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Road Bike – Saddle to Bar Drop And Arm/Shoulder/Hand Pain

October 2012
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I’ve gone to great lengths to make certain that my road bike is set up as close to perfect as possible, within my budget, with one exception.

My bike shop pro, because of my age, newness to cycling and flexibility (or lack thereof), had my stem raised about an inch and three-quarters higher than where I’ve got it now.  It was very comfortable but I struggled in situations that called for aerodynamics.  Even down in the drops I’d still catch a good bit of wind.

There’s one more factor that had to be dealt with though: vanity. Generally speaking, anybody who is even mildly into cycling has seen images of the pros, flat backed, flying down the road, body parallel to the ground, saddle six inches above the bar top…

My bike came home after my fitting with about 2-1/2″ (6.35 cm) of drop from the saddle to the top of the handlebar.  This is better than some I’ve seen, where the bar top is level with the saddle and the bars are turned up to raise the hoods, propping the rider upright to a point that the resulting riding posture is similar to a mountain bike, but I was riding with the advanced group… I was a noob, sure, but I didn’t want that fact to be too identifiable (in addition to my riding ability).  My first thought was to simply slam the stem and learn to live with it, but doing that can lead to all types of physical problems.  Back pain and hip pain from being hunched over too far, and shoulder, arm pain from putting too much weight on the arms and shoulders to keep the position right.  Finally, this is also can lead to hand numbness for the same reasons.

Instead, I opted for a gradual method – I decided to lower the bars slowly, 1/2″ to 3/4″ at a time.  Initially, to get around the flexibility issue I rode in the drops as long and often as I could stand on a given ride. I even declared one day a week “drop day” where I’d ride for an hour or so in the drops.  The hardest part was learning how to breathe while I was hunkered down. I learned, eventually, to stretch out in the drops and that helped a lot.  When I became comfortable enough to ride 20 miles or so in the drops, I lowered the bars again.  I repeated the process until I’d gotten to the point where I’m at now:

Stem Slammed. 4-1/4″ Drop, Saddle to Bar Top

I went from 2-1/2″ (6.35 cm) to 4-1/4″ (10.85 cm) of drop without pain issues that would have likely occurred had I gone with the option of slamming the stem all at once.  The image above, because it was taken from a position slightly lower than the top tube, gives the appearance that the bar is angled up slightly…  This is an optical illusion, the bar and stem are in perfect alignment.  At this point I am currently as aerodynamic as is possible on that bike, in its current configuration.  There are things I could do to alter it, change the fork and stem to a threadless, or cut the current setup down a little, but in all honesty, if I were to bother going that route it would make more sense to just buy a new bike, and that is utterly unnecessary.

Those who have been following my blog through the summer may note that I have written about shoulder pain and having to go to a back/neck cracker for relief…  While some of the issue could be thought to be attributable to the lowering of my stem – I believe I even made mention that it could, it was not.  The issue was more related to gripping the right hood tightly.  After changing the way I grip the hoods the problems have subsided.

UPDATE:  Elisariva so kindly suggested:  “Yoga. Improve flexibility. Might help with your back and neck too. (And how I wish I were a fly on the wall when you get to meditation and have to chant…)”

You can see my reply below and if you’ve been here for very long, you know about how cozy I am with my feminine side…  Now I’m not saying guys shouldn’t do yoga and chants and stuff (obviously in a manner other than the mocking oooowwwwuuuummmm…), I’m just saying I’m not that kind of guy (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’d bet there’s yoga person out there who could tell us of a football player who does yoga!).

Actually, come to think of it, I’d like to be a fly on the wall to see that too!  I just may expand my horizons, if for nothing else, a grand laugh and a knee slapping post…

UPDATE 11-15-2013: I bought a new bike, a Specialized Venge at the end of August. The new bike has a 4-3/4″ drop but it has shallow drops. This combination has proved to be spectacular. I’m able to get quite low on the hoods and I’m as close to flat as possible. It’s perfect, and with everything properly lined up, there is no pain.

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12 Comments

  1. Chatter says:

    I have only been riding for a short while, but I too was getting hand numbness. I realized the angle of my wrist and the way I was gripping the hoods was causing some of the problem.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s a good point. There sure is a lot that goes into cycling that I never learned as a kid. I’ve always tried to wrap my hands around the hoods as if I were shaking someones hand – natural an neutral.

  2. elisariva says:

    Yoga. Improve flexibility. Might help with your back and neck too. (And how I wish I were a fly on the wall when you get to meditation and have to chant…)

  3. IowaTriBob says:

    I’ve found I can’t ride in the drops for any period of time as it causes my back, neck, and shoulders to stiffen up and become sore. However, since I installed aerobars on my road bike I absolutely love them and don’t have any discomfort and get even better aero benefits. Now I know most pure cyclists will have a lot to say about aerobars on a road bike but I’d rather be comfortable and efficient then cool.

  4. […] bike with less drop.  Know this:  I have been working very closely with my shop owner on how I feel riding my bikes – he knew before I ever bought my new bike that I could handle a steeper drop than […]

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