Warning: This is LONG. And, perhaps, dry as hell.
Part 1: How to Fit My Bikes?
Recently, I completed a two-years quest to properly fit my fleet of vintage road bikes. At least I think I did. After lots of research and trial and error, I’ve raised my saddle 2cm and moved it forward about 1cm. The height is pretty much what I had in 1980s and 1990s. Moving my saddle forward, however, is new. It’s still early, but since putting all my bike saddle heights up to 72cm, including my modern road and cyclocross bikes, I seem to have vastly reduced the amount of back pain I have been experiencing.
Back in the late-1980s when I started riding and racing road bikes, I followed the instructions about bike fit and saddle height that I found in the magazines at the time—Bicycle Guide and Bicycling, mainly. As I recall, they said something about having a 20-degree bend in your knees with the pedal at 6 o’clock. They also referred to Cyrille Guimard’s famous—0.65 x your inseam measured in centimeters.
I don’t recall exactly what my saddle height was then, but this formula did direct me to ride a 53cm frame. And most 53 frames then also had a 53cm top tube. For the first few years I rode, I used stems ranging from 100 to 140mm in length. Around 1990, I got my hands on Greg LeMond’s book, Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling. In Chapter 4, he wrote that you should choose the smallest frame you can fit—for lower weight and a stiffer ride—and detailed how he and Bernard Hinault used Guimard’s formula to set-up their bikes.
I set-up my bike using the information LeMond provided. And, as I recall, I made only small tweaks to the way I fit on my bike. Other than raising my saddle a little bit, perhaps by 5 millimeters, I had apparently come to the right conclusions regarding my position on the bike, although it seemed to me I might be better off with a top tube longer than the 53cm my Pinarello Montello at the time had.
Recently, Instagramer 52×42 (A Frenchman who posts scans from old bicycle magazines.) posted two images of Bernard Hinault’s bike geometry that show his 1978 and 1979 TdF bike geometry. In 1978, he rode a 53.5cm frame with a top tube length of 54.5cm and a saddle height of 72.6cm. The seat tube angle was 74.8 degrees. The following year, it was 72.6 degrees and he raised his saddle and pushed it back a bit more, lengthening his cockpit and stretching out. Later, he went farther back and went to a 54cm frame with a 1cm longer (presumably, 120) stem.
The following year, his 53.5cm frame had slacker 72.6-degree seat tube which lengthens his top tube to 56.5 and he raised his saddle to 73.5. Both bikes had a 110 stem and, likely, Cinelli Model 64 Giro d’Italia bars, which have a reach of 78mm. Later, 52×42 said Hinault went even farther back and went to a 54cm frame with a 1cm longer (presumably, 120) stem.
I mention Hinault here because he has had direct and indirect influence on my riding position for decades.
Since I started building and riding vintage road bikes, I’ve given my fit a new look. Over the years, I moved from 170 cranks to 172.5, for whatever reasons, my saddle height seems to have dropped, longer brake lever hoods led me to shorten my stem and move toward shallower-drop/shorter-reach bars. My Seven Elium, for example, has a 54.9 top tube with a 100mm stem and a saddle height of 70.5cm. But when I built my first vintage road bike—an Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra—following those dimensions didn’t seem to work. To “feel” right, I needed deeper bars (Cinelli 66-42s, which have a reach of 90mm) and a longer stem. When I built my second bike, a Gios Torino Super Record from 1979, it was the same.
After riding vintage bikes almost exclusively for six months, I started having my first lower back problems. I thought it might be the bigger gearing. But making sure I spun more didn’t seem to help. I measured and remeasured all my bikes to make sure they were set-up, if not identical, very, very close to the same.
Over the next year or so, I acquired several more bikes—a 1980 Colnago Roger De Vlaeminck, a 1972 Dreher/1973 Brooklyn Team frame custom built for Belgium sprinter Julien Stevens, a Look Kevlar 2000 and a Pinarello Treviso with Montello features. I set up each as close to the Merckx—my favorite at the time—as possible. Then, I made a surprising discovery. Not long after I put the Merckx together, I bought a Cinelli XA stem with Eddy Merckx pantograph. I believed it to be a 120mm, which, combined with the Merckx’s 54cm top tube, seemed to be ideal.
One day, I looked up from whatever task I was doing in the garage and glanced at the Merckx as it leaned against my work bench. The stem suddenly looked really long. I grabbed a tape measure and carefully measured from the center of the stem bolt to the center of the bar. It was 125.5. I remeasured it several times. I compared it to a 120 stem I had. It was definitely 125.5. Now, it made sense why the Merckx felt better than all my other bikes.
Ride Like the Badger
When I started riding and racing, I wanted to set up my bike like the pros did. I studied photos of the riders and guessed which of them might be my size. I carefully guesstimated their stem and saddle heights. And, when possible, sought out their stem and crank lengths and any info on frame geometries, all which I assumed were custom.
In 1991, I happened to meet Hinault while waiting in line. My coworker told me that he and I were the same height. It was then that I thought I should probably build my bikes like the Badger did. As Hinault and I are both roughly 173 cm (5’ 8”) tall, his bikes have always been of particular interest to me. 52×42’s Instagram post got me thinking again about that again.
