Monday, January 14, 2013

Achingly Upright

Chrome Raleigh Lady's Tourist
Longer commutes over the past few months have given me the opportunity to ride a variety of upright bikes over varying distances. And while achieving a particular fit is less important to me on upright bikes than it is on roadbikes, I still have preferences. For instance, my ideal handlebar height is on the low side. I began to notice that fairly early on, lowering the bars on my city bikes further with each passing year. I'd assumed this growing preference had to do with performance: That maybe as I picked up handling skills and began to ride faster, lower handlebars just made more sense. And in part that's probably true. But lately I've realised that it's also a matter of physical comfort.

Riding several bikes with the bars set higher than I prefer, I notice that my back starts to hurt after some miles. It's a distinct kind of dull, gnawing pain, somewhere around the shoulder blade area. On bikes where the bars are set lower, I don't experience the pain. And having moved the handlebars on one of the "painful" bikes down an inch, the pain disappeared. I've tried this a few times now over the past couple of months with the same result: When the bars are too high, my back aches.

The downside to having a city bike set up the way I like, is that other women who try it usually tell me the handlebars feel too low. In the end, it's about finding our personal optimal position. And too upright can be just as achy as too leaned forward.

55 comments:

  1. My favorite MUP riders are those who are riding those hybrids where their handlebars are at chest level. They're in their lowest gear and bobbing side to side to try to make it up a hill. *sigh*

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  2. Makes sense to me.

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  3. My problem with upright handlebars is that my butt starts to hurt after 5 or so miles. With drop handlebars the pressure is more evenly distributed.

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  4. Replies
    1. Alright since no one has said it a 45 degree roadie posture allows your torso weight to fall onto your legs, which hold you up from smashing your face by, incidentally, propelling one forward at a rapid rate.

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    2. BTW this can be considered a CoG discussion as well.

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  5. Yep. I hear you. I have spent years and years on road bikes and race mountain bikes which have the handle bars much lower than the saddle. My last commuter was a hybrid, which was set up differently. I never really completely "fell in love" with it because something seemed, well, not right. Turned out it was the handlebars and cockpit in general. Now? I am ripping around the city on a cheap as dirt Kona mtn bike as my commuter with a 100mm corrected rigid fork on it and am loving every minute of my time on that bike. The bars are well below the seat again, and my enjoyment of it and comfort riding around have gone way up.

    However, some of my friends look at it and think I am nuts and wonder how in the world I can ride it.

    To each their own I say!

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  6. I will venture a guess that it has less to do with the bike and more to do with the postures you're used to and the muscles that are more developed. I've had what seems to be a similar ache right by my shoulder blade that pops up now and then. I spoke with a physical therapist and she said it was likely posture related. In fact, it always occurred when I was standing in an unusual way, say taking notes while standing up or working at a counter that was just too low. If I made a conscious effort to engage my abdominal muscles when performing these activities, the pain vanished. If you're used to riding with a lower handlebar setting, it may take more of a conscious effort to ride with them higher and maintain a posture that's comfortable. But in the end, lower them if you prefer and it works for you!

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  7. The handlebar height is one of those personal things. I ride quite a lot and still prefer high bars in front and an upright ride. Some people seem to go lower and lower as they ride more, but I guess some (like me) stay pretty much put.

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  8. upright or not, I love the teensy heron!!

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    1. Speaking of tiny herons and the bikes they adorn, I'm eager to find out more about that chromed Lady Tourist that's been lurking about of late.

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    2. I see a lot of those tiny heron headlight brackets around (and have one on my currently defunct Raleigh 20) and they are pretty cool. Does anyone know if somebody's currently making a headlamp that actually mounts to them these days?

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  9. A cycling manual written in the 1930s which I read recently suggests that the most comfortable position with upright bars on a roadster type bike is to have back angle of about 45 degrees. I have to say my own experience backs this up.

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    1. +1 for the 45 degree angle! I've ridden tens of thousands of miles on many different bikes, and for me an upright is harder on hands, back, and butt than a bike set up for a 45 degree back. (I was surprised by the hand issues, but there they were, undeniable.) I ride both long and short distances, mostly in LA traffic.

      I am nearly sixty years old, periodically try uprights, and find them useless for trips of much more than a mile and a half.

      Also, because of the way muscle networks operate, bolt-uprights make your legs work harder than necessary for the distance and pace you are riding.

      A bike is not a barstool. (Though it's a great way to get to a barstool.)

