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I asked about buying a bike here, and someone asked on my behalf about test-riding a bike before buying.

My question is, what should I know, or should have known, about the sizing or 'geometry' of a bike?

In reply to my question about buying, people talked about the wheel size etc.; but not about the frame size, or the fork angle.

In the question about test-riding, people talked about aspects of the 'fit' which I think can be adjusted (i.e. the height and front/back position of the seat, and the height of the handle-bar) ... and which are documented elsewhere ... and which are therefore maybe superficial and less important for the purposes of this question.

But, what about the geometry which can't be adjusted: the distance between the wheels, for example?

On a bike which I've just bought, I've noticed for example (since buying it) that the front wheel is rather closer to my foot than I am used to; I expect that's just one example (of a geometry/metric which as a novice it hadn't occured to me to think about).

This Wikipedia article "Frame geometry" introduces the vocabulary but without much detail. Googling reveals mostly short articles too, more ad-bait than detailed/informative.

  • Given that I'm asking for details, a kind of 'science' question, this question is probably too long to answer here. What I might be asking for then is a link to a suitable introduction/reference (online, or a book...).

  • Alternatively you might (I don't know) be able to give a short/summary answer along of, "The most important measurements to look at are A, B, and C, which have the following effects... Taken together these few most important measurements account for 90% of the effects of geometry on fit/performance/handling/comfort."

Or, is this a topic that people don't learn about by reading, and which can only come from extensive experience of riding multiple bikes? How did you come by your understanding of geometry? Can you look at two bikes of a similar type and say, "Oh, those have different shapes/measurements" and understand what that (difference in measurements) means or implies?


PS.: interested in 'ordinary' frames: not frames with a suspension (so, not frames for off-road/all-terrain/jumping); not recumbent; not track/racing; not exotic/expensive materials.

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Just wanted to point out that the frame has a big impact on how the bike fits the rider (you mentioned it was "superficial"). You can indeed make many small adjustments to adjust the fit of any frame, but at some point the frame is going to limit how well you fit the bike. Too small a frame and you won't be able to get a long enough stem, long enough seat post or enough seat setback, and toe overlap becomes a bigger problem. Too large has the opposite problem. –  darkcanuck Feb 27 '11 at 20:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I see frame geometry having 3 primary affects

  1. Fitting the rider; which you're already addressing and I won't talk about here... But a lot of geometry stuff comes down to making the other stuff work with fitting riders on the bikes. It's very important.
  2. Fitting stuff on the bike
  3. Handling characteristics.

Since you asked, I'm talking about your basic on-road diamond-frame bike. Cruiser, road, commuter, urban, touring, racer...

Fitting Stuff On the Bike

  1. Wheel clearance affects how big the tires can be and how easy it is to mount fenders. For the rear wheel you need to look at the chainstay bridge, seatstay bridge and seat tube. For the front wheel, look at the fork crown and downtube. Often either not measured or simply given to you as a maximum tire size measurement.
  2. "Toe overlap" -- how close the front wheel gets to the front of the pedals. More of an issue with fenders, and not really an issue once you're going any kind of speed. I never see this on the geometry specs from manufacturers, but definitely worth checking. You can get used to moderate toe overlap, though.
  3. Longer chainstay length gives you more heel clearance for loading panniers on the rear rack. I know from personal experience that the most likely place to kick a pannier off the rack is in an intersection, so if you plan to carry panniers this can be very important. Short chainstay length can be compensated for by getting a rack that allows panniers to be mounted further back (longer top, top further back, however they do it).

Handling characteristics

First off, the way a bike handles, "stability" and "maneuverability" are essentially opposites. It's a tradeoff. Whether you want stable or maneuverable depends on what you're going to do with the bike, how fast you'll be going, your riding experience, etc. And there's some more complicated harder-to-understand secondary effects.

I really think that for most of the handling stuff you're best off just test-riding bikes that fit you. Experiment with the handling. Try going slow. Try going fast. Try making a sharp turn. Try making a subtle turn. Try a dodge/weave. Try those turns at different speeds. Try a fast start. Try a fast stop. Try all that in all the handlebar positions. Unless you're designing a bike, a lot of this is all very theoretical, heavily interrelated (can't really change one variable without changing the others), and likely to be very small differences when comparing actual bikes.

