Leveling the Playing Field

Rivendell, Longer Stem
File this under "duh" if you will, but I need to acknowledge this out of fairness to Rivendell, and as a means of providing information to others wondering just how much of an effect one's positioning on a bike can have on pedaling effort and speed. Earlier I described being considerably faster, particularly uphill, on the Seven bicycle I have on loan in comparison to my Rivendell Sam Hillborne. It was widely agreed that there were many factors involved in this difference - from frame geometry, to weight, to positioning. For some time now I'd been considering making changes to my Rivendell, and finally it's been done - thus somewhat leveling the playing field between the two bikes, with interesting results.

You may spot a number of other alterations in these pictures, but for now I will talk just about the difference in positioning. Namely, the bike now has a longer stem (8 cm, instead of 6 cm as previously). The handlebars have been positioned slightly lower as well.

Rivendell, Less Setback
We've also reduced the amount of setback on the saddle by about 2 cm (not just by moving the saddle forward, but by replacing the seatpost). The overall effect is that my lean has increased by a small amount, my weight on the bike has shifted forward, and my hips are move directly above the cranks.

It's important to stress that I would not have found this position comfortable a year ago, so making these changes is not so much "admitting a mistake," as altering the bicycle's set-up to reflect my changing skill level and preferences. I very much find this position comfortable now - comfortable and fast.

Altered Rivendell
We rode to Lexington, MA to try some hill intervals. I did not attach a saddlebag, so that I could get a sense of how the bike itself performs. And it performed well - albeit differently from the Seven.

Here is my amateur description of what happens on the two bikes when I cycle uphill: The Seven allows me to very easily "attack" a hill - to cycle up it at a fairly high speed, until I run out of steam toward the end and am forced to slow down. In comparison, the Rivendell does not like to "attack" and forces me to slow down earlier. In its previous state, this slowing down happened almost immediately and drastically. Now it happens half way up, and the speed drop is considerably smaller. Cycling on flats, the new positioning makes the Rivendell faster to accelerate than previously. Not as fast as a racing bike of course, but I no longer feel as if I am sitting "behind the bike" unable use my weight efficiently.

Once I attach bags, that will no doubt slow it down some. But I have a strong feeling that the change in performance is due to the forward placement of my weight more than anything else - when I ride the bike now it feels inherently different - more responsive and more efficient. I am not trying to convert the Rivendell to a Seven and I am not considering taking it on paceline rides. I want to keep the wide tires, the fenders, the rack, the bags, the lighting - there is no compromise possible on that end, as these features are extremely useful to me. But the Seven's positioning (and my enjoyment of that positioning) has most definitely affected my expectations in terms of performance, and I don't think I can go back to short stems and seatposts with generous setback. Not that there is any reason I should - It's all about what you are comfortable with at any given point in time.


  1. With a seat tube at such a shallow angle you still have setback. A shallow seat angle on a small frame is extremely unusual.The measurement that matters is how far the nose of the saddle sits behind the center of the bottom bracket. The photo looks quite normal.

  2. Rivendell advocates shallow seat tube angles even for small frames; will link to their article on this if I find it.

    It is actually difficult to find a modern but classic seatpost without considerable setback, so that was partly what was giving me that setback. On super steep seat tubes the seatposts with setback are helpful, but this one is 72deg as it is!

  3. Not a 'duh' at all, especially when all your observations are taken together with the variables and outcome.
    You make a point that you aren't recommending your setup, only analyzing it. This makes it helpful instead of preachy. ;-)

  4. Two big things that affect climbing and acceleration are wheel weight and tires. One idea is to try a lighter wheelset and/or tires, just to see if you find a difference in how the Sam performs in these capacities. I suspect that a lot of the benefits you are finding from the Seven may have to do with the difference in the wheelsets between the two bikes. Just some thoughts...

  5. how are you liking the Ergo-Mano (via Jtek) combo? I just setup something similar last month...
    flickr here

  6. There are actually good reasons for generous setback posts and possibly short stems. But it all depends on how you use the bike. If you want to ride more aggressively (which it sounds like you are developing a taste for), you will be happier with a more aggressive setup. For long, slow, casual rides, you may find the old set up more comfortable.

    As for steep seat tubes on smaller bikes, this has a good bit to do with reducing toe overlap. There is a limit to the length of a top tube before horrible overlap develops. To preserve a proper reach while keeping the top tube long enough, many manufacturers resort to steeper seat tubes and more relaxed head tubes. This keeps the wheel as far from the BB as possible while allowing for a good reach. This is most apparent on recreational and inexpensive frames. I've seen some frames where the 56cm model has parallel 73deg tubes while the smallest model is 75x72deg (STxHT). As you move into higher quality or more expensive frames, you still see it, but it is less extreme. It is expected that people who buy more expensive frames are more comfortable with minor inconveniences like pedal overlap and would rather not sacrifice the performance of the bike to avoid it.

