Normally, I pick nice, tidy, simple topics and I don’t go too far outside the mainstream when writing about cycling. I might get a little nutty and get close to the parapet, but it’s been several years since I’ve dangled my feet over the edge. Welcome to the opposite that – I’m about to do a chin-up on the gargoyle statue.
I love going fast on a bicycle. Gravel bikes are great, mountain biking is fun now and again, riding the tandem with my wife is unquestionably enjoyable… but nothing beats a 23-mph average on Tuesday night.
In my pursuit of speed on a road bike, I’ve tried everything from normal to the extremes; smaller bikes with outrageous drops from the saddle to the handlebar, an industry standard setup that was supposed to deliver comfort and power, to my current low and stretched option that I’ve tailored on my own over several years’ trial and error (thankfully, just a bit more trial than error).
The photo above was taken by a friend – I’m on the left in the neon socks (Horsey Hundred 40th Anniversary) and that’s my “sitting up” posture on my Venge. See, rather than go with a -17° stem and a massive drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar, I’ve instead opted to stretch out the cockpit, and thus the reach, to help bring my shoulders down.
In this photo, I’m in the Hammers jersey on the left, on my Trek 5200. As you can see, I’m fairly low and flat for an aging fella. The Trek is an interesting story, too, that requires some depth of explanation to grasp the full context of just how stretched that bike is – and I’ll get to that in a minute, but I want to talk about fitting in the cockpit first.
I don’t want to give the impression that I just went about changing my cockpit in a willy-nilly manner (trial and error). There was a method to the madness. Everything I changed was done in small increments. This is the expensive way to do it, but this way, you know immediately when you’ve gone too far and can back it off. Originally, I had the bike set up to be comfortable and a little more upright:
You can see how I changed the bike over time. The first photo was from the Spring of 2013. Below that is Summer 2013. Above right is from 2015 or 16, then bottom right is 2018. Now let’s get into the specs, because I love this part. The original stem on the bike was 60 mm. After a few weeks I started lowering the stem, then I switched to a threadless stem with a quill stem adaptor with a 6° 80 mm stem and a proper road handlebar. I ended up switching the stem to a 17° flipped 90 mm because I made a mistake on the length… I thought the 80 I had on there was a 90. Rather than send the stem back, I gave it a try for a few weeks and found I loved the extra room.
The riding position took a while to get used to, but because I did this in increments, the gradual change wasn’t too bad. In the end, what’s important is that I didn’t go too far. Any longer in the reach and I’d feel more comfortable on the bar top than the hoods. This is one of the telltale signs you’ve done stretched it out like a limo rather than a Ferrari Enzo.
In the end, what’s important is that low is fast. I can’t handle a setup that has the saddle six inches higher than the handlebar. I can’t crane my neck enough to ride like that (Yes, I’ve tried. It sucks.). I found there’s more than one way to get there, though. I just had to stretch the cockpit out a little bit.