The Noob’s Photographical Guide to Cycling Efficiency: The Position on the Bike
I’d been wondering, since I bought my Venge (almost a year ago now), what I looked like when I ride it. I’ve seen my shadow when the sun’s just right and when I look at that I seem to be pretty flat (or aerodynamic), but I’ve never really known for sure (if the sun is just a little off I was surprised at how skewed my shadow is). I was out riding with my wife yesterday, talking about position and bike setup and I got the idea that I should have her snap a few photos and see where I really am…
When I started cycling I cared more about the speed and fitness than the comfort. In fact, the idea of being comfortable while getting fit seems a little silly to me. Fit hurts, at least while you’re trying to get there. With my first road real road bike, one that fit (58 cm and I’m 6′ tall), I was sent home with something I didn’t like a whole lot. It was comfortable, sure, but the stem was too high so I almost sat on the bike like I was riding my mountain bike. The bike shop owner kept talking about comfort and not worrying about looking like “the guys on the Tour” as if that mattered to me (anyone who’s tried knows that you can’t on a budget anyway and I was on a budget). Now I’m no engineer but it doesn’t take one to know that if you’re sitting upright on a bike, this will be slower than if you’re leaning down, using your head and shoulders to cut through the wind rather than your entire body. After my first couple of weeks with the bike I started making changes.
I had the stem slammed as low as it could go and the saddle as high as I dared when I found my Venge at the shop. My “Ferrari”. I knew I wanted just a little more drop from the saddle to the bars so I could get just a little more aerodynamic and after all of the research I’d done for blog posts I knew that the answer was a smaller bike. I picked a 56 cm frame and had it dialed in…
The following photos are the result and they offer a fair representation of what a non-pro, noob enthusiast can aim for in their own setup. I have written about aerodynamic positioning in the past, here for lowering the stem for a good position, here and here for what is important and what isn’t (from a noob’s perspective) and here for a short rundown on the order of what to concentrate on. Then, here’s a post on how to choose the right size frame (it matters, my Venge is a 56 cm frame – my proper size is 58-59 – the smaller frame allows for the higher saddle and the lower bars – on the other hand, go too small and you’ll be in trouble as well). The goal of this post is to save those noobs who value aggressive speed over “comfort” from being taken down the wrong path.
First, a few caveats:
1) I had a Specialized’s top of the line fitting performed in which all aspects of my body and how I ride were checked and incorporated into the setup. With the exception of a 1 mm tweak to the saddle height (which has since gone back to where it was), nothing has been changed since.
2) I am considered “flexible” as far as cycling goes but I still can’t touch my toes (though I can touch the ground a few inches in front of them). In other words, you don’t have to be all that flexible.
3) Riding efficiency was slightly more important to me than comfort, but it turns out that riding low seems incredibly comfortable to me – much more than riding upright – less pressure on the back and bum.
4) I used to have back issues before I started cycling – a lot of lower back pain… It has since abated and I go for months with no pain whatsoever and I believe that my position on the bike does have something to do with being more comfortable off of it.
5) I took more than a year to adapt my body to riding with the bars as low as they are now. My first fitted bike only had a 2-1/2″ drop and I’m 2-1/2″ lower than that now. I did this slowly, over time, lowering the stem one spacer at a time and getting used to the new position before I moved another.
So, if you clicked on all of those posts I linked to you’re probably looking at something like 4,000 words – let’s make this easy with a few photos…
First is bike setup. Here’s a photo of exactly how my bike is set today (bottom):
Now, I have two positions I ride in on the hoods (the hoods hold the brake levers [for noobs]) – low, with my arms bent at the proper angle which is better for when I’m out front, or high when I’m protected in a draft. The speed of the ride determines position as well: When we’re between 24 & 28 mph I’m low so I can fit under or into the draft a little bit better. When we’re between 20 & 24, I’ll take the higher position so I can see better):
The bottom photo, while quite comfortable and good in a draft, is inefficient solo or out front. Not horribly so, but I resemble much more of a sail than in the top photo. Notice my arms are not locked in that bottom photo too – they’re bent slightly. Only lock your arms if sore shoulders are desired – after a century your shoulders will feel like someone drove hot nails into them.
Finally, there’s the drops. I have two positions in the drops as well, the one in the photo below and another where my hands are back by the ends of the bars… I don’t ride there often but it does provide a nice change when I’m into the wind, flying solo – I never ride with my hands back there in a group – too far away from the brakes.
Not exactly Chris Froome or Fabian Cancellara, but it’ll do.
The photo above is not a cheat where I picked the lowest position I could get in so I could look “cool” by the way (as a poser would)… I picked the position that I normally ride in and still be able to see a couple of car lengths ahead of me. Going down a steep hill or into a strong wind I’m much lower.
To wrap this up, I don’t know why the upright position is pushed so much, but if speed is what you want, low is fast. Don’t be afraid to tell the shop to set your bike up how you want it – then wear the wheels out.