  7. This article is great. My wife has actually had problems with the positioning on her bike, but once the seat and handlebars were placed properly, she noticed it immediately. It was like a dream. Great article about an important issue many people don't realize they're having.

  8. Rivendell advocates and delivers shallow angles. The problem that presents to most designers is that the bottom bracket is effectively moved forward and toe overlap results. Rivendell covers that base by offering loooooong toptubes. If you can't reach the 'bars they suggest their proprietary Albatross bar. Many short riders are not going to make drop 'bars work on a Hillborne.
    Seems to all work for you.
    The main reason saddle setback is interesting is that it immediately affects pedaling technique. Go sprinter forward and you tromp down with the large easily trained muscles of the front quads. Then you get to carry those big quads up the hill. And injure your knees. And fall more often and harder.
    Go too far back you lose jump. If you want to go fast while sitting back you must learn technique. Few ever do. The trick is to lift and pull on the pedals, not stomp them.
    Somewhere in between is where most people ride. Riv has staked out a territory at the back and the current race and design community is at pure sprint and time trial forward. Velouria appears right about at neutral. There is a neutral saddle position where you can pedal either way as the situation demands and ride the bike and ignore debates.
    Try this exercise: Lift the pedals. Don't push down at all. Let gravity take the pedals down. (Won't work on steep hills.) Gravity always works, let it work for you. Since you are now pulling weight towards your center of mass, rather than flinging it out, you'll instantly ride a straighter line. You'll place the wheel on the road more precisely. The bottom dead center losses of pedaling by tromping will evaporate. Blood flow to the legs will improve and muscle soreness will seldom occur. And your calves will get slimmer(That's a cycling esthetic). Less weight to carry. Only push down when you absolutely have to.

  9. Interesting as always. Later I want to hear more about the saddle as I am thinking of buyingh one.

  10. Anon @ 6:24--I also like the technique where you reach down and help the pedals up with your hands. It works wonders on reducing leg cramps.

  11. Comprehensive post 6:24 and very accurate. Setback pedaling action description describes what I was trying to do at one point, but my femurs are too short and back issues cropped up due to an acute angle.

  12. badmother - The saddle is the Berthoud Marie Blanque. I posted a "first impressions" report of it here and since then have switched to it from my Brooks B17S.

    Anon 6:24 - I had a problem with Riv's long top tube initially, then got used to it. I will take the long TT over TCO.

  13. Anon 4:51 - A lighter wheelset and narrower tires would defeat the purpose of this bike for me. Plus I have a dynamo hub in there. I am fine playing around with the positioning, but the 650Bx42mm Hetres must stay. Note also that, according to the Bicycle Quarterly, these particular tires have very low rolling resistance and are faster than most narrow tires : )

  14. "Anon 4:51 - A lighter wheelset and narrower tires would defeat the purpose of this bike for me. Plus I have a dynamo hub in there. I am fine playing around with the positioning, but the 650Bx42mm Hetres must stay. Note also that, according to the Bicycle Quarterly, these particular tires have very low rolling resistance and are faster than most narrow tires : ) "

    All I'm saying is that much of the perceived difference you are feeling in the Sam may be due to the wheelset and tires. So, you can change positions and reach and you may observe some differences. But, I believe there is a large set of differences that could be explored by trying different wheelsets and tires. But I understand if these aren't factors you want to or can change (I'm a dynamo fan myself).

    As for me, I've ridden the Hetre, Lierre, Cypres, Col de la Vie, Nifty Swifty, and SOMA B-line, all on the same set of bikes. I find that changes in the tire alone will noticeably affect my climbing and acceleration (not to mention handling). That's why I made my initial comment :) It's an easy and (relatively) cheap parameter to play with and the differences can sometimes be surprising--or at least they were for me. Just a suggestion though.

  15. Anon - Didn't mean to be dismissive of your suggestion, and I do believe that narrower tires would make a difference (as much as I love the Hetres, I am skeptical about the claims re their superior speed).

    The Seven doesn't just have a lighter wheelset, but some super duper fancy Mavic things with a noisy hub and crazy flat spokes. I love this wheelset on the Seven, in the context of "that" kind of bike - but I wouldn't want it on the Riv!

    I guess what I'm saying is that I'm willing to live with the current difference in speed between the bikes if it allows me to keep the wheel & tire configuration on the Rivendell. The difference is now reasonable given that the Seven is a racing bike and the Rivendell is designed for long distance touring.

