Friday, August 17, 2007

Position is all about comfort and efficiency

The above picture illustrates a riding position that is suited to someone like me. A body that is no longer as young and supple as it used to be, still wanting a position that is comfortable but aimed towards performance.

Back about 45 degrees allows me to look ahead without straining my neck. Handlebars low in relation to my saddle means that my weight is distributed between my arms and my seat. Arms not stretched, but relaxed and slightly bent.

Try not to view the saddle on a road bike as a seat, but rather as somewhere to park your butt while riding. This is why road saddles are often narrow, hard, and with very little padding. If you want to sit on a bicycle saddle, then you need to be sitting upright, and your saddle needs to be wide, soft, and possibly with some springs under it.

In this position you will never get past riding at a leisurely pace. If this is your goal then this is fine, but if you want some serious exercise, to ride a distance at a reasonable pace, or you have aspirations to race then you need to be leaning forward for three reasons.

1.) Aerodynamics
2.) Weight distribution
3.) Power transfer from your arms to your legs

If you are racing this is important. With hands on the drops, arms bent, in a low tuck position, the back should be horizontal making the smallest possible frontal profile. To achieve this a rider needs to be top physical condition, usually young in years and very supple.

If you are less than top physical condition, you are never going to achieve or maintain a position like this. If you are not racing, aerodynamics is less important, but a rider still needs to be leaning forward for reasons of comfort and efficiency.

Weight distribution:
Weight should be distributed between the arms and your butt resting on the saddle. If you have too much weight on the saddle your butt is going to be sore. Too much weight on the hands and you will get numbness in the fingers. It is a matter of experimenting to find what works for you.

I hate to see a rider pushing on their arms to sit upright. With the arms stretched straight, muscles in the shoulders and at the back of the neck are constantly under tension. Road shocks are going straight up the arms to pound on these muscles.

Learn to relax and lean on your arms. Arms slightly bent, they will act as shock absorbers. Constantly moving the hands from gripping the brake hoods, to resting on the bars just above the hoods, will relieve pressure on the palms of the hands. Padded gloves help also.

Power transfer from the arms to the legs:
This is probably the most important factor because it affects not only efficiency, but also comfort in avoiding back pain. Imagine rowing a boat (one with a fixed seat.); your legs and feet hold your body in place and your arms and back provide the power to the oars.

Riding a bicycle is the exact opposite; your arms and back muscles hold your body in place, while your legs and feet provide the power. The power transfer is basically the same; arms and legs need to be in opposition to each other.

Imagine rowing a boat, sitting as you would on a dining room chair, with your lower leg vertical and your arms pulling horizontally. The strain would be on your lower back and you would soon experience severe backache.

When carrying a heavy weight, you hold it close to your body. If you carried it at arms length, the strain once again, would be on your lower back.

Often, not having the desire or ability to adopt a low racing position, the remedy often chosen is to raise the handlebars to bring them close to level with the saddle. Often a rider will opt for a larger frame to achieve this end.

Once again, if your goals are riding at a leisurely pace, this is okay. However, the problem with a larger frame is, it also has a longer top tube. Arms become stretched out horizontally, while legs are thrusting downwards, the result can sometimes be lower back pain.

Raising the handlebars seems obvious, but there is another way to achieve a less severe position. Leave the handlebars low, and shorten the reach; this was the option I chose.

When I started riding again last year after a long lay off, I soon realized due to limitations of my aging body, I could no longer ride in the same position I had used previously. I actually went to a one-centimeter smaller frame, which had a top tube that was a half-centimeter shorter. I then swapped my 11cm. stem for a 9cm.

Because of the smaller frame, my handlebars are actually one centimeter lower, but my reach is 2.5 cm. (1 inch.) shorter. The result is not only a more relaxed position, but one that is efficient and has good weight distribution.

One clue that my position is right; when climbing while seated I am rock solid in the saddle. One sure sign that you are too stretched out, is when you make a maximum effort, you slide forward on the saddle as your body tries to take up its natural position closer to your hands.

Another advantage of staying low but going shorter, if your fitness level and suppleness improves, you can simply lengthen your stem to achieve a lower aerodynamic position. Leaning more forward has the effect of lengthening your body, so you can use a longer stem and still have your arms opposing your legs.

Footnote: Unless you have specific problems with your position, I suggest you stick with what you have become used to. Always go by the old, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” adage.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Concise, to the point and full of common sense. As an older rider I still prefer my road bike and my drop bars -- can't help it. I think you show that age and efficient biking position are not mutually exclusive. Road bikes need not be only enjoyed for competition. They are great fun bikes and they deserve their place in leisure riding. Your post definitely helps in understanding what makes them comfortable enough, efficient enough.

Anonymous said...

Fellow 'rusty' riders may consider a CANE CREEK 'Thudbuster' ST (Short [1.5"] Travel) suspension seat post.
This is the ONLY one that worked 'as advertised' after testing competitive wares.
It's use permits my 15 mile per day sojourn with NO strain or pain on this 'seasoned' body.
(Applicable Quote - "Suns out, I'm out!")
Advise using a heavier body weight elastomer which affords excellent 'body parts' protection while maintaining high pedaling efficiency.
Cost $99 to $129 U.S.
ALL of my bikes are so equipped, save those body parts as you may still wish to use them!
Besides, CANE CREEK manufacturers this product in nearby Fletcher, N.C., U.S.A.! :)

Anonymous said...

And what about recumbents for comfort and efficiency? Here is a link to various postions on different bicycles.
Some 50 year olds doing the two person RAAM came in second to some 30somethings. 50 year olds were riding high racer recumbents, with loads of road components.


Anonymous said...

It appears the the link got cut, here is a shorter URL,


VintageSpin said...

To me an efficient position is one that emulates what racers look like: which includes everything you mention.
I’ve noticed a change over the years from large frames to smaller frames. Seems 30 plus years ago racers used what would be considered too large a frame today.
I am using the smallest frame I’ve ever owned, but like Dave have a 10.5cm stem to give me a tighter position, and with the stem dropped all the way into the headset I am in a comfortable position that I can tell is also quite efficient.
I relate the position of in-line skaters: you see recreational skaters rolling along in an almost straight-up standing position. The racers, who happen to be way faster using the same energy, are crouched over with an almost flat back and knees bent into a deep squat. It took me over one year to be able to skate in that position, but the pay-off was faster speed and greater distance with the time and energy I had.

Anonymous said...

Back Pain is a pain in my… well… back!
I was hit by a car a few years ago and since then I have suffered a lot of lower back pain and back ache! I was on strong painkillers for awhile but then I was getting addicted to them so had to drop them before it got too bad. That was about a year ago now and since then I have been looking for alternate ways of relieving the pain and aching until a month ago I was struggling to find anything that helped but I managed to get hold of some Cheap Rest Assured Beds and I finally got a good nights sleep! It was great!
Upon waking from my beautiful bed the relief only lasted until I got to work then the suffering began once more.
Can anyone give me any advice to ease my pain?

Anonymous said...

Ciao Dave, Don't know if you remember me from Cycle Connection in Torrance, CA. I'm Larry Theobald who worked in the store with Marc Taylor while you delivered many frames in person to the store. Along with my wife, I now own and operate CycleItalia ( take folks on challenging bike tours in Italy. Your position article points out many things we tried "back in the day" and I've continued to use these guidelines when sizing rental bikes for our tour clients. I'm happy someone is countering the "way-too-big-frame" silliness so prevalent nowadays. Keep up the great blog! Larry