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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.
First of all, I have tried to set my bike up like a pro – a frame two sizes too small, super-long baby’s arm-length stem, six inch drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar… the bike looked… erm… not right (click here, scroll down to the last bike) and the real answer is no, you absolutely shouldn’t try to set your bike up like a pro does – not all the way, anyway. Simply because you’re not 20 anymore. As Manon Lloyd suggested would be the case, I lasted five or ten miles with the bike set up like that. I had to cock my head sideways to be able to see up the road. Forget about riding in the drops. It was all I could do to ride on the hoods. It was, simply put, untenable.
So, above is GCN’s Manon Lloyd in a video about why one shouldn’t set one’s bike up like a pro. Of course, the comments also humorously pointed out that GCN’s next video would be “Why You Should Set Your Bike Up Like a Pro”. In fact, I do remember one or two about how to set your bike up like a pro, but should you or shouldn’t you?
Neither question is the correct question because whether you should or shouldn’t, you’re going to try. We all do because a pro setup looks awesome. So give it your best… and find out the normal way that we all end up somewhere between “pro” and “handlebar same height as the saddle”.
Now, on a humorous note, take a look at that pro’s bike in the embedded video above. Now look at mine:
I can tell you confidently, at 50 years-old, riding in the position needed for that setup isn’t all that big a deal – I’m certainly not uncomfortable. And that’s really the important point. It is that which is most important in cycling: When it’s all said and done, the idea is to put as many miles on your bike as is humanly possible. May as well do that in comfort. Unless you’re getting paid to ride. And you have a masseuse. And a team paid DO/Chiropractor.
As far as the GCN video goes, it doesn’t matter whether you should or shouldn’t. You’re going to try anyway, so just give it your best and see what you think.
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.
Road Cycling, Comfort, and the Setup of a Road Bike; A Detailed Overview of the Bike Setup Pitfalls that Effect Comfort
In the photos above, I’m on two entirely different race bikes. On the left, I’m in front of the guy in black and florescent yellow on my secondary “rain” bike, a standard 58 cm frame, in the drops. On the right, I’m at the back in the red and black on my good bike, a compact 56 cm frame, on the hoods. If you use the stack and reach method of measuring a bicycle, where you measure off set objects (a wall or the floor), the setup on both bikes are almost identical (saddle is the same height off the ground, same distance from the wall, handlebar same height off the ground, etc.). There are a couple minor differences, but they don’t effect the ride of either bike.
And it’s taken one hell of an education to get my bikes to where they’re comfortable. With this post, I’m hoping to shorten the time span it takes to accrue the knowledge and simplify the intricacies.
size of bike/frame
I can’t think of much more important than frame size when it comes to the comfort of a bicycle – and a road bike is that much more important because once a cyclist finds out how much fun the speed is, said cyclist will spend a lot of time on said bicycle. With the wrong frame size, compensations must be made in order to get a person on the bike in something that mimics comfort but isn’t quite it. For examples of what not to do, click here. Actually, I’ve got my bikes on there too, as what to do, also. Now, where this gets interesting is when you look at my knowledge, which is exceptional for an avid enthusiast, contrasted with someone who builds/built bike frames for a living. Folks, I know a lot about bikes but I’m an ignoramus next to a frame builder when it comes to knowing the angles and tube lengths, etc., etc. The owner of our local shop put my wife on a 54 cm Alias when I was sure she’d need a 56 (she’s 5’10”). My standard frame race bike is a 58 while my compact frame race bike is a 56. A qualified person will take angles and geometry into account that we mere mortals simply don’t have the equations for. Unless you really know what you’re doing, it might be best to leave frame size to the pros.
saddle fore/aft position
This is an easy one. Keeping in mind that the setup of a time-trial or triathlon bike is different, a standard road bike position is fairly simple. With the crank arms parallel to the ground and you in the proper position on your saddle, the leading edge of your front knee should be directly over the pedal spindle. Use a level or a plumb-bob to line you up. It’s as easy as that.
