Welcome to Pedal Science, the weekly bike fitting blog by Nick Thomas of The Endurance Coach. This week we look at the subject of HANDLEBAR HEIGHT and cycling performance.
There are four considerations when establishing the correct handlebar height:
- The type of event the bike will be used for
- The ability of the rider
- The flexibility of the rider
- The cyclist’s confidence and bike handling skills
All these factors must be treated with equal importance as neglecting one or more will result in a position which prevents the cyclist from riding to their potential.
The vast majority of bike fits we do are for people competing in long distance events, e.g. sportives or triathlon, often Ironman 70.3 or longer. To be able to maintain a consistent effort any bike must be comfortable to ride – discomfort invariably leads to loss of power and a slower bike split. This discomfort then affects triathletes even further as they’re required to run immediately after the bike. The deterioration in running pace can be dramatic over a half or full marathon simply from being uncomfortable on the bike.
The balance to be struck when establishing handlebar height is achieving the most comfortable position and simultaneously optimising aerodynamics. The higher the front end the greater the frontal drag and the lower it is the more aerodynamic the rider will be.
However the argument for a lower front end becomes weaker when the nature of event and rider’s ability are considered. It’s unlikely many people riding sportives will be averaging over 20 mph so achieving the most aerodynamic position doesn’t make sense. The only time faster speeds are achieved is when descending and this is limited by the nature of the descent (i.e. whether it’s straight or with bends) and the rider’s bike handling skills. Speed is therefore not limited by how aerodynamic the rider is.
Regardless of how fast a cyclist can ride flexibility is the factor which will limit how low the handlebars can be. The lower the front end the tighter the hip angle is at the top of the stroke and the more tension there is throughout the posterior part of the body (e.g. lower back and hamstrings). For someone with poor hamstring flexibility, tightness in the lower back or limited hip flexion range of movement a low handlebar position will be counterproductive.
For anyone wanting to achieve a more aerodynamic position who’s unable to ride with a low front end all is not lost. By achieving an efficient position with correct posture and optimum reach the rider can achieve a relatively flat profile while still maintaining comfort and subsequent power output.
The handlebar height therefore needs to be appropriate for the flexibility limitations of the rider, the events the bike is intended to be used for, and how fast the bike will realistically be ridden.
Nick Thomas is the resident bike fitter at The Endurance Coach. He is a fully qualified bike fitter and expert in lower limb mechanics, holding a BSc (Hons) in podiatry. You can contact him using the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org or see more about his fitting services by GOING HERE.