Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Changing Positions: Bike Fit Then and Now

Let me tell you about a guy I occasionally ride with. He used to ride a pretty "traditional" styled road bike that he'd owned since the 1980s. Level top tube. Quill-type stem. Bars maybe an inch or two lower than the saddle. He was a pretty enthusiastic rider, but no racer. When I'd see him, he usually wore a mountain bike style of helmet (you know the ones, with the attached visor on the front). Why not, he figured, since he also liked riding his mountain bike, and why should he get different helmets for different bikes? I agreed. But he couldn't understand why his other riding friends -- "serious roadies" all of them -- sniggered about the visored helmet.

Not too long ago, this riding acquaintance got a new bike with modern "compact" frame geometry and lots of the latest innovations. Out for a ride on the new bike, this person suddenly understood the sniggers about his helmet. The visor kept blocking his view of the road ahead unless he totally craned his neck. Why? The relationship between the bars and the saddle on the new bike put him in a much lower position than the old bike. Off came the visor.

Road bike designs have changed a lot in the last couple decades. Racing bike positioning has gotten much more aggressive, and other road bikes have followed that trend. I'm not going to even attempt to say whether the more aggressive position is good or bad for racing, but when that becomes the model for other road bikes, most of which are not raced, it seems that the world is a little topsy turvy.

Take a look at some racing bikes and racers from the past:

Fausto Coppi, circa 1950
Eddy Merckx, early 70s
Laurent Fignon, 1980s. 
Fignon, again.
Bernard Hinault, in an old Gitane ad - probably early 80s.
Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond in 1986.
This is the track bike Eddy Merckx used to break the hour
record in 1972. The perspective angle of the photo might be
throwing it off a little, but that bar/seat relationship is probably
closer than a lot of road bikes today.
Next take a look at some bikes and riders of today:
Bradley Wiggins's 2012 TdF bike. Note how low the stem
puts the bars, but then Wiggins has the bars angled upwards
just a bit. It must work for him.
Wiggins in the 2012 TdF. Notice that with his hands on the tops
of the brake hoods, he's not sitting much higher than riders of
the past when they were down in the drops.
One of Alberto Contador's TdF bikes.
Contador, racing in Spain, I believe. Note again, the
"on the hoods" position.
I found an interesting article on Dave Moulton's Blog: Frame Design Then and Now. (Dave built the bike I recently added to my collection, seen here). Dave Moulton is about as knowledgable as anyone can be about racing bike design, and in his article he describes how frame design has changed in the last few decades. He confirms that racers of the past rode in a more upright position compared to now, with their bars higher in relation to their saddles. As Dave explains, that change is at least partly due to changing bottom bracket height.

The way he describes it, racing bikes once had much lower bottom brackets than today. His own racing bike from the 1950s had a BB height of 23.5 cm. A similar bike today would have a BB height of 27 cm. (a difference of about 1 1/2 inches). Raising the BB leads to a higher saddle, as the saddle will be raised for proper leg extension. However, the handlebars and stem do not necessarily get raised by the same amount. When the BB is lower, the seat ends up being lower in relation to the bars. On smaller frames, particularly, there is a limit as to how low one can practically get the bars, as the wheel size and fork length are "fixed" measurements regardless of frame size. Interesting to note, at the end of that article, Dave concludes that the racing position one used to see in decades past is probably a good position for recreational riders today.

Another thing that has changed in bike design is the move to "compact" geometry, which is an unfortunate carryover from mountain bikes, which in turn took their clues from BMX bikes. Road bike frames in the past had a level top-tube, and good quality bikes were offered in many frame sizes -- usually in 2-cm. increments (some builders offered 1-cm. increments!). With compact geometry, the top-tube slopes downward from the head-tube to the seat-tube, making for a much lower stand-over height. In addition, the compact frames are often sold in "t-shirt" sizing -- S, M, L, and maybe XL. Whatever "fine-tuning" someone needs to make the bike fit is accommodated with seriously long seat posts and different length stems. The manufacturers claim that the benefit is lower weight (That's negligible. The seat-tube and seat-stays are shorter, therefore they must be lighter -- then again, there's a much longer seat post in place which offsets some of the weight savings). But in reality, there is virtually no benefit for the rider. The real benefit is very much that the manufacturers save a lot by making and stocking fewer frame sizes. There's probably a good bit of savings on the cost of tooling molds for carbon fiber frames, too. Fewer sizes means fewer molds.