The saddle width can be an enormous issue that, if too wide, can lead to severe pain. Look at me. Severe. Said pain will radiate all the way down into the hamstrings and you’ll think something else is the problem. It happened to me. Whether or not you’ve had problems, I can’t recommend getting measured enough. It’s a really big deal.
With the fore/aft position squared away, we’re going to dial in the saddle height. This shouldn’t blow up anyone’s skirt, but saddle height matters. Too high and you’ll feel like you’ve got a saddle stuck in your butt. Too low and your power output will suffer. Also, as a rule of thumb, if the front/top of your knee(s) hurt, lower the saddle. If the back/bottom of your knee(s) hurt, raise it. With your bike on a trainer, put your heels on the pedals. Your legs should straighten out – perfectly straight – without rocking your hips. Micro-adjust from there (and re-check the fore/aft position).
crank arm length
Short crank arms aren’t a pain/comfort issue as much as long crank arms are. Long cranks are a huge problem if your legs are too short. I’m 6′ and I could take a 175 or a 172.5 – I go with the shorter. My wife is a 170, she’s 5’10” but has shorter legs. I have a friend, Jason, who just found out that, at 5’7″, he’s a 170 and that 172.5’s are painful. Suffering through short cranks isn’t such a big deal, you simply spin more and don’t get as much leverage on the pedals. Too long is a huge problem and, if left unchanged, can lead to severe knee problems.
If your cockpit is too short, you end up jammed and can’t breath right. Too long and you’ll ride in weird positions because reaching for the hoods or drops isn’t comfortable. If you prefer to ride hands on bar top rather than hoods, you’ve got a problem. The problems poor cockpit sizing can cause are almost too numerous to list. Numb hands, sore shoulders, sore neck, sore ass… sore just about anything else.
width of handlebar
Now this one might be a bit of a surprise. Handlebar width, typically 42-mm for a male, 40-mm for a female, is one of those issues that won’t appear to be a big deal until you ride a bike that has your proper handlebar. I rode, comfortably, a 44 for years before settling into a 42 and heaven on a bicycle. Riding on a bar that’s too wide or slim didn’t present any pain problems, but the proper width sure felt better.
reach and drop of handlebar
The reach and/or drop of the handlebar can be a factor if the cockpit isn’t quite set up properly. Case in point; my gravel bike. I bought a 56 cm Specialized Diverge because my Venge is a 56. What I didn’t know is that the gravel bikes have a relaxed setup to them so I didn’t have the same reach on both bikes. The Diverge was more upright. I put on a longer stem but it’ wasn’t quite long enough (though that was by design – I didn’t want to ride so low I’d have a tough time seeing and dodging potholes). Then, out of the blue, I decided to buy a Bontrager aero handlebar for my rain bike. That meant the standard bar I had on the Trek could be swapped for the compact bar that came on the gravel bike. Just like that, my cockpit issues were fixed. Switching from a compact to a standard bar made my gravel bike a lot more enjoyable to ride.
location of hoods/levers on handlebar
Now this one’s a little on the tricky side. To be “stylish”, the hoods should be parallel to the ground. Sometimes this simply won’t work as you end up putting too much weight on your hands. If your hands go numb, or you have other problems, you might want to try raising or lowering your hoods relative to the handlebar. I raised my hoods on my Trek a bit and the bike went from “meh” to “spectacular” just like that.
In that last item about the location of the hoods, equally important is the rotation of the handlebar relative to the ground. Basically, you want the drop portion of the bar close to or maybe not quite level to the ground. You don’t want the bar rotated enough that the bar ends are pointing up to the rear of the bike – you’ll be overcompensating for another problem by doing this. Fix the other issue rather than rotating the bar too far forward (see above and below).
pedals, shoes and cleats
The cleat setup on a shoe is so vastly important it’s hard to understate just how meticulous the setup process is and its value to creating a comfortable ride. Eventually, with enough miles on the saddle, you might become good enough to work on your cleat position (I do), but the best answer to cleat and pedal setup is to use ISSI cleats which are compatible with Look Keo pedals and cleats. The ISSI cleats are two-piece, so one piece can be removed at a time, insuring exact placement ever time you change your cleats. For my initial setup, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I always have the owner of our local bike shop set mine.