  16. "as much as I love the Hetres, I am skeptical about the claims re their superior speed"

    Why are you skeptical? Have you done your own testing or is it just an impression? A tire that allows more road feel and is run at higher pressure may contribute to a feeling of being faster. (I always feel like I'm traveling much faster at night, too. But I'm not.)

    To further reduce the differences in the bikes, taking the fenders off may lessen the drag. Not permanently of course.

    Might be interesting to get the skinniest possible 650bs and try to recreate the conditions of BQ's tire test on a small scale. It would be nice to have some independent verification, and you could lose the skepticism, one way or the other.

  17. Your post reinforces the importance of proper bike fit, and how small changes make a lot of difference. I put many thousands of miles on my older road bike. When I would get neck spasms, I simply wrote it off to getting older. When I upgraded a few years ago, my local dealer took numerous measurements and asked a lot of questions about the kind of riding I do. The frame size was identical to my older bike, but with proper stem length and handlebars that were about 2cm wider, my neck problems disappeared. I can ride much faster and farther, in part because of the better fit.

  18. The thing is, that I don't believe there is such a thing as THE proper bike fit, and that's why there is so much debate about which fitting method is "correct." Depending on the purpose of the bike, the goal of the cyclist, the skill and fitness of the cyclist, and even individual quirks, different fit philosophies may apply.

    The nice thing about a slack seat tube angle - whether achieved via the geometry itself or via a seatpost with dramatic setback - is that to cyclists who are not used to roadbikes it feels more comfortable to pedal that way, and it takes pressure of the hands. My hands used to hurt like hell on bikes with drop bars unless I pushed the saddle back, so I did and this solved the problem.

    But over time something funny has happened: I have arm muscles and abdominal muscles that were not there before, and they prop me up now. The "pressure on my hands" issue has become non existent. Same with what Anon 6:24 wrote earlier about leg muscles. It happened when I changed my style of cycling to a more intense one, and both my body and my riding style now warrant a different approach to fit.

    Things change, and what is "proper" for us changes too.

  19. "Two big things that affect climbing and acceleration are wheel weight and tires. " I agree with Anonymous. Weight of wheels will make a huge difference in climbing, IMO.

  20. M - I am skeptical because races don't happen on 650Bx42mm tires, and I am assuming that the "performance bike" industry has done extensive testing as well. Also, there is anecdotal evidence that contradicts the BQ claim, whereby others have put the Hetres vs narrower tires on their bike and claim that the bike was faster with the narrower tires.

    I am not motivated to do my own comparison because essentially this issue does not matter to me, and reinstalling the Hetres is a pain. I am starting with the premise that I want these particular tires and wheelset for a number of practical reasons, regardless of whether they make the bike faster or slower. I am willing to play around with the other stuff to increase its speed, but I would like the wheels and tires to remain a constant. Hope that makes sense.

  21. Also, and I realise this contradicts what I wrote earlier:

    Both Jan Heine and Grant Petersen, albeit in different ways, make an interesting point about the distinction between "feels faster" and "is faster." This is something worth considering, because our evaluations of a bicycle's performance are so subjective. I would take it a step further and say that if we "feel faster" on a bike (even if it's not actually faster) that can have the secondary effect of making us exert more effort. But then it's a psychological thing as opposed to an actual difference in what the bike is technically capable of.

  22. People ... seriously?

    The Riv SH is not, and never will be, a racing bike. The Seven is not, and never will be, what the SH is.

    I understand this is a forum of sorts to discuss possibilities and experiments. But it seems a bit silly (to me, anyway) to keep talking about how to make the SH faster and more efficient in climbing in comparison to the Seven. Making it faster and more efficient is fine ... it's the context of comparison that bothers me.

    The Seven is faster and more efficient, because it's a RACING bike. That's what it was designed to do. If I were taking part in a race or group training event, it's the one I'd choose. It's also NOT the bike I'd choose for an all day, pannier-carrying, sight-seeing, picnic-having trip with a full set of camera gear.

    I don't mean to be rude to anyone ... but I just think we should stop trying to make a bike something it's not. The SH is a beautiful, wonderful, comfortable piece of functional art that does what it does perfectly. Make all the adjustments you want for position and preference of components ... just don't expect it to be anything close to a race bike. It isn't ... and shouldn't be.

    Position and component preferences DO change with time, as do our desires/needs for different kinds of riding. The good thing about having multiple bikes is that each one is best for a different purpose. Letting them be what they are means not having to compromise for any ride ... just pick the one best suited for the day.

