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There Are Two Ways to Set Up a Road Bike to Ride Low and Fast: Stacked High or Stretched Out (and How to Choose Wisely)
Let’s talk road bikes, speed and comfort, because what a fun, wonderful topic that is!
The industry has been stuck on the position that “most people want to ride in a less aggressive posture for comfort” for some time. I’ll admit, riding a little more upright on my gravel rig isn’t all that bad, but neither is low and sleek on my Venge. I’ll tell you what is uncomfortable; trying to ride with our A or B group whilst imitating a sail atop your bicycle on Tuesday night! Actually, riding without a motor is uncomfortable with the A group now that I think about it. I digress.
For those of us who are burdened with the need for speed, and lots of it, that upright posture requires more watts than most will be willing or able to create at 25 to 28-mph. Even in a draft. See, approaching 30-mph, pushing air out of the way is not easy. With a draft and, say, a foot between wheels, if you fit in the slipstream it takes considerably less effort to keep the bike up to speed. If, however, your head is always sticking up out of that slipstream, your benefit won’t be near as spectacular. I’ve actually done experiments north of 30-mph in the past, just to see what it was like. If you’re head’s above the draft, the difference is surprisingly great.
The photo above illustrates the point well. I’m the guy on the left, my riding buddy, Chuck is on the right. He’s down in the drops while I’m on the hoods and our heads are about the same level. We’re both the same height as well. If I’d been sitting up higher, the ride is still easier than no draft, but you can feel the drag when your head is above the draft – which means you’ve gotta get that melon down in it!
Now, there are two ways to handle getting your head down into the draft. First is simple: buy a small bike, put a long stem on it and peg the saddle just as high as you can get it so you have a massive drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar. I cannot ride like this so I’ve got a photo from a post way back I can use:
That’s A LOT of drop right there. The problem some of us older farts run into is that we simply can’t crane our neck enough to see down the road with the saddle to bar drop steep. Believe me, I’ve tried. I can’t do it without turning my head sideways and taking glances up the road. I only lasted ten miles before turning around and heading home.
I have to opt for the second option and stretch out a little bit. I have a larger bike (the proper size for my 6′ height, a 58 cm frame), and use a long cockpit to get low (note how much higher the drop bar ends are on my steerer tube):
Also, and interestingly, the setup above, at least the saddle height with the amount of seatpost showing above the frame, is technically “correct” for a standard frame. The stem choice, a flipped 17 degree 90 mm stem, was “after fitting”. I had a 12 degree 80 on there prior but a shorter reach drop bar by 10 mm meant a longer stem was needed and I wanted that sleek look I got with the steeper stem. That Trek evolved to that setup over twelve years. The bike I originally bought isn’t even recognizable contrasted against what it is today.
My really, really good bike employs almost exactly the same setup:
While there’s plenty of drop from the saddle to the handlebar, the Venge is almost the same as the Trek – it just looks like more drop because the top tube of the Venge slopes down.
I chose reach over a massive drop (technically, a decent mix of both drop and reach, but lets stay on point) to get me low because of the aforementioned neck issue and because I’m a little chubbier than I should be. This is, of course, in cycling terms. I am not, in any way, shape or form, “chubby”. I’m what you’d call “cycling chubby”. The point is, you can’t cycle around your gut if your quads keep bumping into it. Therefore, a little bit of stretch will help you get around an extra slice of pizza.
Stretch has its problems as well, though and they can be just as bad as too much drop in the saddle to bar top. Too much stretch too soon will have you sitting up with your hands on the bar top rather than around the hoods where the hands belong. The drops will be virtually unusable because if reaching for the hoods is uncomfortable, reaching a bit further for the drop will be even worse. Therefore, stem length and saddle setback have to be carefully considered in terms of reach and stretch. This doesn’t mean we should live with an upright cycling position, just that we should be careful not to alter that setup with big changes and short break-in periods.
