Note: see separate article for bike sizing (also includes saddle height) which also has a significant impact on your position.
A couple of good reasons to spend some time thinking about the best riding position when you go out for a ride:
- Sitting in an aerodynamic position on your bike is a more efficient and cheaper way to improve your performance than spending thousands of pounds on lighter road bikes each year.
- Sitting comfortably will enable you to cycle further and faster. Ever done a long ride and found yourself with back and shoulder pain at the end? It inevitably slows you down if you are suffering.
And a reason not to bother so much:
- Riding in an aerodynamic position, with your head down and back flat, is more like hard work - for your back, your neck, and for your legs which don't work so efficiently when you are bent over. It also restricts your breathing.
If your goal is to have a pleasant relaxing ride through the countryside, forget about speed and aerodynamics and just enjoy yourself!
Good cycling position - comfortable AND aerodynamic
This is always a trade-off between comfort and performance, so unless you are in a time trial race you will usually find a ride incorporates both 'positions' - hands on top of the handlebars (on the brakehoods), and hands in the 'drops'. Since aerodynamics are less important at lower speed and when you are going uphill, you will rarely have your hands in the drops for these.
(Exception: sometimes specific strength training is planned, involving going uphill in a low gear with your hands in the drops, in order to build strength for riding faster on the flats).
For both positions, your hands should be the same distance apart as your shoulders - if you are broad or your handlebars too narrow you will experience discomfort.
Your arms should be relaxed and your hands should be holding the handlebars quite gently. Tense arms will become tired much more quickly and less efficient at controlling the bike. Your arms are not supposed to be supporting the weight of your upper body when you cycle or they will tire very quickly and you will be unstable.
When your hands are in the drops your lower arm should be roughly horizontal, and your elbows tucked in to your body, to further improve aerodynamics. Get it right and this position does 'feel' faster and more professional - and more like hard work.
Think about your cycling position every so often while cycling along. Have you moved forwards on the saddle without realising (very common)? Are your shoulders becoming hunched?
There is little advantage in taking the technique of cycling in the drops too far. The benefits of forcing yourself into an ever lower and flatter postion are much smaller (and more painful) beyond a certain point. You need to be able to hold the position in some degree of comfort rather than fighting for the extra 1% of aerodynamic advantage.
The most important element is to adjust things slowly. You can get used to riding long distances, even in the drops (assuming your bike is the correct size for you and setup properly), but it will take time to get used to. Don't try changing bike setup and postion too quickly - all changes in setup and riding position should be introduced gradually over a period of a few weeks.
A few aches and pains are to be expected during the training, bad pain is not! If you have significant knee, hip or back pain revert your bike settings to how they were before the pain started and make the changes differently or more slowly, if at all.
During the bike ride regular changes of position, neck shrugging, arm stretching etc will provide a great deal of relief - try not to stay locked in the same position for too long.
Standing up cycling
The main exception to the suggestions above is when you are cycling standing-up. This can happen either for short bursts up hill or in a sprint finish.
For these position comfort and aerodynamics are less of a consideration. You will be deliberately pulling up on the handlebars with each downstroke to increase force.
The standing-up cycling position is very efficient for short-sharp bursts, and occasionally simply because a change of position eg while going up a hill, can provide the opportunity to use different muscles for a moment, allowing others to recover. But it does use energy much faster than 'sitting down cycling' so it is better to avoid the habit of standing up riding for all hills.