Other than an Hinault-brand frame someone once teased me with selling to me, I’d never seen the measurements of any of Hinault’s frames until 52×42’s post. The original owner of that silver Hinault frame—like those used by Hinault in 1985—was unknown but thought to have been the Badger. It measured 54 x 57, which seems to be about right for Hinault at the time, and echoes what 52×42 said about him going with a longer top tube.
Hinault is not the only 1980s/1990s professional racer who is listed at around 5’8” (173cm) tall. Two others I know of are 7-Eleven’s Davis Phiney and Belgian Classicsman Claude Criquielion. Bikes and frames of both men have been listed for sale over the past couple of years and both men, like Hinault, rode bikes with very long toptubes for at least part of their careers.
I know of two Criquielion frames. Both have seatubes that measure 54cm center-to-center. One, an unused 1986 Hitachi-Splendor frame has a 56.5cm toptube. The second, a raced Hitachi-Rossin, has a 57cm toptube. Based on my guestimates looking at photos, he looks to have used a 120-125mm stem with Cinelli Criterum bars, which have a reach of 77mm.
Phiney’s 1984 Serotta-built Murray is perhaps the most famous of his race bikes that can be found on the Internet. It’s owned by the online consignment shop, The Pro’s Closet. I contacted them to get the dimensions, but no one there knew what they are, and because the bike is displayed in the offices suspended from a balcony, no one was able to take measurements.
Fortunately, one of his Serotta-built Tour de France Huffy’s was for sale on eBay earlier this year. According to the auction description, the bike has a 53cm center-to-center seatube with a 56cm toptube and a 130mm stem. Phiney also used Cinelli Criterium bars. Like Criquielion, he apparently liked a very streched out cockpit for the grand tours.
My Fitment Journey Begins
My first bike was a Fiorelli I bought from International Pro Bike Shop in Bellbrook, Ohio. The shop took great pride in it’s ability to properly fit bikes to their customers. But no one there took any measurements when I bought my bike. And other than setting my saddle height, no adjustments were made before I rolled out front door.
I believe the bike had a 53cm frame, which was about right for me. But, according to the all the subsiquent articles I read, the stem was too short and the bars too narrow. The original 3T stem was super short, around 100mm long. My sight line was way behind the front hub when I looked down—as the magazine articles told me to do. The 3T bars were 38cm wide—much narrower than my shoulders.
I took the bike back to the shop and pointed out the problems. The salesperson told me I must have a really long torso. I don’t. They swapped out the bars and stem with a Cinelli set-up. I believe the 1A stem was 120 and the bars 64-40s. I have no clue what the top tube length or saddle height of that bike were. In photos, however, there is a pretty good amount of seatpost showing, so I’d guess in the neighborhood of 72-ish cm.
If the toptube was 53cm, which is likely since most Italian frames of the time were “square,” with the 120 stem, my cockpit length was some 3-4cm shorter than Hinault, Criquielion and Phiney’s bikes. Of course, I was not racing grand tours, nor did I have the number of hours in the saddle that these men had, nor do I know how their torso, femur, arm, etc. lengths compare to mine. But the bike always felt a little short to me.
My next bike would be a Pinarello Montello in 1988. It also was a 53. I recall talking with the salesman—Donny Whitman of Whitman’s Bikes—a lot about which size to buy. I had read a lot more about bike fit and sizing by that time and had spent a good 9 months on the Fiorelli, so I had a lot of new opinions and info bouncing around in my head. He suggested I go for the 53 because it was the trend at the time to ride a smaller frame with a longer stem. They were lighter and handled better for criteriums, he said. That seemed okay to me.
For reasons I won’t go into here, I sold all the parts off the Pinarello before I ever got to ride it. The frame sat on my dresser for several months before I got it back together with a weird mix of used parts, some of which I got from Whitman’s and others from the only person I knew who raced road bikes. The only stem Whitman’s had at the time was 140mm Cinelli. It was ridiculously long, but it seemed to work okay. I rode the bike a bit, then moved to Japan in June 1989.
It took about three months for me to get settled into a new job and housing before I got the bike shipped to me in Hamamatsu. I rode it as-was, but as soon as I had some spare money, I swapped the 140 stem for a 120—a definite improvement. It flexed less and my position was better when climbing and sprinting in the drops while standing. And the bars lined up with the front hub better. I also swapped the Turbo saddle I had for a Selle San Marco Regal, which I slammed all the way back.
As far as I know, I rode the bike like that until at least Dec. 1989 when I moved to Tokyo to take my first bike industry job at Inter Press as a translator at Japan Cycle Press. Inter Press also produced Japan’s biggest bicycle trade show.
Some time in 1990, I got LeMond’s book, Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling. I did my best to follow LeMond’s advice on bike fit using a limited set of tools and measuring devices. Doing it all by myself was a big challenge, too. As I recall, my position wasn’t too far off what he said it should be. I raised my saddle a bit and got some 66-42 bars (replacing the 64-40s I had). But otherwise, I didn’t change much. But, it was at this time that I started wondering about 172.5 cranks, especially since LeMond said Hinault used them.
