House Slippers and Hiking Boots: An Observation on Bike Fit

Civia Stem

Bikes outfitted with upright-style handlebars (i.e., North Road or Albatross) are easier to fit than bikes outfitted with drops. My theory is that we each have a comfortable “zone” determined by flexibility (primarily) and other physiological factors, and upright bars put us in roughly the middle of that range. The upright position provided by these handlebars mimics the seated positions we experience in our everyday lives such as working at a computer, eating at a dining table, or (gasp) driving a car. Consequently, when fitting a bike set-up for an upright riding position, relatively large adjustments to bar height and fore-aft reach have only a minor effect on comfort.

Usually, drop bars require a longer/lower reach than upright bars (there are exceptions). These bars place the rider in a more stretched out, bent over position, closer to the physiological limits of comfort for most casual riders. Because they test a rider’s flexibility more than upright bars, smaller adjustments have a more profound effect on fit and comfort when running drop-style bars.

A recent case in point is my new Civia. It came outfitted with a 110mm stem which placed me in a riding position that tested the limits of my flexibility. I rode it like this for the past few weeks, but the reach was clearly too far, with the result being a sore back and shoulder. I recently swapped the stock stem for an otherwise identical 100mm stem. I’d be hard pressed to notice a 10mm adjustment on a bike with upright bars, but on the Civia, with its more stretched out and leaned over riding position, that small adjustment was like going from a too-small shoe to a shoe that perfectly fits.

To take the shoe analogy a bit further (work with me – it’s not perfect… :-)), I suppose one can think of upright bars as house slippers and drop bars as hiking boots. A house slipper that’s a little to small or a little too large is not a big deal. On the other hand, a hiking boot that’s even a 1/2 size off can cause all sorts of problems. That doesn’t make hiking boots bad, but it does mean it’s worth the effort to get the fit just right.

19 Responses to “House Slippers and Hiking Boots: An Observation on Bike Fit”

  • John Ferguson says:

    One of the reasons that I like drop bars so much for road riding is that they give you at least three distinct hand positions that change the alignment between hands, butt and feet. Flat bars have at most two (if you use bar ends) and those are not that different in terms of the angles.

    I agree with Alan’s thesis that small differences in stem length and rise affect fit quite a bit on a bike with drop bars, but we can extend the logic to the bars themselves and to the lever setup. The three hand positions a drop bar offers are the tops (highest), on the lever hoods (middle) and in the drops (lowest).

    When I set up a road bike for myself or a friend, the position I try to dial in first is the seat in relation to the feet. Once the height, setback and tilt are comfortable for pedalling, I move on to the reach to the levers. The rider’s most comfortable position related to the handlebars should be riding with the hands on the lever hoods. That’s the midpoint, and if the rider wants a more aero position on the flats, she can go down to the drops. Riding with the hands on top of the bar by the bends or right next to the stem clamp should feel pretty upright and allow the rider to push her pelvis pretty far back on the saddle for climbing.

    The most common thing I see when someone is poorly fit on a road bike is that the reach is too long and/or too low so that the rider is only really comfortable riding on the tops of the bars. You can tell by looking at the bar tape where people ride the most. If you’re on the tops more than about 20% of the time, you probably need a different setup.

    Another important thing to realize about drop bars is the large amount of variability in shape and length from the top of the bar to the drops. Some like a traditional round bend, some like the ergo bend that has a flat or recurved spot in the deepest part of the drop. Some like a deep drop, some like it shallow. There’s also the decision of where to mount the levers, which will affect the reach and fit. It’s a lot harder to set up a drop bar bike because of all these variables, but if you work at it you can have a bike that offers a lot of good positions to ride comfortable and efficiently in different circumstances.

  • John Ferguson says:

    BTW, Alan those bars on your Bryant look like they have a pretty deep drop. If you find yourself not using the deepest portion of the drops for riding downhill, on flats and against wind you might consider a set with a shallower drop.

  • Ira Kinro says:

    Rolling with the analogy: My feet are a lot more stinky after a day in hiking boots as compared to a day in house slippers. hahaha

  • Alan says:

    John,

    As always, thanks for your contribution – that’s great info.

    I do prefer a shallow drop, so I may eventually change out the bars.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • David Bolles says:

    I just put Salsa short and shallow bars on my bike. Went from a 44cm (Bontrager Race) to 46cm width. They are great but, I need a shorter stem now. It would take me back to having comfortable drop, hood positions as well as a mildly upright position.

    Right now things are comfortable but, they could be better with a 110 over a 120 stem. I have a Profile H20 stem that has a 105 degree rise, 26.0 clamp. Alan, do you know of other stem option with a similar rise? It’s threaded.