How does compact geometry lead to lower bars? In fact, it doesn't need to, since in actuality, eliminating the somewhat arbitrary need to have a level top-tube means that head-tubes can be longer, and bars could in fact be higher -- and there are some bikes that are designed in that way. But on bikes that follow the racing trends, what happens is that frames are made long in reach from the seat-tube to the head-tube (I'd say "top-tube length," but that isn't really accurate on a compact frame -- it's more of a "virtual" measurement on a more-or-less imaginary horizontal line), but very short in the vertical measurements, including the seat-tube as well as the head-tube. Combine that with the high bottom bracket described earlier, and the saddle gets shot high up in the air, while the stem and bars remain low by comparison.

Here's yet another thing that leads to lower bars: threadless stems and carbon fork steerers. Threadless stems don't offer as much vertical adjustability as the traditional quill-type stems, because their height adjustability is somewhat limited by the length of the steerer. If a steerer is made of steel, it can be left very long without really losing much in strength -- but it isn't recommended to have carbon steerers extend too far above the head-tube or the top of the headset (how far is "too far" I really just don't know -- but suffice it to say, it's less than with steel).

So racing bikes with compact geometry, high bottom brackets, and carbon steerers, all combine to make a much greater difference between the heights of the saddle and the bars. What we see from this is that it puts the rider into a lower, flatter-back position, especially when down in the drops or "in the hooks." One other result is that it seems to me that riders (including racers) spend a lot more time in that "on the hoods" riding position. I think this effect especially can be seen with non-racers who are riding bikes that are overly influenced by the modern racing bike DNA -- for anyone who isn't as fit or flexible as a professional cyclist, getting down into the drops or the hooks of the bars means straining a lot more in the neck and shoulders, so they ride much more on the hoods. Further evidence of this trend is that all the integrated brake/shift systems seem to work best from that position, and some are even a little difficult to shift from the drops.

Wrapping it up, it seems to me that the "racing" position of the past is more than aggressive enough for any physically fit, non-racing, "sporting" rider of today -- I mean, it didn't slow down Fignon or Hinault any. I would perhaps go a little farther than Dave Moulton's assessment, and say that a "recreational" rider might even want their bars a little higher still (although we could be defining "recreational" differently) -- maybe within an inch of the top of the saddle. One of my favorite bikes has bars than are barely an inch lower than my saddle, and I feel like I can ride that bike all day. On it, I frequently switch hand positions from the tops to the drops to the hooks, and feel comfortable in all of them.

34 comments:

  1. Yes - very good discussion of how fashion trumps realities with many users. At least in the old days a 24" frame was a 24" frame, and a 62Cm frame was a 62cm frame. Mind you, the English measure BB to top of top tube, and the Europeans BB to center of top tube, but hey... Now all you know is that 60 is bigger than 58. It might measure 56 though.

    I'm a recreational rider but I always look at the other road-bike riders I meet to see where they have their hands. It's very unusual to see anyone in the drops now. The only time I use them is into a headwind. I sometimes take my brand-name hybrid on cycle tours. I don't mind too much if it gets beat up in the van, etc. and it's been modified for extended gear range (MTB RD and cassette) so it's a good all-rounder in unfamiliar territory. I never have any trouble keeping up with the pack and I note plenty of envious glances at times (it's got full mudguards, too :-)

    Did I mention how much fun it is to watch cyclists with "road" cleats try and walk on cobblestones? Cruel, I am.

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    1. I have seen what you see -- that people rarely ride down in the drops any more. And most of the integrated brake/shift levers are a bit awkward to even use in that position -- they are really designed for the rider to use from the tops of the hoods. Most of my bikes have the bars set with the tops no more than an inch or so lower than the saddle. The less-racy bikes, like my Rivendell, have the bars almost level with the saddle. I do ride in the drops quite a bit more as a result. The Riv has bar-end shifters, which are extra convenient in that position.

