Myths Debunked: An Upright Riding Position ISN’T Always More Comfortable

Myths Debunked: An Upright Riding Position ISN’T Always More Comfortable

“Raise your handlebars, and you’ll be more comfortable.” It’s one of those almost self-evident ‘truths’ of cycling. And yet the reality is not that simple…

To celebrate 15 years of Bicycle Quarterly, we are examining myths in cycling – things that we (and most others) used to believe, but which we have found to be not true. This post is about optimizing your riding position for comfort and speed.

The photo above shows me riding in a much lower position than Natsuko in the top photo, and yet we are equally comfortable on our bikes. The difference is in our effort levels: Natsuko is cyclotouring at a leisurely pace, while I am racing cyclocross.

What is important is that our positions match our power outputs. A cyclist’s upper body acts as a counterweight to the forces of pedaling. The harder we pedal, the more inclined our upper bodies should be.

That is why racing bikes have low handlebars and stretched-out positions, while, on cyclotouring bikes, the bars are higher, and the riders sit more upright. The extreme are some European city bikes where the riders sit bolt-upright. On those bikes, the riders’ power output is limited: You rarely see them in hilly towns…

Every rider’s position changes depending on the power they put into the pedals. Above is Natsuko in a steep hairpin on Tsuchiyu Pass in Japan. Her arms are bent to lower her back as she increases her power output on the steep incline. Her low position on the bike has nothing to do with aerodynamics – it’s all about power.

My Mule is intended for cyclotouring, so it has a more upright position than my Firefly, which is designed as a racing bike.

This doesn’t mean that the Mule cannot go fast: With drop handlebars, it’s easy to adjust riding position to match power output. Getting in the drops (above) lowers my back for more power, and I can bend my arms even more if I want to go faster yet. Conveniently, this also makes me more aerodynamic, which helps when speed is my objective or when I battle a headwind.

The problem is not that a low position is uncomfortable, but that I cannot maintain the required power output for very long. What is important for comfort is that my ‘middle’ position, usually the one on the ramps of my bars, is comfortable for my average power output. That way, I can get into the drops when I need more power, or ride on the tops when going slowly.

If you always ride with the same power output, you can use simple handlebars like the ‘bullhorns’ that used to be popular on time trial bikes (above, Francesco Moser in 1984). In a flat time trial, your power output is the same for the entire ride, so you won’t need to change position.

If you ride long distances, your power output will vary quite a bit. That is why you’ll want bars that offer several distinct positions. Serge Félix (above) is climbing at maximum speed (in the drops) during the 1955 Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. His bike is equally at home during a 50+ hour ride in Paris-Brest-Paris. The ‘Randonneur’ handlebars of his Rene Herse have a long reach and a relatively deep drop, which give him multiple distinct positions on the bike – and the added benefit of sweeping curves that fit his hands much better than the abrupt transitions found in most ‘modern’ handlebars.

At Rene Herse, we enjoy riding long distances with variable power outputs – working harder into a headwind and going slower when we don’t feel like pedaling hard – and so we’ve reintroduced classic handlebar shapes. With more positions available, you can always find the one that matches your power output. And that is what makes your bike comfortable and efficient.

  • Update 11/17/2020: We’ve just published our new book ‘The All-Road Bike Revolution’ with all the research that has changed cycling in recent years. Find out why wide tires can be fast, how to find a frame that optimizes your power output, and how to get a bike that handles like an extension of your body. More information is here.

Photo credit: Westside Bicycle (Photo 2); John Pierce/Photosport International (Photo 7, reprinted with permission from The Competition Bicycle).

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Comments (31)

  • Francisco

    The best and most concise explanation I ever read regarding rider position. Thank you! The second best explanation I have seen, by the way, is that of Peter White. Like you, he speaks of interdependencies rather than rules or measurements.

    February 12, 2018 at 4:31 am
  • 47hasbegun

    The wording here might confuse some readers: “The harder we pedal, the more inclined our upper bodies should be.” When I think of “more inclined,” I think of a greater slope away from the horizontal, like a steeper hill or staircase. While it’s technically correct in terms of being more sloped away from the vertical, I don’t hear the word used that way too often.

    February 12, 2018 at 4:38 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The term ‘lower position’ also is misleading, because lower handlebars alone often don’t make for a more inclined position, if the reach is shortened. Thus, I prefer to talk about ‘inclined,’ even if it’s a rarely-used term. It’s easy enough to understand…

      February 12, 2018 at 10:39 pm
  • Mark Guglielmana

    I’ve been following all of the “myths of cycling”, agreeing so far. On this point, however, I have to quibble.
    What you’re not taking into account is the age of the rider. I’m sure that I’m biased towards the people I ride with, but many of us are faithful followers of BQ and are closer to retirement than the middle of our careers – and I have friends straddling both sides of that milestone. The body stiffens, and it becomes harder and harder to bend over like we used to. Taller, shorter stems help overcome this.
    In addition, 6 years ago I suffered from a slipped disc in my neck. I cannot look up for long periods of time without one of my arms going numb, so getting down in the drops for more than short periods of time are out of the question. I’ve had a lot of physical therapy to get to the point where I can use dropped bars once again!
    I’ve been riding bikes for over 4 decades. My bikes when I was in 20’s and 30’s had 14cm slammed stems. I understand what you’re saying about riding efficiency, but for many of us, riding position is dictated by our aging bodies, and less by riding efficiency. For me, riding more upright is more comfortable. Riding in the drops is literally a pain in the neck.

