Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fiddling with Handlebar Height

Dialing in the Mercian
I've been riding my fixed gear bike ("Mercy Anne") fairly regularly since we put it together in September. Not long rides, but frequent short rides. Unlike my geared roadbike, I never stopped riding the fixed gear over the winter. And of all my bicycles with drop bars, for whatever reason this one is the most ridable in regular clothing, so if I don't feel like wearing cycling clothes on a short ride I don't have to. I've even ridden it in skirts and semi-high heels a few times; it is surprisingly tame and versatile. 

Maybe it's because of that versatility that I find myself constantly fiddling with this bicycle's handlebar height. It's not that my positioning doesn't feel right, but more like all the positions feel equally right and I can't decide which one to settle on. When we first assembled the bike, I had the stem "slammed" and the bars considerably below the saddle. It felt perfectly comfortable, but over the winter I started riding in the city more and decided to experiment with being more upright. So I raised the bars to saddle height, and that felt great also. Then one day I lowered them again just for the heck of it, and that too felt good. 

Strange that on other bikes I feel a distinct "sweet spot" as far as handlebar height goes and on this one I do not. Not sure how many times I've raised and lowered the bars now thanks to the easy up/down adjustability of the threaded stem, but it's probably time to settle on one position and stop the madness. How do you decide on handlebar height, and do you tend to fiddle with it after the initial set-up?

49 comments:

  1. What feels right. It usually takes a period of time riding a bike before I notice, this would be more comfortable if the handlebars were a little higher / lower / closer / further away. And then I adjust. I'm pretty happy if I get it within say 1 cm of the "right" position.

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  2. Hey, that sounds like a good problem to have! With some bikes it's no matter how I set up the handlebars nothing feels comfortable.

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  3. I start with the bars level with the saddle until I get used to the bike. After that I sometimes lower them, but not by much. At or just below saddle height is usually good.

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  4. if you are properly fitted for the bike to begin with, handlebar height should not be a matter of guess work

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    1. Mm I don't know. I think this advice is overgeneralised. First of all, when you get fitted for a bike, the fit recommendations are specific to the type of bike it is and the way you'll be riding it. So the fit recommendations you'll get for a track bike will not be the same as those for a road bike, cyclocross bike, touring bike, etc. And second there are different schools of thought when it comes to fit and positioning, so depending on who fits you you may get a different recommendation. So what exactly is "properly fitted" and according to whom?.. Hard to say.

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    2. Yeah, handlebar height is not really the same kind of proper fit aspect as saddle positioning. The standard low handlebar position of a road bike is not actually optimal for the human form. But because wind resistance is so critical, low bars are a concession to performance.

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    3. Yeah, you're right, bike fit is not a static, invariant thing.

      It's really very dependent on context. How, where, how fast, and how long you ride all affect the right fit, and if the the bike is ridden in a variety of different contexts, it's probably going to be tough to nail down one 'perfect' fit.

      For example, my tourer's current bar setup (height/reach) is very comfortable for riding on the hoods at about 25km/h+. Slower than that, and I begin to feel a bit stretched out and like there's too much weight on my hands.

      This happens because at or over 25km/h, I'm riding hard enough that pedaling is actually taking weight off of my hands. At lower speeds, I eventually need to move back onto the flats of the bars.

      In this case, it probably is possible to achieve a bit better fit than I've described, but it shows how one aspect of fit can change according to circumstances.

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  5. aging male on a bikeMarch 6, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    Personally I like to raise my bars at the start of the season, then lower them as my core and back get stronger. This is why I love quill stems.

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    1. I too feel a huge difference in my handlebar height preference depending on how in shape I am.

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    2. Quill stems are my preference too, and adjustable ones are ideal for varying both height and reach for different riding styles on the same bike.

      But they are deeply unfashionable, probably because professional riders never use them.

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  6. You are in good company. Eddy Merckx used to carry wrenches in his jersey pocket and change his position frequently during races. Saddle height (centimetres not millimetres of change), saddle fore and aft, saddle angle, handlebar angle, and stem height were all changed on the fly. Had anyone ever told Eddy he had departed from his ideal fit that would have been just another occasion for him to ride away solo.