This gets important when we consider the one thing that a lot of cycling will do for a body: make it drop weight. As we ride more (and hopefully we don’t eat more to compensate), the body will change. With enough speed and mileage, weight can melt away. That’s the way it happened with me, until I changed my eating habits, at my wife’s urging, before I turned into the human equivalent of a twig. As the gut disappears, we can lower/stretch the cockpit so that we can ride lower which will make us, naturally, faster still.
The key here is to change the setup on your bike a little bit at a time with a break-in period between changes so you can evaluate how each change feels. This way, if you run into something you don’t like, you can change it back and go another route before you get lost.
Above fast is always “fun”. If you aren’t having fun, you need a reevaluation, because everything about riding a bicycle should be fun… unless someone is paying you to ride one. In order to have fun, you have to be comfortable atop that steed. The key is you get to determine what is or isn’t comfortable, not the industry.
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.
My first of bicycle tires were Continental Gatorskins. I know one of their attorneys, and am good friends with her husband, so she was happy to set me up with a set at their cost. I still almost choked at the cost. I also had a lot of trouble with them. Two flats and a busted belt rendered them useless after a couple thousand miles. Then I went to Specialized Espoir Sport tires. They were excellent tires, no flats. Next, I went with Bontrager AW1’s. Those featured spectacular flat protection but they were slow – so ridiculously slow you could feel the difference between those and the Specialized tire.
Then came the Specialized Turbo Elite, now the Turbo Pro… and salvation. The Turbo Pro is only slightly less fast that the S-Works Turbo, but is vastly more durable. They’re all I ride nowadays. I’ve got tens of thousands of miles on Turbo Pro tires and I can’t say enough good about them. I’ve since gotten a few flats, a piece of wire from a radial tire belt here, a piece of glass there… look, if you put enough miles on a bike, you’re going to hit something catastrophic – it happens. What hasn’t happened, though, was wrecking a tire so bad it couldn’t be fixed with a patch and a Dollar bill.
Folks, if you want a solid, well built, fast tire that’s good on flat protection, you can’t go wrong with the Specialized Turbo Pro. I even use them on my Trek (shhhhh… don’t tell Mike, he’s never noticed and he’ll flip his lid over putting Specialized tires on a Trek).
Well, if I hadn’t properly staged my wheels in the top photo, you’d be able to zoom in and see the logo. Unfortunately, with the stems properly in the 6 o’clock position and the tire logos correctly splitting the stem, well, that means the grass covers up the logo. Cursed bike photography rules!
Anyway, 15,000 miles is short of what I’ve got on these tires, but I had to put something down for mileage… Look at it this way; they’re what I put on my wife’s bikes because I trust them.
I put in a 466 mile week at the end of August and into September. 377 of them coming in just four days. My average pace for the 466 was north of 19-mph.
So, how did I prepare for that with a wife, kids and a job?
I wish there was a magic bullet. “Yeah, just ride so many days in a row, for so many miles, at such-and-such a pace, and you’ll be great!” Wouldn’t it be wonderful? It would, but that’s not how it works.
In all seriousness, as a working stiff, there’s really no great way to train for a four day tour where you’ll be putting in upwards of 100 miles a day – and all four days are going to be a fairly hard effort. There are a few things that will be helpful to know up front.
- Day One, be careful. It’ll be easy to go out too fast. Your adrenaline will be maxed, so you’ll have to contain yourself a little bit. This is especially true if you’ve done the ride before – the more I ride tours, the more excited I am to do them. Just remember how many days you’ve got in front of you.
- Day Two sucks the worst. You’re fresh off your first hundred. Your butt’s a little sore, your legs are tired… and you’re just not feeling up to snuff. You’ve gotta muscle up. It’ll only hurt until you get settled in, maybe ten or twenty miles in. Just keep pedaling.
- Day Three should feel better – well, most of you should feel better. Your ass will feel as though it’s on fire when you first sit on your saddle, but that’ll numb out as the day progresses. Don’t worry. Just keep pedaling.
- Day Four will likely be your best day. You’re ass will be red enough they’ll be shooting blow darts at you in the locker room when you shower up after Day Three, but your legs will have adjusted and, other than the aforementioned fire heinie, you should feel pretty spry. Just keep pedaling.