  1. Bottom Bracket (BB) height (sometimes you can find this out, sometimes you have to make a guess based on wheel+tire radius minus BB drop). Higher bottom bracket makes it easier to go over stuff. Not really an issue if you stick to roads, but can be a factor when trying to pedal through sharp turns. Higher BB also lets you use longer cranks which some people want. Compare a Cyclocross to a Road bike and the CX bike will have a higher BB.
  2. Wheelbase length (distance between hubs/contact patches). A longer wheelbase will make the bike more longitudinally stable. In other words, less prone to wheelies and less prone to flipping you over the handlebars. This could theoretically translate to better ability to stop faster. Note that one way to give you a longer wheelbase is longer chainstays. The position of your center of gravity makes a big difference, too.
  3. Headtube angle (steering axis angle). A shallower (more pointed forward) angle gives you more trail. A shallower angle also increases how much the weight can make the wheel flop on its own and negatively affect stability at low speed. This is usually measured from horizontal, so a steep angle will be closer to 90° and a shallow angle will be a lower number.
  4. Fork offset/rake (how far the front hub is in front of the steering axis). More offset gives you less trail. More offset also tends to give you more toe clearance.
  5. Trail is how far the front contact patch is behind the steering axis. Note that while the trail is the important measurement, the headtube angle and fork offset (and wheel size) are what determines the trail. A bicycle with no trail would be unrideable (but many people like having very little trail).

    There's different ways of measuring the trail (along the ground, or perpendicular to the steering axis) that make comparisons more intuitive, but more trail means more stable, and less trail means more maneuverable. Or to put it another way: less trail means more twitch and more trail means less responsive.

    The stability from trail increases as the bicycle goes faster. If you look at some cruiser bikes they'll tend to have a shallow headtube angle and a lot of trail: they're stable and easy to balance at low speeds but probably hard to steer at high speed. If you look at a road/racing bike, the headtube angle is usually much closer to vertical and the trail is fairly small: they may feel unstable and wobbly (hard to balance) at low speeds, but are still easy to steer (responsive) at high speeds.

    Note also that the handlebar setup and rider preferences/experience make a huge difference whether your prefer maneuverable/twitchy/responsive or stable/unsteerable/unresponsive.

References

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My test ride was without fenders. I first noticed "toe overlap" after I bought it, when the fenders were installed. It's at least partly due to my habit of having the pedals under the arch (not under the ball) of my foot (which I can change). –  ChrisW Feb 26 '11 at 19:23
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@ChrisW: I'll bet you also only notice the toe overlap when you're starting from a stop. At any kind of speed you can't turn the wheel enough for it to be an issue. –  freiheit Feb 26 '11 at 19:29
    
I noticed it when steering carefully/slowly along a snowy/icy bike path. –  ChrisW Feb 26 '11 at 19:33
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@freiheit: shallow headtube angle gives more drop when turning, which reduces stability. Steeper makes the bike castor more which gives a more responsive ride or makes the bike more twitchy, depending on how the rider feels about it. This combined with trail dominates dynamic stability, but all the factors listed have some effect. –  Мסž Feb 27 '11 at 21:08
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BB height affects the longest crank length you can use, which can be important to some people. The distance between the centre of gravity (CoG) and rear wheel strongly affects perceived stability/responsiveness, as well as ability to carry panniers etc. –  Мסž Feb 27 '11 at 21:10