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    2. I agree with the ~45* back rule, at least that works for me. Note that you can get this through different builds: low bar, bar reach extended, rearward saddle -- and thus slack seat tube. I expect that the reason why Paisleys and so on are rideable at all is the slack seat tube -- of course that leaves the very short effective tt and the no-extension stem. I could never get comfortable on those bikes. As always, different combinations of all of these things suit different people in different ways.

      I remember riding, very briefly -- around a parking lot -- a real Dutch city bike with bars that looked to be 18" higher than the saddle. It felt surprisingly easy to pedal, which I attribute to the slack seat tube. This despite a tiller- like sweep-back on the bar with, really, made it hard to turn sharply as the ends kept hitting me in the stomach. Very weird, but more rideable than I had thought. And it felt different from the rod brake roadsters -- haven't analyzed this, but wonder if the st was even slacker than on those?

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    3. As I have an excess of time on my hands I did a quick superimposition of the men's and ladies Raleigh DL-1 and the men's and ladies Gazelle Toer Populair- being, to my mind the archetypes of the english and dutch roadster bicycle. They all have pretty much the same seat tube angle of about 67º. They do have a bit of variation in handlebar set up- particularly the german models of the toers which have longer swept back bars.

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  10. I noticed this a couple of years ago when I took my old Raleigh DL1 for a spin. After 20 minutes it was my hands, not my shoulders, that hurt. Bars way too high. Lowered them and it helped, but they're still too high up for me. My Jeunet setup is perfect, bars are a couple cm below saddle and for commuter distances has served me very well.

    I also simply prefer the slightly lowered back angle, even for short commutes, because it allows me to use my power more efficiently. When I sit upright, I feel inefficient and labored going up any kind of hill.

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  11. Having weight more distributed over the bike prevents pain to some areas of the body when traveling further. I have come to realize I don't prefer an upright position but a little more aggressive position - something between upright and mountain bars. For me upright is only good for shorter distances.

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  12. I keep fiddling with bar height and inevitably end up with the bars an inch below the saddle. I try on the kid carrying bikes to have them higher, but it just feels wrong. The reach varies on my bikes, but saddle to bar height rarely does.

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  13. Say folks, what's a MUP rider?

    Al

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    1. Oh that looks like so much fun!
      Muppet Ride, Tweed Ride, Naked Ride, etc.

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    2. That's our Wed night ride. I'm the dude sucking Gonzo's wheel...

      Spindizzy

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  14. After having hand issues back when I had one bike, my mountain-bike commuter, I consciously vary my riding position often by employing multiple handholds.
    On my road bike with it's drop-bar I can get five hand positions: on the horizontal top bar, on the far sides with hands perpendicular to the cross-bar; on the brake hood with the "horn" between thumb and first finger; on the hood with the horn between first and second finger; on the bottom of the drops and in the foremost part of the drops, and of course sitting upright and hands-free.
    On my mountain-bike based commuter, I have a wide slightly curved bar. At first my only choices were on the normal hand grips, and then ball my fists and rest on the heels of my hands; also gripping inboard on the handlebars. Then I added bar-ends, but because of the width of the handlebars, I shoved them inboard, for a "jockey" position that feels fairly close to my roadbike. It's slightly more aerodynamic. Then I added an aerobar to the mountainbike. And of course hands-free.
    Not only do multiple hand positions help relieve repetitive stress to my hands, but each position puts my back at a different position; even just the difference between the two "hood" positions makes a difference, higher-up between the fingers and lower down between the thumb and forefinger.
    Another helpful difference is switching bikes every few rides. I'm shooting for a third bike, possibly a recumbent or crank-forward, but I'm not sure about that yet.

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  15. Could it be MUP is an acronym for "Multi use path?"
    Where I live (Destin, Florida) we call them MUT for Multi use trail. Riders on hybrid bikes displaying the "sit up and beg" position tend to frequent the MUTs.

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    1. A couple of MUP posts here and here. It's really just a matter of everyone sharing a space.

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  16. I've found that if my handlebars are too high not only does it beat on my back, it also causes more discomfort in my hands and makes me more prone to saddle sores. I tend to find that having the bars just at or below saddle height is the way to go.

    This is a hard thing to explain to new bike shoppers. Most of them automatically assume that sitting as upright as possible is going to be the most comfortable (even if the same person might lean forward on their chair or a bar stool, go figure). Super-high bars and weird aftermarket saddles are common features of bikes that come in as trade-ins with the explanation that, "I bought this years ago and could never get comfortable on it for some reason."