In 1991, I was sent to Italy to cover ENCMA, the Milan Cycle Show. It was my first overseas work trip and my first trade show. At the time, ENCMA also was the big motorcycle show in Europe. When my colleague and I arrived at the show door early and got in line, we did so right behind a group of Look employees. Among them, Bernad Hinault. I was in awe and couldn’t believe my luck. After I asked Hinault for his autograph, my colleague said to me, you’re exactly the same height as him. With that, I became mildly obsessed with his bike size and riding position.
The truth is, however, I really never learned much about his bike or position. Other than switching to 172.5 cranks some years later, I never learned about his bike size or did anything to mimic his position. I would have switched to 172.5s earlier, but it wasn’t until 1995 when I bought a Litespeed Classic with a 9-speed C-Record gruppo that I took the chance on the longer arms. To be honest, I didn’t even notice them.
Part Two: Going Custom
About a year after moving to Tokyo, I began thinking about getting a custom-built frame. It seemed as though every pro shop in Japan had it’s own house brand of road frame and bikes. I looked around quite a bit and decided I would get a Holks, the house brand at Cycles Yokoo in Ueno in Tokyo. With this decision came my first chance to design my own frame.
Ever since I got into BMX in 1978 and road bikes in 1987, I had devoured every article I could find about the bike industry and bike and component design and manufacturing. I used to know all the butt lengths of all the high-end tubesets and all sorts of arcane details I’ve long since forgotten. Designing (and building) my own frame was something I really wanted to do. With the Holks, I could finally do that. But I didn’t want to screw it up. I didn’t have the income to waste on a frame I couldn’t ride.
Lost in Translation
Basically, I started with the idea that my Pinarello fit pretty well. I just wanted a longer top tube and maybe a slightly more slack seat tube. I had always slammed my saddle back as far it would go, but still often felt as though I was hanging off the back when I was climbing. This, I thought, was something I had in common with LeMond.
While I don’t recall (and I can’t find the drawing) exactly what I ordered, I definitely remember ordering a 53 center-to-center seat tube with a 54.5 top tube. The rest, I think, was pretty much what Bicycle Guide or one of the great Japanese bike magazines had told me was solid, well-handling, but-not-too-twitchy geometry. As far as I knew, most 53s at the time were 53 x 53. Since I wanted a longer top tube, custom was the way to go.
I ordered the frame so that it could be built and I could ride it some before a friend and I started the 400-mile (644 km) ride from Shizuoka City to Hiroshima we planned to do in the summer of 1991. We were going to carry as little as possible and stay in hostels along the way—credit-card touring, I think it was called then. I carried a spare t-shirt, running shorts and fake Aqua Socks, plus various other necessities in a Look fanny pack. I shipped more clothes to my friend in Hiroshima for the week we’d stay there.
I loved the celeste, black and gold, Bianchi, Moreno Argentine replica bike Cycles Yokoo had hanging on its wall. I wanted that exact paint job, but felt celeste should be reserved for Bianchis. Instead, I went with a slamony pink with the black and gold of the Bianchi. I carefully drew the frame with the geometry and braze-ons I wanted and did a drawing of the frame showing exactly how I wanted the paint to be laid out. I think I chose the pink from among the Holks paint swatches.
I got the bike before the trip, but was unable to test ride it. I can’t remember why not. I’m sure I did some short rides to dial in the fit, but nothing significant. I built it up with the parts that were on my Pinarello, an odd mix of Campagnolo Chorus, C-Record and Shimano Dura-Ace.
When I built the bike, I assumed the seat tube was 53 center-to-center as I had spec’d it. Since my Pinarello also was a 53, I put my seatpost in up to the tape I had put on it to mark where I liked my saddle height to be. Along the ride, I had noticed that bike fit seemed a little off. I couldn’t put my finger on it and didn’t have a tape measure, so I couldn’t check the dimensions. When my knee started to hurt, I started to wonder if my saddle height was off.
Over the years of reading various articles on bike fit, I had seen it said many times that if your saddle height is wrong, it can cause knee pain. I always assumed “wrong” meant too high. With this in mind, when my pain got worse, I lowered my saddle a little bit. The pain didn’t get better and seemed to be getting worse.
Before leaving to ride the 103 miles (164 km) from Okayama to Hiroshima, I lowered my saddle a little more. Needless to say, it didn’t work. After about 50 miles, I decided I’d had enough and we hopped a train to finish off the trip.
When I got back to Tokyo, I measured my frame. Rather than the 53×54.5 I had asked for, it measured 51.5x 54.5. The had built it 53 center-to-top. I was super bummed. I checked my drawings to be sure it wasn’t my mistake. It wasn’t.
When I returned to work, I immediately went to Cycles Yokoo on my lunch hour to get to the bottom of the sizing problem. I showed Mr. Yokoo, the shop owner, my drawings and explained my concerns. He was unsympathetic. He told me they build all their frames center-to-top. I asked why then, didn’t they simply change the size to 54.5 c-t x 54.5 then, assuring I’d get the size I wanted?
He didn’t have an answer. Nor did he seem interested in helping me solve my problem. Although I do think he felt badly. It wasn’t looking good for me. He told me to come back the next day and he’d give me an answer.