    Thanks! Good post!
    Best,
    David

  • Alan says:

    @Ira

    You’ve never seen my house slippers – I think my hiking boots may be a safer bet… :-)

  • Alan says:

    @David

    You might look at the Nitto DirtDrop:

    http://www.rivbike.com/products/show/nitto-dirtdrop/16-100

    Here’s the info from the Riv site:

    “Two extensions. The 80 (wood stump pic) has an effect horizontal extension of 65mm; the 100′s (graph paper pic) is probably around 82 or so. The up-angle makes the difference. 22.2mm quill, so it fits all of our bikes; 26mm clamp, so it fits all the bars we stock except the Albatross and Dove. Cold-forged and heat-treated aluminum. Super strong.”

    Alan

  • Dan says:

    Along the lines of John’s post, I prefer drops that allow me to keep the ramps nearly horizontal without compromising the angle of the “drop” portion. Noodles are nice for that, but they are a bit deep for my casual riding position. I’d like to test drive a pair of those FSA compact drops (or similar, better-looking knockoff if one exists). They look just about perfect for the lazy riding I prefer :)

  • Janice in GA says:

    The handlebars on my Novara Randonee are (I think) the FSA Vero Compact. I like them VERY much. I do think from time to time that I MIGHT could use a slightly shorter stem. I should just put one on and try it. If 10 mm can make that much of a difference for Alan…. hmmmm.

  • michael says:

    I recently (within the last week, so still making adjustments) swapped out my drop bars for a more upright setup. I have some ongoing shoulder issue that was being aggravated by the reach to, and the pressure on the shoulder from the drop bars. Only a few days in and the new setup seems good (though after years riding with drops, it’s odd not to have any weight on my hands/arms, way more on my butt), but I do miss the ability to switch between hand positions.

  • Andy says:

    With the bag where it is strapped around the bars in the photo, I can’t imagine I would be using the drops much here, since resting on the bend (opposite bend of an ergo grip) wouldn’t feel too great after a short while. To me, that bag mounting seems to negate the purpose of drop bars, and I’d be looking for a new way to attach that.

  • zach says:

    Spot on Alan! Great analogy.

  • matt says:

    Those bars do look they have a large drop. I agree that northroad setups are easier to fit. I have VO Porteurs on my grocery getter. The backward sweep makes it easy to find a comfort zone. As for the road bike I just put on an 80mm stem, shallow drop short reach flat top bars and a dorky steerer tube extender on my Marin Argenta, which was supposed to have a longer head tube to getthe bars higher in the first place. I suppose I lose the “Look Like Lance” contest but it sure does make it more comfortable to ride. Oh to be young again…

  • Andrew says:

    I do like that analogy. It seems to keep working on more levels the more people extend the conversation.

    To wit: you also tend to go a lot farther in hiking boots than in house slippers, and while you can almost always do what you need to wearing your hiking boots – even if they are a bit clunkier, less convenient, and not as soft – you don’t want to be caught wearing your house slippers for the long haul!

    How’s that for a tortured metaphor?

  • David Coldiron says:

    Alan,

    Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Drop bars- and the stretched out position that normally accompanies them- do require a more precise fit, and I’ve been using the shoe analogy for years (I’m sure I’m not the first).

    For those new to drop bars, I also urge patience in figuring out what adjustments work. If you take a person who never wore shoes, and suddenly put them in shoes that were a perfect fit, they’d have a hard time telling you if they were comfortable or not…they would probably just feel weird. They’d need time to adjust the laces, and walk around in them for a bit, before they could give you any relevant feedback.

    What trumps everything in sizing, and fitting, a bike is comfort. “If it feels wrong, it ain’t right, and if it doesn’t feel wrong, it very well could be right.”

  • dominic furfaro says:

    Like to weigh in on subject of reach. Alan, I get what you are saying. We are looking for a handlebar solution that gives us an upright posture and multiple hand positions and also integrates well with frame geometry. Symptomatic pain caused by either a static hand posture and positions due to reach issues are never simply made by adjustments but often rely on component replacement. If you and other readers want some relief then go to the link below and see Symptomatic photo designs. There is also a DIY page for anyone that wants to convert a drop bar to REV 2. It’s free. See Flickr for other photos. I would be happy to hear comments. Last note: My current ride is a Mash up Masi. Bar none- most comfortable and best performance bike since repurposing to REV2. I finally got it right after 40 years. Thanks for listening.

    http://domotion2011.wordpress.com/bike-fit-in-progress/

  • Bike Hermit says:

    Hi Alan,
    Looking at the angle of your bars I might suggest what one other reader suggested. Rotate the handlebars back until the ramp portion behind the brake levers is more or less parallel to the ground. Then it might be necessary to move the brake levers farther down toward the end of the bars. The goal being to create a nice, level platform with the handlebar ramp/brake hood.

  • Bob Bryant says:

    I generally require one size smaller frame (shorter top tube) to even consider drops. The problem is that if I bail on the idea of drops, I end up with a bike that is too small. I’m currently experimenting with inverted Northroads style bars on my vintage Astra.

  • Velouria says:

    So true! The difference between a 7cm and 8cm stem on a bike with drop bars feels enormous to me.

 
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