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  17. It's not very often I like to ride upright but when I do, it's very upright. I found that when the bars are higher, I was holding my shoulders higher without realizing it thus, the pain I felt between my shoulder blades. I also found that the higher the bar the closer in the bars needed to be in order for me to find some comfort. I think for me it has to do with how close the elbows are to the body. The closer the better for me.

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  18. Speaking of high bars: I recently converted this:

    https://picasaweb.google.com/BERTIN753/BIKESMISCELLANEA#5823569176782452770

    To this:

    https://picasaweb.google.com/BERTIN753/BIKESMISCELLANEA#5823820300053057762

    For a friend. The original owner had back problems and did the tyro thing of raising the bar higher and higher until -- well, look at the photo. It didn't work, so I helped her get another bike and expedited the conversion of this one for another friend. The first friend's new bike (Novara Fusion, IIRC) is much more rationally set up with VO sweep back bar of normal height, and she finds it much better.

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  19. Hmm, can honestly say I've never had any problems with a classic upright city bike, even on rides of 70 miles. Many dropped bar bikes make me sore on long rides, mostly from holding my neck upright to look forward. I suspect that if I rode that way more or longer I would strengthen those muscles and the soreness would abate.
    I have though, ridden a "semi-upright" hybrid type BSO that was excruciating after 3 miles. I think part of the problem was that the reach was too far, so I was leaned forward, but not far enough that my weight was well distributed, so I was trying too hard to hold myself "up" with my back.

    I wonder if many of the people having problems are actually not sitting far enough up, or had the wrong saddle, If your weight isn't properly on your sit bones, you might very well tweak your back from trying to support too much of your weight on your hands.


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    1. Like Cycler, I ride upright. My bars are high and I never get sore. On a cable-braked Raleigh (my everyday Superbe) there's more range both in terms of height and pitch (the North Road bars can be angled along the stem); but on a rod-braked Raleigh (as shown and my fair weather dawn Tourist) there is very little vertical play due to the scanty length tolerances of the rod stems (maybe 1/2"?) and none on the pitch because the necessary rigidity in this arrangement vis-a-vis the levers does not allow setting the angle of the handlebars.

      I guess it's largely what you are used to. I hate the thought of hunching over and straining my neck to look up; others may find this perfectly comfortable.

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  20. Cycler said: "If your weight isn't properly on your sit bones, you might very well tweak your back from trying to support too much of your weight on your hands."

    I find this essay on bike fit very apt:
    http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/fitting.htm

    In particular the Saddle fore/aft section:

    "Now we get to what I think is the most important part of fitting a bicycle, the fore-aft position of the saddle."

    At any rate, my own experience matches PJW's advice: when the saddle is sufficiently rearward, my body is balanced between saddle, pedals, and bar so that my back cantilevers my shoulders over the bar and my shoulders, arms, and hands take only a light pressure.

    Personal note: years ago in a vain and superfluous attempt to achieve KOPS ("Knee Over Pedal Spindle") with a personal penchant for a high saddle and short femurs, I ended up with my bikes' saddles all the way forward (I resorted to mtb seatpost and saddle would slip *forward* under my weight) and looong stems (135 and 140 mm) with bar fully 6" below saddle -- which made for weird handling, among other things. I told Grant Petersen that I felt I was "losing the pedal stroke" over the top of the pedal stroke. He advised me to shift the saddle back and down and the bars back and up. I followed that to the point where, now, 20 years later, my saddles are way back and my bars highish (~3cm below saddle) on shortish stems -- and everything is copacetic.

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  21. This is completely un-bicycle related but your post brought this memory back to the front of my mind. I live in the midwest where motorcycles are kinda a big deal--apparently. So, while stopped at an intersection, a biker pulled up next to me and, I'm not kidding, his hands were stretched so far above his head he was almost hanging from the grips. I couldn't stop laughing. Maybe this was cool! For some looks are everything :)

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    1. That's why they call them "Ape Hangers" cause the biker (both motor and pedeled) looks like an ape.

      I don't see how bars like that are legal. How does one steer like that? Is all I can think when I see them.

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    2. Indeed, I had to laugh b/c this guy needed to make a left hand turn and he needed to stand on the pegs to do it!! You're right, this should be illegal and I though it was, at least back in the days I rode a motorcycle.