The next day, Mr. Yokoo would only say there was nothing they could do. He couldn’t take the frame back because I had spec’d True Temper tubing, something no one in Japan wanted, apparently. And because it was such an awful color. Apparently, he didn’t approve of pink. He said, he could give me a partial refund I could put toward a new Holks frame or buy one of the frames he had on his walls. I wasn’t stoked about losing any money in the deal, but I really had no choice.
On the wall were a few Hitachi team Eddy Merckx frames I had been lusting after since I moved to Tokyo and the same frame I currently own. He also had a variety of Bianchis. All these were way out of my price range. There was also a LeMond Maillot Jaune on the wall that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. But it was on sale. I asked about its size. It was a 53. He pulled it down and handed it to me. On it was a hangtag with a geometry chart. It was a 53 x 54.5! According to the LeMond geometry chart, the frame also had a more-relaxed 73-degree headtube and a 73.5-degree seat tube than was usual. It was exactly what I wanted.
I built it with a 120 stem, Cinelli Model 66 Campione del Mondo bars, a Regal saddle slammed back and an estimated 174cm high and 170 cranks. I loved that LeMond and the way it rode. It would become the standard by which all my future bikes were to be based.
Giving Custom a Second Chance
Not long after I got the LeMond, to told a friend who ran another shop in Saitama, not far from my house in Tokyo’s Akabane-Ku, about my Holks frame dilemma. He said he could get me a custom frame built if I wanted another one. The price? An incredibly cheap $350. I didn’t need a second bike, but I had a spare gruppo and at that price, I couldn’t pass it up.
I had been fan of the fillet-brazed Moser Leader frames since about 1987 and, more recently Tom Ritchey’s mountain bike frames. I asked if I could get my frame fillet brazed (Yokoo couldn’t do this.), if I could use Ritchey Logic Prestige tubing, if I could design it myself. He said I could do whatever I wanted.
When I returned the following week with my drawings, he looked them over closely. It was basically a fillet brazed LeMond, but with a few nods to the Moser and Ritchey frames. He suggested I lower the BB shell, which was higher than my LeMond. I protested and said higher BB shells were the trend in the U.S. He told me I’d be happier if I lowered it. He gave me a number and said it was the same as Colnago used. I reluctantly agreed. After all, I had no idea what how to design a bike frame.
I had it painted simply this time—solid black. I had the option of decals or none. I asked what the brand name was. Ganwell, he said. I had never heard of it. But I thought it should have decals, in large part because it seemed to me I should promote the brand because I got such a great hook-up.
The frame was amazing. It fit as I had hoped. It rode amazingly well. (I was glad I lowered the BB shell.) It looked awesome.
In 1992, I returned to the U.S.. I was 26 and nearing my prime as a grand tour racer. But I’d only ever raced a handful of short circuit races in Japan. Only in my last race there, did I even feel remotely like I knew what I was doing. I wanted to spend the next year or two racing as much as possible in the U.S.
I hand carried the LeMond home and left the Ganwell, spec’d with a full, Campagnolo, 8-speed, Ergo Power, C-record Gruppo with my friend in Saitama. He promised to ship it within the next week or two. It would be almost three years before I saw the Ganwell again. In the meantime, I started training and racing with the Dayton Cycling Club (DCC) on the LeMond. I also started racing mountain bikes on a Ritchey I bought when I got home.
Some time in the summer of 1993, during a DCC club race when a corner marshal (someone’s girlfriend) failed to let me know ahold pick-up truck was coming around a blind corner. I hit it head on and the LeMond was destroyed.
I had been the only one in the group who stayed in the right lane every prior lap. But I had been dropped and I was chasing hard to get back on. I checked with the marshal before I crossed over the centerline. Just as I realized she had her face buried in a book, the massive grill of a 1970s Chey pick-up filled my view. I grabbed my brakes and immediately began sliding left, over and down the other side of the exaggerated crown in the road. I hit the pick-up dead center.
Luckily, I had visualized this sort of accident many times before and I deployed the action I had always used in those morose mid-ride fantasies. I stood up high on my pedals, pushed off my bars and launched myself up onto the hood of the truck. The shocked expressions on the faces of the poor couple in the truck were almost hysterical. Everything was in slow motion and it seemed to take minutes for me to come to a sliding stop on the truck’s expansive hood. Only my right thigh contacted the truck. I had a pretty bad hematoma, but otherwise was okay. My LeMond, however, wasn’t.
The Ganwell was still in Japan. My friend was uable to ship it to me for less than a few hundred dollars, which as an unemployed amateur bike racer, I could not afford. I needed a new bike, fast. Fortunately, I had purchased renter’s insurance when I moved into a house in a very sketchy neighborhood with two friends. The insurance allowed me to quickly replaced the LeMond with a Ritchey road bike. Magazine reviews said it was a great bike. It was lightweight and quick handling. I never got used to it.
Sometime in 1995, I think, after I was working at Bicycle Retailer & Industry News magazine, I took a trip to Taiwan and, on the way home, stopped for a week in Japan. I visited with a friend whose friend made frequent business trips to the U.S. He offered to bring my Ganwell with him the next time he came over.
