Bike Fitting for Youth Cyclists: What You Need to Know

For kids who are road cyclists, who aspire to race in triathlons or compete in mountain biking events, and even kids who participate in various cycling events or recreational cycling activities, having the right bike matters.

What matters even more is ensuring the bike fits them properly — not just today, but also as they grow.

There’s a science behind fitting a bike, and certified athletic trainer Matt Tinkey is a leading expert on it. He’s been fitting bikes and helping riders since 2006. He’s also an avid cyclist himself and has competed in numerous races all over the region.

He runs the Cycling Performance Program at UPMC Sports Medicine and is conveniently located at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Twp., Pa. Tinkey is open for business — ready to help youth cyclists get the right fit.

“Every kid starts by saying their bike feels fine,” Tinkey says. It’s because kids are so adaptive, he adds. “They’re just excited to be on a bicycle, and don’t understand that it could be even better.”

A better fit means better performance. It’s also safer and can reduce the risk of cycling injuries. And — parents will especially like this — it can save money in the long run, by helping a bike grow with a rider.

Tinkey works with cyclists of all ages. He’s also involved with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League (a local chapter of NICA). This is a mountain biking program for student-athletes.

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How Bike Fitting Works

When a cyclist comes for an appointment, they bring their bike, which Tinkey sets up on a trainer. “It turns their bike into a stationary bike for the moment, so I can see them peddling,” he says.

He also has them wear their typical training clothing and their cycling shoes. The idea is to get as close to an actual ride as possible.

He asks them how often they ride, what distances, and on what terrain.

This is because there are different considerations for mountain terrain versus asphalt, and long endurance rides versus a triathlon. Does the cyclist need to be comfortable for a shorter distance on the road or a long ride over rough terrain? Knowing these goals helps Tinkey know what to assess.

With the cyclist riding, Tinkey observes. He looks for fidgetiness, which usually signals a child is uncomfortable. “Older people will tell you about discomfort, but kids often won’t,” he says.

He also uses tools to measure angles to see where things are. Is the cyclist too high, too low, too far back, or too far forward?

He looks at the saddle height and tilt, and may move the saddle forward or backward. “Or I may suggest starting over with a new saddle,” Tinkey says. He has many different saddles the cyclist can try.

Then he looks at posture, noticing where the rider is bending. Are they hinging at their hips or slouching from the mid part of the body?

If they’re slouching too much, it can collapse the diaphragm, making it harder to breathe. “We want them to be able to keep their back nice and flat to protect the spine,” he says. But they need the proper pelvic tilt that allows them to bend forward with a flat back.

Tinkey also looks at the clips on their shoes and on the peddles, making sure they’re aligned properly. “It’s important to get the clips in the right position,” he says. Otherwise, a rider might be overusing their calf muscles.

But the most common change Tinkey makes is to the handlebars.

He looks to see how their hands are interacting with handlebars. “I don’t want them reaching too much or crunching too much,” he says. He uses something called a stem sizer, which is a tool that allows him to adjust where the stem goes.

He can make tweaks — or may suggest buying a new stem altogether if a child has recently grown a lot.

Making a Bike Last as Long as Possible

A good road, racing, or mountain bike can be a substantial investment. A big part of what Tinkey does is help families get the most out of a bike.

Tinkey estimates that a new entry level bike, fitting kids 4’11” and up, runs about $850 to $1,000. But the used market is typically strong in an active cycling area like Pittsburgh.

In fact, there are area programs that train kids to compete in triathlons and help with finding used bikes. For example, Get Fit Families offers the GFF Tri Team, a triathlon team for kids up to age 19, as well as sources used bikes or gets loaner bikes for kids who are just starting, Tinkey says.

Tinkey also has relationships with local bike shops. For example, he may do a fit and recommend a new saddle or a new stem for a child who has recently grown.

In that case, all the parent needs to do is go to their usual shop and tell them they’ve had “a fit by Matt.” The owners and techs know Tinkey, and can make sure any new equipment is properly fitted.

It’s also important to be strategic about when to buy a new bike, Tinkey says. The one part of a bicycle that isn’t adjustable is the frame. A child who has a sudden growth spurt can grow right out of a frame, seemingly overnight.

It happened with Tinkey’s own daughter, so he understands the frustration. Bike shops may work with you on trade-ins.

If you’re looking to buy, he recommends waiting it out as long as you can. That way your child won’t outgrow it before an important competition.

For example, if your child competes in triathlons (a summer sport), try to wait until late spring to buy a new bike.

How to Schedule a Bike Fitting

Kids come to see Tinkey if they’ve gotten a new bike. They also come in yearly, just to make tweaks that could help performance.

But a great reason to make an appointment is a growth spurt. “Height changes, weight changes — it changes a kid’s balance,” he says.

Tinkey charges $100 for a youth bike fitting, specifically for anyone in grades K through 12. For that fee, kids can come in as much as needed throughout the year.

To set up a fitting, email Matt Tinkey. Learn more about the Cycling Performance Program at UPMC Sports Medicine on our website.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.