Find the perfect bike for shorter riders, with the help of this expert guide from Cyclescheme - the UK's leading cycle to work scheme.
Adult height follows a normal distribution: most people are fairly close to average, with fewer tall or short. The fact that shorter people are in a minority can make it harder to find bikes to suit; not all manufacturers bother to cater for what is after all a small (so to speak) market. But don't give up. Nearly everyone can find a bike to suit.
The sizing minefield
There’s no standard way of describing the size of a bike. Bikes are typically sized by the seat tube length, which tells you nothing about whether you’ll be able to comfortably reach the handlebar. Designations of Small, Medium, and Large are more useful. Better yet, many manufacturers give recommended height ranges. Since you might prefer one size bigger or smaller, depending on how you like to sit on the bike, the best option is to try for size in store.
A sense of proportion
Two people of the same height can easily have considerably different proportions – one may have long legs and a short torso, another may have a long body and short legs. They're unlikely to be comfortable on the same bike, or one set up in the same way.
Scaling it down
Shorter cyclists don’t just need a smaller frame size; they also need components scaled down to suit, most obviously the wheels. Squeezing big wheels into a small frame can result in compromised frame geometry that spoils comfort or handling, or makes the front wheel hit your feet on tight turns. Consider bikes with 650B/27.5in wheels rather than 700C/29er, especially if you want a drop handlebar. Shorter cranks (160-165mm) will make pedalling more comfortable, while brake levers must be within reach of shorter fingers. A narrower width handlebar suits someone with narrower shoulders.
If you're very short and slight, take a look at bikes designed for youngsters. Small adult riders sometimes get on well with bikes from the teenage end of children's bike ranges. Manufacturers like Islabikes produce lightweight kids' bikes that match adult bikes in specification. But bear in mind that most short adults are significantly heavier than similar height children.
There are a lot of small changes that can be made to a bike to improve the fit. Seat height is just the start. You can also move the saddle fore and aft on the seatpost. There's also the possibility of swapping between layback (with the saddle clamp behind the axis of the post) and inline (as the name suggests) posts.
At the front, there's scope to swap the stem for a different length or rise. Typically stem lengths go up with bike size, but most bikes can be fitted with a shorter stem than standard without upsetting the handling. Handlebars with more sweep also make a difference, and so does bar width – if your hands are further apart, you'll have to lean forward more to reach the bars.
Most modern bikes have clamp-on stems that aren't as readily adjustable as the old-fashioned quill type. But you can still usually alter the height of the bars by rearranging spacers above and below the stem and/or flipping the stem over.
Flat handlebar bikes fit bigger wheels into smaller frames than those with drop bars because the frames are longer. So despite 700C wheels, Whyte’s smallest size Carnaby Compact hybrid fits riders down to 5ft/1.52m. The Compact part of the name tells you that the bike is meant for cyclists who prefer a slightly shorter reach, as many women do. It also has a lower standover height. For an inexpensive hybrid, it’s lightweight – just 10.6kg – making it easier for a smaller rider to manoeuvre.
Women’s bikes tend to be given pastel colours and wider saddles. The main difference, however, is that they’re available in smaller sizes, since women are on average shorter. Short men or boys can also sometimes get a better fit on so-called women’s bikes. The XS size of this bike fits riders down to just 4ft 6in (1.37m). It comes with short-reach brake levers and cranks 5mm shorter than the larger models. Plus-size tyres are comfortable and capable off-road. It can be equipped with a pannier rack and a kickstand for commuting.
Although only available in one frame size, the design of the Brompton (like many compact folders) lends itself to a huge range of seat height adjustment. Taller riders can specify a longer or telescopic seatpost and higher-rise handlebars. Shorter riders will fit better with the flat S-type handlebar and the standard seatpost. Be sure to buy the Seat Heigh Insert (£8.50) so you can quickly raise the sadddle to just the right height for you when unfolding. The 2-speed is scarcely heavier or more expensive than the singlespeed but has a useful extra gear.
Kona’s Rove NRB gravel bike has 650B wheels, which are an inch and half smaller in diameter in 700C. This is primarily so that the bike can more easily accommodate fatter, bump-friendlier tyres. But it also makes possible a smaller smallest size: the 46cm model fits riders down to 4ft 10in (1.47m). In this size, it has 165mm cranks rather than 170mm – a welcome change. The brakes are reach-adjustable, and at just 10kg it’s light enough for a petite rider to pick up easily. It has frame fittings for mudguards and racks.
Like the Brompton, Cube’s dinky urban e-bike has a one-size-fits-all frame and small wheels, in this case 20in diameter. It’s not a folder as such, although the handlebar can be turned sideways independently of the front wheel so it takes up less room. It comes equipped with everything you need for commuting. Like most e-bikes it’s quite heavy, but the battery and crank motor are low down for better stability, and the frame design makes it easy to get on and off – and to pick up.
Islabikes Luath 700
Islabikes specialises in children's bikes (although there's a grown-ups 29er MTB in the range), but the upper end of its age range is also worth a look for shorter adults. The Luath is a drop-bar bike with rack and mudguard mounts. It's available in three sizes, with the largest accommodating riders down to about 158cm (5ft 2in).
Trek makes a point of offering a wide range of sizes on many of its bikes, and its entry-level MTB series goes down to a 13in frame. Although nominally a mountain bike, the 3900 is well-suited to everyday commuting too – the aluminium frame has rack mounts and the Bontrager tyres have a fast-rolling overlapping tread.
The Avail is just cheap enough to be eligible for Cyclescheme. It's a proper lightweight road bike, aimed at women but not particularly feminine in appearance. It's most obviously suited to longer, fair-weather commutes on open roads, although it does have mudguard eyes on the frame and fork. Sizes start at XS.
Although only available in one size, the design of the folding Brompton lends itself to a huge range of seat height adjustment. Brompton offer a vast range of build options – shorter riders should look at the flat S-type handlebar for better fit. The S1E has a simple single-speed transmission, but you can opt for gears at extra cost.
Genesis Col du Glandon
UK-based Genesis has taken a slightly different approach with the Col du Glandon, choosing 650B wheels (smaller than 700c road wheels, bigger than 26in MTB wheels) for its all-round small-person's road bike. Smaller wheels mean fewer geometry compromises to fit shorter riders. With a full complement of rack and mudguard mounts, it's an ideal year-round commuter.
Scott Metrix 20
Scott's Metrix combines the appearance, robustness and user-friendly riding position of a mountain bike with the fast-rolling running gear of a road bike. The result is a speedy but town-friendly bike. It's worth a look for shorter riders as the sizes go down to XS. There's an alternative-geometry “Solution” version too which might give a better fit.
A modern take on a traditional style, the Coco has a mixte-style frame with a dropped top tube. You can get on by stepping through rather than swinging a leg over the back and even short riders will have ample standover clearance. The smallest size is a tidgy 42cm, too. Full mudguards and disc brakes make it ready for all weathers.