Finding the right fit on a mountain bike is a challenge, no matter your body size. After all, most bikes are only offered in a few discreet sizes, and even among riders of the same height, body measurements and proportions can vary widely. Tall riders certainly aren’t unique in facing bike fit challenges. Selfishly though, I wanted to find out what tall riders can do to dial in a comfortable and effective mountain bike ride, after essentially guessing and checking my way to a better fit over the years. So, I decided to reach out to both bike fit experts and tall riders alike to see what I could learn.
Bike frames for tall frames
First things first: choosing a mountain bike frame based solely on rider height is going to be a gamble for anyone. Communicating sizing, particularly online, involves a tradeoff between offering helpful, clear information while at the same time leaving room for interpretation and the proper amount of wiggle room.
As an example, I’m 6’3″ tall, and looking at sizing information for a Diamondback Release 4C, I should order a size XL, which the brand says fits rider 6’2″ to 6’6″ tall. At first glance, the brand’s size chart appears cut and dry; riders who are a hair shorter than 6’2″ are advised to choose a large. Six feet, 2.0001 inches tall? That’s an XL. Most riders will stop at this point and take the size chart as gospel, but it’s important to understand there are no hard and fast rules. Case in point: Diamondback-sponsored rider Eric Porter.
Porter is 6’3″ tall, and he generally chooses to ride size large bikes. “I think I’m an odd one here, but not the only one. I ride a size large bike for a bike that’s easier to throw around and manual and play with on the trail.”
So while rider height is a good starting point, riding style is an equally important consideration. Some brands, like Specialized are moving away from familiar sizes like small, medium, and large altogether. In their place, a series of numbered sizes are recommended for a range of overlapping heights. That means for most heights, two or more sizes will be recommended and riders will need to consider their own fit preferences to make a selection.
But how can we quantify our fit preferences? The answer is geometry, and for tall riders — and more generally, all riders — there are a few key numbers to focus on.
Can you ‘reach’ that for me?
Often the first place tall riders will want to focus their attention is on reach measurements. Jason Williams, a Sports Scientist and Human Performance expert at Retül says, “Generally making sure the reach is long enough and the stack is tall enough for tall riders would be the most important.” Porter agrees, and suggests the actual reach measurement that works best for each rider will depend on not just riding style and height, but also on upper body length.
Bobby Brown, Marketing Manager at SloHi Bike Company in Denver, is 6’8″ tall which makes him an outlier even among tall riders. He also says finding a bike with a long reach is very important, but notes not all long-reach frames are created equally. “Some bikes these days feature long reach front triangles but come with short head tubes for shorter guys sizing up.” Unfortunately compensating for a too-short head tube or stack height usually results in a shorter effective cockpit length, wiping out the advantages of the longer reach in the first place.
Modern mountain bike geometry is generally benefitting riders of all heights, with extended reaches and steeper seat tube angles becoming more commonplace. Brown notes a steeper seat tube angle helps with weight distribution, particularly when climbing, and combined with a long reach, traction is improved for descents. After years of bike brands pitching shorter, more “playful” chain stay lengths, tall riders may be reluctant to trade longer stays for a steeper seat tube angle, but that could be a mistake. Brands are finally realizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to chain stay lengths, and riders at either end of the height spectrum stand to benefit the most from right-sized stays, especially if that allows other pieces of the geometry puzzle to fall into place more favorably.
Porter says that while a longer reach tends to make for more comfortable riding, especially on big days in the saddle, he still prefers a slightly shorter frame. “I look at bike fit a little bit differently than the typical view of straight ergonomics. […] If a bike’s reach and wheelbase are long, it’s very stable and fast, but it’s less playful, and since I’m not an Enduro World Series racer, that’s not ideal.”
Since few tall riders are willing or able to have a completely custom bike frame built for them based on their exact geometry requirements, component swaps are a key to making stock frames work.
One of the least expensive and easiest adjustments to make is trying a longer stem. Over the past several years most riders have found shorter stems provide better handling characteristics, though taller riders may find improved handling is not worth the tradeoff in terms of weighting the front wheel and overall comfort. Brown says a longer stem might be helpful, especially “if your cockpit length has been reduced due to higher bars or steer tube spacers.” Williams agrees, saying “many new mountain bikes are spec’d with 35-50mm stems but if a taller rider benefits from a 60-70mm stem it should be considered.”
Bar height is another area tall riders tend to find challenging. Porter suggests using headset spacers and/or riser bars to find the height that is comfortable and that works for your riding style. “It’s not unusual for tall riders to run 50 to 60mm of saddle-to-bar drop compared to their shorter friends with level bars and saddles,” says Brown.
Long-travel dropper posts are a boon for all riders, and tall riders in particular. Riders on size medium frames may have trouble fitting a 200mm travel post, but for riders on extra larges it’s generally no problem. That may seem unfair to average-height riders seeking more drop, but keep in mind tall riders are still likely sitting higher on the bike even with the post down. Porter is a fan of longer travel dropper posts, though he’s found he gets a similar advantage from simply riding a smaller frame. “I think for optimal jumping and downhill handling, the ideal place for the seat when dropped down is in between the knees so I can move the bike around where I want it, which is part of why low standover and a 19” seat tube length is ideal.”
Richard Shoop recently interviewed a number of riders and experts who suggest that many riders may benefit from shorter cranks. While it seems like tall riders should be able to benefit from longer crank arms, Williams points out that bottom bracket heights generally limit what is practical when it comes to pedal clearance on the trail.
Are there disadvantages to being a tall mountain biker?
Assuming tall riders can dial in the right fit for their height and riding style, one final question I’ve wrestled with is whether being tall poses an advantage or disadvantage for mountain biking, or if certain disciplines within the sport favor certain body types. For example, the average elite female gymnast is 4’9″ tall, which this article explains provides a higher power-to-weight ratio and lower moment of inertia. Slopestyle and freeride mountain biking tend to share much in common with aerial gymnastics, XC racing is all about maximizing power-to-weight ratios, and even downhill racing is a bit like a jockey piloting a racehorse at full speed. Therefore it seems like taller riders should find themselves at the short end of the stick when it’s time to compete.
Yet we don’t have to look far to see examples of tall, successful athletes in virtually every mountain bike discipline, starting with Porter who has excelled in everything from XC to downhill and freeride. A non-exhaustive list of 6-foot-tall-plus mountain bike athletes includes legends like downhillers Greg Minnaar and Steve Peat, slopestyle athlete Martin Soderstrom, and trials rider Jeff Lenosky, all of whom shine in spite of — or perhaps, because of — their height.
Six-foot-eight-inch-tall Brown agrees that being a tall mountain biker has its advantages. “One benefit of being tall is having additional ‘suspension’ travel from your long arms and legs which can let you ride lighter on your wheels and frame.”
In the end, none of us can change our height, but we can change our bikes and adjust our riding technique to suit our unique body shape. After all, that’s what progression is all about.