Sizing at the Extremes

Sep 24th, 2019

The call came in to Adventure Cycling’s front office:

“I need a small touring bike.”

No problem, there’s the 42cm, 26-inch–wheeled Long Haul Trucker …

“No, no, it needs to be smaller than that,” the caller said. “I really need a step-through.”

Oh, that’s gonna be a little tougher.

Modern Sizing

Full disclosure: I’m basically bicycle sample size. As a 5’11” guy, I can usually buy a 56cm road or “Large” mountain bike and be perfectly happy with minimal adjustment. Put me on a 54 or 58? Not a problem, I can make that work too. That’s in part thanks to modern “compact” sizing, which came about with the widespread adoption of sloping top tubes and standardized sizing into the most common five or six sizes in the center of the bell curve. With front and rear triangles that grow or shrink in proportion to the size offered, compact geometry offers simultaneously more and fewer options — standover is no longer the sole determination of size, but it also demands a look at other measurements to correctly determine fit. Mountain bikes, with their more extreme modern frame shapes (especially on fully suspended models), likewise can no longer rely on seat tube measurements to accurately convey size. The 2019 Touring Bike Buyers Guide goes into great depth on frame geometry and fit and is worth a long look.

The Tall and the Small

We get a lot of calls for bike buying advice, and while most are centered on price point and gear range, the list of production (non-custom) touring bike options for the very small is, well, shorter than most standover heights. As a result of a few of these recent conversations, we decided to pull together a roundup of touring (and touring-adjacent) bikes suitable for those on the more extreme ends of the sizing spectrum. 

Of course every body is different, so these sizing assumptions are just that, but for those below about 5’4” and above 6’4”, these bikes could offer a jumping-off point in your search. As always — and perhaps especially in these sizes —  you’d be well-served to find a dealer in your area who can coordinate a test ride.

Small Touring Bikes

Standover height — the distance from the ground to the top tube just in front of the saddle — is most often the limiting factor when it comes to bike sizing in the extremes. While reach and riding position can be adjusted considerably with changes to seatposts, stem, and bars, if you can’t comfortably straddle a bike when stopped, you have a problem. This is doubly true for loaded touring, when the extra weight demands sure footing. A mixte, or step-through, frame is perhaps the most obvious solution for very short legs, but options are few. Terry Bicycles previously offered models with a 700c rear wheel and 24-inch front wheel to help manage standover, an effective solution but not without compromises (Georgena Terry is custom-only today). Today, more extreme tube shaping, especially on aluminum bikes, can offer lower standover, but still there are limitations. Note: mixte and very small frame sizes are frequently marketed as women’s-specific bikes. Focus on fit rather than the marketing copy’s targeted gender!

Rivendell remains one of the relatively few manufacturers of mixte bikes for touring, and offers sizing down to 45cm and 50cm on many models, which the brand says are suitable to riders down to five feet tall. The Cheviot, Clem L, and Clem Smith Jr. are some of the best options, and can be had variously in frame-only or complete versions. As with all Rivendells, these frames all use steel tubes, ornate lugs, and — despite their classic aesthetics — put function before form with a full range of mounts and braze-ons. Pricing from $1,600 for completes.

Soma Fabrications only offers framesets, so those who don’t want to piece together a bike should skip it. But if you’re up for the challenges and rewards of spec’ing your own ride (possibly with the help of your local shop), the brand’s mixte-style Buena Vista models in rim and disc brake configurations make interesting options for a true touring step-through. Soma frames use Tange Prestige steel tubing, sliding dropouts, and all manner of mounts. Sizing from 42cm, frameset costs $550.

KTM is perhaps better known as a motorcycle brand, but their bicycle line has been steadily expanding availability in the U.S. They’ve announced a 2020 model called the X-Strada Glory, which is marketed as a women’s gravel bike, but appears suitable for light touring and offers an alloy frame in a step-through configuration. U.S. pricing hadn’t been set at press time, but should be around $1,700 for the complete with Shimano’s new GRX gravel groupset.

With an extreme sloping top tube, Marin’s Gestalt X line offers some of the lowest standover height in the industry for a “traditional” double-diamond bike. Equipped for gravel riding and light touring, this aluminum dropbar model gets down to a nearly 560mm standover on the smallest 50cm size. As configured, this bike’s gearing probably isn’t low enough for extended riding with any sort of load, but it offers an interesting starting point. Completes from $1,250.

Bike Friday/Tern/Brompton/etc.

Perhaps you’ve never considered a folding bike because you don’t need to travel with your ride or slip it under a desk or in a closet for storage. But folders offer some built-in advantages for shorter riders including what’s effectively a mixte-style frame and a very modular cockpit designed to suit a variety of riders. Reach could be an issue, and compromises inherent in folding bikes — tiny wheels and poor rollover, gearing options, cost, etc. — remain, but a folder could open new doors (like airline overhead bins!).

Large Touring Bikes

A long seatpost and tower of stem spacers a tall bike do not make, at least not as far as we’re concerned. It may seem somewhat simpler to expand a too-small bike than to contract a too-large one, but while extending components can gain extra length on both planes of fit, the compromises of such a strategy affect handling, performance, and comfort. There are options out there for the very tall — and the very (like, NBA) tall, where immense frame measurements require additional considerations from tubing choice to wheel size. Custom builders could likewise tackle the sizing concerns unique to those pushing seven feet.

And like small bikes, gender marketing shouldn’t sway your decision — six-foot–tall women are unlikely to find many “women’s” bikes offering a good fit — but rather a focus on key metrics like standover, top tube length, reach, and stack should all factor into your decision. 

A stalwart of the touring world, Trek’s 520 goes all the way to a size 63cm, which should cover riders up to about 6’6”, though the brand’s more dirt road–focused 920 only extends to a 61cm, and Trek suggests a top rider height of 6’3”. The 520’s upright geometry, 700c wheels with clearance for wide tires, and 230mm head tube — double the smallest 48cm size’s head tube length — combine to make for a solid choice for taller riders seeking a traditional steed. $1,680 complete.

Another mainstay, the Surly Long Haul/Disc Trucker offers a huge range of sizes from 42cm to 64cm (62cm in rim brake configuration), changing wheel sizes from 26in. to 700c about halfway through the range. While the Trucker’s max head tube length doesn’t quite reach the Trek’s (it tops out at 226mm), that should still help prevent the need for a massive spacer stack. A 64cm size should cover riders well into the mid-six–foot range. $1,350 for the Long Haul Trucker, $1,550 for the Disc Trucker.

Though it lacks traditional rack mounts, the Rohloff-optional All-Road from DirtySixer might be the best option for the truly tall (Shaq rides one!). Featuring 36in. wheels, extra-long crank arms, and a wide-range cassette or Rohloff internal gear hub, DirtySixer claims sizing up to 5XL, all the way to 7’4” riders. You might need to order a custom framebag for that main triangle, but with that much space, you won’t miss panniers! From $5,800 with a derailer drivetrain, $7,100 with a Rohloff.

No question about this brand name either, Clydesdale Bikes offers sizing up to 4XL (7’ rider height) in their titanium frames. The Draft model rides on 700c wheels and also features a max rider weight of 450 lbs. Because of a higher bottom bracket for extra-long cranks, stack and reach numbers may not be exactly comparable to other bikes on 700c wheels, and the geometry and tubing choices are all made with longer (and possibly heavier) riders in mind. Not convinced? These are designed by Lennard Zinn, the famed technical guru who knows a bit about the needs of taller riders — he’s 6’6” himself.

This story originally appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2019 issue of Adventure Cyclist.

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