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Technical FAQ: Adapting bike fit as you age

Considerations for adapting stack and reach when loss of flexibility becomes a consideration.

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Have a question for Lennard? Please email him at veloqna@comcast.net to be included in Technical FAQ.

Dear Lennard,
Any suggestions on adapting one’s position as we age and lose an inch or two?

My inseam is the same, but at 71 years old my spine must have contracted by 1½ inches. I shortened the stem and moved my saddles forward. All my frames were built with shorter top tubes than available factory builds, so a new frame would not address this issue, plus I love what I have.

Any suggestions? Working on spine flexibility is helping, but I wish to keep my bars low, and stem no shorter than 100mm or 80mm.
— Dan

Also read: How to find the perfect saddle

Dear Dan,
That’s a very good question that we all eventually will have to deal with. I personally have lost two inches in height over the past 42 years. Like you, my legs have not lost any length, but my spine has. (Called “degenerative disc disease”, the thickness of the discs in the entire lumbar region of my spine has gone to almost zero.)

My solution has been to build my own frames. I have decreased the top tube lengths on my personal road, cyclocross, and gravel frames by 2cm over the past 40 years. That has decreased my frame “reach” dimension. I have also decreased my stem length by 1cm. Additionally, I have increased my frame “stack” considerably, thus bringing my bars up higher relative to my saddle. (This column explains stack and reach dimensions.) I have not moved my saddle forward, choosing to keep the relative fore-aft positions of my knees and pedals the same for at least the past 20 years or so.

I find it surprising that you would want to not increase your handlebar height as you age. Why is that? As riders get older, we tend to lose flexibility in our necks, among many other undesirable changes, and having a higher handlebar reduces neck strain. For instance, when descending at age 22, I could stay in the “Nibali tuck” (below image) easily for descents of many thousands of vertical feet. I even won the 1980 Durango-to-Silverton race by doing so. Now, at age 63, there is no way in the world I can hold that tuck; my neck starts killing me after only a few seconds in that position. And, mind you, my handlebar is much higher relative to my saddle now than it was back then, too. In 1980, I had a 15cm drop from my saddle to bar, and now I have 2cm.

Now, even though the UCI has banned the position, When I want to descend fast, I use the “Sagan tuck” (below image). You can see how much less the neck is craned in this position compared with the “Nibali tuck”, and aerodynamic drag is similar. (The Sagan tuck wasn’t possible in 1980, though, because we all had level top tubes and short seat posts then.)

I’m wondering why you are wanting to keep your handlebar as low as you have always had it. I would have thought that at age 71 you no longer would care as much about having a low, aero position. If you raise your bar, you also bring it back closer to you. That is one way that you don’t have to shorten your stem (which you indicated that you don’t want to do more than you already have) while still reducing your reach to the bar. Otherwise, there is not much more you can do with your existing bikes. Your choices are to shorten the stem, which you have done, move the saddle forward, which you have also done, and raise the stem. Any shortening beyond that would require a shorter top tube.
― Lennard


Lennard Zinn, our longtime technical writer, joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a custom frame builder (www.zinncycles.com) and purveyor of non-custom huge bikes (bikeclydesdale.com), a former U.S. national team rider, co-author of The Haywire Heart,” and author of many bicycle books including Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,”DVD, as well as Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikesand Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.” He holds a bachelor’s in physics from Colorado College.

Follow @lennardzinn on Twitter.