Update: December 2014- If you came onto this page via a picture please take in other blog post in the archive. IMHO bicycling is transformative. Bicycling is exploration close to home. For me bicycling is a lifetime experience that does not increase or fade with popularity. Ride a bike for life, all your life, you won’t regret it.
Rider Reach and Contact Points explained for the novice
For a lifetime of enjoyment, bike riding proficiency comes to those who learn the fundamental limits of bicycle gearing, bicycle components and bicycle fit. Rider reach is another term to express those limits that are central to component constraints and bicycle design limitations. Those limits are what makes rider reach a compromise of expectations for comfort and performance. For the novice we will focus on pavement bikes with our goal to enjoy long miles of riding. In essence rider reach is the relationship between your arms, torso and legs and three bicycle contact points the handlebars, seat and peddle components. Rider reach is dependent on component placement, ergonomic design, frame tube length and width of handlebar. Rider reach is your sense of experience through trial and error where you attune yourself to favorable expectations for comfort while still maintaining performance.
Rider Reach Primer: your seat and pedals are contact points for stability
The seat is where your core is subjected to frequent posture changes made consiously and subconsiously. For example, you adjust your seating posture up/down or forward/aft with regard to your body type and top tube length and handlebar stem length. Most bike riders do this to get the most efficiency out of their pedal stroke. But, making fore and aft seat postion changes also helps to resolve your reach limitations. Seat height contact point positioning is most natural when your foot is on the pedal parallel to the ground in the downward crank stroke and your knee has a slight bend of 30 degree or less. Seat fore and aft contact point position determines power at the crank and comfort at the handlebar. Power at the crank is based on the pedal contact point being in the 3 o’clock position with the knee directly over the pedal. This is approximate and will differ slightly from rider to rider and their posture and seat position.
Rider Reach and your handlebar:
The handlebar is the most difficult contact point component for understanding rider reach with everyone’s opinion about what type of handlebar is best, thus the variety of handlebar choices. What is well understood is the width of the handlebar needs to be no wider than the width of the shoulders. If the handlebar is suited for your specific purpose then the most important feature to consider for comfort and performance is the proper width. When we are unsure of the purpose then we have to dig deeper and ask why do so many bicycle riders ignore proper width to or intended use?
Handlebar contact points vary with purpose or style of riding. Do you want multiple hand positions or one static position and how will the choice of handlebar make or break the rider. Some bars are better suited for the human body than others, lets’ start with an all around multi- hand position handlebar.
Racing handlebars have multiple hand positions and come in many widths that work well for all sizes of riders. It helps to be flexible or young and in shape too and to have a desire to really know what your body is capable of while enjoying your bicycle. Let’s assume you have already set the seat height. Now you want to adjust the seat fore/aft contact point so that as you are looking down at the top horizontal tube of the handlebar where your hands are gripping and your view of the front hub should be blocked. This is the starting position for reach. Racing handlebars have many places to grip besides this position there is the drops and the hoods of the brake levers. Everytime the grip changes so does the rider reach. Most bike riders in urban situations are riding on the tops or hoods to better keep a visual on traffic. Racing drops are well suited for touring, racing, long commutes and climbing. Racing bars can also be ridden in urban stop and go situations but, less than ideal from dead starts and drops have a tendency for slow maneuvering. If proper rider reach is unattainable and uncomfortable it may be your handlebar stem length is too short or too long or your top tube fit is incorrect for your body type. If either situation persist then the handlebar stem or frame replacement may be necessary. Pretty extreme. This is why purchasing a proper fitting bike for your style of riding is so important.
A special edit to address proper handlebar width:
I see big riders riding too narrow of a bar. I see riders that are small riding too wide of a bar. And then there are bars that are just too wide for everyone. Narrow bars impinge neck, shoulder, upper arm and wrist nerves. Wide bars pull the arms out to the side restricting proper leverage, slows maneuverability in critical situations and creates a fatiguing posture. Rule of thumb is bars as wide as your shoulders.
The flat handlebar is everywhere, to the extent that the majority of bikes sold are this style. The flat handlebar found on hybrid bicycles, fast commuters and mountain bikes intended as pavement bikes can be ridden often during the day for short trips. This is the message bicycling advocates have been preaching for three decades, but in the opinion of this writer something is inherently wrong in the flat handlebar design since Americans have barely begun to move in that direction. Here is the problem. The flat handlebar creates a static and rigid riding posture counter intuitive to our bodies notion of flexibility. Bike riders also have to pay attention to road conditions that transmit through the handgrip harsh vibrations to the wrist to produce pain and increase the likelyhood of cumulative trauma. This locked position is an inefficient use of your shoulders, neck, elbows and hands as the rider primarily hangs onto the handgrips while taking a pounding.
The paperboy style of swept back handlebars is great for short to medium length trips.
Over 500 million people ride this style. Although the handle grip is static the rider reach is very flexible since posture is upright and the frame size and stem length are more forgiving for rider reach for a wide variety of seating positions. Handlebar ends facing rearward toward the rider improves reach for a more natural feel with the positioning of the wrist towards the rider core. A wide seat fitted to the riders’ anatomy enhances comfort and performance. The national road handlebar does most its’ work effortlessly if used in moderate conditions. For around the town this is a desirable set up. In a pinch an experienced rider could endure the short Tour, but for the rest of us it may take a bit more training.
Bull Horn, Track Bars are a trend that looks cool on the street. Rider reach is difficult for novice riders to attain because riding posture is very component specific. To get this posture and positioning right a rider may have to shorten handlebar stem, raise or lower stem or even change frame style and size. After some trial and error most professionals are quite effective who use these in road and track competitions.
Symptomatic design or Do It Yourself is also part of rider reach. These designs are surfacing, but are not in wide use. DIY entails repurposing original equipment or mashing OEM with new components for an original look. The Rev 2 design raises the hand position and rider posture. Road vibrations are at a minimum with palms resting on the handlebar and multiple hand positions. Stop and go, touring, long commutes and hill climbing is easier with the Rev 2 handlebar. Recommended for riders looking for a creative solution when other types of handlebars proved less adept. The Rev 2 handlebar is the only design for urban and rural riding with the widest latitude for rider reach and component adjustment for an upright posture and multiple hand grip positions.
Fat tire cruiser bar is generally a single speed used for short trips of 5 miles of less maybe more like 10 depending on the needs of the rider. A cruiser usually has wide handlebars and a wide seat. Rider reach is not complicated. Seat height and fore and aft are about all you can adjust for contact points. Tipping the handlebar one way or the other may attribute to more comfort. Sometimes too wide of handlebar will cause shoulder pain. Changing the handlebar to a narrow cruiser style is usually less than $20 dollars. Performance is slow, but that is what riders expect from a cruiser.
The uninitiated rider and novice now has an idea of handlebars and types of bicycle designs and the purpose of each. For anyone making the Tour deCure ride or your first bike purchase I hope this bit of instruction helps.