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    2. Just got a custum gravel TI frame and i opted for a 170mm headtube, 70mm bb drop and 570mm virtual top tube and a slammed stem and a compact dropbar with just 120mm drop.

      Im 185cm tall. My handlebar height now mimicks a classic position beeing very high for offroad, climbing and leasure rides - Riding in the drops is now the perfered position for going fast and im able to ride relaxed in the drops for hours - i hardly used the drops on my race bike.

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  2. Brooks Thanks for this nice article.

    Brilliant article from true and authentic first hand knowledge!

    This article proves again and again to me that "old is gold".As mentioned the 50's through 80's pro riders were very much comfortable on their saddles and they have achieved untouchable feats(Eddy merckx ,fausto coppi and antqueil..).Most recreational riders today try to simulate the riding position of super flexible and thin pro athletes by buying short frame and setting it with a huge saddle to stem drop. I have rarely seen any recreational rider on a drop and they were mostly on the hoods.Having said,i feel that for a recreational rider it is better to go for a slightly bigger frame compared to the one's mentioned online(Height ,inseam based frame size) and by that way the saddle to stem slope will be reduced(around 1 inch) and the seat post will be exposed less and the bike will be more stable and ride will be pleasurable even for long hours due to decent upright position as pro's of 50's.

    Am a serious recreational rider of 5'9.2 inch (176 cm)and 30-31 inseam(80-81).And most of the websites prescribed a standard size of 54 cms for my road bike but after read this article i opted for a 56 cm cannondale caad8 which is more of a traditional geometry(near horizontal TT).Intially i worried for the choice but after setting the bike (just fist full of seat post showing (around 4 inch)) and very less saddle to stem slope ,Riding the bike is pleasure compared to riding a 54 cm compact geometry frame of btwin earlier.The Bike looks like vintage 60's bike with less seat post visible but the comfort it gives me is speechless.

    Thanks to brooks again for helping me indirectly to get a bike of proper fit after reading his article!

    Again this is an eye opening article.

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  3. Great read, thanks. Agree with most all your points except that I don't believe a horizontal top tube was completely arbitrary...it makes a diamond frame a bit stronger doesn't it?

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    1. Maybe not completely arbitrary. A lot of early bikes - like those from the 1890s and early 1900s can be seen with sloping top tubes. I'm not sure that today's compact and sloping top tube frames lack strength though. However, it does seem to me that having a foot or so of seat post sticking out of a frame is a potential strength issue.

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  4. Huh?

    Bottom bracket height (frame drop...) doesn't affect saddle height at all atmo. It may change where the component is in relationship to the ground. But if a rider needs a 75cm saddle height, he'll need it regardless.

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    1. Hi Richie - I might not have made it quite clear, but I don't think I was trying to say that the BB height/drop changes the saddle height - but that it does affect the relationship of the saddle to the ground ( as you point out) but also the relationship to the bars.

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  5. Some points right but more than a few so wrong...

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    1. Excellent response. Sort of like throwing a grenade and leaving the party. Perhaps what you think is wrong would be in order, and you could make your points. It makes for a better discussion that way.

      I find the article to be spot on, and my history is from riding level top tube bikes in the 70s to the compact frames of today.

      The older geometry works better for most cyclists and allows them to ride a century for example, comfortably. I see so many riding these hyper expensive bikes with racing geometry of today, and they all seem to suffer from being on the bike, but not necessarily suffering from the effort to actually motivate forward.

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    2. What he got right is that riders don't ride in the drops as much anymore because it is not necessary. By lowering the bars, riders can get the same flat back and 90* elbow while riding on top of the bars with hands on hoods. This relieves strain/use of the triceps and allows riders to support the upper body with the upper back, instead of the lower back. The drops are now really only used for descending and sprints - both times where aero is most important. At high speeds, the lower you can get your head, the faster you will go. Lastly, having a high drop helps in sprinting by enabling the rider to get lower and use the drops for more leverage compared to less drop.

      I'll agree that most riders do not race and are recreational at best. The body position of flat back and elbows at 90 for fast flat riding in the saddle hasn't changed much. What has changed is the body position during descending where riders can support their upper bodies with their shoulders by locking their arms in descents and getting their heads lower during sprints. If you, as a rider, aren't concerned with these aspects of riding, then a classic fit of 0-1" of saddle to top of bar drop is appropriate.

