As is usual with my Noob’s Guide Series, which is ridiculously extensive, I pick an aspect of cycling that I fought and/or messed up only to come around and see the light, mending my foolish, ignorant ways… And then I write about it! Woohoo!
Well, this is not one of those posts. Do you have a road bike that’s set up so the saddle is only an inch or two below the handlebar, or worse, level with it? Concerned about speed, or your lack thereof? What would you pay to ride 1 to 1-1/2 mph faster with no more effort than you’re putting out right now? What if I told you it wouldn’t cost you a penny in new components and that I’ll tell you how to do just that, for nothing? Read on…
Most folks who know cycling (my LBS owner included) shoot for comfort first and aerodynamics second. While a noble idea, it does make sense to a point – if you’re uncomfortable, you probably won’t ride. However, if a cyclist has an eye on speed and can’t get there because his/her road bike is set up like a mountain bike, that will lead to a dust-covered bike also.
Well, a new friend commented on one of my more popular posts the other day about the difficulties involved with cycling in the wind and it got me to thinking… Anyone who’s gone for a ride when the winds start topping 30 mph (48 km/h), the difference between riding into the wind upright on the bar top and the drops with your nose a few inches from the stem is huge – the wind still sucks, but it sucks a lot less when you’re low.
Now, let me be very clear before we get into this: First, I may be an exception in an otherwise sound practice when it comes to choosing comfort over aerodynamics – I don’t know and certainly don’t care because at this point, I’m comfortable and in a great position on the bike. Second, I didn’t have much of a gut at all when I started cycling. A person can’t get around their gut to get low so typically, if you’re going to ride in an aerodynamic position, you have to lose most of that first. Finally, don’t ever let anyone tell you there isn’t much of a difference aerodynamically between riding upright and flat. Aerodynamics make a huge difference – anyone who claims otherwise is mistaken. Some of this can be overcome by building leg strength and cardiovascular endurance, sure, but you can ride faster and/or with less effort if you can do so without turning your body into a giant sail.
I started cycling on a mountain bike – a Trek 3700. One of the first things I did to that bike was buy a road stem (10 degree) and I flipped it when I installed it so unlike many mountain bikes, my bar is an inch or two lower than my saddle. Even so, I’m still pretty upright on it. When I started riding road bikes though, I had the shop set them up as close to the way the pros do as my flexibility would allow – and then I worked on increasing my flexibility so I could lower the stem even farther. Now, I could have gone to any length and taken some yoga classes. I could have stretched on a regular basis (more than simple toe touches to help my hamstring flexibility which I did regularly) – but I didn’t. All I did was A) buy an aggressive road saddle [yes they make special saddles for an aggressive cycling posture] and B) simply rode in the drops more and as I grew more accustomed to the drop, I’d lower the stem by a couple of millimeters and get used to that. When I brought my Trek home I had a 2-1/2″ drop. I ended up with a 4-1/2″ drop on my Trek and a 4-3/4″ drop on my Venge from the nose of the saddle to the bar top. To get technical here, the reason for the greater drop on the Venge is that the drops are shallower than on the Trek… Setting the bikes next to each other, while the drop from the saddle to the bar top is greater on the Venge, the drop bars line up almost perfectly on the two bikes – meaning I’m not actually riding any lower on the Venge when I’m in the drops. To become accustomed to riding lower, almost two years ago now, I added a “drop” day in my training schedule. Every Wednesday I spend as much of my daily ride as is practicable in the drops. Doing this greatly improved my flexibility and ability to ride lower, thus more aerodynamically. Also, over the winter (on the turbo trainer) I go even lower because I don’t have to worry about watching where I’m going… This year I’ve even managed to get to a point where I can rest my forehead on the stem of my 5200 while I ride (though only for a few minutes at a time, that’s pretty low folks). In short, I’ll be switching out another spacer on the Venge’s stem shortly (the Trek’s bottomed out, it won’t go lower).
