The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Setting Up the Cockpit of a Road Bike; Handlebar Angle, Hood Angle, and Drop – and the Pain Getting It Wrong Can Lead To: Part One
Last February I wrote about a problem I had with the setup on my Trek. After installing a new stem, then handlebar and riding the bike for a decent amount of time, I developed severe hand and wrist pain. I’d all but forgotten how bad it was until I looked the post up I’d written about the fiasco. The issue had to do with the hood angle. Now, it’s fairly common knowledge, all the cool kids set their hoods parallel to the ground. Well, with a -17° stem angle and the handlebar perfectly following the level of that stem, setting the hoods perfectly level with the handlebar/stem and parallel to the ground, combined with the new drop from the nose of my saddle to the handlebar, I had to rotate my wrists forward to grip the hoods. That rotation set about a chain of events that led to the tendons in my hand catching so bad it felt like I had gravel in my wrists. On a fluke it occurred to me I could check to see if it was the hood angle by holding my arms out as if I was gripping the hoods and rotating the wrists forward a little further. The pain was intense.
Immediately thereafter I loosened the hood clamps and raised the hoods a few degrees. Three weeks later and the pain was gone. The problem, of course, was the changed drop from the saddle to the handlebar, combined with the leveled hoods. It was just too much on my wrists.
Lo and behold, just the other day I stumbled on an article on cycling tips (from 2018) that describes exactly my problem and recommends we should never have our hoods parallel to the ground. Imagine my surprise (and the rapidity with which I changed my other two bikes – the required adjustments weren’t all that great, a few millimeters). I wish I’d seen that back in 2018, before I dealt with my own problem with this.
The problem here is that most enthusiasts want to be in the cool crowd. We’ve got the low handlebars and the high saddles, the high-end bikes with the glitzy paint jobs and matching kit…
The truth is, comfort is a little more important than cool – better, we can cheat cool to feel comfortable. To an extent, we can even cheat comfort for cool, but pushed too far that can cause serious problems. The key is to recognize those problems before they become injuries from which we must recover. Once recognized, we then have to dial the setup back to alleviate the issue.
I can tell you with utter certainty, power to the pedals trumps a cool setup on a bike. Cool is being able to take you lumps up front for the group you’re riding with. If you’ve got a brand new Pinarello F-12 with SRAM Red eTap AXS with the quintessentially perfect setup, but can’t take a turn because your cool setup means you’ve got no power to the pedals, you may as well be on a ’78 Schwinn Varsity.
I have a friend, the guy’s been riding for decades and I can’t figure out why, but he loves turning his handlebar up to bring his hoods closer to him. It completely messes up his reach to the drops, but there’s no question he’s set in his ways. He’s had a few new bikes over the years and they all start out with the bar in the “proper” position, but before long he’s got them rotated up again. However, at 70 years old, he can still hang with the young bucks and even put a whoopin’ on us from time to time. There’s no question he can take his lumps up front. For that reason alone, nobody (and I do mean nobody) questions his set up. You can’t. Not reasonably at least. The guy’s an ox. The point is, he knows what works for him so he doesn’t fight it. He rolls with it.
There are limits of course. If you have to set up your bike in crazy configurations just so you can ride it, you’ve probably got a bike that’s the wrong size. There’s a big difference between rolling your handlebars up a few millimeters and some gnarly examples of “what not to do” to a bicycle. Where this gets a little tricky is in knowing the difference. I know just enough to be dangerous – which also, after much consternation, happens to be knowing enough to keep my mouth shut – but enough to have a decent library of setup knowledge. I’m not immune to the simple mistake or taking some piece of advice too literally to be comfortable. On the other hand, because I like to play around with the setup on my bicycles, I’m very good at interpreting what my body is telling me when I change something.
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? Getting to a place where you don’t have to accept someone else’s, or worse, the industry’s idea of a “good” setup is what being an enthusiast is all about.
This series of posts will get into some of the things that noobs need to know to progress in cycling… if they so choose. Sometimes, just taking the shop’s setup and rolling with it isn’t all that bad.
NOTE: Originally, this was going to be a one-off post. It wasn’t long before I realized there was no way I was going to be able to keep this under 5,000 words, so it’ll be a series. Stay tuned.