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.