Heel Clearance

Heel Clearance
Photo © Civia Cycles

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.

20 Responses to “Heel Clearance”

  • Dalton says:

    This is a great topic that I just ran into within the last month, so I am glad to see you addressing here for those who haven’t considered it. I have a Trek Soho S and a Planet Bike K.O.K.O. rack to haul my Banjo Bros waterproof panniers. I put them where they should go and adjusted the tension to make sure there was plenty of hold and climbed on the bike for a ride. Well, when I started pedaling, both heels hit the panniers. So now I have had to adjust the placement on my rack so that the panniers are going to be more susceptible to sliding back and possibly off the rack because there is no bar to keep it in place. They probably won’t really slide since the hooks are coated in rubber, but I tend to worry a bit. When I decide on a bike this summer, this will factor in.

  • John Ferguson says:

    I sense an opportunity for an enterprising online touring resource to set up a rough calculator to determine the likelihood of heel strike based on the factors Alan mentions here.

    An online calculator could take as inputs:
    1. Chainstay length
    2. Crank length
    3. Shoe size

    After that, user would choose a pannier or bag, then a list of racks would be selected for compatibility (if any). You could arrange this to be bi-directional so that the user could first choose a rack and then a filtered compatible bag list would be displayed in the other drop down list.

    A calculator like this would require measurement of bags and racks and would have to be a bit squishy, say with a ‘confidence factor’ output (Heel strike likely, heel strike possible, heel strike unlikely). It would likely lead to higher customer satisfaction and fewer returns.

  • Tal Danzig says:

    If you’re considering a wider briefcase style bag, get one that has the ability to move the mounting rail off level. I use an Arkel Briefcase and have the mounting rail tilted to avoid heel strikes. The Arkel briefcase style bags and Ortliebs as well have this option.

  • Maurice Loridans says:

    Heel strike is a big problem for me with size 12 shoes. I have to modify my rack or get very small contoured panniers to account for it.

    I now have a quick and dirty way of estimating chainstay length with any side view photo of a prospect bike. The trick is to see if there is any gap (as opposed to overlap) between the largest chainring and the rear tire. Sporty bikes usually have overlap and utility oriented bikes have an inch or three of space. Yes, the chainring size is important but this is a good rough guide for viewing posts on Craigslist.

  • Alan says:

    Dalton,

    That’s a bummer. The Soho S chainstays are 445mm which are not unusually short, so a rack like the Logo might solve the issue, but it’s hard to say for sure. How far back on the rack do you have to move the panniers?

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    That’s a great idea, John. It sounds like a lot of work up front, but I agree, it would prevent a lot of returns. I’d think it would be worth the effort for an online retailer who is mostly selling off of an e-commerce site.

    Alan

  • michael says:

    One of the main reasons I don’t use panniers! (the other being that I haven’t found a really good pannier/day bag, since I tend to be lugging lots of text books and maybe a laptop this is key, and I just can’t afford to shell out money to try a bunch of panniers). I’d like to find a rack that can offset a further-back pannier with the sometimes unpleasant rear-heavy feeling that one gets from rear loading.

  • Jim says:

    Interesting topic, Alan. With my size 16 shoes, I’ve had many problems over the years finding a solution for carrying things on my bikes. My commuter is a Diamondback mountain bike retrofitted with fenders and a rear rack. Because of the short chain stays, I finally resorted to mounting a heavy duty milk crate to the rack to carry my lunch and work related items. Not the most fasionable solution, but I need the wide range gearing of the mountain bike to climb the 3 mile hill on my commute. So, form follows function in this case. My town bike is a Workcycle Opa that I was able to fit with a set of Fast Rider panniers. The slightly pedal forward riding position allows the clearance I need to avoid heel strike. For heavy cargo hauling, I rely on my Yuba Mundo with a pair of Go Getter bags to get the job done.

  • Don says:

    I too have moved away from panniers because of heel strike and also that “rear-heavy feeling,” which I suspect is more prevalent with more of a sloping top tube, though I have nothing to base that on. I suspect that most mainstream bikes do not consider load carrying in their design, so the standard “throw on a rear rack and go” can be less practical than it seems. For the moment, I am using a front rack and Wald basket with a stabilizer spring on my aluminum city bike. It still isn’t ideal, but my turns are much more stable at speed.

