Setting the bar high

Not everyone wants a road bike with a classic racer's position… says ex-stem slammer Steve Worland

by Steve Worland   October 11, 2013  


One of the most frequent snob-snubs in the reader comments section of website published bike tests is about dropped handlebar bikes designed with long head tubes and/or a stack of washers under the stem. The implication is often that such bikes are not conforming to the self-appointed style-monger's notion of a 'proper road bike'.

Well, I've been around for long enough to know where the slammed stem fashionistas are coming from but it's time they understood that patronising, arrogant and elitist commentry can be enough the drive the less than completely confident away from cycling, even when the commentry is intended in jest... which it often is.

Mekk 3G Potenza SL5.5 very comfortable sportive bike with, at 20cm, possibly the tallest head tube on the market

Get used to it. Just as there are new types of riders out there, there are new types of road bikes out there. They're not really intended for those wanting to accurately mimic the pro racers. They're for those who just want a small slice of what's good for us all... the ability to ride blacktop comfortably, confidently, securely, without ridicule and without feeling that we're an almost virulent part of a subspecies. We're subjected to more than enough challenges and vitriol from other road users without fellow cyclists joining the dismissive onslaught.

Merida's Ride Lite Juliet women's Series frame, built with a long head tube, a stack of washers and a high stem. Those who don't like it that way can flip the stem, get rid of the washers and lose about 8cm

So for those who, for whatever reason, can't identify with slammed flat stems, or even with dropped bar bikes at all, here's a minor revelation. Timed laps on the growing new breed of flat handlebar, high head tube and fatter tyred road bikes have regularly shown me that flat stems, dropped bars and 23mm tyres give me a remarkably small average speed advantage on my regular 50k hilly loop. Weather conditions and the way I'm feeling on the day are much bigger factors. To cut a long story short, feeling at ease with the bike you're riding is more important than forcing a not-quite-ready body into a totally new position. Riding low dropped bars is a learning process, and one that it's not advisable to rush. For some riders, it might never feel right.  

Back to the future

Steve Worland in early '70s time trial mode, complete with over-large Bob Jackson frame, slammed stem, VERY deep bars and soon to be problematic spine curvature

When I started riding and racing road bikes, back in the early '70s, I equipped my bike with a deep drop handlebar and a long reach minus-five-degree quill stem slammed as low as it would go. That was the style back then, along with stubby seat posts in frames that looked way too big... by modern standards at least. I find it both heart warming, mildly embarrassing and slightly disturbing when I look back at photos from that somehow more innocent era.

Fortunately deep drop bars aren't as common as they once were so you don't see as many roadies of encroaching years with radically rounded shoulders: I spent a long time trying to re-adjust my posture and dealing with various back issues after my first twenty years of racing road bikes. A mixture of disciplined stretching, osteopathy and riding mountain bikes for the next twenty years put me (relatively) right, manipulated me away from a Quasimodo torso and gave me some exciting new ailments to focus on.

Fast forward to present day. Frame and bike styles have changed, but there's still an attitude among those who see themselves as 'proper road riders' that slammed flat stems are the look. This is despite the fact that many pro racers of average height use steerer washers underneath their stems, the stems will often have a slight rise and some opt to ride bikes with long head tubes. Sure, a high proportion of 'experts' ride bikes with short head tubes and their stems slammed flat and low. But how much of that is down to fashion and how much is down to function? The reality is that a lot of riders, pro or otherwise, prefer bikes with their handlebars set fairly high.

How high depends on all sorts of factors, but those self appointed arbiters of style need to open their minds to the fact that liking a higher front end doesn't automatically make you into an inferior cyclist. Just as there are good reasons for some riders preferring compact, short reach, anatomically curved, flared or flattened drops, there are good reasons for some riders preferring a long head tube, a high stem or a flat handlebar.

29 user comments

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I agree with the article. Riding is about having fun not worrying about what others say. My only observation would be that there is an element of the riding community who are lucky enough to have a large amount of expendable income who are happy to purchase a 7k + full race bike that by design are intended to stretch out your position. surly if a relaxed position is needed then a more targeted frame style would be better for them?