I have been racing mountain bikes since the mid 90's and later playing around with BMX. If you ride enough bikes, you will notice the frame geometry can make a huge difference on how it performs off road. For a while many mountain bike companies were attempting to do a seatstay that curved around the wheel (S shaped) with a shorter chainstay..this brought the back wheel closer to being under the seating position, often by 2-3 inches. What effect it had was it was easy to wheelie the bike, or climb a hill..it was terrible when it came to riding flat on a street, as the bike was jumpy, and the front end always wanted to pull up, especially with a suspension fork every time you hit a bump. I recently rode a poorly designed Trek (A company known for selling bikes more for components and less for geometry) and the head tube angle was too shallow with little trail..and it was one of the most unstable bikes I have ever ridden. At slow speeds the bike wobbled, and for a Cross Country Hard Tail..this is a terrible characteristic (especially in the $1200+ price range). I later bought a Kona and it has a rather long trail with the fork brought forward by about an inch from the headtube that made it very stable. It has a very slanted top tube, that makes it much easier to maneuver and shift your weight without hitting the frame..something you want on a mountain bike.

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the below link offered some good insight on the topic of frame geometry numbers and how they influence riding characteristics. I do agree and should stress that rider preference and experience is an equal factor and when looking for a new frame, being informed and identifying this balance should be taken in consideration.

http://cyclingtips.com.au/2011/02/the-geometry-of-bike-handling/

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Welcome to Bicycles SE. While the linked info theoretically answers the question, we prefer answers on this site to be self contained. That way, if the link dies, the answer is still valid. Please consider summing up the information in that link for future users. –  jimirings Oct 21 '13 at 15:48

A local bike shop owner pointed out to me that getting the right frame is the most important thing on a bike. If it's not right, then any other money or effort you put in to the bike is wasted. So, good topic!

Grant Petersen wrote this article about geometry on Rivendell's site: http://www.rivbike.com/kb_results.asp?ID=34. It's not a complete treatment of the subject, and it's in Grant's typical rambling style, but I like reading his stuff for an "alternative viewpoint" vs. the mainstream trends.

Some excerpts:

Chainstay length....too short, bike is too jumpy.

Tire and fender clearance....too little, can't run a big fun tire or fenders

Seat tube angle....too steep, can't put seat back far enough

Head tube angle and fork rake: Combine to influence how the bike responds.

Fork blade length: Affects front wheel clearance

BB drop: Affects ground clearance, standover height, and bike "feel"

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Interesting that he talks about independent variables, saying that wheelbase is a side-effect. He doesn't mention the fact which freiheit mentioned that different trail values are optimizations for different speeds. –  ChrisW Feb 26 '11 at 20:00
    
@ChrsW: that's because freiheit's opinion is a minority one. Bikes with no trail can be rideable, bikes with a lot of trail tend to develop steering oscillations at speed. The interaction between headset angle and trail is not straightforward, but there's a "sweet spot" that almost all bikes use. –  Мסž Feb 27 '11 at 21:03
    
@moz: It's a pretty theoretical point unless we can find a bike with no trail to test ride, but how do you balance a bike with no trail? With any amount of trail turning the handlebars moves the contact patch left and right and lets you steer and countersteer the bike to balance, break balance to start a turn, etc... Sure seems like balancing a no trail bike would be equivalent to balancing a non-moving bike. Perhaps more like I need to rephrase or remove that particular sentence... –  freiheit Feb 27 '11 at 22:57
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@freiheit: I built a bike (One Less Ute moz.geek.nz/mozbike/build/long-2) that had 5mm of trail (close enough to none) and a vertical headset. It ended up with trail largely for convenience in the build. I've ridden a diamond frame bike with no trail without hassle, and flatland bikes have little to no trail (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland_BMX). As far as balancing a bike with no trail, the main thing is you can't dynamically balance it - riding no hands doesn't work. But if you're willing to steer it it rides just like any other bike. –  Мסž Feb 27 '11 at 23:20
    
I possibly go on and on about this a bit much, but conventional bikes are a very narrow slice of what's possible. Flatland just just one example - dedicated polo bikes often have almost all the weight on the rear wheel, very steep steering and are designed to be ridden one handed. Tall bikes often have ridiculously short wheelbases. Load bikes with significant drop can be unrideable when loaded due to the effort required to return the handlebars to centre. But a 74 degree +-2 degree 27" wheel diamond frame... copy any existing bike and you'll be fine. –  Мסž Feb 27 '11 at 23:27

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