A minefield diffused
Bikes can definitely be the wrong size. You need out get one the fits you properly. The thing is, you can’t reliably go off the nominal frame size any more.
Bad news: mountain bike frame sizes are all over the place. There is no consistency. One brand’s Medium/17in bike is another brand’s Large/19in.
What’s more, a lot of bike manufacturers’ – and even bike shops’ – sizing advice is often wrong too.
Watch: How to sell your bike for more money
Ultimately you do not have a frame size. Not one that tallies with what bike brands say, nor one that is consistent from bike to bike.
This means shopping for a bike is not simple, particularly if browsing online beforehand. It is not a good idea to select a frame size and filter the results by that.
Why are things so messed up?
The problem is that bikes have always been sized by the length of their seat tubes. There’s no reason for us to go into why this so (short version: blame roadies) but you do need to understand that this is a big problem.
Whilst seat tube length is important it is not the most important measurement on a bike frame.
The modern move away from frame sizes being listed in numbers of inches has been an improvement. Using ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Large’ etc instead of ’16in’, ’17in’ or ’19in’ is a much better idea.
What measurement is the most important then?
Reach followed by standover.
Why is reach the most important measurement?
Reach is the distance between the bottom bracket axle and centre of (the top of) the head tube. See diagram above.
This is a very difficult thing to measure on a bike in the flesh, unless you’re happy to take plumb lines and tape measures into your local bike shop. Thankfully any bike brand worth its salt includes a reach measurement on the geometry charts of its bikes.
Why is reach the vital thing? Because it dictates how the bike actually fits you. It governs if a bike is too cramped or too stretched out for you.
And, unlike seat tube length, reach cannot be adjusted for. You can adjust your saddle height up or down to accommodate seat tube length. Reach cannot be adjusted. You’re stuck with it. A bike with too short a reach will always be too small.
Don’t think you can adjust incorrect reach by changing to a different stem length or by sliding your saddle on its rails backwards. Changing stem length will impair how the bike steers and handles. And saddles slid far back on their rails won’t mean thing when you’re stood up out of the saddle, and when you are seated slid-back saddles will result in inefficient pedal power and a wandery, lift-prone front end.
Don’t forget standover
What is standover? Standover is arguably a more helpful version of seat tube length sizing. Standover is how high the top tube is at the point where you’re astride your bike and straddling it ie. when you’re on stood on the ground in front of your saddle (usually taken to be approx 70mm in front of the bottom bracket). See the pic above.
Again, this is tricky to measure in person but it should be listed in a bike’s geometry chart.
You do need to measure your inside leg though, as this will tell you if the bike has enough standover for you. If you have 28in inside leg, don’t get a bike with 30in standover. Ouch.
So what mountain bike frame size should you ride?
We aren’t going to cop out and show you a easy-to-digest table with ‘rider height’ in one column and ‘frame size’ in the other.
That simply doesn’t work.
Sure every bike brand has a rider height/frame size chart. So too does every mountain bike magazine website.
It still doesn’t work.
What do we recommend then? Look at the reach.
Recommended reach numbers for rider heights
Here are or recommendations based on rider height and recommended reach number…
5′ 2″ to 5′ 6″ = 410mm to 450mm reach
5′ 6″ to 5′ 10″ = 430mm to 470mm reach
5′ 10″ to 6′ 2″ = 450mm to 490mm reach
6′ 2″ to 6′ 6″ = 470mm to 510mm reach
The above recommendations may startle some people who are used to traditional advice. Then again, there will also be more progressively minded folk who think that we’re being conservative with the reach numbers here and would recommend even longer reach numbers for each rider height.
Broadly speaking we’d recommend getting the largest frame size that still affords you an acceptable amount of standover.
Even if you’ve “always ridden a Large”, don’t be surprised if you find yourself ending up looking at XL or even XXL size bikes. That’s just how it is. Things have changed. Frame sizing has always arguably been incorrect.
As Chris Porter rightly says, “we’re all riding bikes that are too small.”
Will your dropper still fit?
A word of warning: if ‘upsizing’ a frame size, please check that you’ll be able to fit in a dropper post with the desired amount of drop travel to it.
Even bikes with plenty of standover can still have lengthy seat tubes. Sometimes if you’re on the limit of going up a frame size you can struggle to fit in a 150mm-travel dropper post without your saddle ending up being too high.
Read 5 ways to increase standover on bikes with high seat tubes for more info about this.
Check the stem length
All of this new way of finding out if a bike will fit you properly is reliant on the bike’s stem.
Stems longer than 60mm have no place on a mountain bike in 2018.
Anyone who says they like a long stem is just on a bike that’s too short for them and the long stem is a sticking plaster ‘cure’. Far better to be on a bike with a sufficiently long reach in the first place.
Mountain bikes ideally should have stems between 30mm and 50mm in length. The trouble is that a lot of them still come fitted with longer stems.
Don’t end up with the wrong size bike
A common end result of going off sizing advice from a bike brand (or even a bike shop) is too end up with a bike that’s too short in reach and comes with a stem that’s too long.
A 6ft tall person would end up riding a ‘Large’ bike with a 75mm stem. They’d be far better on an ‘Extra Large’ bike with a 40mm stem.
Don’t be afraid to ask to try the next frame size up AND to have the stem swapped out at time of purchase. A good bike shop will do that do for you.
What about mountain bike frame sizes for women?
Contrary to what anyone may tell you, women have the same principal body proportions as men. The whole ‘longer leg, shorter torso’ thing is a complete myth. Bikes fit humans, end of.
With this in mind, all the advice above is for both men and women equally.