    I have found that my city bike, though not made for loads, happens to carry a front load much better than a rear load, although it is limited there too. I suppose there is no substitute for a bike that is made for a given use, and my next bike may be a touring bike or proper porteur like a Polyvalent as a result.

  • Alan says:

    @Michael

    “I’d like to find a rack that can offset a further-back pannier with the sometimes unpleasant rear-heavy feeling that one gets from rear loading.”

    The trick is to balance the load front and rear. I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to install a front rack on my Civia, but I know I’ll need to if I want to avoid that rear-heavy feeling.

    Alan

  • Ira Kinro says:

    I’ve been having a different kind of heel strike problem. My current commuter is a Pashley Princess. My heel or toe frequently hits the ground. I’m not sure what’s going on. I suspect it’s a combination of a low bottom bracket and less than perfect pavement. Sometimes, this causes my foot to somehow flip under the pedal. Weird. I never experienced \leg suck\ on a recumbent, but I’m having this problem on an upright bike. Hmmm…time to switch bikes.

  • Phil says:

    I have to think carefully about the forward placement of very large loads on the Mundo, but for most purposes it’s just strap on and go, or if required a pair of 64 litre storage crates.

  • antbikemike says:

    Over the years I have made my chainstays on my bikes longer and longer, just for this reason alone [but it also makes the bike ride smoother too]. I used to think that 445mm were long, now I use 480mm most of the time and might move to 500mm on my Roadsters.

  • Dalton says:

    Well Alan, I have them as far back as I can get them… right about where it starts to curve down. So far on 5 trips I haven’t lost them, so there is probably no issue, but I worry.

  • Alan says:

    Dalton,

    I should re-phrase my question. How much further back than the standard position are they mounted? I’m trying to determine if the Logo rack would solve the problem for you… :-)

    Alan

  • Derek says:

    Dalton.

    How about a little bumper of duct or electrical tape wrapped around the KOKO bar to stop the front pannier hook from sliding back further that you want? I have done this on racks to keep panniers from wanting to creep forward causing me to get a little heel strike.

    Derek

  • Dalton says:

    Sorry, I was thinking different terms. It really only took about half an inch back to clear my heels, so if you are looking at the third pic down on your July 12, 2010 review of the KOKO rack (http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/07/11/planet-bike-k-o-k-o-rack/) , I have my pannier’s rear hook behind the rear cross bar instead of in front. Maybe the Logo rack is worth a look. Thanks!

  • Ted says:

    Lowrider racks on the front wheel are my preference. Several advantages:
    1) Since your body weight is distributed more to the rear wheel, loading the front balances out the total load more evenly.
    2) I can keep an eye on what I’m carrying…I’ve lost several grocery items over the years due to speed bumps or heel kicks…and didn’t know it until I arrived home.
    3) No heel kick to worry about.

    But for the times when I must load the rear rack, Jandd’s Expedition rack makes it easy to set those panniers way back and out of the way.

  • Velouria says:

    I would like to add that it is not just about the length of the rack and how far back they allow for the pannier to be moved in theory, but about the design of the rack’s platform and the pannier’s mounting system. Sometimes the rack’s platform will have interruptions in inconvenient locations that will make it either incompatible with the pannier’s mounting system all together, or will not allow the pannier to be set as far back as the rack’s length promises.

    To me, a pannier mounting system with adjustable hooks is a better solution that a long rack, because moving the hooks can prevent heel strike even if your rack is very small.

  • EricW says:

    Cyclocross race bike used as a long distance commuter. Put on a mountain bike rack, then panniers, and bam! Heel strike.

    My fix is not to adjust the fit, but to adjust the rack. I put aluminum extensions on the rack mount to move it as far back and as low as possible. I bent the vertical strut rearward, which removed the heel strike, by moving the entire platform and rail back a couple inches. The strut now a 45 degree angle for the first couple inches, then it turns back to vertical. The panniers mount only in one place on the rail, and that place is just far enough for the big feet to clear.

    I use fairly small panniers, so this may not work so well on touring monsters. You could fabricate a plate to mount the rack further to the back in that case.

    The online calculator idea above is nonsense. Any bike with a short chainstay may have heel strike. You just need the more rearward rack. Modify away!

    EricW

 
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