Finding an Accurate Bike Size – What a Frame Builder Wants to Know

by | Apr 3, 2017

If you are bike fitter, or dealer for one of the larger custom brands like Waterford, Seven or Moots, and have a client who wants to get sized up to order a handmade bicycle, you need to find out what information the frame builder wants. Many will have a client order form which details this, but others don’t.  Ask your client to ask the builder, or contact the builder directly.

I took the opportunity to attend the North American Handmade Bicycle Show held in Salt Lake City in March 2017 to meet up with frame builders and ask them what information they wanted from clients to ensure the bike was built to ensure a good fit between human and machine.

As expected, answers varied but there were some consistent and recurring themes. Frame builders want to know where the cyclist’s bike-body contact points are in relation to each other when in a riding position that feels great.  Ideally this comes from a “reference bike” on which the cyclist already enjoys a good riding experience.  The 4 key measurements from a reference bike are:

  1. Saddle height (from bottom bracket)
  2. Saddle set back (tip of saddle nose behind bottom bracket)
  3. Saddle nose to center of handlebar at the stem clamp
  4. Saddle to bar drop (height of the top of the bars relative to top of saddle)

If the customer does not have a reference bike, or does not feel good on their existing bike, then the same measurements can be obtained using a size cycle / fit bike.  You may also end up with measurements like Handlebar X and Y and Saddle X and Y if you are using a Fit Bike to find a good riding position for a customer.

Some builders will ask for a lot more measurements and rider information. An experienced frame builder will be asking about the customer’s current bike, what their current fit position is (same measurements from above) and how they feel on their current bike. They may also ask for body measurements of height, foot, inseam, torso, and arm length. This is where the Fit Kit comes in handy. From all this information they will determine how to position the cyclist for a better riding experience, and design a frame to achieve that fit position, considering weight distribution, bike handling and responsiveness.

Although handmade is often synonymous with “custom”, this needs to be defined. Not all handmade frame builders offer the same level of customization. Custom can refer to:

  • Frame material selection (steel, titanium, carbon) and tube joining (e.g. lug or fillet)
  • Geometry and sizing, specifically for your measurements
  • Paint job / graphics
  • Components (drivetrain, wheels, etc)

Most builders specialize in using a single frame material, and in choosing the frame builder, a cyclist is choosing the frame material. Typically there is a choice of component packages or build kits, or a menu of component choices for the cyclist to choose from, as well as the color of the bike.  However not all handmade builders offer custom geometry.  That is not an issue for people who lie in the middle of the bell curve for height, weight, proportions, health and riding style. But if the rider is an outlier who has trouble getting well fitted on a stock production bicycle, they are a potential candidate for custom geometry.

Frame builders with a long established reputation like Richard Sachs and Roland Della Santa make a signature frame, and their customer is buying that frame geometry and their craftsmanship in making it. Customization is limited. Other frame builders like Carl Strong go to great lengths to understand their clients riding experience and future intentions, and design a bike that is exquisitely built for them.

Most bike fitters are not frame builders, and most frame builders are not fitters, but they offer complementary services and can help each other out for the benefit of the rider. The best fitters understand bike geometry and handling very well, and the best frame builders have a good understanding of fit.  When a cyclist is corresponding remotely or indirectly with a builder, a fitter can serve a useful role in the pre-order and post-delivery phases of a custom purchase.

When a cyclist takes delivery of a handmade bicycle (or any bicycle for that matter), the fit still needs to be dialed in, but this can be achieved without gross distortions of the stem or seat post as the bike is designed to be a close fit, and it will look great and ride better, like a mechanical bespoke suit.

John Higgins

John Higgins

John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists - although a few have won races! Many don't race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (


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