  23. Anon - I agree. But I don't think getting a seatpost with less setback and increasing stem length from 6 cm to 8 cm constitutes trying to make the Riv something it's not : )

    I compare the two bikes because they are the two bikes I am riding all the time now, and the differences in handling are new and fascinating to me. Also, to those without a roadcycling background, all diamond frame bikes with drop bars seem pretty much the same (just like all 3 speeds seem pretty much the same to many roadcyclists), so differentiating them can be useful in that context and for that audience.

  24. I should add to my 2:44 anon comment that I wasn't referring to the actual blog post, but to the comments ... the suggestions for lighter wheels, skinnier tires, etc.

    I don't think that's what V has in mind for her modifications. She still wants her SH to be a touring bike ... just one that feels more in tune with her current preferences.

  25. "She still wants her SH to be a touring bike ... just one that feels more in tune with her current preferences."

    Yes : )

  26. Are you have issues with the VO decaleur with the longer stem? My VO decaleur was too short with a 9cm stem, and I had to get a Berthoud decaleur to place the bag far enough off the handlebars for me to put my hands on the tops of the drops.

  27. Hmm. I didn't think so, but I only cursorily placed the bag on the front rack and did not try to attach it. Will check.

  28. Just a little perspective on what a shallow angle is.

    When Tony Rominger's carbon fiber wonder-bike didn't work so well, he did his 1994 world hour record on a factory overstock steel Colnago with a 71 degree seat angle.
    When Steve Bauer wanted to extend his race career (he raced to age 37) he consulted with his childhood 6-day race heroes and they put him onto shallow angles. He completed Paris-Roubaix on a custom Eddy Merckx with a 65 degree seat angle. The balance of his 1995 and 1996 seasons were mostly on 68 and 69 degrees. Of the 65 degree bike he said he could cruise all day at 45kph no problem but past that it didn't accelerate well.

    The default race standard for the 60's, 70's, 80's was 72 degrees. Deviation from the norm was more likely towards 71 than towards 73. Look at old race photos, you will almost never see anyone riding except with the saddle back as far as it goes.

    Collectors pretty much know that a vintage Colnago or whatever with a 74 seat tube is a consumer model; if it's 72 you want to check it hasn't been raced until the chainstays are brittle.

    Steve Bauer's mentors were right, as you get older you want to sit further back. I'll say that with the authority comes of being an old fart. Grant Petersen is marketing to mostly his own cohort. They are better off on his bikes than fashion bikes.

    Huge caveat: Most commenters here are not women and are not short. The standard recipes don't work so well at the margins. Velouria is most gracious as she interrogates the panel here and evidently she values the input. At some point she's on her own. And she's doing great.

  29. Anon 12:11. Do you have a write-up of your experimentation with different 650B tires? It would be really helpful to hear your impressions!

  30. Wow, there are a lot of anonymous comments today. Seems like the 'road bike crowd' are weighing in today and it's an interesting perspective. I don't have much to add to what has been said thus far, but can relate my experience with my own Sam. When I got the bike, it had 700 x 38 Panaracer Pasela TG. I found the handling to be a bit slow and it did not roll well. A friend with a bike Friday (20" wheels) could out coast me. When it came time to replace the tires, I opted for 700 x 30 Cypres and the handling / coasting improved greatly. The rolling improvement was not perceived. I ride the same route every day and the cypress roll further without question. My other observation is that the Albatross bar offer a great position for climbing and accelerating and another position for relaxed riding. they are a bit too wide for some situations, but much better for climbing than I expected them to be. Sam is my go to bike that I ride most often. That speaks volumes about it's basic goodness as an all around bike.

    Experiments are good. Please keep writing about them.

  31. "Sam is my go to bike that I ride most often. That speaks volumes about it's basic goodness as an all around bike."

    I rode the SH on Cape Cod last summer for 3 weeks as my only bike. Though I complained about having only 1 bike, if it were any other I'd have felt more limited. This summer we've just finalised our 2 weeks away plans and I'll be taking the SH again, for the same reasons. It's the only bike I own that is versatile enough for both roadcycling and transportation

  32. Anon 4:18 - Just attached the bag, and the VO decaleur works fine with the 8cm stem.

  33. I failed geometry so this stuff confuses me, but I lowered the stem all the way on my Raleigh Sports commuter yesterday and instantly increased my average speed 2 mph and my cruising speed 3 mph. I'm amazed just a couple inches of handlebar height improved my speed so much.
    On my other Raleigh Sports, which is set up as a stripped down pathracer, I go even faster. The tires are the same, but it is much lighter, the stem is longer and the bars are flipped. And the fixed gear probably makes a difference too.


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