Heel clearance is an often overlooked dimension that is critical to commuters and utility bicyclists who need to haul things. Without sufficient heel clearance, pannier size may be limited, or in the worst case, loads might have to be carried on the rider’s back. It behooves any transpo rider to be aware of this dimension when choosing a bike and setting it up for commuting and cargo hauling.
So what is heel clearance? Heel clearance is the distance between the rider’s heel and the forward edge of the rear pannier. In other words, it’s the space behind the pedal for your feet. The factors that determine heel clearance are:
- chainstay length
- crank length
- rack design
- pannier size/design
- foot size and pedaling style (i.e., ball over the pedal versus arch over the pedal)
Of these, the two that can’t be adjusted are chainstay length and foot size. Crank length can be adjusted, but I’m guessing most people would rather choose their crank length based upon physiological needs and preference, not heel clearance. For some reason, rack design is often overlooked in this equation, which leaves undersized panniers and messenger bags as the most commonly used remedies for insufficient heel clearance.
My advice is to work in the opposite direction. First, determine how much cargo you need to haul and choose panniers based upon those needs. From there, look at racks that carry panniers further to the rear. If clearance is still an issue, going to shorter cranks is an option (though doing so will open a can of worms regarding fit). And finally, if all else fails, consider a bike with longer chainstays.
Of course, if you’re already in the market for a new bike, be sure to consider chainstay length in your decision making process. Doing so will save you some headaches (or backaches) down the road.