    There are bad positions. If you're not comfortable it's bad. If position interferes with any of the various functions you need to perform in the course of a ride it's bad. Perfection does not exist and should not be strived towards.

    (Don't try adjusting your stem at 35kph. Leave that to Eddy.)

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    1. I thought all that stuff about Eddy Merckx was a myth : )

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    2. Eddy dislocated his hip at the 1969 Criterium des As. High speed motorpace accident. He never had definitive treatment, it didn't exist then. As a result he rode in great pain most of his career. The fiddling with the saddle, the experiments with small wheels, the racks of spare bikes from many builders, were all attempts to cope with pain.

      The point for this discussion is that within a broad range, the varied positions made no difference. He performed. Everything about him had a mythic dimension but he definitely carried the wrenches and used them.

      You won't wear out anything by moving the stem around a lot. Just get it tight.

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    3. A Sunday in Hell shows a bit of the Merckx bike adjustment OCD tendency. I guess it worked for him.

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  7. In my brief experience with fixed I found it was pretty much the same position as free, until I wanted to put back pressure on the pedals, in which case I sat more upright.

    Could be you're experiencing this.

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    1. Interesting. I mostly don't brake with my feet, but it could be that I am without realising it.

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    2. Even not back pedaling it feels different, and if it feels different your body is doing something different.

      You see a lot of roadies hunched over on their bikes. A lot of fixie riders here have straight backs, a lot of drop but short tts, and sit kind of high and commanding. My personal, "inexpert", opinion is this position provides good fore/aft modulation.

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  8. Why decide? Just keep moving it according to your whim.

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  9. you answered your own question, "how in shape I'm in" Also, fixie is a whole different animal than free. Raising and lowering handlebars from one extreme to the other as you described borders on trolling with your bike habit.

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    1. On this bike it doesn't seem related to what shape I am in. At any given moment, a variety of positions can feel comfortable with no one distinct "sweet spot." Also, if you look where my saddle is at, the difference between "slammed" and saddle-level is maybe 2", so not all that extreme.

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  10. For me handlebar height depends on the style of handlebar and type of riding done on the bike. For road bikes I tend to prefer classic bend bars. I have compacts on my cyclocross and commuter bikes.

    The height of the bars for these bikes kind of splits the difference. With the compacts I have a lower position on the hoods and a higher one in the drops than the road bikes with classic bend bars. For road I like a little more relaxed position on the tops/hoods on the road bikes and a more aggressive one in the drops.

    Fixed gear is kind of its own thing and fit is very important. Because the pedals are being forced around you notice things about your fit you might not on another kind of bike. I've noticed if the bars are too low my pedal stroke starts to get choppy when I have to spin quickly.

    I think in general you have to consider fit in terms of *riding* a bike where your weight is shared between pedals, saddle, and bars when you are in motion. Most of my bikes feel a little funky standing still or at very low speed, but once my legs and core really get involved they feel right.

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  11. I thought the point of drop bars was to have a variety of positions, both with regard to height and fore and aft, making it less needed to constantly adjust the height...

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  12. I am eagerly awaiting a review of this bike! Descriptions so far seem like youre happy with it?

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    1. It's coming! Waiting for the flowers to come out so that I can take some new photos : )

      But also I must admit that I am kind of scared to post reviews of my own bikes now. Anything positive tends to be interpreted as my promoting the manufacturer or framebuilder, and anything negative in the course of ownership later is taken as the other extreme. Not sure how to handle this without either waiting 5 years to review a bike, or making the whole review one entire series of disclaimers.

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    2. just continue reviewing the bikes as you do and don't worry about it, your disclaimers are plenty adequate. reading the sam hillborne review from 2 summers back and then tracking how your feelings toward it changed as your riding style changed is worth more than any single review of that bike i have come across.

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    3. Thanks, it means a lot to hear that (or to read that rather). And it reminds me that I've been meaning to post an updated Sam Hillborne review.

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    4. Ditto to what Anonymous said. Your reviews are excellent reading and exceedingly fair to manufacturers. I really like the fact that your reviews progress over time and may change. I think that reflects reality much better and as with many things on your site, the real pleasure is in following along on your journey, not in getting the "definitive conclusion".

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    5. Here is another endorsement for your reviews. Especially the ones that span several posts and time.