Personally i wouldn't purchase a Ferrari to pull a caravan. but would never stop someone who could afford to.

posted by Redline [2 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:11


Everyone is different. Personally I have found that I need a reasonable amount of saddle:bar drop otherwise I'm too high up and its hurts my back. That said, at 6ft 4 I find the taller headtubes useful and think brands like specialized and cervelo are in touch with reality and build apply a decent length. Removing the need for loads of spacers which for sure creates more flex at the front and impact handling.

I just hate the marketing term 'sportive geometry', its not, its just for people who due to a variety of reasons can't ride with their spine impaling their spleen.

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [456 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:14


Really like this, sensible advice for people who think they have to copy Jens Voigt when riding sportives..
And I love the early 70s time trial pic. I started riding TT's in '76, I think, so this looks pretty familiar. Though perhaps missing the 57-tooth chainring, 180mm cranks, drilled-out bits everywhere...

posted by JonSP [58 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:29


What I don't like to see is the spacers above the stem.

Not only do they look weird, but they are dangerous in a crash!!


Marky Legs's picture

posted by Marky Legs [121 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:39


Mmmmm ... Drillium ...


Alan - That British Bloke

ThatBritishBloke's picture

posted by ThatBritishBloke [18 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:41


First and foremost you need a bike that fits. And the stem height is all part of that. If you don't have the hip flexibility you won't be doing yourself any favours by curling yourself into the low stem height. Many desk jockeys who ride a bike at weekends are likely to have short hip flexors and a tilted pelvis. This means that they are already at physiological disadvantage when reaching for the stem. No amount of forcing yourself into that position is going to help (in fact just the reverse - you'll stretch your back and lose core integrity). Start off regaining hip stability, hamstring length and regain the flexibility. THEN you can start to slam the stem. You'll notice from a slammed position if you are losing power, if not because of the pain.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1380 posts]
11th October 2013 - 13:49


As a relative newcomer to Road Riding within the last 3 years, but a Mountain Biker of 18 years, I was quite shocked initially by some "seasoned" riders views on the bikes that some people buy (ie. those labelled as "Sportive" geometry). Surely you buy what suits your purpose and desired intentions, something which mountain bikers seem to understand far better I think (most MTBer's I know have mid travel full suspension bikes, or hardtails with a mid travel suspension fork on, not full on race rep XC bikes or DH sleds, and this is very typical).

One thing I did find though was that my "Sportive" geometry Giant Defy was absolutely perfect for me to start with, but quite quickly I gained some flexibility in my hips and found that I dropped the stem, first 5mm, then 10, and finally settled on 15mm, within about a month. When I swapped the Defy out for my current bike, I was conscious to make sure I was not looking at bikes with a taller head tube, otherwise I would not be able to get the stem low enough for my new found preference. Don't get me wrong, my stem height is still higher than Chris Froome's comfortably, and I'm 3 inches shorter than him, but it's comfortable for me and I think, that is the crux of the whole thing!

EDIT: I don't really like the use of Sportive to define a bikes geometry, but it seems that is what the industry has adopted!

posted by mboy [2 posts]
11th October 2013 - 14:15


Each to their own. Everyone has a different build and a position they find comfortable.

I suffer with sciatica and find a stretched position works best for me. My summer bike is fairly slammed with a longish stem, my winter bike is less slammed but still with a longish stem.

I don't like it when you've got a Velominati victim, who rides with a slammed stem, because 'the Rules' say so and then insists on tilting their handlebars upwards to compensate making the brake hoods look all wrong.

PS I don't like the term sportive bike. It makes it sound as though it's especially designed for large bellied Mamils who can't get down low because of their gut.

Velotastic !

Too many hills, but too little time.

badback's picture

posted by badback [291 posts]
11th October 2013 - 14:48


I have two road bikes one, a cyclo-cross has a raised stem and washers, it's great for mile munching country lanes and tracks. The other is a classic road bike set up and brilliant for a good, hard and thrash.

I've also got a hybrid with hub gears and flat bars, ideal for winter commuting.

The point is I enjoy riding anyone of them depending on weather conditions and what I feel like. And, I really couldn't give a XXXX for what anyone else thinks I or my bikes look like.

Endorphines going up and adrenaline going down, who needs drugs?

posted by banzicyclist2 [281 posts]
11th October 2013 - 14:55


comfort, comfort, comfort

I also have an 80's steel bike that might be made of drillium.
Or it will be when I'm finished with it Wink

Gravity - it won't let you down.

