In my last article I focused on the implications of making adjustments to the drivetrain (seat height, fore-aft, tilt, etc.) to compensate for issues and limitations surrounding the upper-body and cockpit.
Drivetrain … Cockpit….. are these “technical” terms in the cycling industry? No, not really. They are however terms that have been used for years when we want to refer to an area on the bike and not a specific part or movement. For example, I could say that we are going to discuss the impact of handlebar height, handlebar fore-aft position and posture to address comfort and performance, but it is much easier to lump the whole thing together as the “cockpit”.
SIDE NOTE: Keep in mind that indoor bikes are often limited in their adjustments. On a real bike, in addition to handlebar height and fore-aft position, the following would be considered: handlebar width, angle, position of brake levers, reach, drop and type of bend.
4 Considerations for Handlebar Position
As always, there can be multiple factors which contribute to each consideration, but here are some basic principles to give you a starting point in helping riders make the best decision and adjustment.
Comfort: Many riders (both indoors and outdoors) find handlebars that are set low to be uncomfortable. This can be due to weak core muscles, poor posture, back and spine issues, and simply because it is not something they are accustomed to. Raising the handlebars can relieve pressure, relax tight muscles and provide a more upright and comfortable position.
Performance and Power: Relatively speaking, handlebars that are lower can help riders gain more power and better performance. Besides aerodynamic considerations, deeper torso flexion can provide better gluteal and hip flexor activation often resulting in a more efficient pedal stroke and more powerful down-stroke.
Flexed Spine: When the fore-aft position of the handlebars is too close to the rider (cockpit too short), riders may have the tendency to hunch (curve or flex their spine). This can put their back and spine at risk particularly when they are using large amounts of resistance. Adjusting the fore-aft position to lengthen the cockpit can help neutralize and relax the spine and surrounding muscles.
Over-Extended: When the fore-aft position of the handlebars is too far away from the rider (cockpit too long), riders can find themselves reaching, hyper-extending the spine and in deep flexion at the hips. This over-extended position can cause lower back pain, shoulder pain, strain on the neck and leave riders with fatigued arms. Adjusting the fore-aft position to shorten the cockpit will relax some of the aggressive angles and allow the arms and core muscles to support the upper body.
In many cases you will find yourself both adjusting the handlebar height the fore-aft simultaneously to get the desired position. Also, don”™t assume that more aggressive settings (in either direction) are necessarily wrong. I”™ve seen road cyclists and triathletes that are comfortable and safe using a very low handlebar position, as well as, a rider recovering from back surgery with their handlebars appropriately in the highest, closest position.
Determining The Optimal Cockpit
Our first concern is always safety which is why the first question we should ask any rider before we suggest or make an adjustment to their bike is “Do you have any injures that may be aggravated by riding?” Knowing this information upfront can save you from putting a rider in a risky position plus allow you to help them make better decisions as to what may be best at this time.
Assuming we have no physical concerns, it is simply a matter of comfort vs. power. When I setup a rider for the first time, I prefer to place their handlebars level with their seat (often referred to as “neutral”). This can sometimes be a challenge with shorter riders because the handlebars on some indoor bikes cannot be adjusted that low. Do what you can. If a rider feels uncomfortable, raise the handlebars in small increments. If a rider feels they are too high or wants more power, lower their handlebars in small increments. I”™ve talked to instructors who feel that the handlebars should never be lower than the seat. I”™m not sure where they received that information, but it is incorrect. It is not uncommon for outdoor riders (particularly road cyclists and triathletes) to have their handlebars more than 4 inches below the level of their seat. Consider the safety and needs of the individual rider and avoid making up rules.
Handlebar Fore-aft Position
Many of the bikes we use indoors may still not have the ability to adjust the fore-aft position of the handlebars. Even though, you still may be able to make suggestions for where a rider should grip the handlebars based on what you observe. As I mentioned in my previous article, this is the reason we should avoid numbered hand positions.
To determine the optimal starting point for handlebar fore-aft position, have the rider (seated) bring their foot and pedal to 12 o”™clock keeping their ankle relaxed. Have them place their elbow to their kneecap with the end of their arm (hand and wrist) on top of the handlebars. The other hand should be gripping the handlebars and providing support.
Simply observe the alignment of the wrist and the crossbar of handlebars. If the crossbar is more than a fingers-width in either direction, you can suggest making an adjustment (keeping the above considerations in mind). You may find yourself incorporating a combination of hand position and handlebar position depending on what range of adjustment is available.
My Strong Opinion
I”™m certain no one is surprised as I”™m also certain I”™m preaching to the choir on this one: “there are no short cuts when dealing with the variables and complexity of the human body in motion”. Certifications and individuals that advocate specific settings and positions will often find themselves wrong, and worse, lead others astray or toward injury. However, I”™m comforted knowing that all of us at ICI/Pro default to knowledge. Doing something right requires understanding, where following rules…not so much.
Originally posted 2011-12-29 12:36:14.