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