. Although every bike fit is individualized, here are some common bike fit problems and the solutions I use to help cyclists in their 50s, 60s, and 70s improve comfort, power output, and aerodynamics.

The problems and solutions below are not exclusive to aging athletes, nor does getting older automatically mean a cyclist’s position must change. Age itself doesn’t drive the need to adjust bike fit, but rather, changes in fit are driven by changes in mobility, flexibility, range of motion, and muscle strength – all of which can be affected by age.

Problem: Upper Body Pain or Numbness

Upper body comfort is one of the main issues I address with older riders. Athletes typically present with complaints of numb hands and/or pain around the neck and low back. A physical examination then reveals limited mobility and flexibility, at least compared to self-reports from their younger days. In short, their bars are too low and too far away. Most often, the changes I make for these athletes include raising the bars and/or shortening the reach.

More Spacers, Shorter Stem

While loss of joint mobility is not an exclusive issue for the older athlete, we do tend to lose mobility as we age. We also lose a little height from spinal compression, which further exacerbates issues of reach to the bars. To address this, I often increase the height of the bars with spacers under the stem. If that’s not possible we move to a stem with a steeper positive angle. This often coincides with transitioning to a shorter stem to further decrease reach. However, installing a very short stem and/or a stem with a steep angle can have negative consequences on bike handling because it shifts weight distribution towards the back end of the bike.

Shorter reach handlebar

Another option can be changing to handlebars with a shorter reach. Reach is the distance from the center of the bars to the bend. Many standard bars come with a 90 mm reach, but a compact or short reach bar might be 65-70 mm. A shorter reach handlebar reduces the overall reach difference between riding on the tops and the hoods, which can be helpful for comfort. And the steering input with a shorter reach bar coupled with longer stem may feel more stable, compared to a shorter stem and longer reach bar. This has to do with where your hands are positioned within the steering arc. In practice, many riders feel that shortening the reach to the brake hoods with a short reach handlebar has less impact on handling characteristics compared to shortening the stem with a longer reach bar.

Address mobility

Long-term, we want to address the issues of mobility and flexibility. Specifically, this means the muscles around the hips, including the hip flexors, hamstrings, and piriformis. Hip mobility controls how well you can rotate your pelvis and how low of a trunk angle (i.e. angle between a straight line from your hip to shoulder the horizontal plane) you can tolerate on the bike. Hamstring flexibility also plays a role in saddle height. So, these muscles are of particular importance for your bike position.

Some practical recommendations for improving mobility would be using a dynamic warm up before you ride, doing more foam rolling on those specific tight areas, and more focused stretching practice like yoga.

Problem: Bike doesn’t match style of riding.  

Many cyclists change their bikes, goal events, and styles of riding as they reach their 50s and beyond. Bike geometry can affect the comfort, stability, and effectiveness of a cycling position. Many athletes move away from high-performance road racing and more towards more long-distance endurance or gravel events where comfort is of greater priority than aerodynamics.

Key differences between race geometry and endurance/gravel geometry include frame stack and reach. Endurance and gravel bikes have generally a shorter reach and higher stack height than a race performance bike of similar size. A higher stack height allows for a more upright position, and shorter reach means the bars will be closer to the body. As a result, these frames are often well suited to older riders. Problems arise when cyclists try to match the aesthetics of aerodynamic road racing bike on high stack, short reach frames.

Limitations of integrated cockpits

I love the minimalist look made possible integrated cockpits with internal cable routing and one-piece handlebar/stem combos. Although these are sometimes found on gravel and endurance-geometry road bikes, they are most common on aero road bikes. A lot of well-intended master cyclists want these top-of-the-line aero road bikes. The bikes are fast, but the geometry is often too aggressive for older athletes. A big limiter on some aero bikes is an integrated cockpit that allows for little to no adjustment in the height and reach of the bars. Unfortunately, I’ve had bike fit clients who will never be able to ride a recently purchased bike comfortably because it is simply too aggressive for their flexibility range. This is why I always recommend getting a bike fit before buying a new bike, especially if the new bike you’re considering has different geometry than your current bike(s).

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For those who need changes in reach beyond the limit of their current bike’s configuration, I often recommend a new bike more suited to their riding style and current range of motion. The bonus is that new bikes are great. Considering recent advances with disc brakes, electronic shifting, and even aero bikes with relaxed endurance geometry, riders are often surprised by how much better they feel and how much faster they ride on today’s bikes compared to bikes from 5-10 years ago. A bike that fits you comfortably and aligns with your style of riding is going to be your fastest bike because you can actually ride it without pain.

Problem: Riding the wrong saddle for anatomy and riding style.

Numbness or pain in the saddle area is another big concern. As riders move away from aggressive, aerodynamic racing positions to more relaxed and upright endurance positions, changes in weight distribution may necessitate a change in saddle. While it is beyond the scope of this article to analyze all the types of saddles out there, it’s good to know some key differences in saddles.