The Noob’s Guide to Road Cycling Saddles; The Fat, Bad and the Ugly. Seven Reasons Your Saddle Hurts to Ride On
How Can A Good Cycling Saddle Feel So Bad?
If you think a minimally padded $400 bicycle saddle looks more like a torture device than a bicycle saddle, and I’m speaking from experience, that says more about you than the saddle. Contrary to popular belief, manufacturers won’t charge more for a saddle than most people will pay for a complete bike, whilst trying make a torture device out of it. Even those super tiny, ultra-thin, almost no padding saddles are meant to be comfortable. If yours isn’t, the problem is likely the setup, not the saddle (although there is room for the saddle being at fault – or more to the point, you picked the wrong one – but we’ll get to that in a minute). Let’s begin.
Saddle is too high. The easiest, by far, reason your saddle will feel like it has barbed wire embedded in what little padding there is that you’ve got the saddle too high. This means your hips will have to rock to stay connected to the pedals on the downstroke, where you’re weakest anyway. Put your bike on an indoor trainer and put your heels on the pedals. Spin them backwards. Your legs should straighten without rocking your hips. This can be done, carefully, in a doorway by bracing yourself with one or both hands on the jamb(s).
Saddle is too far forward or back – so you end up riding on the wrong part of your butt. If you are riding with most of the pressure on the area between your genitals and your sphincter, well, you’ve got problems. The rubbing/hurting kind of problems. You want to be riding on your sit bones, as the saddle starts to widen out – not on the very back of the saddle and definitely not on the nose (though there is precedent for scooting up a little bit when time trialing). If you look at the profile of a contoured saddle, you’re looking for the area that just starts to rise toward the middle/back of the saddle to cradle you… your sit bones should be just to the back side of that rise. In road cycling, you’re looking for position 2 or 3:
Level is off. This one is simple. For me, for the style of riding I’m used to, I’m a position 2 up above, but the profile photo of the saddle, as it is in the photo, would be a little too “nose down” for me. Not much, but a little. The key is that you don’t want the nose to dig into you, but you don’t want to feel like you’re sliding to the front of the saddle, either. The key is to find the happy spot right in the middle. This can take some saddle time and several adjustments to perfect.
Wrong kind of saddle for a rider’s flexibility. If you’ve got the wrong saddle for your flexibility, you’ll likely have huge problems trying to get comfortable on the saddle. I prefer a contoured saddle because I’m not very flexible – I’m actually in the middle range. A contoured saddle will help a less than bendy human’s torso to rotate forward slightly to aid in an aggressive posture on the bike. Those who bend at the hips well won’t need that help and will be fore comfortable on a flat saddle. Fizik has a really neat app that’ll help you understand your place in the contour food chain. There’s also this:
Too wide. Folks, I’ll make this very simple. If you’re on a saddle that’s too wide for your sit bones, the pain – and I’m speaking from experience again – will be immense. Increasing as your mileage and time in the saddle will only increase the intensity and severity. Left long enough and this pain will radiate down the legs into the hamstrings. It is quite excruciating. If you have a question about the saddle size you should be riding, this is a perfect issue to get sorted at the local bike shop (I’m about 140 mm… I can fit on a 143 but I like 138 a little more for the slimmer saddle nose). They’ll have you sit on a board with memory foam on it which will leave indentations from your sit bones. They’ll measure the distance between the indentations and come up with your saddle width. Women tend to be a little wider than men, for obvious reasons. I think Mrs. Bgddy rides a 155.