    February 12, 2018 at 7:21 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think we have a misunderstanding – this post isn’t about efficiency, but about matching power output to position. Yes, as we age, our positions will change, because our power output changes. When I was a racer in my late 20s, I rode times up local hillclimbs that I cannot even dream of any longer. And my position has changed accordingly…
      On the other hand, my riding partner and BQ contributor Mark got a custom bike 10 years ago (his ‘Six Hands’) and ordered a sloped-up stem, because he wanted to be more comfortable. He found the bike’s lack of comfort disappointing, and after riding my bikes with lower positions, he realized that a lower position was better for him. He ordered a new custom stem with zero rise, and he’s been comfortable on his bike ever since.

      February 12, 2018 at 7:57 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The ‘bars too low’ issue has receded a bit as allroad and ‘adventure’ bikes have replaced racing bikes. Most of the new bikes have a relatively high riding position. In the recent past, many ‘racing’ bikes had very short top tubes to allow an upright position. However, with the arms pointing almost straight down, it’s much harder to keep a relaxed ‘elbows bent’ grip of the handlebars. Wider tires have been a good development in more ways than one, as they also seem to have changed our ideas about bike fit a bit.

        February 12, 2018 at 8:21 am
    • alexanderluthier

      In October 2017 René Gaillard established the 1-hour world record for 90 years-old riders, and his position on the drops was very aggresive during the final sprint! That’s what it takes to put power to the pedals.

      February 12, 2018 at 6:48 pm
      • Mark Guglielmana

        The headline is about comfort. I understand, and agree, that power and aerodynamics are altered by position on the bike. I stand by my claim that an upright position is more comfortable. If it weren’t wouldn’t everybody ride bent over? Even in myt 20’s and 30’s, riding 2-300+ miles/week, I sacrificed comfort for speed and power. Shoulders and neck muscles need to be built up to hold the head in position to look up the road when riding bent over.

        February 12, 2018 at 8:27 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I agree: You need strength in your core, back and neck – not just in your legs – to ride fast. But that doesn’t mean that riding more upright is always more comfortable. I know of several riders – myself included when I rode a bike that wasn’t mine – who suffered from back pain when they rode in a more upright position than ideal for them.

          February 12, 2018 at 10:01 pm
  • Jeff Loomis

    The advice to raise the bars for more comfort is normally given to riders who are using a racing position but are not producing a racer’s power output. In that context it is not a myth, it is an application of the principle you are highlighting.

    February 12, 2018 at 7:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Absolutely. And I think if we explain the reasons why a low position doesn’t work for everybody, perhaps it will make more sense. Similarly, most riders these days no longer use the gears the pros use – I still remember the days when every high-end bike came with 52×42 chainrings…

      February 12, 2018 at 7:59 am
      • Sam Atkinson

        >”Similarly, most riders these days no longer use the gears the pros use”
        I’m not sure that’s changed much. In the 52-42 days, lots of road bikes came with 28T large cogs, which resulted in a granny around 30% lower than what bikes targeted at serious racing had. Recreational road bikes are coming with lower gears now, but the pros are also equipping lower gears when the road turns steep; at stage 17 of the last Vuelta, there were pro bikes set up to have a 34-32 ratio!

        February 12, 2018 at 9:35 am
  • jon campo

    This is so true for me. My most comfortable bike has pretty low bars but it fits me really well.

    February 12, 2018 at 8:12 am
  • Stuart Fogg

    I like riding at lower cadences so I’m putting a little more force on the pedals. A lower position works well for that riding style and on a long ride my hands and feet support enough of my weight that my butt doesn’t give up first. Unfortunately touring frames are usually rather tall and short so I had to pay extra for custom dimensions.

    February 12, 2018 at 8:48 am
  • Jason Marshall (@jmarshall312)

    Dropper seat posts are common these days on mountain bikes. Do we need hydraulic riser stems to quickly go from sport to comfort mode? 😛

    February 12, 2018 at 9:10 am
    • ascpgh

      Or a quill stem of enough insertion?

      February 12, 2018 at 10:29 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I think adjusting stems in mid-ride would be cumbersome. However, drop handlebars already allow those on-the-fly adjustments without the need to do anything except move your body…

        February 12, 2018 at 10:33 am
  • Conrad

    It also helps to have well designed road bars so that it feels more natural to use all of the positions on the bar. This greatly improves comfort, especially on long rides. Between brifters and crappy bars, most riders are glued to the hoods.