- I’ve only ever done a four-day, so I can’t really speak to what’s next, but rinse and repeat just keep pedaling. Your Dave’s Insanity Sauce butt will recover just fine. Later. Much, much later. As long as you don’t have an extra hole or two in there, you’ll be alright. If you do, Aquaphor. Buy some. Use it. Love it.
Now, the previous commentary was meant to be truthful, but also funny as all get out. If you didn’t laugh at the part about having blow darts shot at your baboon ass, you’ve got something wrong with you. That bit was funny. Thanks for the heavy lifting on that one, Chuck.
Let’s get into some real, valuable information, though. This is the middle of Day Three and those six smiles are all genuine (Todd was having a rough go).
- First, get your gearing right for your environment. I’ve got compact chainrings and an 11/28 cassette on the my tour bike. On my Tuesday Night fast bike I’ve got more of a corncob – 11/25 for the 52/36 chainrings on that bike. If you’re riding a flat course, then go with the corncob. On the other hand, if you’ll be doing a lot of climbing, go with some easy gears. Also, factor in you’ll be tired by the second day. You’ll want one or two easier gears than you think for those late-week hills.
- EAT! You shouldn’t be out on a multi-day tour to lose weight. Trying to ride hungry is ill-advised, as you’ll already be pushing the comfort zone. Nobody needs to throw in a bonk halfway through the trip.
- Gu UP! Aussies call them something else, but we Americans call the single-serving packaged gels, “Gu’s”. Point is this; if you’re feeling rough, if you feel some butt pain spring up, maybe a sore muscle or something, I always look at that as my body’s way of saying, “Yo! Knucklehead! You’d better send something for me to burn up pretty quick or I’m gonna make this $#!+ hurt for real!” I always fire down a gel when I start to hurt for no good reason. Preferably something with caffeine. Gu Roctane is good for that. Lots of caffeine. And a Coke. Sweet Jesus in a manger, a Coke always makes miles feel better.
- Speaking of Gu’s, if you’ve got a big climb coming up late in the day (and if you’re lucky enough to know about it ahead of time, ahem), fire down a Gu about 10 or 15 minutes before you get there. It’ll kick in just as you get to the hill and it’ll help A LOT. We’ve got a monster 18%’er after a 2-mile 2-4% climb at mile 91-ish on day three of a normal tour I do. There’s a rest stop at mile 89, so (at a friend’s suggestion, thanks, Chad) I fired down a Gu Jet Blackberry just before I left. I beat my best time on the climb up to the wall by more than a minute and knocked 30 seconds off the big climb. There’s no question it helped.
- Dude, here’s the tricky part; you finish by not getting off the bike. Keep track of the electrolytes, eat well (not a bunch of sugary crap, unless said sugary crap is ice cream… in that case, knock yourself out), and drink lots. Keep pedaling… and don’t listen to any self-sabotaging bull$#!+ coming from the melon committee (the one in your melon, your head). It’ll be hard but you’ve gotta shut that $#!+ down or it’ll eat you up alive because long tours hurt.
- Garmin Edge 520 Plus (or better). Buy one. Use it. Download the routes from Ride with GPS to it and follow the turn-by-turn directions (and set up one of your fields with the “Distance To” feature so it’ll tell you the distance to the next turn). Not having to worry about a cue sheet is WONDERFUL.
- If you’re riding alone, leave a little early and wait for a group to pass you in a pace line. Start to pedal harder as the first one goes by and as the last one passes, latch on to the back. Let the person in front of you know you’re there (don’t be all shy about it, a pace line is not the place to be shy). If you can keep up well, these will be your new friends. Be nice to them and they will likely be nice to you. Do your turns up front and they’ll accept you into their group without hesitation. Almost everyone loves another person in their group who will help. We’ve got a guy who joins us every DALMAC, who showed up exactly that way about four years ago. Now he rides with us, eats with us, camps with us… he’s just as much a part of our group as I am.