Saddle width

Most saddles come in small (~135mm), medium (~145mm), or large (~155mm) widths. The right saddle width for you is determined by your sit bone width and riding style. Generally, I want to see an athlete on a saddle that is at least 10mm wider than their sit bones. When an athlete has a more upright position, a saddle 20mm wider than their sit bones works better.

If a saddle is too narrow, then weight isn’t evenly distributed on the sit bones. That results in too much pressure on the soft tissue towards the front of the saddle. That athlete may constantly push back on the saddle to try to get to the widest part. As saddle that is too wide is less of a problem, unless there is chaffing around the crease between the butt cheek and upper thigh. If someone is between sizes, I steer them towards the wider saddle as that tends to cause fewer issues.

Saddle shape

Beyond width, saddles come in various shapes. Front to back, a saddle can be flat or wave shaped. Waved saddles are generally good for someone with more flexibility around the hips and who rides in a more forward-leaning aerodynamic position. A saddle that is flat front to back is better for those who ride in a more upright position.

Saddle selection is an issue that can’t always be solved with advice in an article. A qualified fitter or salesperson at your local shop can likely assess the comfort issues you’re having in the saddle area. They can then measure your sit bones and recommend saddles with the appropriate width in a variety of shape categories. Many shops offer trials where you can test ride a saddle to see if it’s going to work for you before you purchase.


Bike fit articles are always limited by the fact not every tip can apply to every athlete. Nevertheless, if you’re not as comfortable on your bike as you were years ago, I hope you now have some options to consider. The simplest and most commonly effective changes for aging athletes are raising your bars and bringing your hands closer to your body. That’s certainly been the case for me now that I’m in my 50s.

The best advice I can give is to seek the advice of a professional bike fitter. There are resources like the Retul fitter search here and you can visit me at CTS in Colorado Springs or at Criterium Bikes in Colorado Springs, my CTS colleague Reid Beloni at FitbyReid in North Carolina, or try your local bike shop, too. If you’ve never had a fit before, that’s a great place to start. You may not be able to solve all the issues on the bike, but a more experienced eye can certainly address some of these basic changes I mentioned.

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Comments 20

  1. What a great article. Renee I wish you were closer. I’m 56 and have been riding the same race geometry road bike since 2013. I’ve lost some flexibility over the years and a few years ago installed a stem with a steeper angle that alleviated those issues. I decided to purchase a new bike a few months ago and after a lot of research bought an endurance frame. I did a lot of research and took a lot of measurements before purchasing and thought I would be able to comfortably step onto the new bike but that hasn’t been the case. It feels like I’m reaching too far for the bars. It has an integrated bar/stem setup but I do have an option to insert more spacers. Since I’m not longer young and nimble, I think it’s time I go to a professional instead of trying to figure this out myself.

  2. Thanks for all the info. I am 67 years old and have not had a lot of problems, but like some of the other readers i have had problems with hand numbness. I have also had problems with pain in the ball of my feet. I am not sure what I can do there.
    Thanks again.

    1. James, those are pretty common issues. The hand numbness can often be factor of too much pressure on the hands which is often because bars are too low and/ or too far away. Another factor there is just position of the hoods which can be altered to put the wrist in a neutral position ideally. Foot numbness can come from different things, but what I’d look at first is if your shoes are too tight. Also, I see a lot of success with alleviating foot pressure with adding in more supportive footbed in the shoe to better distribute pressure in the shoe. You can try some off the shelf cycling designed foot beds to start – Specialized makes one I use a lot – but for some folks getting custom footbeds works better.

  3. I dealt with a lot of hand numbness until I changed to a carbon handlebar. I also went from 44 cm to 42 cm. Even though I’m tall, 6′ 1.5″, my body isn’t wide. I wear a shirt size M, chest measurement 40″.

    I believe both changes, material and width, contributed to the improvement.

    Most non competitive cyclist should look at endurance and gravel bikes as the first option.

  4. Hi Renee,

    Your article is very timely. I am currently looking at changing my cockpit as I have neck pain and numbness in my hands from a degenerative neck condition. I have raised my stem and am now looking for handlebars with a short reach that will also absorb road buzz. If they had a flatter top section, that would be good as I find that easier on my hands as well. I am looking for carbon, any suggestions

    1. Harry,
      While I am a fit specialist, I’ll admit that I’m not a parts specialist. When I have a client with specific request like I push them towards our sales specialists in the shop I work, and that’s the best advice I can give you is to talk to a qualified mechanic or sales person in your local shop to see what’s available in the dimensions you’re looking for.

      1. And I’ll add, that not only works in the dimensions you want but is compatible with the clamp for your stem as well as any other considerations like internal/ external cable routing for your specific frame. There is so much proprietary stuff out there now that just picking up a set of bars off the shelf doesn’t always work with every bike.

