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Road Biking: Beyond The Engine, Speed Is In The Setup…

I make no bones about my enjoyment of riding my road bike fast. I ride with plenty of guys who are faster, but I like to go as fast as I can. To do this more efficiently, I have my bike set up so that my head is lower and my body cuts into the wind better. The engine (you) is most important, obviously, but the setup of the bike is crucial as well.

I have heard of a lot of people wishing they could go faster but they tend to plateau somewhere between 16 and 18 mph. If my bike were set up differently, with the bar level with my saddle, I’d be willing to bet that 18 is about as fast as I could go… To illustrate, we can use my wife’s new bike (as it came) compared with mine… Now, keep in mind here, my bike is a 58 cm frame and Mrs. Bgddy’s is a 56 – her bike is smaller than mine.

IMG_1952Now, Mrs. Bgddy’s bike hasn’t been properly fitted yet (that happens tomorrow), but you can see how the rise on the top tube would effect posture – her head tube stops at the top of my stem. In addition, she’s got what looks to be about a 30 degree rise in her stem where mine is flat. Also, look at the height of her hoods compared to mine – in fact, her drops are only a half inch below my bar top. This change in posture, while infinitely more comfortable, would severely limit the ability to generate speed. By sitting upright the rider turns their body into a sail to catch the wind.

Now it must be said, the notion that the setup on my wife’s bike is more comfortable is conventional wisdom, not mine. I find the more aggressive posture more comfortable. My mountain bike is set up like my wife’s new road bike and I’d take my road bike set up over the dirt bike any day of the week and twice on Sunday for road riding but that’s just me…

Choosing between the two setups for your first road bike (or your next) if your desire is to push the limits of your top speed is a no-brainer, tell the folks at your bike shop what you want so they can set you up properly – for speed with the saddle well above the bar top. If you’re only comfortable sitting more upright, get the bike set up like the gray one, just understand that your average speed will suffer.

Now, I don’t know the reason that I find the lower position more comfortable – to be quite honest I set my first road bike myself and I wanted to be fast so I set the saddle at the right height and slammed the stem – from there I did the best I could to learn to be comfortable in that position. Now that I caught the speed bug there was no way I was going for the suggested comfort position. So there is a question of necessity – did I become more comfortable in that position because that’s how I rode? Plausible, but I really don’t care what the why is – to contemplate/speculate on this would be akin to contemplating/speculating on the viscosity of chocolate milk: Who cares, it tastes good!

Now, for the ladies (and remember, I’m an ignorant sexist so cut me some slack, eh?): If your goal is to ride fast you will have to be your own advocate at the bike shop and this will not be easy. The default position is that ridiculous upright posture. When you go in for a fitting, tell them this: “I am not buying this bike so I can discuss the finer points of an hour-long, ten mile ride with the girls at the knitting club, I want fast so set it up right”. That should do, and remember this: women, generally speaking, are more flexible than men… Take advantage of this at the fitting and tell them to “slam that stem”. You can always raise it if you don’t feel comfortable after a month or two of getting used to the position.

I’d bet I inadvertently broke a rule or two there from the male/female Guide To Talking Tuna handbook, but that’s because you’re too sensitive, not because I’m sexist. Suck it up and relax a bit… You’re too angry and I’m just trying to help you get what you want. 😉


  1. essiep says:

    No need to be too worried about sexism, male and female anatomy is different but many women’s bikes use male geometry. It sounds to me like you have a very low position because you are supple and used to it. No need for any apologies.

  2. Funny and informative. No offence taken 😉

  3. Cherry says:

    That’s the weirdest setup ever on your wife’s bike!! I’ve never seen the stem raised up like that, is there a microphone attached there or something?!!!

    • bgddyjim says:

      I know… I checked the saddle height for my wife last evening and had to raise it a hair over 2 inches – there was something funky going on there. I’m going to switch the shims to the top of the stem to lower the bar too. We’ll have to see about a new stem today. My wife does like being a little more upright than me.

  4. Laura says:

    It’s totally true that if you want to shave seconds (possibly minutes, but there is a point of diminishing returns IMO) off your times, you need a more aero position. And the Butt In The Air set up is definitely more aero!

    Regardless of how you set up your bike, it needs to be comfortable – otherwise you won’t ride it! In theory, you can have a set-up such as your wife’s and still go fast(er) by getting low into the drops. You might not be the fastest in the A group, but you can definitely hang with the Bs (if that’s your goal).

    As someone who subjected her butt to a 102 mile ride on a brand new saddle (and then another 35 miles just to be sure it was clearly not right for me), comfort is HUGE. Sure it takes a bit to break something in, but no one really *wants* to suffer for a month or two. There’s no one right way to set up your bike to go fast – the best way is what feels right for you.

    I love being more upright – I feel like I can go fast and still take in the scenery and enjoy company on the ride. But I’m definitely more of a social rider, less of a racer. 🙂

  5. IowaTriBob says:

    Thanks for the great tip on riding position and because of it I noticed that my aerobars where actually pointing up a little. I lowered them a bit and flattened them out and picked a perfect day to test out the new positioning with some strong winds making there way through town. It still felt very comfortable and seemed to take just a little more of the edge out of the ride than usual.

  6. bgddyjim says:

    I know, right? Again, we bought this bike used, so someone else had it set up that way… Who puts a mountain bike stem on a road bike? We moved the saddle up two inches (!), back a centimeter, lowered the stem a half inch (for now) to see how she likes the setup.

    She’s reaching just a touch still so in the event she finds it disagreeable I’m going to pick up an 80 or 85 with a 10 degree rise.

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