- Finally, and lean in because this is important, you need a new, clean kit for every day. I own, currently, about eight full kits (jersey & bibs), but only four make the rotation on tours. I have a specific jersey & bib combo for each day, too. Semi-pro kit for day one, pro kits for days two and three, and a very specific bib/jersey combo for day four, that match perfectly with the bike and saddle I’m using (the kit below is Day Four’s – Gore bibs and my Affable Hammers jersey). For whatever reason, the chamois in those bibs is perfect for the Trek’s saddle. I don’t know why, either, because it’s a thin chamois and I generally prefer thicker… but the point is, I stick with what works and I always use my best stuff on tours. They’re long days, my friends. I give myself the best chance of making it to the end with a smile on my face… and enough in the tank for one last sprint.
Most of all, my friends, have fun. We’re not getting any younger and nobody gets out alive. Enjoy what time you’ve got left, you never know how much that is.
First, and I’ve gotta put this out there because being stranded because you can’t get your tire back on your rim – if you’re using a tire/wheel combo that is next to impossible to get the tire on, try a different brand of tire. Personally, I’ve had a lot of luck with Specialized tires. Michelin tires are fantastic once you get them on the rim, but the task ain’t easy, and therein lies the rub. Carbon wheels can be troublesome, as can tubeless ready wheels.
One important thing to note as well, a tire will stretch a little bit as it breaks in over a couple of weeks of use. Where we get into trouble is if we get a flat in that first couple of weeks.
Now, let’s move on to some decent tips.
- Never, and I mean this, folks, never use a tire lever to seat a tire, where you stick the lever under the tire bead and over the lip of the rim and push up on the lever. You can wreck your $1,000 carbon fiber rim or put a small puncture in your tube. Now that I said that, why is it okay to use a lever to remove a tire but it’s not okay to use that same lever in that same fashion to seat the tire? I have no idea, but the owner of my shop says “no bueno”, and so does pretty much everyone else (except bucky in the comments). Call me a lemming on this one.
- For the impossible to get tire, there’s a tool for that. The Kool-stop Tire Jack. They are excellent tools, relatively cheap, and they work. I’ve got one myself. Instructions are included and there are YouTube videos to demonstrate.
- The Kool-stop is great, but it’s too big and bulky to carry in your saddle bag or in your back pocket. Never fear, there’s another tool that’ll work in a pinch, on the side of the road. Your tire lever. Now, if your perceptive, you’re asking yourself, “what gives”. I know. We’re going to use a special tire lever in a special way that won’t leverage the rim in a possibly destructive manner. I recently bought a set of Park Tool tire levers because they’re tiny. Well, it just so happens that those tiny levers have a bigger curve at the end than most (not the hook, the curve). If I get my Michelin tire to where I simply can’t get it any further with my hands on my carbon fiber rim, I can use the curved end to help the tire in. It takes some hand strength, but it works. I just hold the lever in my hand, slide the hook under the bead and pull on the lever while pushing down on the wheel.
- Next up, Crank Brothers has a great tire lever they’ve named the “Speedier Tire Lever”. I don’t know how this thing would hold up to the impossible tire, though. Still, check it out, it’s a cool tool. UPDATE: My buddy, Titanium Henry says this one is legit. He’s never found a bead too tight.
- I’ve saved the best for last, though. I just found this tire lever after I picked up my Kool-stop Tire Jack. I’ve already forwarded the find to my local shop so they can get a box in so I can purchase mine from them. Var came out with the answer to the KSTJ’s bulky size. Var’s two-piece tire lever (not to be confused with their standard lever) is a stroke of genius. The center piece slides out and is your first tire lever. the hooked end on the main piece is your second – for removing the tire. Then, seat your tire most of the way, set the notched end on one side of the rim, hook the tire bead, and push the lever to seat the tire. Bob’s your uncle. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll have one for each saddle bag in short order. This tool is the real deal:
So there you have it. What to do about the impossible to seat tire. They’ve got a tool for that.