Too much padding. I have a friend who rides a cruiser around town. He’s got one of those big, fat, ugly padded saddles. Over the top of it, he’s got one of those shag padded seat covers. Over the top of that, he’s got a gel cover. And he asked me if I though he could add another cover. I’m not kidding. He had so much padding on that saddle, I think it actually cut off the supply of blood to his brain whilst riding. Padding on the saddle cuts off blood to areas that really, really need blood. When that blood flow is cut off, the affected area hurts. It’s the body’s way of telling you, hey, somethin’ ain’t right down here! I’ll tell you what ain’t right. It’s all that padding. Additional padding is not the answer, though a reasonable amount is a good thing, this can easily be overdone. The answer is a good pair of cycling shorts and the proper setup of the right saddle for your body.
Finally, and this one will be surprising (it was for me – and I just figured this out a short while back), if your saddle is too low. That’s right, too low. I was trying out one of those aforementioned $400 saddles and I had a nagging pain, like the edge of the saddle was digging into my left hip bone. I’d set the fore and aft properly (through a series of measurements), set the level properly (2 degrees nose down, then fit to feel for that cradled balance described above), and I thought I’d set the height properly. After my second ride and the saddle just not feeling right, I checked the height. Sure enough, it was about two millimeters low. I raised the saddle and the pain went the way of the dodo, immediately. The clouds parted and the sun shone (and the wind died down) and all was well.
My friends, good saddles are a dime a dozen if you know what you’re looking for and how to set one up on your bike so it feels like it should. Don’t settle for feeling like you’re riding on barbed wire after 20 miles (once you’ve got your requisite saddle time in – new cyclists will experience some pain while they acquire their cycling legs). The answer is fixing the saddle’s position, width, or height, not adding another layer of padding.
I was a late bloomer cyclist, picking the sport up at 41 after it became apparent I was too cool to ride a bike the day after getting my driver license at 16-years-old. Sad, really, but at least I’m riding now. Getting to the point, once I realized how much fun cycling was, I wanted to get into the “sporty” side of it. Light, sleek bikes, flashy setups with the saddle several inches above the handlebar… it seemed like an “elegant” sport to use to keep fit.
For those who want to get into this side of cycling, there are a few hurdles. First is weight. A spare tire can’t be cycled around – we have to lose it before the front end of the bike can be lowered. We’ve gotta ride the gut off, first. Second is the local bike shop’s setup of the bike (or the previous owner’s setup if buying used). The tendency with fitting a person on a bike is to “get you in a comfortable position”. Riding with the handlebars dropped in the front, with the saddle high, isn’t exactly comfortable… at first. Once you’re used to it, that’s another story, In my case, I started with the shop setup, then started lowering the bar as I got comfortable with riding. I didn’t have any weight constraints. The others can be overcome with a little knowledge. How to swap spacers from below the handlebar to above, etc.
For most of my 40’s, I’ve tinkered with my setup on two, now three, road bikes until they were each as low as they could be at the front while still allowing me to ride comfortably. To be honest, I’m a little sad that I’ve found my limit on all three of my road bikes.
This all started back when I brought home my Trek 5200 that the shop had set up with the handlebar only a couple of inches lower than the saddle. Within weeks I was lowering the handlebar, a little bit at a time, till I got to about four inches. Then, my Specialized Venge in 2013, at the end of the season. I had a Body Geometry fitting done on the bike – the only thing they did was lower the saddle two millimeters. I’d set the bike up myself, correctly, with that small exception. Once the Venge was set, I shifted my attention to the Trek. I tried to match that to the Venge as closely as I could. Here are four photos that illustrate the changes over time:
In the last photo, bottom right, you can see the nose of the saddle on the left, and the huge increase in drop from the photo just left of that. The changes to the Venge were subtler, but substantial at the same time:
The drop from the saddle to the handlebar on my 5200, after the last adjustment, was so profound I actually had to put a spacer below the stem to raise it up 5 mm so I could ride it comfortably in the drops. The key is to know my limits… but to know them, I had to find them first, then back it off a bit.
Sadly, age is finally catching up to me as I near 50. I’m still quite flexible, and the bikes as the setups are now are comfortable and fast. I just can’t go any lower unless I get into drastic remedies to improve my flexibility. I won’t say never, but it won’t happen any time soon. I’m content to leave well enough alone at this point.