Last updated: January 9th, 2023
A bicycle seat (or “saddle”) often looks like it’s perched curiously high up.
As odd as it might look, that actually serves a practical purpose.
But it’s also the result of an optical illusion, at least with common, modern frame designs.
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Here’s why cyclists keep their seats so high
A high seat helps you ride faster and save energy by straightening your leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Most road bikes also have very low handlebars and “compact geometry” which make the seat look even higher than it is.
In addition, most road cyclists use clipless pedals. The attachment location and cleat size require an even higher saddle to get the same leg extension as with flat pedals and street shoes.
But why is seat height such a big deal?
The importance of bicycle saddle height
A low bicycle saddle forces you to pedal with very bent knees, so it’s more work to ride at the same speed. A higher saddle—within reason—keeps your knees in a more powerful and comfortable range.
Why is this?
Think about how it feels to do a squat. It’s easier at the top (knee extended) than at the bottom (knee bent), right? Well, the same principle applies to pedaling.
We won’t get too deep into the biomechanics. In brief, your quadriceps (thigh muscles) have to pull around the bend of your knee. The more bent your knee, the more indirect their pull. The straighter your knee, the more direct and powerful their pull.
Bike design makes saddles look higher
Newer road bike generally use compact geometry, meaning the top tube slopes down toward the seatpost. More of the seatpost is exposed, so it makes the seat appear higher than it would on old-school bikes.
Likewise, road bikes have especially low handlebars (known as “drop bars“). These keep the rider in an aerodynamic position, along with a few other benefits.
If two bikes have an identical saddle height, the saddle will still look higher on the bike with lower handlebars.
What’s more, road bikes tend to have very a steep (upright) seat tube angle. It might be the exact same pedals-to-saddle distance as on a relaxed Dutch bike, but it’s more vertical and therefore taller-looking.
Finally, pro cyclists only seem to have extra-high saddles because they race with particularly low handlebars, and may use a smaller frame than a recreational rider.
The average pro cyclist isn’t especially tall—roughly 5’9″ for men—so “high” saddles are at least partly an optical illusion.
Pedal choices affects saddle height
Nearly all road cyclists use clipless pedals. That involves special shoes with a metal cleat that snaps into the pedal, almost like a ski binding.
The cleat is usually far forward, under the ball of the foot.
Recreational cyclists tend to use platform pedals, and ride with their arch or even heel centered on the pedal. That shortens the overall distance.
There’s a longer distance from the knee to the ball of the foot versus to the arch or heel. It’s actually even longer still, since we naturally point our feet downward at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
So, with the foot firmly attached there, the seat needs to be a couple inches higher than most recreational cyclists would choose.
Touching the ground isn’t always realistic
Generally, should should at least be able to touch one foot to the ground. But knee extension is more important, so we may need to compromise.
Clipless pedals (the snap-in kind that uses special shoes) or an unusually tall bottom bracket keep us higher up in the first place. At that point, proper knee extension may require such a high saddle that we can barely touch the ground at all without dismounting.
That’s disconcerting for someone who’s not yet comfortable on a bike, and irritating for those who ride in lots of stop-and-go urban situations.
But if you’re racing, or training like a racer, then it’s not a problem at all. There’s not much stopping—at least in principle—so it’s a reasonable trade-off for full, efficient leg extension.
The easy way to set the right saddle height
There are all sorts of fancier techniques and devices to optimize saddle height. Some racers even spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on laboratory-like bike fitting sessions, which optimize every measurement and angle down to the millimeter.
But for most of us, it’s a lot simpler—not to mention free.
Simply get on the bike, place your heels over the very center of the pedals (just for now!), and ride around slowly.
Saddle height is about right if your knee is fully extended but your heel has not lost contact with the pedal.
If your knee remains bent, then raise it slightly and repeat the test.
If your heel does lift off the pedal, or you have to tilt your hips to keep it in place, then lower it slightly and repeat the test.
Important: For actual riding, you should keep the ball of your foot over the center of the pedal, even if you’re not using clipless pedals. That gives better control and power.
The goal is to have a very slight knee bend once the ball of your foot is centered. Using your heel just for this saddle-height test is the easier way to get close to that. You may still need to adjust the height a little, but this approach should get you within an inch.
How high is too high?
Even though bike seats may look high, and leg extension is beneficial, you don’t want too much of a good thing.
For a recreational cyclist, the surest sign is whether your hips rock side-to-side as you pedal. If you feel that, then lower the saddle about half an inch at a time until it subsides.
(Otherwise, you’ll experience excess fatigue and even back and hip problems over time.)