V/O and Riv on Traditional Sizing

Purely coincidentally, but dovetailing nicely with our recent conversation regarding rider position, Chris over at Velo Orange posted an article today outlining his simple method of sizing* a bike based upon pubic bone height. His recommendations are not unlike Grant Petersen’s recommendations outlined on the Rivendell site. Their sizing guidelines are both what I’d characterize as “traditional”; using either of their methods will put you on a frame slightly to dramatically larger than if you were sized at a racing-oriented shop.

Here’s an excerpt:

I generally recommend getting a traditionally-sized frame, one that’s larger than many race bike oriented shops would recommend. The traditionally sized frame will allow you to get the handlebars to proper height without a super-tall stem. And it will allow a reasonable stem extension that does not put too much of your weight over the front wheel. The frame will handle better, be more comfortable, and you’ll look better riding it.

And here’s Grant Petersen on the same subject:

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.

Our recent poll showed that a whopping 72% of our respondents prefer their handlebars either at or slightly above the height of the saddle. One way of making sure this is possible is by riding a sufficiently large frame as recommended above. Shops using “modern” sizing methods will disagree with these traditional methods and the resulting size recommendations, but some variation of this approach has worked well for me since around 1980.

*For our discussion, “sizing” should not be confused with “fitting”. Sizing methods are used to determine the frame size that will work best for an individual. This is only a starting point after which the more precise process of fitting takes place. Fitting is the process of adjusting the rider’s position through component selection and adjustment.

Velo Orange on sizing
Rivendell on sizing
More Rivendell on sizing

19 Responses to “V/O and Riv on Traditional Sizing”

  • Mike says:


    Out of curiosity, since there’s such a difference between your Rivendell and your LHT in the image from the rider position post, do you think the LHT should be a larger size? If I recall your LHT is a 56cm, would a 58cm be more appropriate?

  • Jim says:

    This advice is more applicable to bikes with threaded steerers and quill stems. With an uncut threadless steerer, handlebar height is not determined by frame size, except for cosmetic reasons or for high-impact applications where an excessively long steerer married to a short head tube may present a safety issue.

  • Alan says:


    “If I recall your LHT is a 56cm, would a 58cm be more appropriate?”

    Yes, absolutely. The LHT has a relatively long top tube and I was sized for that bike using a modern method based upon top tube length and upper body measurements. I’m convinced after riding it for 2 years that I would be happier on my usual 58 .

  • Phillip says:

    Take a look at “a different thought on frame sizing” on Dave Moulton’s Blog davesbikeblog.squarespace.com. He was a framebuilder for years and I have a lot of respect for his opinions.

  • Dan says:

    Alan, I’ve had similar experiences trying to size myself for Surly frames. The fact that most of their top tubes are longer than the seat tube makes picking the larger size intimidating and in the past I’ve erred on the side of a shorter top tube and more standover height. All of that changed when I picked up a great old Schwinn touring bike one size up from my usual 56cm. It was so much more comfortable that I’ve begun selling my smaller frames and replacing them with ones that are closer to a “traditional” fit. In my experience, your advice of “get your bars to the right height and the rest will follow” is spot on.

  • Tom says:

    Thanks for mentioning the “modern method” of bike sizing. I was at a bike shop with my 25 year old touring bike and the bike fitter told me it was too big. I said I had been riding this bike for 25 years and really liked it and had no problems with it. The size he would have be buy would have felt like a child’s bike to me. Plus, it would be very difficult to lift my massive head long enough to see where I was going. It would have been more aerodynamic though.

    Now I have some perspective on where this crazy man was coming from.

    BTW I did not buy a bike there because it would have been too difficult to buy what I wanted.

  • Phillip says:

    I shouldn’t be so lazy. Here’s the link.

  • Bob says:

    In the absence of dedicated and interested individuals at bike companies, such as Chris at V/O and Grant at Rivendell, sizing depends on the depth of stock at one’s LBS. Unfortunately, most shops keep only one size of a touring-geometry frame built up and on the sales floor, if they keep any at all. Before I bought my LHT, my shop owner would call me to check out various sizes he’d ordered for other customers before they picked them up. Good thing. Otherwise I’d be unhappily riding a 58 LHT instead of the 56, which turns out to be right for me after all.

  • Pete says:

    I recently bought my Rivendell based on their sizing recommendations. Having been away from bikes for many years (and being in very, er, “different” shape than before!), I’m having trouble getting the rest of the fit right.
    Unfortunately, all the bike shops around me are very road-race centric.

  • Geo says:

    When sizing someone up I tend to edge towards a higher headtube w/a shorter stem than a smaller bike w/a longer stem. The general population who are on road bikes who come into my shop tend to be looking for a comfortable ride, but those guys who have the flexibility and are going to be racing definitely go for that huge drop.

    A lot of manufacturers are catching onto this “more upright” philosophy, and the majority of fittings we preform end up with people going to +7º or +17º stems on their road bikes. You’re seeing it with the wildly popular Roubaix geometry, the Trek Pilot series & the new H3 headtube option from Trek for 2011 as well.