  5. Hi Renee,

    I had a heavy crash on grass this mid-July in a gravel bike race. Fell on right hip. No fracture but inner thigh muscles were a real mess for about 6 weeks. Then a nagging pain “get up and go” the ortho guy called it. An MRI showed two small tears on at the g. Minimus tendon and the labrial tendon. Irony is no pain on trainer doing intervals. It was mostly after sitting or first thing in morning. Any advice on adjustments? The road bike is now fitted with 165mm cranks and gravel is 170mm. 90mm stem on each. I am 5’8. Looking for a bike fit😊 but any advice is welcome at 62. A separate fit for each bike? I use Wahoo SYSTM.

      1. Alan,
        Glad you’re on the road to recovery. It would not prudent to give you any specific fit advice about dealing with your injury without seeing you in person. I do think that when you’re able to see a fit specialist in person that it would be worthwhile to fit each bike individually given that they are different bikes with different geometry.

  6. The biggest change I made this past riding season was getting a Specialized Power MIMIC Saddle. What a huge difference in my riding. I could go longer and farther without all that pain! Highly recommend this saddle. Especially for the women riders.

  7. Thank you for this informative article. Do you have any insight on feet such as cleat placement, angle etc? Also, the fore/aft adjustment for cyclists over 50?

    1. Cleat placement doesn’t tend to change nor orientation unless there has been some kind of major injury or surgery to change the structure around the foot and knee orientation. While knee replacements might be something we see more often with those over 50, it’s beyond the scope of this article to address specific injury issues. One trend that does happen as we age is that feet may get a little wider and arch can collapse. That can just necessitate trying different shoe brand/ size that fits you better.

  8. Hello,
    Wanted to say nice article on the people riding past 50 with positions that may need adjustment, back in January I raised my seat a tad on my snow bike and have had stomach discomfort since then, and trying to maintain aggressive riding style etc as you discussed in your article, I have tri bike and ride the aero position most of the time and have shortened the cranks to 165 mm raised seat a decent amount and ride a fix gear with 165 mm cracks also, ride on the drops, went to the doctor about a year ago and he said ahrunk to 5 feet 7 inches. Is this stomach discomfort going to go away by itself? It is discomfort not pain. Again nice article.

    1. It’s hard for me to give specific advice here without seeing the issue you’re describing. My suspicion is that if your saddle is higher and your bars are low on the aggressive side that the stomach discomfort that you’re experiencing might just be your flesh around your midsection getting in the way of your legs at the top of the pedal stroke. In this case you’d want to raise your bars. Even if you had the flexibility to get lower there could be just the issue of your legs hitting your midsection when pedaling.

  9. Hi,

    Thanks for the great info’, but…

    …I’ve been reading up on this stuff, and all that I can find on it is contrary to your statement, “…Waved saddles are generally good for someone with more flexibility around the hips and who rides in a more forward-leaning aerodynamic position. A saddle that is flat front to back is better for those who ride in a more upright position….”

    The rational is that the flat saddle doesn’t hinder deliberate movement fore and aft (for those who want and have the flexibility for that) and similarly allows the rider to roll their hips as desired.
    On the other hand, a waved saddle somewhat “locks” the rider in place, which can be a stabilizing benefit for those who don’t want or need or have the flexibility to be moving around on the saddle.

    Please enlighten me as I endeavor to find the right saddle.


    1. Yes, the wave form (front to back curve) does tend to lock you into position. The wave is up at the tip, depressed in the middle, and higher in the back. The higher back end of the saddle allows you to push against it with your pelvis as it rotates down and the depression in the middle keeps pressure off the soft tissue. A client with an upright position would tend to find themselves falling forward on that high back wave form saddle. Keep in mind this is different than describing saddle flat or curved when viewed from the back. This is where terminology and definitions can be confusing because different authors may use the terms differently. When viewing saddle from the back a curved saddle tends to be better than flat saddle for a more upright position.

  10. One other possibility to adjust fit is a seat post change. Many road bikes come with a setback seat post. Changing to a non setback post can shorten up that cockpit.
    At 66 I’ve definitely shrunk in size and maybe my bike choice was too big to begin with but I’ve done all things mentioned. More spacers under the bars, shorter stem and non setback post. It’s all helped but I’d really like to size down and get a proper fit.
    Thanks for looking out for us old folks.

    1. While it’s true that a more forward position with the saddle would shorten the cockpit reach, that is not how I would suggest changing reach. Saddle fore-aft, that is the alignment of the knee to the pedal spindle, should be set for best pedaling efficiency and with an eye towards keeping stress off the knee. If you push your saddle too far forward that can increase stress to the knee. Unless your saddle position warrants being more forward, then the appropriate change to shorten reach is all in the front end with stem and bars.

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