A couple months later, I got a call that he would be going to Washington D.C. and did I know anyone there who could meet him at the airport, pick up my bike and then ship it to me in New Mexico? Whoa, that was going to be complicated. Luckily a friend who had left nearby Maryland a few years prior was still in touch with a fellow classmate—someone I barely knew in high school—who lived in D.C. She was willing to help me.
Some three years after leaving my bike in Tokyo, I finally had the Ganwell back in my hands. The paint had been damaged on the plane, but it was minor stuff. I was stoked have my bike back. I rode and raced the crap out out of it for three seasons before I crashed it in a crit when a group of riders in front of me went down after one of them swerved to miss a pizza-size pothole. I broke the newer, 8-speed, Carbon Record lever I had put on the bike and bent my bars. The bike was fine, but I decided it was time to retire it.
Messing Things Up
I replaced the Ganwell with a Litespeed Classic with 9-speed C-Record. As the top tube length had become the most important frame dimension for me, I went with Litespeed’s 54, which had a 54.5 top tube. I also went with 172.5 cranks. I assume, I put my saddle height at 74 again, as I had it on the LeMond and Ganwell. I loved that bike and rode and raced it until until around 2002 when I decided it was time to get a carbon frame. I traded the frame and fork, built with an odd mix of cool parts I had laying around, for a Selmer Mark VI soprano saxophone. I think the guy got a sweet deal. Later, I sold the horn for descent money. I still miss that frame. I did a lot of cool rides around the world and in the US on it.
Through the Twentieth Century, my last three frames and all shared a 54.5cm top tube length with a 120mm stem. I was pretty well convinced these were the perfect dimensions for me. My next bike, however, would stray from this.
In 2002, I built a Trek 5900 OCLV with Shimano Dura-Ace parts. I don’t remember the exact dimensions, but I do remember that the 53 had a sub-54cm toptube and the 54 had something like a 55.3 top tube. I figured if I went with a 110 stem, I could make the larger frame work fine. When I built the bike, I also changed my bars and started experimenting with pedals other than the Time Equipes I had been using since 1987. The Dura-Ace brake lever hoods also were a lot longer than any I’d used before. A lot changed with the Trek and it was with this bike that I think I started messing up my position on the bike.
I don’t remember all the details or why I made all the changes, but I do know that after I replaced the ill-fitting Trek with a custom-built Seven Elium in 2005, I was riding with a shorter stem (100mm), shallower-reach/drop bars (Easton C40s) and a lower saddle height (70.5). The Seven, which I still ride, has a 54.9 toptube, which works great with the 100mm stem. I think the shorter stem came about as the reach of Dura-Ace brake levers got longer. I ride on the hoods a lot, so with the longer lever reach and longer toptube, a shorter stem and shallower bars put me back into a very comfortable position.
I think the lower saddle height came either when Seven recommended I lower my saddle to 71.6cm, or when I was experimenting with different pedals and shoes. Until 2002, I was riding with the same set of Time Magnesium-Ti Equipe pedals I bought in 1987 and a pair of Carnac Legend shoes, which had replaced the Carnac LeMond’s I got in 1991, which replaced the Times I got in 1989.
I switched to Sidi shoes, which had a thinner sole. I also started experimenting with different pedals. I tried Look, new Time and Speedplay pedals before settling on and Crankbrothers’ Quatro road pedals. I think, along the way, I moved my saddle up and down to compensate for the shoe and pedal changes. At some point I lost track of where it needed to be. I also was working a lot more hours and traveling more between 1998 and 2004, so I spent a lot less time on the bike.
When I lost my job in 2005 and started riding the new Seven a lot. I basically rode it as it was, not giving much thought to fit or position. It felt fine.
Part 3: Going Vintage and Starting Over
It wasn’t until 2016, when I bought the Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra in Hitachi Team livery, just like the frames I had seen at Cycles Yokoo in 1990, that I started thinking about my bike fit again. The Merckx was a 54 x 54. I knew I preferred a 54.5 top tube, but as far as I knew, LeMond was the only frame maker at the time that offered a stock 53 x 54.5 frame. I figured I’d start with a 120 stem on the Merckx and adjust it as I needed to. I still had a bunch of my old parts like stems and bars from the 1980s and 1990s.
I built the bike as a replica of Calude Criquelion’s 1988 Hitachi Team bike with all Mavic components, a 120 Cinelli set, Cinelli Mod. 64 Giro d’Italia bars and a Selle San Marco Rolls saddle. Over the years, I had become accustomed to shorter-reach and shallower-drop bars, hence the change from 66-42 Campione del Mondo bars to 64-42 Giros. Criquelion’s preferred 65-42 Criterium bars never quite worked for me. Plus, I was older, so I assumed I’d prefer a shorter stem and bars and to sit more up right. I set my saddle height at 70.5cm, which is what my Seven was at.
The bike seemed to fit fine. Riding with clips and straps, non-aero cables, downtube shifters, 7-speeds and the tiny and terribly uncomfortable brake lever hoods were bigger issues to overcome than the bike fit.