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posted by bigmel [99 posts]
11th October 2013 - 15:44


A good point well made. Ergonomics over 'style' and form to follow function.

posted by james-o [219 posts]
11th October 2013 - 15:53


I think there are two points everyone has missed so far.

1. Using all the handlebar.
The pros of today actually have a position very similar to the pros of old, the only difference is nowadays the default position is the hoods not the drops. So stems have to be lower to account for this. I think you should take advantage of the new comfortable hoods and make sure you have the drops as an aggressive position, no sprinting in the hoods.

2. You can lean further forward.
I use my bike from long rides to crits, the key in being able to have such a varied position is using all the bar and just bending further forward. If you don't think you're aero enough don't slam the stem just lean over.

I don't like the trend for compact handlebars either, I like a big drop and for a very aggressive position in the drops when I put the hammer down and nice and high for the climbs

posted by cub [71 posts]
11th October 2013 - 16:41


On page 99 of 'Tour de France' by Marguerite Lazell there's a side on photo of Lucien Van Impe riding a mountain stage in 1976, his saddle is level with the top of his handlebars.

Indeed, other pictures from that era show riders in similar positions, the Van Impe one being clearest as it from the side rather than head on or 3/4.

I've often wondered when 'arse in the air' became the fashion. Even a long limbed rider like Coppi has little difference between the height of his saddle and bars.

Crosshouses's picture

posted by Crosshouses [239 posts]
11th October 2013 - 17:08


Before the advent of brake levers with comfortable, rubber hoods the default position was to ride on the drops and the norm was stem aligned to the top of the saddle. With the advent of integrated shifters, as pointed out earlier, with modern bikes, the default position is hands on the hoods - the position of the hands haven't changed much relative to the saddle.

Make mine an Italian with Campagnolo on the side

posted by monty dog [402 posts]
11th October 2013 - 17:31


i totally agree, good story, the important thing is to be comfortable and pain free imo

posted by Karbon Kev [682 posts]
11th October 2013 - 17:42


great article.

my setup looks unusual with particularly high bars, required because I'm 6' 3" and have had a back operation, but some of the abuse I have received off other cyclists is unbelievable - and unlike most of the abusers I have actually had a pro bike fit done.

My bike enables me to ride without suffering significant problems, a slammed stem would cripple me

posted by keirik [30 posts]
11th October 2013 - 18:16


Whats a slammed stem??


posted by albanb [19 posts]
11th October 2013 - 18:27


Anatomically the more pronounced the forward bend the harder it is to produce power. Time trialing is a compromise between aerodynamics and power.

posted by peterben [52 posts]
11th October 2013 - 18:35


I have high bars and C38 tyres on a cyclocross bike. The bike has been adapted to touring with stronger wheels and racks front and back. The roads are so bad round here, and I ride some bridleway to get to work, that the fatter tyres help a lot with comfort.

It may not be as fast as some bikes. It's twice the weight of some of my friends' carbon road machines, but they have to steer around the potholes and don't come out in bad weather. It is still fun to ride fast lunch time loops on.

I'm not sure of the ergonomics of drop bar braking. I ride on the hoods most of the time and find I can't develop as much squeeze in the brake lever as I can with a straight squeeze such as a flat bar bike or if my forearms are horizontal gripping the vertical bit of the bar. Applying brakes from the hoods feels more like a wrist rotation than a squeeze. I may consider flat bars with bar ends next time, and also gain advantage of affordable hydraulic disc brakes. Next bike will be a number of years down the line.

I'll be having to ride this all winter as the family's one car will be used to ferry kids when conditions are too bad for the bike trailer. Next decision for me - Schwalbe Winter or Shwalbe Snow Studded?

posted by m0rjc [36 posts]
11th October 2013 - 20:25


I don't know if anyone has picked up a plastic model of a pelvis? If you sit too upright in a saddle you end up bearing all your torso weight on a right angled corner which might seem comfortable on short rides but believe me it's agony on a 600km audax ! As you go deeper into the drops and roll your pelvis forward you end up with a set of rails ( the ischial rami). Around 4 inches long taking your weight. I dropped my bars by 4 inches and my sit bones really thanked me!

posted by wyadvd [123 posts]
11th October 2013 - 23:47


peterben wrote:
Anatomically the more pronounced the forward bend the harder it is to produce power. Time trialing is a compromise between aerodynamics and power.

