Road Bike Setup: How Much Drop is Needed to Ride Aerodynamically. The Noob’s Guide to Slamming the Stem.
In my first post on this subject, I explained my experience as it pertained to how I went about slamming my stem. This post will look at several of the factors involved and offer a clearer picture of how several factors within your bike will interact so you can make an informed decision on whether or not you even want to start working your stem down.
With that, the knee-jerk bike setup being to hike the handlebar up to the same level as the saddle (or close to it), many noobs are left to wonder why their bike doesn’t look like the fast folks, or worse, why they can’t keep up. If you must, try this little experiment: While you’re driving down the road at a fair clip, put your hand out the window (check your surroundings first) and make the “stop” sign. See how hard that is? Now lower your hand so that it’s flat and parallel to the ground. This is why we ride as low as is possible. It’s that simple.
There is nothing worse for speed than an upright setup where the handlebar is 1-1/2″ or less below the saddle. Nothing, except maybe 2″ wide, knobby tires – on a mountain bike.
I’ve been all over the map since I started riding. When I brought home my first professionally fitted bike I was at a 2-1/2″ drop. I slammed the stem as far as it would go (over the space of a couple of months) and now it’s at about 3-1/2″:
Then came my Venge in August of 2013. That bike started at a studly 4-1/2″ and has since been lowered to 4-3/4″:
That’s a heck of a drop right there but it’s nothing compared to my Cannondale at a whopping 6″ (that’s getting into pro territory right there):
Now, before you run out and swap all of your spacers from below the stem to above it, please allow me the chance to explain a few things because I didn’t do this all willy-nilly, just to make my bikes look cool – there are a few things to consider first.
Comfort is key.
Fast is a delicate balance of aerodynamics and comfort. Riding too low is not comfortable. It may be aerodynamic but if you’re hurting trying to ride, you will not be fast so we have to try to find a balance. Different frame sizes and styles, amongst others things, will have an effect on just how low you can go. That 6″ drop on the Cannondale is at the maximum of my ability to ride – and it is not comfortable. It’s aerodynamic as hell, I get that classic flat back, knifing into the wind with my melon look but I can only ride it comfortably for 30 miles max and I don’t dare reach for the drops – I’d need a pair of eyes on the top of my head just to be able to see where I’m going.
In stark contrast, the Venge is very close to perfect and the Trek is excellent as well. Both produce my best balance for comfort and aerodynamics. However, there is a difference, if you’ve been paying attention, of an inch-and-a-quarter in the drops between the two bikes. If you’re wondering how they both could be perfect (or very close to it), I can supply the very simple answer: Geometry.
The Trek is a standard frame while the Venge is the newer “compact” frame. You can tell the difference by the gently sloping top tube on the Venge compared to the flat/level top tube of the Trek. Everything in the Venge’s geometry is different, everything, so riding lower on that bike is infinitely more comfortable than on the Trek. That said though, my actual position on the Trek is almost as good as it is on the Venge because the 5200 is spread out quite a bit more. So, frame style is a consideration. With the proper setup and depending on the size of the bike, your needs may differ a bit.
Next in importance is the drop bar itself. There are several different designs of drop bars, from ergonomic to standard and even shallow. The original drop bar on the Trek had a huge “drop” from the hood to the bottom of the bar when compared to the Venge (when I upgraded the Venge’s bar I put the old bar on the Trek – you’ll see why in a second…). The greater the drop in the bar, the harder it will be to ride comfortably in the drops with a slammed stem. With the original bar, the Trek was comfortable on the hoods but a touch rough to ride comfortably in the drops. With the slightly shallower drop bar from the Venge on there, that shortcoming was fixed. Now, there’s a plus side to a deep drop bar. I like to ride lower on the hoods, therefore I prefer a standard drop to a deep drop. If, on the other hand, you prefer to ride a little more upright on the hoods, a deep drop handlebar will allow you to get low when you need it. The choice is simply a matter of preference. I am comfortable riding fairly low so I prefer the benefit of being a little more “aero” all of the time. If you prefer upright, then a deep drop may be a viable way around a strong headwind.
Next up is frame size. With a compact frame, the bike was easy to set up a size smaller than recommended. I’m 6′ tall with long arms and legs (34″ inseam). For a standard frame, recommendations put me on a 58 cm frame. Manufacturers (and many serious cyclists) like the compact frames because the sizing requirements aren’t as strict because of the aforementioned geometric advantages – the manufacturers don’t have to produce as many sizes but this benefits the cyclist too – you can fit a bigger person on a smaller bike. Because of this reality, my Venge is a 56 cm and I could have even gotten away with a 54 (or so the owner of our shop said when we were kicking around which one I’d buy – I chose against the 54 because I didn’t want too much drop, I’m not thirty anymore). The trick is, the smaller the frame, the higher the saddle will be in relation to the top tube and handle bar so the cyclist can more easily set up their bike with the classic heavy drop from the saddle to the bar top.
The final little angle here is the bar angle. There are two acceptable schools of thought when it comes to the angle at which the bar comes off of the stem. First, the top of the bar should follow the angle of the stem and the other is that the bottom of the bar should be parallel to the ground. I choose to follow the angle of the stem, but it’s mainly a personal preference. Whichever you chose, the reach to the hoods will be affected.
With the particulars out of the way, let’s answer the question, how much drop already?
A great place to start is the 3″ range, maybe a little more if you already have a lot of saddle time and you feel comfortable. I chose to be a little more aggressive and I’m quite glad I did – fast is just a little bit easier to achieve. The main thing to remember is don’t be too aggressive. Sacrificing a little bit of comfort is doable but sacrifice too much and it will have the opposite affect – it’ll slow you down and make riding less enjoyable… No amount of speed is worth that as far as I’m concerned.
The theory of cycling relativity is very simple:
Temperature difference between December 7th and March 9th? Three degrees Fahrenheit or one degree Celsius – Fit Recovery does the Theory of Relativity.
It’s not rocket science. Well, technically it is.