Not long after I got the Merckx, I bought a Colnago Roger De Vlaeminck and two Gioses. The Colnago was a 54×54. One of the Gios frames was ridden by Brooklyn Team member Julien Stevens built by Gilardi in 1972 for the Dreher team. It was custom built for Stevens, so it was 53 x 54.5—the same as my LeMond. The second Gios was a 1979 Super Record model in size 55 c-t, or 53.5 x 53.5. I built all three with 120 stems and Model 66 Campione del Mondo bars, which were the only 42cm-wide bars I could find with the correct Cinelli logos.
Alternating between these four bikes (I basically stopped riding the Seven.) and a Look Kevlar 2000 I picked up was interesting. They basically felt the same. I’d ride one I liked better than the others then tweak the fit of the others. Each time I rode one, I’d think I liked it better than the others. The Merckx, however, was generally my favorite.
Then, I started having lower back pain. Bad lower back pain. I’d had knee pain off and on over the years but never back pain. At first I thought it was due to riding with the bigger and limited gearing. I tried spinning more. But it didn’t get better. I then started thinking about bike fit and saddle height.
I took measurements of all my bikes and found that my position on each was very different. I also found that the 120 stem I bought for the Merckx was actually a 125. And the 54 x 54 Look was actually more like 53 x 53. My saddle heights were between 69.5 and 70.
I set about adjusting all my bikes to make them the same. I changed stem lengths, adjusted saddle heights, positioned all the saddles the same on the rails, adjusted stem heights, etc. All the bikes finally felt about the same as I rotated through the quiver. But occasional back pain persisted.
I started wondering about saddle height and crank length. I though perhaps due to the fact that all these bikes have quill pedals and the saddle height was based on a bike with Quatros and modern Sidi shoes, I needed to adjust my saddle height and position. I broke out Greg LeMond’s book. It had helped me set my riding position back in the 1990s, why wouldn’t it work now, I reasoned.
According to what I took from Greg’s book, I need to raise my saddle 2.5cm from 70 to 72.5. That seemed extreme, so I questioned how I measured my inseam. I measured it again and again, but since I was doing it by my self, I wasn’t confident in my finding–32 inch (81.3cm). I decided to raise my saddle 1cm at a time and took them all up to 71 to start.
In his book, LeMond specifically addresses crank length, saying that he and Hinault used different cranks for different disciplines. He used 172.5s most of the time, but occasionally 175s. Hinault, 170s and 172.5s. He said neither changed their saddle hight when they changed cranks. Still, wondered if I would benefit from going back to 170s. Then I read a current article about how more pros are going to shorter cranks to improve their ability to spin. The article also pointed out that short cranks allowed the riders to raise their saddles. I swapped all the cranks on my bikes from 172.5s to 170s.
Raising my saddle to 71 and changing my cranks seemed to work. I had less back pain, but it wasn’t gone completely. But I was strong enough to put in several 200-mile weeks prior to completing the Costal Route of Eroica California 2017 on my Stevens Gios Torino.
Longer on Top?
In May 2017, I was in the Netherlands for a World Cup BMX race in Papendal. I had arranged to meet with Arthur van Rooij, a popular seller of vintage road bikes on Facebook, to pick up a unique, mid-1980s, Pinarello Treviso frameset. I had asked him several times to confirm the frame’s size before I arrived, but only got guesstimates that was a 53 or 54 and promises of accurate dimensions that I never received. I figured I could confirm the size when I met with him.
We met at the entrance of a campgrounds where he was staying with his family. It was near the city of Arnhem, where the Papendal Olympic Training Center was located. He handed me the frame, and, sure enough, the head tube looked tall for a 54 as it had in the photos I saw on Facebook. I asked him if it was, indeed, a 54. “I hope so,” he said.
Arthur grabbed a tape measure and asked me to hold the frame up. I was on the non-drive side, facing Arthur on the drive side, the frame between us. He ran the tape measurer along the top tube and said, “Yes, it’s a 54.”
I couldn’t see what he saw to confirm his measurement, but who would have the balls to lie about the frame size when I was standing right there?
I built the bike up with a mid-1980s C-record gruppo. I initially set the saddle height without the aid of a tape measure, eyeballing it based on how much post was showing. Test riding in front of my house with sneakers on, it seemed to fit fine. On my first real ride, however, everything seemed tall and long. When I got home, I measured the frame for myself. It was a 55×55. I had never ridden a 55 frame. My Seven has a 54.9 top tube, but the center-to-center seat tube measurement is 52. I figured I could deal with the 55 top tube with a 115mm stem, but the long seat tube would mean too little seatpost showing. I was not happy. I decided I’d sell the Pinarello and move on.
Around that time, I came upon an early (1978?) Tomassini frame for sale locally. I had long wanted a Tomassini and it was a very cool shade of green. When I measured it, it was a 53×55. Odd, I thought, that I found another 55 top tube frame. Knowing that my Seven had a longer top tube, I thought it might work. Plus, I was curious about riding a frame with dimensions closer to those the pros rode in the 1980s. I negotiated with the seller and took it home.