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    3. Oh, as one who rode a bike -- both motorbike and pedal bike across the country -- the set-up makes little sense. Around the block, cool, but anything more than about fifteen minutes, ouch.

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  22. This is clearly a personal preference issue with no right or wrong answer. I've ridden my share of road bikes but now that I'm in my 60's my favorite bike is my 30 year old Raleigh Sports. I find that if I lean to far forward the pressure on my hands and wrists causes pain. Bottom line, whatever works for you.

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  23. You could try a recumbent bike. I ride a recumbent trike which I find very comfortable.

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  24. I was looking at old photo's of Lance Armstrong and his early bikes...We've come a long way in our understanding of body to bike for comfort and efficiency. Upright or not.

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  25. The human body instinctively maintains a dynamic balance.

    When we run, the balance point is located over each foot as it meets the ground in turn. In order to move forward we need to lean slightly in that direction to balance the reactive forces from the ground. An extreme example of this is a sprinter, whose upper body is almost horizontal as he takes off from the blocks. Even those of us who aren't as quick as Usain Bolt perform an amazing feat, in running forward while keeping our upper body balanced and appearing still, while it is actually moving through space. If you tried to move quickly forward from a stop and keep your body vertical, it would appear awkward and you couldn't get much speed. Try it.

    On the bicycle the balance point is not the saddle. It is the pedal, on which our weight and the force of our stroke rests as we move forward, and the pedal moves under us similar to how our foot moves under as we run. In order to efficiently apply force to the pedal we must lean forward. We maintain a balanced position over the pedal.

    When we ride uphill, we naturally move our weight further forward, so that we remain balanced with respect to gravity, not to the bike frame. Going downhill we tilt everything back a bit; but our body is actually staying in its balanced position.

    If you were sitting still, like on a sofa, the bolt upright position would be comfortable. But not when moving forward over the pedal. If you move the handlebar too high, or too far back, your body moves back and you have to compensate by moving your bottom forward, in order to keep balanced. So sometimes having the bar too high actually puts more weight on your hands.

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  26. One of the many "Anonymouses" -- or is there but one who is hugely prolific? -- said: "The human body instinctively maintains a dynamic balance. [snip] On the bicycle the balance point is not the saddle. It is the pedal [snip] We maintain a balanced position over the pedal. When we ride uphill, we naturally move our weight further forward [snip] Going downhill we tilt everything back a bit ..."

    Yes indeed, this to the first sentence. A lot of truth, this to the second sentence. Not so, this to the third sentence.

    As to the second: your saddle position also determines your comfort and efficiency with respect to the bar, so the saddle has its own central role independent of the pedals, at least in this particular respect.

    As to the third: your body don't giveadamn about gravity when you are climbing, it wants more torque on the pedals. More torque means more pushing at a lower cadence; this means that you naturally shove back on the saddle and raise your upper body (look at photos of climbers: they aren't forward in the hooks, they are way back and on the bar flats).

    Downhill: again, gravity has little to do with your position. What affects your position, if you are pedaling, is cadence and torque: when you are spinning fast with light pressure, either downhill or springing on the flat, you move forward on the saddle. Look at Beryl at speed in the hooks: this was called "on the rivet" --ie, sitting on the nose rivet of a Brooks saddle.

    As to bolt upright, I agree -- personally, I hate it. But others like it -- it all comes down to body type, pedaling style, degree of effort, frame geometry and a myriad of other things.

    Again, Peter Jon White analyzes this well.

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    1. When you are pedaling uphill, do you have more or less weight on your saddle?

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  27. I'd guess less because your feet are taking more of your weight, but I've never thought about it. I do know, to repeat, that I and many cyclists shove back on the saddle in order to push the pedals more strongly; likewise, riding "on the rivet" is the typical body response to a fast, low-torque cadence as one would use pedaling downhill. Now, of course, other factors come into play on downhills, like balance and aerodynamics. But shoving rearward downhill won't be due to your pedaling style, if one does this at all. (RIding fixed so much, I have, seriously, lost a lot of my knowledge about fast downhill riding.) Also, if one is used to climbing by twiddling in a low gear, then one will, to that extent, shove back less when climbing.

    Watch youtube videos of pros climbing and sprinting. [Aside: it's interesting to see how Fausto pedals much faster on the flats, and much slower on the climbs, than Lance and contemporaries -- a matter of lower high gears and higher low gears, I expect.]