    February 12, 2018 at 9:40 am
  • Chris

    Really enjoying this series Jan!
    You state a lot of what I think about often times.
    Greetings from Germany!

    February 12, 2018 at 9:42 am
  • sofauxboho

    Jan, how much bar drop do you prefer for your randonneuring bikes? Do you have any advice on determining an optimal bar drop, or at least where to start experimenting?

    February 12, 2018 at 3:08 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I usually start with my bars about 5 cm below the saddle. However, it’s not just drop, but also reach – the further forward the bars are, the lower your position. So on modern racing bikes, my bars may be way lower, but my position is similar, because the reach is shorter.

      February 12, 2018 at 3:21 pm
      • sofauxboho

        Thanks very much Jan. On my current bikes my bars are about 2 cm below the seat, but I’ve started to ride brevets this year and as I do more miles I find the bars “feel higher”, though the actual height is the same.
        And indeed, my bike with only 1 cm of bar drop ended up needing a 1 cm longer stem. Eventually I’ll probably replace the decalleur and lower the bars.

        February 12, 2018 at 3:29 pm
  • Mark V Hillman

    Another factor for some of us is that a vertical seating position compresses the spine with each bump. As a tall rider, I find I need to stretch out in order to get comfortable by using long stems and always riding on the hoods, even with albatross/mustache bars (level with seat) using road levers mounted horizontally. This works for all day long ridiing. My quill stems allow bar height adjustment for all-day headwinds, and 3-4 years ago I discovered carbon fiber saddle rails that are resilient, minimizing shocks.

    February 12, 2018 at 4:00 pm
    • zigak

      Similar experience here. I am not very tall (190cm) but I also find low, stretched out position very comfortable. I guess it’s acquired taste.
      A few years back I had a very bad back (probably discus hernia) I could not walk, stand, sit only lie on the bed and even that was very painful. The only respite from the pain was 1h of very gentle bicycle ride in the drops. I’m guessing the low position puts a lot of body weight to the arms and decompresses the vertebra. Riding upright in that condition would not be possible.

      February 13, 2018 at 12:49 am
      • sofauxboho

        I had a similar experience, Zigak. Several years ago I had significantly herniated disks (L4-L5 and L5-S1) that impinged on my spinal column and eventually required surgery. A couple weeks before the surgery I couldn’t walk more than about 30 feet without losing sensation and falling down, but I could still ride my road bike for miles.
        Since then I’ve found cycling and core exercises a great way to protect my back and keep it strong. No issues for years!

        February 13, 2018 at 11:20 am
  • james

    I don’t completely agree. When comparing a touring position and racing position, the difference is more influenced by aerodynamics in my opinion. Certainly, raising the upper body from almost flat to 20-30 degrees won’t make a huge difference to the CG of the entire body or how much power the rider is producing. Indeed in road racing while climbing steep hills where sustained high power outputs are required, the riders usually sit more upright.

    February 12, 2018 at 4:50 pm
    • aquilaaudax1

      It appears that the riders are sitting more upright on the climbs but you have to remember that the bike is angled up on climbs which effectively lifts the front end of the bike relative to the rear.

      February 13, 2018 at 8:26 pm
  • Smithy

    After seeing that gorgeous image of Francesco, I rode my evening loop way faster than usual !

    February 13, 2018 at 2:44 am
  • morlamweb

    I often have to ride in motorised traffic, and a more upright position – say, 50-60 degrees forward bend vs. the 90 of a bolt-upright bike – offers the best view of the road while maintaining power output. I’ve optimised the comfort of my bike for that position: ergonomic grips on the flat handlebars, a comfortable touring saddle, and flat pedals.

    February 13, 2018 at 1:19 pm
  • Mackenzy

    While I would agree that a “more aggressive riding position is uncomfortable” is absolutely a myth, I feel like “an upright position is more comfortable is a myth” is a bit misleading and comes off more of an opinion and slightly ableist. I agree with many of the statements in regard to riding style, fitness and bike fit made in here. However, in my own person experience, I have an inflexible lower back from a BMX injury which makes it hard to tuck down for extended time due to scar tissue in my lower back not to mention I was assaulted by a driver and tackled off my bike which has made my neck less bendable. I run my bars an inch or two above saddle – it is a good compromise given my current physiology. I know many people in similar varying circumstances whether it’s age, fitness, style of riding, past injury etc. We may look dorky, but we can spend all day in the saddle and shred with the best of em.

    February 17, 2018 at 10:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make some good points – of course, everybody’s physiology is different. I changed the title to add ‘always’ to make it clear that in many cases, an upright position is more comfortable, just not in every case.

      February 17, 2018 at 11:24 am

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