    What it all boils down to is people need to pay attention to what the CUSTOMER NEEDS, and finding the best fit to accomplish that. That being said – all my commuters have my bar above my saddle, but you wouldn’t see that on my racing bikes ;)

  • Fergie348 says:

    I’ve found that the top tube length (or virtual top tube for bikes with highly sloped top tubes) is the most important measurement. I agree that people frequently buy bikes that are too small for them, but that’s because they pay too much attention to the standover height (a useless measurement when discussing bike fit). I never even look at a seat tube measurement – if the top tube is the right length then the seat height can be adjusted properly by the seatpost. It’s also critical that I’m the right distance behind the bottom bracket or the crankset.

    Once I get myself in the right orientation to the cranks, then I think about how high and how far I want the handlebars to be. This is easily adjustable with the right stem and spacers above the top headset bearing. I’m a little different than most people who read this blog in that my commute is far and I use my ‘racing bike’ (although I don’t race) to ride it. I’ve settled on a top tube preference of between 58 and 59 cm – I can fit myself fine on anything that conforms to that. Also, I tend to like my drop bar bikes to have the saddle from 1 – 3 cm above the tops of the bars. My straight bar bike (mtb) has the bar essentially level with the seat. That’s how I like it, and I’m not particularly flexible.

  • Alan says:


    “I’ve found that the top tube length (or virtual top tube for bikes with highly sloped top tubes) is the most important measurement.”

    This is essentially the “modern” method. While it works for some people on some bikes, my personal experience has been that using top tube length as the determining factor results in a too small frame (for me). This may be partially a result of the fact that I have long legs and a short-ish torso.

    “Once I get myself in the right orientation to the cranks, then I think about how high and how far I want the handlebars to be. This is easily adjustable with the right stem and spacers above the top headset bearing.”

    Often times, when sized by top tube at a racing shop, people have a tough time getting the bars high enough for their liking. This is one of the most common complaints about bike set-up, and my personal experience mirrors this.


  • Fergie348 says:

    Hi Alan,

    I agree that for people with long legs and short torsos/arms, a geometry different than the standard racing frame geometry is preferable. As @Geo points out, in the last few years most manufacturers have road models that are more ‘relaxed’ in nature. Call it Club, Century or whatever, the usual results are a longer headtube and shorter top tube per seat tube measurement (and usually slightly longer chainstays and slacker seat/head tube angles as well), leading to a more upright position. This also usually fits female customers better, as women tend to have shorter torso to leg length ratios.

    It’s all good – my point was (and is) that fit is best determined by starting with the lower body (saddle placement relative to the cranks) and then moving to the upper body (bar placement relative to the saddle). That’s how most shops do fit, and it’s the right way. Now, if a fitter puts you lower than you’re comfortable with, that’s an issue to be addressed during the fitting and is not a failing of the manufacturer.

    In my opinion, the one thing that every shop should have is a fitting area. If your bike shop can’t fit you properly to a bike, what exactly is their advantage over mail order or internet retail shops? I can’t think of anything compelling. I’d rather spend $200 and get fitted properly on my new bike than any component upgrade I can possibly imagine.

  • Chris Sorlie says:

    Thanks for the sizing tips. I am considering going back to a diamond frame from a recumbent as my wife won’t ride a recumbent and we both need exercise. Very helpful information. Am thinking of a long Haul Trucker. My pant inseam is 30″. My torso is average. I think 54 will do. How would I know without actually sitting on the bike?
    Thanks again for your help.

  • Alan says:


    If at all possible, you’ll want to test ride the LHT in the sizes you’re considering. If that’s not an option, measure your pubic bone height, then have a look at standover heights on the Surly site to get in the ballpark.



  • canali says:

    but even with seeking a professional bikefit the results can be varied and even conflicting: for instance i took my riv atlantis to two very seasoned bike fiitters righer here in my own city to try to dial in my atlantis (wasn’t sure if i should keep it, tweak it or sell it)…and these two fitters sell and get riders sized up for renowned brands as guru, IF, and serotta among others.
    one fitter thought it too big (too long in TT)…the other, however, thought I was too compact and instead put on a longer stem…for now I’m going with the 2nd option to see how it works out….will keep you posted….bike fit is as much as one’s ‘preference’ and ‘bikeworldview’ on power output efficency, and such as much as it is a process of both art and technology.

  • Alan says:

    “one fitter thought it too big (too long in TT)…the other, however, thought I was too compact and instead put on a longer stem”

    Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is not uncommon. Definitely go with what feels right to you.

    “bike fit is as much as one’s ‘preference’ and ‘bikeworldview’ on power output efficency, and such as much as it is a process of both art and technology”

    Absolutely. A few thoughts on that idea:


    Let us know how it turns out.


  • Fergie348 says:

    The best analogy I can think of is to a tailored suit. The suit can fit in a bunch of different ways – some people like it snug while others like it looser fitting.

    Your bike is the same thing, and like a tailored suit sometimes adjustments are necessary after the initial fitting and construction are complete. As with most custom processes, the ‘custom’er is always in charge. No one else can dictate the fit most appropriate for you, it must come from you and the fitter is but a guide to your greater happiness. It’s a process, so learn what you can and trust your instincts and what your body is telling you.

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