I had always read that in fact the lower in the drops you are, the more power you get from your glutes . Apparently garmin did some research and found low on the hoods to be marginally more aero than deep in the drops also!

posted by wyadvd [123 posts]
11th October 2013 - 23:51


Great read, Steve. One thing I'll point out is that due to anatomical differences in pelvic structure between men and women, an 'aggressive' riding posture will have different implications than it will for men. This is why WSD geometry came about on our bikes. It'd addressed the two most common complaints women have: low back pain, and pain between the neck and shoulders.

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posted by TrekBikesUK [106 posts]
12th October 2013 - 0:06


I do think there is a problem in elite circles of snobbery and attempts to mimic the pros. I've switched to cross bikes since I stopped racing a few years back and found the geometry and bar position to be far better for me. I've discovered I can ride for miles and miles now. I used to race too low with bars too narrow.
I completely agree with the comment about hip flexors. Pros have chiropractors and the like looking after them but desk based/car based jobs have the HF under compression all the time and really hinder flexibility. Something else I've only discovered since 'retiring'.
Enjoyable cycling requires comfort so snobbery needs to end!

posted by BikeJon [69 posts]
12th October 2013 - 0:20


Who cares what you ride or how you ride it! The most important thing is that it fits you,you like it and you ride it!!!! Too many people looking down their noses at other cyclists just because they do not confirm to some stereotypical image of what a "proper" bike and "proper" cyclist should be. We are all just cyclists with varying shapes, sizes and ability enjoying our sport. What is wrong with that???

posted by cwoods1405 [3 posts]
12th October 2013 - 8:20


keirik wrote:
great article.

my setup looks unusual with particularly high bars, required because I'm 6' 3" and have had a back operation, but some of the abuse I have received off other cyclists is unbelievable - and unlike most of the abusers I have actually had a pro bike fit done.

My bike enables me to ride without suffering significant problems, a slammed stem would cripple me

Same for me I have a duff shoulder (artificial joint and no rotator cuffs after an accident) that cannot support a low stretched out position without severe muscle cramps after about 10 minutes cycling. I actually have a 8cm adjustable head up on my Tricross. And I reply to arsy style comments with a polite sod off and come back when you know all the facts. OH how to make friends and influence people Smile

posted by sodit [77 posts]
12th October 2013 - 8:40


[[[ A slammed stem, ALANB, is the virtual opposite of a Stemmed Slam, which causes Andy Murray to do his nut. A slammed seat-pillar, on the other hand, is one ridden by a geezer who's bike-frame is WAY too big, which looks well naff.


posted by PhilRuss [318 posts]
12th October 2013 - 16:54


Will it whistle while you work?

Gerard the Kiwi

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posted by GerardR [88 posts]
25th November 2013 - 19:40


Late comment perhaps but here's something to really stir up the mix....drops. Firstly, yep I'm a fat MAMIL but was at least properly fitted recently for my long head tubed Merida CF94. Spend all my time on the hoods or bars, the drops are really pointless from my perspective and relatively uncomfortable for any period, even allowing for an upward stem. Does the average leisure / weekend non-racing rider really gaining from the drops or is there a new hybrid product in the waiting where the arc below the shifters is simply missing / sawn off?

posted by Daddicool [1 posts]
5th June 2014 - 20:18

1 Like

Got to ride what's comfortable. If it's painful, you need to fix it so you can keep on riding!

When I switched to road bikes, I got a frame with relaxed geometry, and left the stem with all of the spacers underneath (but negative rise), just as it was sold. After a while, as my core strength improved, I found the drops more comfortable and I started moving the stem down by 5mm a time. I'm now more comfortable and far more efficient lower down, and I'll spend long periods in the drops, because it works for me and I really like changing my position periodically during a long ride.

However, I do find that over 30 minutes in the drops and I end up with a tingling sensation in the hands and then aching at the top of the arms. I think that's from the vibration and pressure on nerves in the palms. It happens more if I'm going at full speed.

Anyway, continual adjustments and tweaking of bike setup appears to be a key part of road cycling...

posted by adrianoconnor [73 posts]
31st August 2014 - 21:12