There will be detractors out there who believe that I was wrong to go about this the way that I did – and I’m perfectly okay with this. Call me crazy, call me wrong, call me out of touch, go ahead and say that I’m completely nuts. Whether or not you agree, the systematic way I went about getting lower worked. If you choose to do what I did just be careful so you don’t end up hurting yourself (check with your doctor if you have questions or back problems, ride safely, yada, yada, yada). Also, please reread this post if you must, I made these changes slowly over two years. When I started this little experiment with the 5200 the shop had set me up, based on flexibility. Thankfully my 5200, a ’99, was the last year Trek used a quill stem so I had a very flexible bike – and a lot of stem to work with. Many of the newer threadless stem setups don’t have that much adjustability built-in (though the bike shop can set up a new bike with more stem flexibility, you’ll just have to move spacers from below the stem to above the stem to lower the bar as you progress) [*see below for an explanation of how to order your bike like this].
To get back on track, I’ve done several speed experiments with different positions and I feel pretty safe in saying that the additional work required to support a more upright cycling position translates to as much as 1.5 mph on the average. So that means if your saddle and bar top are on roughly the same level and your average hard effort over 20 miles is 18 mph, you’ll ride 19.5 mph if you can work your bar down 4 or 5 inches to a more aerodynamic position. My experience is backed up by using another method to prove it as well: The Bike Calculator App shows that 230 watts over 30 miles on a flat gradient with no wind translates to 18.3 mph when riding with your hands on the bar top. That same 230 watts is good for 20.4 mph in the drops – a difference of more than 2 mph. Now, if your bar top is on plane with your saddle, your drops will be about on the same level with the bar top on my bike. My drops will be about 4″ lower than yours… In other words, you riding in your drops would be akin to me on my bar top. While other variables makes actual quantification difficult, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to see that lower and flatter is either faster or less work (generally speaking though, if you’re willing to go to these lengths to lower your bar height, it’s only going to be faster, you won’t take it any easier).
The whole point is, if you’re languishing at 17-18 mph and you can’t figure out how anyone rides beyond 20, take a look at the saddle/bar drop – if you’re in the “comfort” position, do what you can to fix that. As far as I’m concerned, it was worth every bit of effort to get there. This cost me exactly zero dollars, sped me up by about a mile per hour with no extra effort, I’m no worse for the wear… And not to toot my own horn but I look like I belong on my race bike when I ride it.
*Ordering your bike so you can start out upright and get low is quite simple and won’t require much on your part. First, realize that the race bikes (Venge, Tarmac, Madone) start out a little lower. The endurance bikes (Domane, Roubaix) a little more upright. Also, you’ll have a range of sizes available for your height – if you want upright, order to the high side of that range. If you want a high saddle and low bars, order to the low-end of the range (i.e. My size range is 56-59 cm – my Venge is a 56). Now, when the bike is shipped, the fork will come a little long – the shop will simply stack a few spacers below the stem. As you become more flexible, you simply loosen the stem, take a spacer from below the stem off, replace the stem, place the spacer on the tube above the stem and tighten everything back up properly. Your bar is lower.
Another simple solution to lower the handle bars is to swap out that 30-45 degree stem for a 10 degree road stem – you can even invert it (install it upside down). That’s usually good for a couple of inches, though it’ll cost you $30-$100 depending on the material and brand.
Finally, I thought an illustration might be in order to make sure everyone understands “saddle nose to bar top drop”. I’ll use a photo of my Cannondale as the example. It has a 6″ drop from the saddle nose to the bar top:
Now, jumping from a 4-3/4″ drop on the Venge to a 6″ drop on the Cannondale, all at once will not be easy (maybe not even advisable), but I’m going to give it my best shot. If I can, I’ll be able to swap around the last two spacers on my Venge and really slam the stem. Doing this won’t net anywhere near the benefit described above (going from zero to 4-3/4″), but it surely won’t hurt.
So, if you can (check with your doctor, priest and/or rabbi, local grocery store clerk and government agencies, yada, yada, yada), slam that stem baby, and put some pep in that step.