Comfort On a Road Bike, the Better Part of Intelligence; Don’t Sacrifice Comfort (And Speed) for “Cool”
A while back I wrote about slamming the stem on my ’99 Trek 5200 as low as I could get it, removing a 5mm spacer from below the stem and inverting a 17° stem to get a zero rise out of the cockpit. The bike, without question, already looked fantastic and sleek, especially for a classic with the 5 mm spacer below the stem:
But I wanted to see if I could do better. This was an experiment, of course, and when I wrote about it I said I was going to give it a go and see if I could adapt to the extra drop and make it work, I believed it to be a worthwhile exercise. If I could ride, comfortably, just a little lower, I’d do that much better in a headwind (or cross-headwind as the case often is). Well, the data is in and it isn’t great. I gave the new setup several months and all winter on the trainer and, if I were to stay on the hoods 100% of the time, that’d be the setup. Unfortunately, I like riding in the drops as well, and the reach to get down that low was simply too much on my neck and shoulders. I got to a point I stopped using the drops and would simply bend my arms a little more if I wanted to get a little lower into a headwind because the drops were too much of a strain on my neck.
Now, will anyone but me notice there’s a 5 mm spacer below my stem? Not likely. Still, I’m like most road cyclists, I want to ride the cool lookin’ whip. I want to have that nice massive drop from the saddle nose to the handle bars. The problem I had to come to grips with, as most recreational cyclists do when they push the boundaries of “how low can I go”, is that power to the pedals is always cooler than a perfectly slammed setup on the bike. Every time.
I took the Trek out Wednesday night for the first time since switching the setup and sure enough, no neck or shoulder pain the next morning, and I spent several miles in the drops*.
A cool setup is great, but riding comfortably is what’s most important. This doesn’t mean a cyclist shouldn’t try to get that setup as aggressive as possible**, as enthusiasts that’s what we do. Instead, I’m simply suggesting is get as low as you can, then go a little lower (because you’re going to anyway)… then back that off to where you were comfortable.
*Interestingly, when comparing my Specialized Venge with the Trek 5200, I’ve got a whopping 5″ drop from the saddle to the handlebar and only slightly more than 4-1/2″ for the Trek… and I’m more comfortable on the Venge with the bigger drop. This reality is, I’m assuming, due to advantages inherent in a compact frameset. That’s a post for another day, though.
**On one hand, I get the whole notion you should go with the “comfortable setup on a bike” side of the discussion and I don’t disagree with the idea, entirely. On the other, why leave free watts at the crank? If we go by the standard “industry professionals say” setup, a rider is likely to be more upright than is necessary. So I simply, humbly suggest taking the shop’s setup and tweaking it so you can get as low as is comfortable without hurting yourself (short or long term). This way, when you’re confronted with everything but a tailwind, you’re as efficient as possible.