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  6. This is a relatively old article (2013) yet it's suddenly getting a ton of traffic. Did somebody link to it somewhere??

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  7. Here? https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1464694500490684&id=100008504433737

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  8. Great article but maybe a more accurate comparison would be a measurement from the saddle to top of the hoods. Modern hoods seem to be level with the bars while the hoods on pre STi/Ergo levers are at least a few cms below. I'm always amazed when I go from my modern bike to one of my older ones when I get on the hoods. They seem so far away!

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  9. We in North America have always been fantasy riders, Walter Mitty racers. During the first derailleur bike boom of the late 1960s/early 1970s it was the pseudo road racer look. Then in the 1980s, wtih mountain bikes, it became the pseudo off-road racer style. Meanwhile in the rest of the world where far more people actually use bicycles on a daily basis, they ride what we call commuter bikes with upright bars, fenders, lights and carrying capacity. Owning multiple bikes allows me to have some of each flavour. But the ones with upright bars, fenders/lights and racks get ridden a lot more often, albeit for shorter distances, like to the grocery store or library.

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  10. riding in an aggressive position with the stem slammed is a sure fire way of giving yourself crippling lower back pain, raise those stems and make the bike enjoyable to ride.

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  11. When I moved from friendly biker populace of seattle WA to biker-be-damned greensboro NC I sold my roadie (nice old flexy vitus). Turned by vintage breezer into a roadie with drops...albiet with 26" wheels so I could hop on the sidewalks when necessary (a lot!).

    Found the more upright position a surprise/pleasure and actually spend most of the time in the drops (origin 8 drops you bolt on).

    Fantastic now, if a bit slow with 26"rs...but enjoy the ride so much more grinding in the drops.

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  12. Interesting theory but the method of measurement is invalid. Why is it invalid? Because we have elbows. If you look at the positions of the riders and not the machines, you'll see that the vintage pictures show lower, nearly horizontal backs. The modern riders are actually more upright. Now look at their elbows. The old guys have bent elbows, the modern guys have nearly straight elbows. Maybe this article should really be about the modern fashion of riding with straight arms.

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    1. Whether or not the elbows are bent has a lot to do with what level of effort is being expended at the moment the picture was taken. A maximum effort will result in more bent elbows and a less strenuous effort will see the elbows not being bent as much. I could go into why that is but I think most avid cyclists know it instinctively.

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    2. you are correct about the arms... I would posit that the older riders with their bent elbows are probably more comfy for the long haul as the bent arms help to absorb more the road vibrations... I could totally be wrong but I know what works for me and that's having my bars near level to my saddle (1-2" below at the most)... nobody's ever going to pay me to ride my bike, so I couldn't care less if I look like a pro... my goal is to be comfy so I'll actually ride my bike... ;^)

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  13. Agreed Earl, not to mention what's the point of having brake hoods if you spend 100% of you time riding in the drops.

    If anything the modern fit offers a "causal ride" position similar to the classic fit and when you need to be aero you use the drops.

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    1. "Modern fit"...meaning bars lower that the seat by several inches. Yeah more comfortable...Not. Elbows locked to eachieve flat back=more comfortable ...Not.

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  14. It is a matter of no question that a larger frame with a lower seat hight in relation to the bars is more comfortable I think the points are valid as well as the motivation with the manufactures to offer fewer sizes being that all carbon frames require a mold and the mold is very expensive stocking more sizes is also very expensive

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  15. I ride old steel (50s British) and understand what you mean with the lower BB etc... One other thing I noticed looking at old footage and not mentioned in the article is that the riders from the 30s, 40s & 50s did not seem to extend their legs as much (I am from 1976, my father taught me to put my foot in the pedal and heel down to adjust the seat height). This would lead to a lower saddle position too.

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  16. Not just road bikes. I have looked at hundreds of pictures of gravel racers and seen a number of videos as well and at least 90+% of the riders are on the hoods in spite of all the obsessing over which drop bar is best for gravel racing. And gravel bars have less drop than road bars!