      BTW, since we may never see significant snow this season, do you plan on giving us an update on the Paper Bike soon? I would like to read how you see it as a transport bike and in compare/contrast to the Bella Ciao.

      RJD

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    6. V @ 10:52
      You could avoid the commercial implications of your reviews by only owning cycles made by small builders who are now deceased. That would work for my bikes.

      If that feels unlikely or impractical you'll just have to do the best you can. Which we appreciate.

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  13. I wonder if this is due to the nature of fixes that you tend to ride them in a wider range of cadences than a multi-speed bike. Especially on a road bike with very fine gear spacing, you tend to stay in your preferred cadence and maybe there is an exact position for your body that works best for that. On a fix, you have to adjust to different cadences and force levels and maybe that just trickles down to also not being so picky about precise positioning either. Hmmmm...

    Do you ever stand to pedal on your fix? I find I'm more sensitive to bar height when I stand up and I have to do it more on my fix. But I know a lot of people don't feel stable standing on a fix.

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  14. I have ahead stems so I tend to put a few cm of spacers, I'd rather decide I want to lower the bars a cm or two than having to buy a new fork (or get an ugly angle on the stem). I want to be able to have a good overview of my surroundings from the hoods so I almost never slam a stem. The drops plus a bend in the arms gets me low enough when I need it.

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  15. The nature of riding fixed gear is that the necessarily continuous pedaling action actually "throws" or "shoves" the rider forward and down into the handlebars. That's why you'll generally see fixed gear riders sitting way upright, even if they have drop bars set low, because they are fighting that tendency. Or, alternatively, you'll see riders just giving into it and riding with their arms locked out, trying to not get thrown any further forward into the bars. For the latter, check out this guy, a long-time friend of mine and former bike messenger who has a zillion miles of fixed gear experience:

    http://www.the508.com/2006web/shows/2006show12/pages/DSC_0044.html

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    1. Hmm I never thought about that, but good point. I am definitely of the "go with it " category, but I don't lock my arms. My bike is not a track bike, so I just keep my hands on the hoods most of the time - at least in traffic - and bend my elbows.

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    2. Yes,
      Velouria has it right. Bend your elbows wherever you grip the bar.

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    3. I would recommend discarding the foot on the ground technique when riding a race bike such as your nice Mercian. You'll never achieve a proper position if this is a priority. Your seat will be to low. So far as handlebar height, it affects the handling of the bike greatly. You'll climb better out of the saddle and descend better if your center of gravity is lower - thus the greater drop. Sure this can be exaggerated to the point where these advantages disappear, but I have had to have a handlebar set to high for injuries and I was glad to lower it again when the body healed.

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  16. During the initial build I always put saddle at height where my fit just touch the ground then match the handle bars to the top of the saddle.

    During the first few rides I try a number of saddle / handle bar adjustments. Saddle and bars up and down. Saddle fore and aft as well. By about the third ride or so I am usually where I want to be.

    I imagine if I went to something as novel (for me anyway) as fixed, it might take more rides until I am satisfied.

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  17. Matthew J: Bicycles have pretty widely varying bottom bracket heights, and seat angles, so the distance from the saddle to the ground is going to very pretty widely from one bike another, making your use of the saddle relative to the ground as a VERY rough way of measuring proper saddle height. I would encourage you to get your inseam measured properly, do the same for your saddle heights, and then start being a little more careful about your positioning. Your knees, back, and more would thank you.

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    1. Problem is that some of us need to go with saddle height in relation to the ground, because we like to stay in the saddle and touch the ground with a toe when stopped. This makes things interesting when a bike has a high BB. It works well if the high BB bike has a steep ST angle, because that way shoving the saddle back works nicely - full leg extension is achieved and a normal ST angle is simulated, all with the high BB.

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    2. lol that is an ass-backward way to think about it, yet accurate I suppose... seems you have learned a lot about geometry out of necessity, to acomodate your peculiar preferences... i can just see it 2 years from now folks coming to you for a consult on avoiding tco and getting full leg extension while being able to touch the ground seated!

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    3. XO - As I say, saddle to ground is where I start. My current bikes are customs built by buyers who understand my preferences, so there is not a lot of adjustment from there.

      Back when I bought bikes off the shelf, I frequently wound up with much different adjustments than when I started. As you say, the proper saddle height can be much different than standing height.

