Back and Forth: Lessons in Positioning
Last week I rode my Rivendell Sam Hillborne for the first time in three weeks after riding exclusively the loaner Seven on a close to daily basis. It's hard to believe that the body can adapt to one position so quickly as to find other positions unnatural. I confidently got on my bike, expecting that old familiar feeling of riding it to welcome me back. But I was in for a surprise. The ride was as comfortable as I remembered, but everything felt off. It took me a while to understand what was wrong. Initially it was just a vague sense of not feeling as connected to the road and as much in control of the bike, which was disconcerting. As I kept cycling, I became aware that it was really two specific things: I felt that I was seated too far back, and that I wasn't out far enough over the front wheel. I kept wanting to shove my weight forward, and it was frustrating to feel almost as if I were sitting "behind" the bike.
Looking at the way the two bicycles are set up, the difference makes sense. On the Seven, the saddle sits further forward and the handlebars are further out. I was aware of this difference before, but assumed that I would find the Seven's set-up aggressive and uncomfortable, while the Rivendell's set-up a welcome relief. Instead the Seven's set-up now feels "right" and anything deviating from it feels "wrong" - as if I don't have sufficient control of the bike. That feeling is hard to shake. I think my Rivendell needs a little make-over.
While moving the saddle forward is easy enough, changing the handlebar set-up will be messy, because I will have to replace the fairly short (6cm) stem with a longer one. When I fist began trying to ride with drop bars, I found it extremely difficult and a short stem was recommended to make the transition easier. I cannot say that it was a poor recommendation, because it worked. I rode with this set-up for a year, gradually becoming more comfortable with the whole idea of a roadbike, and feeling increasingly natural in a forward-leaning position. Some would look at my bikes and point out that my stems are too short, and I was perfectly aware that by most standards they are. But these things are highly personal, and last year I was concerned not so much with speed and agility, as with just being able to ride the bike. The way a bike balanced with a shorter stem felt better to me at the time. For what it's worth, I see many roadbikes from the 1970s-80s that were ridden by women set up with short stems. My previously owned vintage Trek had an even shorter stem than this bike, and that was the original owner's doing.
Going back and forth between the Seven and the Rivendell has been educational; each has what the other lacks. It is fairly clear to me that I "need" a lightweight, purely-roadish roadbike like the Seven and that I also "need" a wide-tired, befendered, dynamo-hub, luggage-bearing long distance bike like the Rivendell. I would not want to turn one into the other, or to combine them into something in-between. If I could make changes to the Seven, it would be to magically decrease its size. If I could make changes to the Rivendell, it would be to alter its positioning and to make it lighter. The former we will be doing shortly. The latter is not really possible without getting rid of the very things that make this bike practical. But I am very curious now whether it is the positioning, more than anything else that accounts for the difference in speed between the two bicycles. I am also wondering what the "ideal" stem length for this bike would be. The top tube is unusually long, so it would have to be 8-9cm tops. It's frustrating that experimenting with stems is not easy, but I will report the results of my trial-and-error fumblings.