I built the Tomassini with a variety of spare parts I had laying around. About the only thing I bought for it was a 115 old-logo 1X stem. I set it up so the cockpit matched my other vintage bikes. It was a beauty. But the ride was pretty meh. And since it was a frame with zero professional racing heritage, it somehow was less exciting to ride than my other bikes. Instead, I was putting all my miles in riding my Julien Stevens Gios Torino.
Frustratingly, the Pinarello wasn’t selling. I sat partially built in my garage, an annoying reminder of purchase gone wrong. When a Rossin Ghibli—one of the frames in the top 5 of my wish list—came up for sale at a reasonable price on eBay, I wrote to the seller for more information about the sizing. It was a 54.5x 55, but I lacked confidence in his measurements. I asked for the head tube height—135mm, the same as the Pinarello. Hmmm…
I pulled the Pinarello out from the corner and set it up with my new saddle height of 71cm and put on a 115mm stem. The additional 1cm of saddle height looked good. I took if for a ride. It felt good. Wow, I thought, I can ride a 55.
Although he position of the top tube looked and felt too high, the bike fit and rode well. I rode it on a regular basis for a couple months. I liked it.
At Eroica, I had seen a Serotta-built 7-Eleven Team Murray bike for sale. I had left my tape measure in my car, so I was unable to check the dimensions, but I looked like my size. I was unimpressed with the condition and the parts and the seller was too busy to answer any of my questions. Not to mention, I was most likely well short of the cash needed to buy it. I put it out of my mind.
Several months later, I began to think about it again and reached out the the seller, Matt Gorski, who lives in nearby Long Beach. He still had the bike. He sent me some photo and invited me over to look at it. It looked better than I remembered. I measured it—53×55. Perfect, I thought. All the dated parts were from 1983, making them most likely original to the 1984 team bike. Only the wheels—Wolber Clinchers with large-flange Record hubs with Specialized wire-bead tires—were likely replacements from the original spec.
Gorski was selling the bike as part of a recently-deceased friend’s collection. He knew nothing about the bike or who it’s original owner had been. That was a bummer, but not enough to keep me from buying it. I now had there bikes with 55cm top tubes.
The bike came with a 110mm stem and bent 65-40 bars. I swapped them for a 120 (I didn’t have another 115.) and 64-42 bars. I also built a set of wheels with Wolber Aspide rims and Record hubs and found a winged-logo Cinelli Unicanitor saddle for it. The bike was now as I thought it should be. Despite the 120 stem on the 55 top tube, it felt good to ride. It was a little long compared to my other bikes, but no uncomfortably so. It became my new daily rider and I decided it would be the bike to ride at Eroica California 2019.
With each ride, I couldn’t stop thinking that I needed a 115 stem. It seemed to fit fine, but I kept thinking the 120 was too long. After several months of unsuccessfully searching for the right stem—a 115, Cinelli ,1X in silver) with the new logo—I pulled the stem off the Pinarello. I also swapped the 64-42 bars for 66-42s, which have a slightly longer reach and a deeper drop. It felt good. Barely different. I started putting more and more miles in on the bike.
Part 4: Revisiting LeMond and Hinault
Not long after I bought the Murray, a 53cm LeMond Maillot Jaune was offered up on FaceBook. I jumped on it, although I was broke. As luck would have it, I sold a BMX frame and the guy selling the LeMond needed a few things I had and didn’t need. A trade-plus-cash deal was arranged.
I figured I’d build it with the C-Record parts I had on the partially disassembled Pinarello. But, after doing a ton of research, I discovered the C-Record Gruppo LeMond and Team Z used in 1990 was an 8-speed set-up, not the mid-1980s version on the Treviso. I used the rest of the cash I got from the BMX frame sale to buy the bits I needed to get it up and running.
I built the bike and set the saddle at 71.5 because I’d be using Time Equipe shoes and Time pedals. I recalled an article I read many years go that I thought said using Time pedals required that you raise your saddle 1/4″. I now think that was incorrect, but I did it. I loved the bike. The fit was great, but I also loved riding with clipless pedals again. And 8-speeds was so much nicer than 6.
I found an old photo of the LeMond I bought in 1991. It was obvious that I ran my saddle then much higher then. I estimate that the saddle was set at a height of at least 73.5cm, which was 1cm more than the number Greg LeMond’s book told me I should be at. I’m not sure where I came up with that number. That said, I do have recollections of setting my saddle height at 74cm. So, maybe, at one time, that’s where I put it.
Taking Greg’s Advice
Between 1991 and 1993, I rode a 53×54.5 frame with a saddle height of 72.5cm, a 120 stem, 42cm-wide, deep-drop bars and 170 cranks with Time pedals. LeMond said Hinault used 172.5s, so I switched to longer arms in 1995 and kept the same basic fit. I didn’t really notice any difference. Starting around 2001, for a variety of reasons, I slowly began tweaking my ride position. Over time, I lowered my saddle to 70cm, went to a higher-rise 100mm stem, switched to shorter-reach and shallower bars, changed pedals several times and rode frames with 55.3 and 54.9 top tubes.
When I started riding vintage bikes a few years ago, I started to have back issues, which I had never had before. LeMond credited his taller saddle height—he raised it 3cm under Guimard—with never having had lower back or knee issues.