      By the way, my first custom was built around measurements taken in a formal fitting session by a Serotta trained specialist. The bike (not made by Serotta) was the worst fit of any bike I've owned. My current bikes came from one on one meets with the builders. They are very different bikes, but very comfortable.

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  18. I'm always tweaking something, although I think I tend to roll the bars back and forth to adjust the angle more than the height.

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  19. You may want to think about posture as well as saddle and handlebar height and reach. This has become an obsession for me after messing up my back and being off the bike for many months. By rolling the hips forward and riding with a "flat back", pressure on the spine and the possibility of injury can be reduced. This is the best document I have found on the subject: http://www.francefrominside.com/FFI%20Bike%20Posture%20web.pdf

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  20. For me it depends on my frame. But when I ride more than about 40 miles at once, I end up fiddling with my handlebars because I notice some spot in my wrists or hands that starts tingling. It sounds like you have a well-fitting frame which is always a great thing. I agree with Dale, back injury is not cool. You could also try a longer ride to see if the handlebar position reveals any disadvantages. But if you're enjoying the ride and not experiencing pain, I say go with it!

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  21. I cannot figure out the point of this post. I don't have an issue, so I will...perseverate. Odd.

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    1. Not everything has to be an "issue." To me it is interesting and potentially informative that on this particular bike a variety of handlebar heights feel comfortable, whereas on other bikes that is not so.

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  22. Interesting discussion. I've been riding fixed gears since 1997. I’ve found (1) that a comfortable bar position on a fixed gear is, for me, identical to that for a coaster and (2) that this comfortable position depends largely on first finding the right saddle position -- height and fore-and-aft and tilt so that your torso is “cantilevered” over the bike without requiring much support from arms and hands. Once the saddle is properly postioned, the normal “fall” of my arms and hands pretty much dictates where the bar should be, both in reach and in drop. This always results in largely identical measurements from saddle to tip of hoods, to hooks and to stem clamp (assuming saddles of similar shape) as well as in bar height.

    Thanks to an aging neck I did after some 17 years recently raise the bars on my two road fixed gears from ~4 cm below saddle to ~ 3 cm below but this also involved swapping out the 90/140 Nitto 185s for the longer and shallower (125/115) Grand Bois Maes Parallels (excellent bars in every way!) that, again, puts the hoods and hooks more or less the same distance from the saddles as before.

    All this is not to recommend that you choose the same saddle and bar positions, but that you might want to consider the question from the starting point of saddle position. Peter Jon White has an excellent article on saddle position.

    BTW, I say don't worry about your bike reviews: they seem to me to be clearly honest and fair.

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  23. Not sure if it applies here, but bear in mind that changing handlebar height affects the reach of the bike as much as the angle of your body (higher bars effectively making the top-tube length shorter).

    There are many different positions that a cyclist can get comfy in, as evidenced by the fact that the same cyclist can enjoy both a road bike and a dutch bike without discomfort.

    My guess is that you've struck lucky with geometry and as you raise/lower the stem it is moving in line with your bodies natural reach, making them all comfy!

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  24. It's funny you came up with this post now. A couple of days ago I realized how high the (trekking) handlebars on my (touring/commuting) bike (LHT) were in respect to the saddle. More like a Dutch bike. The other bikes parked where I park have the handlebars at about the same height as the seat. I then tried to pretend my handlebars were lower and ride in the position, how it would feel. I didn't like it at all. I like to look around, watch the nature. With my butt up in the air I had to crank my chin up and that didn't feel comfortable at all. So while my setup may look a little bit odd, I'm not willing to trade looks for the "open air" feel :-)

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  25. My bikes range from 56cm to 62cm in height (I'm 6' tall, nearly exactly). My "ideal" bike is 58cm, but even on the 62 cm bikes, I ride with a fistful of seatpost.

    In nearly every instance, I ride with the top of the stem about an inch below the nose of the saddle. On my "racing" bike (though I'm way too fat to race...for now), my stem is 1-1/2 to 2" below the saddle nose - the 56cm cannondale is 2", the 48cm Nishiki is 1-1/2ish lower.

    So I guess I don't fiddle much. Generally, when building a bike, I just set it up to the max height of the stem, then go from there.

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