Technical FAQ: More bike fitting tips for masters cyclists
Hacks to get the fit you need on your road bike.
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Regarding your FAQ on fitting older riders let me toss out two lessons I learned for older riders. One is that with endurance geometry, there is no need to get an oversize frame to get the handlebars up high enough, like many of us older riders were used to doing — a bad habit from the old days. And second, it’s really important at our age (67 for me) to understand how geometry affects stability and balance.
Also read: Technical FAQ – Adapting bike fit as you age
When I got my 2016 Specialized Roubaix, it had the classic slack endurance front end. I just did a test ride in a parking lot, so I didn’t notice how loose the steering felt at low speeds, like when climbing. When I did finally notice, I wrote to you and learned that what I was feeling was real, and that it was all about “wheel flop” — a term that at the time was new to me. This is a big deal because many endurance and gravel bikes still have a relatively slack front end, and I think most older riders will assume that a slacker front end is more stable.
In my investigations, I’ve run across two endurance bikes with more aggressive, stable front ends. One is the Cannondale Synapse, and the other is the 2017 and newer Specialized Roubaix. There may be others. In 2016 I was tempted by your custom titanium bike, and it turns out that would have been a much better long-term investment, as I know you would have steered me, so to speak, in the right direction.
Now that I really know what a really good fit feels like, I wanted to make my 58cm 2016 Roubaix fit a little more like the 56cm 2018 Roubaix. That basically meant moving the cockpit back about 2cm, so that my saddle position and subsequent angle of attack on the pedals is more optimal. I had a pretty short 90mm stem on the bike already, and I asked you if going to a very short 70mm stem will affect the handling—would it make the wheel flop feel better or worse, or am I likely not to really notice the difference? Your response was, “Yes, it will. On the other hand, you already have a very short stem and seem to be okay with the handling, and an additional 2cm more won’t make much difference.”
I’m happy to report that worked surprisingly well, with some unexpected results. The saddle position feels good now — closer to a smaller bike. When I first took off after the stem change, the bike felt pretty loose — more so than before, cruising at 10-15 mph — hands on the tops and hoods. I imagine it’s going to feel a little scarier the first time I ride in a heavy crosswind. But it is pretty stable at greater than 15mph, so maybe that will be OK. It was fine on the fast downhills.
But when I went to stand for the first time, much to my surprise, the shorter stem took out a lot of the flop. There is clearly something different about being vertical, with no real weight and the bars. The lower leverage is clearly an advantage in that position. It doesn’t feel locked in like a real racing front end, but the relative lack of flop is a huge improvement.
But even more surprising was climbing. Again, much better than before. This may also be a case of no real weight on the bars, where I’m mostly pulling back to steer, rather than pushing to steer, again with less leverage. My two biggest complaints with this bike were the flop when standing and climbing, so overall this feels like I got something for almost nothing.
One thing that really did concern me a bit with the 2018 racing front end was the toe overlap, which I did not experience with the 2016 bike. I was startled a few times on the 2018 bike, when making very sharp, low-speed turns and wondered if this was going to be an ongoing concern. But I realized several months later that I wasn’t noticing it anymore. I appear to have unconsciously adapted my pedaling to avoid this. Another nice surprise.
That’s great you kept at it to find a fit solution that also improved your low-speed handling. That took perseverance when many would have just thrown up their hands and been resigned to less than optimal fit and handling.
With regard to the article about fit/age and the challenge of maintaining a “pro” looking bike, there is one option that I think a lot of people overlook. Handlebars have a lot of variance in their reach measurement which has the same fit effect as stem length. In the last few years, a lot of bars with short-reach dimensions have been introduced. So, if someone has an older handlebar that may very well have a reach of 90mm or more, changing to a bar with 70mm of reach might solve their issue while being in line with their appearance/vanity goals.
Current handlebar designs with their shorter reach, shallower drop, and their full-length hooks extending back much further than the vertical plane of the top of the bar, have been a big benefit to lots of riders, and in particular beneficial for older riders. The reduced reach, combined with the flatter top forward section of the bar followed by a sharp initial bend radius and with today’s longer lever bodies, provide an easy transition from riding on the tops of the bars out to riding on the hoods without a big change in reach, and they provide a comfortable platform for the hands with less pressure on the ulnar nerve. The transition to a long radius bend with full-length hooks and reduced drop means that older riders will actually use their drops, because the drop and reach to that position is not too extreme for their neck to handle.
On the “Merckx bend” bars of the 1970s and 1980s, the hands slid down along the curve of the bar down onto the top of the lever body, which was shorter, skinnier, and often had a hood that slipped around. It did not offer that nice, flat platform for the hand. Trying to prop up more of the hand while it was angled down like that put pressure on the ulnar nerve at the base of the hand’s palm on the little finger side. The radius of curvature of these bars’ drop was constant, based on the diameter of the mandrel used to bend the aluminum tube into the bar shape, hence the lever needing to be placed on its downward curve, and the ends of the hooks tended to come back to about the vertical plane of the bar top, resulting in a long reach. Because of the long reach, the drop could not be reduced to the kinds of drops we see today, because, with the hands so far forward, the wrists would hit the top of the bar when in the drops, particularly when sprinting out of the saddle.
We’re fortunate bar designers kept at it all of these decades, from bumpy “ergo” designs to the current refined short-reach/shallow-drop designs. Subtle design changes can make a big difference.
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 Bikes” and “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.