After breaking out LeMond’s book last summer, I remeasured my inseam—it was still 32 inches—used Guimard’s formula and raised the saddles on all my bikes from 70cm to 71, then 71.5. All the bikes felt fine. And there was no noticeable difference between Time and quill pedals at the new height.
But, I still had lower back pain. According to LeMond, I should be at 72.5, about the same as Hinault’s 1978 height of 72.6, but fully 1cm short of the 73.5 he went to in 1979. I raised my saddles of all my quill pedal bikes to 72cm and 72.5 on my Time-pedal-equipped LeMond.
So far, all is well. And the bikes feel great. My back pain has diminished quite a bit. The last time I had it act up was after racing cyclocross on back-to-back days on a bike with a saddle height of 70cm. I have since raised it to 72 and during a race, experienced no issues. My back isn’t perfect, yet. But its’ much much better and I’m hopeful the worst is behind me.
What have I concluded? Even though all my bikes are now similarly setup, they aren’t identical, but the cockpit’s are pretty close. What’s important, when I ride them, I feel generally the same on each bike. Based on that, I think I have a better idea of what size I’d ride if I were to have a custom frame built today. It would probably be a lot closer to those ridden by Hinault, Criquielion and Phiney.
As far as frame size goes, I think 54 (measured center to center) works best. The higher top tube (compared to a 53) gives me the ability to raise my stem more as needed, while keeping the amount of exposed seatpost within the correct visually acceptable range. The opposite goes when compared to a 55.
But I’m a little unsure about top tube length. My current fleet includes bikes with 53.5, 54, 54.5 and 55cm top tubes. With a corresponding stem length, they all work well. The 115 stem I currently use on the 55 top tube bikes initially looked short, but I have become used to it. With this in mind, I have begun to wonder if I have put too much focus on top tube and stem lengths while overlooking my handlebar choice.
I’ve been using Cinelli Model 66 Campione del Mondo bars on most of my bikes. The reason: of the old shield-logo bars, only the 66es were available with a 42 width. I switched to 42s in the early-1990s and have never looked back. Initially, I went with 64s, but soon switched to 66es. As I’ve aged, I find bars with a shallower drops are more comfortable. When I ride with deep bars, I almost never go in the drops. The deep, 156mm-drop of the 66es is a definitely too much for me.
In truth, I frequently wish I was riding Model 64s (142mm drop) or 65s (147mm drop). But the 40cm width of the old handlebars has been a serious roadblock. Despite the current trend of using narrower bars (due to the better aerodynamics) and the fact that I’m really not a big guy and 40s should be just fine, I have a huge mental block against trying them out.
With the Model 66 Campione del Mondo bars on most of my bikes, I actually have pretty long cockpit area. Compared to mid-1980s Hinault and Criquielion bikes with 57cm top tube, 120 stems and Model 64 or 65 bars, one of my 54.5 top tube bikes is only 1.2 cm shorter. If I were to switch bars, I would ride a bike with a longer top tube–55.5 or 56. Or, I’d need a longer stem.
If I were to have a custom lugged steel frame built today, I think I would err closer to those ridden by Hinault and Criquielion. It would probably be 54×56 with a 120 stem and Model 64 Giro d’Italia bars. The shorter-reach bars and longer top tube might actually improve the bike’s handling by reducing the truck-driver affect that results when using too long a stem (or far-reaching bars).
One caveat, however. A 54×56 frame would only work if I was using vintage Campagnolo Super Record brake levers. If I was using the longer C-Record levers, I’d consider a 55.5 top tube or use a 115 stem. For the record, I think the 120 stem is visually the perfect length on a road bike in my size range. Longer stems look good on bigger bikes. Any quill stem shorter than 100 looks weird to me on any bike.
I also learned that I needed to push my saddles farther forward so my sit bones are positioned better on the widest part of the saddle. Until recently, I shoved my saddle as far back as I could. But I often found I would slowly slide forward as I pedaled. To prevent this, I would tilt the nose of my saddle up. A lot of people gave me a lot of shit for this. A lot.
During a ride last year on a new bike with a perfectly level saddle, I was annoyed that I kept sliding forward. I had always attributed this to the curved shape of the saddle causing me to slide down into the dip. As I meditated on the problem during the ride, it occurred to me that maybe my body was pulling me forward into a more natural position. (My body may have been telling me I don’t have long, LeMond-like femurs.) I realized that if I pushed my saddle forward so my sit bones were centered on the meat of the saddle, maybe I’d stay put.
When I got home, I pushed my saddle forward by about 1cm, and sure enough, the forward slide came to a halt. I can set up all (Well, almost all.) my saddles at deal-level.
As for crank length, I’m not convinced that going to 170s did anything for me. But, I’m not going back any time soon. I simply don’t have the budget to buy replacements for all my bikes. My modern road and cyclocross bikes are still fitted with 172.5s. When I ride them, I really don’t notice a difference to have any issues.
Now, I’ll keep riding and adding miles (I hope.). And we’ll see if all this will stick or if I’ll finally have to spend the big bucks on a bike-fit guru.