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  17. Interesting article in that it makes you think about cycling position. However, I do not think anyone can say anything definitively universal about one’s cycling position unless it is obviously way off. There are WAY too many variables to consider. I’ve considered myself a “student” of bicycle fit and positioning almost since I started riding seriously in the mid-80’s. The first pro-level rider to ever talk about positioning extensively was Greg LeMond as a result of his working with Cyril Guimard’s scientifically proven results. Guimard advocated for a slightly higher seat height and more reach to the handlebars which was impressed upon LeMond. Compare the positioning of let us say Sean Kelly to that of Greg LeMond. Lemond had a higher saddle position, was more stretched out and with the seat height to bar drop at a much greater distance. This results in a flatter, more aerodynamic riding position. Is it more comfortable? That depends! Fast forward to the positioning in the last 5-8 years with the popularity (whatever the reason for it) of compact frame designs and handlebar position has been lowered even more hence stems now having a rise angle to compensate. Although riders still seem to gravitate toward a greater handlebar drop than in the past. Saddle height for an individual rider should remain very much constant with the measurement of the BB to the top of the seat measuring .885 x actual inseam length. This formula puts the rider within one centimeter of the correct seat height for their optimal power output. The distance from the seat to the handlebars and the handlebar drop is based on many variables, such as the rider’s height (arm length, torso length, etc.), rider flexibility, riding style and the intended purpose that the bicycle will be used for. A strictly racing bicycle will be set-up differently from a strictly touring bicycle with a recreational/fitness bicycle being somewhere in between. Who can say that there should be a 1-2 inch drop to the handlebars from the seat as a universal standard? That maybe be good for a 5 foot, 8 inch tall rider but not for a 6 foot, 4inch tall rider with longer arms and a longer torso. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a trend towards lower handlebar positioning and maybe a little less reach, but one has to keep in mind all the variables involved and to not make universal statements about individual bicycle positioning.

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  18. I know I'm late to this party, but I'll put in my two cents.

    It seems that the change in the ways bicycles are fitted is a reflection of the way the bicycle market has gone. It seems that in the time I've been a dedicated cyclist--about forty years--fit, product development and much else in the cycling world is oriented toward the one percent.

    I use the "one percent" term deliberately. Frame, component and other designs are made, it seems, with elite level racers (and wannabes) in mind, with no regard for what is practical for most riders. And that--for whatever reasons, including snob appeal--is what the one percent (in the Occupy sense) want if they are going to drop a five-figure sum on a bike.

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  19. When I see the young ( and older) racer types with large amounts of seat to bar vertical ( 6" or more ) I don't know how they can do it. I do know several older late 60's guys very fit who ride like this and Don't complain about back pain. I think some people who do not have back pain have bodies that allow them to ride a very low position pain free. I sure can't, 1"-2" works good for me, and I work a lot on my flexibility and strength off the bike.

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  20. My back hurts if my handlebars are too high, and I can't deliver as much power. 46, and been riding the same position on my bike (same Vitus 979) since 1986. Stem slammed into the headset.

    What I wouldn't be able to deal with on a modern bike is the fact that the hoods are now above the flats of the handlebars, and that the modern barks don't have appreciable drop from the tops of hoods. I think the allowable range of moving around on the bike has been reduced dramatically.

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  21. Interesting looking at the pictures that on the old bikes the riders hands are near enough over the axle, but on some of the modern bikes, with hands on the brake hoods, they are forward of the axle. I wonder what advantage that gives, other than making the rider lean forward more. Does it change the CG?

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    1. PMercahnt, excellent observation about the hand-front axle position. Don't think it changes the CG, but does put more weight on FW, which could be good for descending?

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    2. Would that really be better for descending?

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  22. I was smiling when I read this article, in equal breath saw the visual comparison. I've stated for the better portion of the past decade plus plus plus that the new sizing/fitting formula is a bunch of bunk, period.
    Today's sizing/fitting formula affects LESS efficiency/power and the proof IS in the sticky new age myopic albeit righteous pudding via slower times and the like which, by the way, ridiculous spinning also contributes to. Then you have "superior" carbon ad nauseam............

    Au current disciples, get it right and go BACK to the future.

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