Handlebar height is typically measured from a horizontal line at the seat height down to the handlebars. In road cycling, it is a common belief that lower is always better, but for many cyclists, this results in decreased comfort, lower power output and even injury.
Some pro riders use very extreme positions, but also find these positions over many years and work with professional bike fitters and even wind-tunnel testing to find the sweet spot in comfort, power production and aerodynamics.
HOW AERO IS TOO AERO
For most riders, a comfortable position will be more effective and also give you room to get more aerodynamic when you need to. Here are signs your bars are too low and how to get more aero once you have a comfortable handlebar height.
Having an extreme position can result in hand numbness. One of my favorite books on setting up bikes, aptly named, “Bike Fit” by Phil Burt, lists raising the bars or shortening the reach, as two ways to reduce the load on your hands. These are both easy tweaks to see if those numb hands could be resolved by simply raising your bars.
LOW BACK PAIN
While some pros run very extreme handlebar drop; the typical range for road bikes is 10–15cm measured from a horizontal line at the saddle height dropped down to the handlebar. It is not uncommon for recreational riders and riders who have to sit at a desk all day, to have an optimal bar height that is at or just below level with the seat. It is possible to adapt to the position over time, but this, like any training ability, takes practice and gradual progression. With lower back pain being a common cycling complaint in both pro and amateur ranks it is worth considering a less extreme position to allow you to pedal comfortably and powerfully, which will be much better than a low and painful position.
It also makes sense that spending hours hunched over to reach your handlebars could cause neck pain. If you cannot flex from your hip (put your thigh close to your torso) then you will need to arch your back more, which then requires your neck to extend to let you look ahead to see where you are going.
If you find yourself unable to achieve a comfortable, neutral position on the bike during endurance rides or while climbing, this could be a sign your bars are too low. Having a slightly higher setup lets you enjoy the relaxed portions of races and rides but still uses the drops and your position to get low when you need to tuck in and save energy.
AVOIDING ILIAC ARTERY KINKING
While not a symptom, this condition is a reason to use less bar drop. More and more riders are diagnosed with iliac artery kinking after years of riding hard in a closed hip position. It is also possible long-term riding in a closed hip position could contribute to iliac artery kinking. A goal of 45 degrees of maximum hip flexion is suggested to reduce the chances of this condition.
SWITCHING FROM PAVEMENT TO GRAVEL
With the popularity of gravel, bike packing and adventure riding, it makes sense more cyclists would benefit from riding in more relaxed positions. If you are finding yourself doing more long adventure rides that take you off pavement, then it is time to relax that extreme position so you can be in the saddle for extended periods on bumpy terrain that can get very steep and technical. Remember there is always the option to get more aero with your position.
THINK BEYOND YOUR BAR DROP
Many factors can affect aerodynamics including your helmet, wheels and kit. Rather than affecting your comfort and power output, think about some of these other factors to get an aerodynamic advantage without the downside.
Combine good equipment with even better position options and you can really have the best of both worlds. The Specialized ‘Win-Tunnel’ videos showed considerable time savings could be had by using the handlebar drops and also an ‘aero-tuck’ with forearms on the bar versus just the hoods. Being able to use this position but then also switch to the hoods to climb hard and navigate technical terrain is a powerful combination.
If you believe you need an extreme position to reach your goals, then invest in that position. Find a professional bike fitter in your area who can help you test different positions for aerodynamics and power output.