    This just in: Googling for "pro cyclists climbing" I get only shite about training. Try this: it's old video and blurry, but suffices to show climbers sitting back to torque upward and scooting forward to spin downward.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0_VjR8_4X4

    Note that you should usually mute your sound in order to avoid the usually bad music that accompanies cycling video.

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    1. As you rightly seem to say that ‘climbers sit back to torque upward’ and downhill riders ‘scoot forward to spin downward’ so the inevitable conclusion must be that sitting bolt upright is the position for cycling on the flat. And now we may have the rationale for the Dutch set-up, which can just result from a general physical law, any individual preferences aside.

      alan de pl

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  28. this post makes me wonder whether velouria's previous ergonomic problems with hybrids had more to do with the build rather than the bike.

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    1. I've ridden hybrids with both high, swept back handlebars and low, MTB style handlebars. What bothers me about them has more to do with the feel of pedaling than with the amount of lean. It's almost as if the ST angle on them feels simultaneously too steep and inefficient. It doesn't really make sense; this one's really a puzzle to me still.

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    2. Steep and efficient are different things. Yes, it can be too steep to be efficient.

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    3. Well, I suspect it is something rather obvious and has to do with the combination of ST angle and lean/hip tilt. On a roadbike I like rather steep angles. I have no problem riding a 74-75deg ST frame with minimal setback when the bike has drop bars, and I doubt that these hybrid bikes' angles are steeper, even with some mfg error factored in. So I'm thinking that maybe as the pelvis tilts back, the ST angle needs to be slacker to maintain the same feel/comfort and even efficiency? I am sure there must be stuff written about this.

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    4. With a lower bar, upright or drop, you have some weight on your hands. Hands>shoulders>center of gravity and it all connects. With weight on the handlebars you steer with any small shift of body weight. It feels like you steer by thinking.

      High handlebars leave all the weight on the saddle. Steering happens by push/pull on the handles. You have to twist your back to do it. Keeping the bike on track while resisting the torque steer that is built into the motion of pedalling means you twist your back constantly. That's why your back hurts.

      Learning this stuff by trial and error and paying attention to what your body tells you is the right way to do it. Saddle height and saddle fore-aft are the same story. There's no prescribed position that means much. Even when you think you're all dialed-in perfect it never hurts to change things around and see if something different or interesting happens. What anyone else says is not important. Feeling good is important. Having the bike under control is important.

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  29. I'm thinking that maybe as the pelvis tilts back, the ST angle needs to be slacker to maintain the same feel/comfort and even efficiency'

    Different feel, comfort. Less efficiency.

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  30. Maybe the post should have been called "Uptight Upright."

    Just tripped over this tit bit on upright bars in the entry for "North Road Bends" in Sheldon Brown's Bicycle Glossary, as posthumously amended by John Allen. (Of course what Veloria shows are the less adjustable bars for a rod-braked bike - perhaps these are correctly called "porteur" bars? - see her 30 August 2010 blogpost):

    "The North Road handlebar is most commonly seen on English three-speed bicycles -- and usually in combination with a very short stem extension. The result is "tiller" steering -- that is, the grips are even with the steering axis or behind it. With tiller steering, controlling the bicycle with one hand off the handlebar is difficult. The cyclist's weight, and deceleration due to light braking or road bumps, make the cyclist's hand push the end of the handlebar forward. It is necessary to tense the muscles of the back to prevent turning the handlebars and losing control -- and with the entire weight of the cyclists' upper body in play, this is awkward. With a hand position farther ahead of the steering axis, the cyclist's weight, pushing forward and outward -- away from the steering axis -- tends to stabilize the bicycle. A handlebar stem with a longer extension can help solve this problem, and so can placing North Road handlebars in the drop position. If the handlebars are then too low, the stem needs to be taller as well; if too far away, a frame with shorter top tube is in order."

    If it's the porteur bars shown that add to the achiness, possibly it is partly due to the lack of flare, which puts more strain on the wrists than the North Road bars, on the same overall bike.

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  31. I also suffer from a sore back if I am too upright - what annoyed me when I went to most bicycle shops was that most staff wanted to stick me onto an upright commuting bike because I didn't look like a cyclist. They claimed I wouldn't have the torso strength to be comfortable with lower handlebars! Needless to say, I didn't purchase my bike from them!

    That being said, I am still driving the handlebars on my flat bar road bike lower... and I think I will soon have to trade for a proper road bike, but I hope not to yet as I may be moving to another city before the end of the year!

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