Why high mounted drops are great, and not a contradiction in terms

Most owners of drop handlebar equipped bikes spend around 80 to 90 percent of their time either on the tops or the hoods. And why? IMHO, most drop bar bikes are sold with the handlebars set way too low.

On the drops - efficient yet as comfy as hell. Image: Luke Webber

I came to this conclusion a few years ago when riding along on the hoods and thinking, “I might as well chop the bottom section of these bars off, for all the use they get.” The more I thought about it, the more strange it seemed that what should be the best braking position – from the drops – should be negated by the fact that it’s just too far away for most riders.

The solution is simple if unfashionable. Set your bars so that the tops are level or a little higher than your saddle. Purists may baulk at the idea and pride themselves on the vertiginous drop betwixt saddle and bar – but if they ask themselves how long they spend on the drops, I bet their raucous laughter will soon die down.

I run my drop bars, a set of non-“anatomic” 3ttt Podiums with the tops a few cms higher than the saddle and the result is a tucked, low position with no stretch in the arms – yet crucially a position I can maintain for hours, giving me great control, on or off road and powerful one-finger braking. Compare that to your low mounted drops, where your arms are ruler straight and tense when on the drops, making reaching the brakes uncomfortable due to the twist in the wrist.

So as a result you spend the majority of your time resting your weight on your thumbs on the hoods, suffering insipid braking, where you can’t take advantage of the full leverage of the lever.

How to achieve this drop bar nirvana

The elegant and beautifully finished Nitto Technomic. With 190mm of height, you can easily achieve drop bar heaven

It’s easy on a bike with an old school threaded fork. Tall quill stems such as the beautiful Nitto Technomic are available, with a 190mm extension, making achieving optimum bar height easy. If you’ve got a bike with a modern Ahead stem, things can be a little tougher, because most fork steerers are cut right down to the bone, and don’t allow for much uplift. You can buy radically upward angled stems or clamp on ahead stem raisers, but both of these are inelegant engineering solutions compared with the Technomic.

Some frames, like Surly’s Long Haul Trucker, have a extended head tube to make it easier to get the bars high. If you’re building a bike from scratch, get a bike with the largest frame you can comfortably straddle, with no more than 1 inch of top tube clearance (if most of your riding is on-road). Look for ‘expanded frames’ with upsloping top tubes (not to be confused with ‘compact’ frames). If your new fork is threadless, leave a generous amount of steerer tube and use spacers to attain the correct bar height. If you’re replacing a fork with a threaded steerer tube (a sadly rare thing these days), you can also leave the steerer long and use a stack of 1 inch spacers between the adjustable cup and the locknut of the headset, to effectively extend the headtube. This in combination with a Nitto Technomic stem, and you’re laughing at your stiff necked, rigid armed fellow pedallers.

If you’re replacing your drop bars, look for a model with a shallow drop (measured vertically from the midline of the tops to the midline of the drop section). Some road bars have insane amount of drop, whereas others, like Nitto’s Randonneur or Salsa’s Short and Shallow are far more sensible.

Check out the setup of the bike in the blog header – this is set up as described above and is comfortable, efficient and easy to handle from the drops, on or off road.

Scorton Road Ride

Did a great 26 mile road ride in the Bowland Fells yesterday, starting and finishing in Scorton, taking in Oakenclough Fell, Chipping and Beacon Fell. Twas a cold day, with snow capped hills and patches of ice on the road to keep us entertained, but it didn’t stop us having a great time, or my colleague Luke Webber taking some awesome pictures. Full marks to Luke for conjuring the lensman’s magic and carrying a huge  Lowe Pro rucksack around all day. Check out pics from the day here.

Further Reading – Rivendell Reader 42

Always a beacon of sense and judgement in our crazy times, the latest Rivendell Reader, #42 is out now (in fact it has been for a fair few weeks).

Formerly a perk for Rivendell members, the Reader is now freely available as a chunky PDF download or for the first time, hosted as one of those online bookish things here.

Clickety click on the pic to open the online Reader

The Reader is always like wandering through an antiquarian goods and chattels emporium, owned by a bicycling guru. It’s a little dusty, pleasantly anachronistic, thoroughly relevant and always able to take you by surprise. There are bike related and non-bike related posts: In this issue there’s stuff on market economics, bodge repairs, beausage (live by that word, friends…) and a New Jersey janitor with learning difficulties who’s cycled over a million miles – a real life, bicycling Forrest Gump. Plus in every issue, there’s a small piece on the typeface used  – in #42’s case – Hoefler.

It’s a bumper 70 pages, so pour yourself a cuppa, feet up and enjoy…

Thoughts on ‘Fast’

When in comes to cycling, ‘fast’ is a slippery notion. Fast has been massaged by a cycle industry hell bent on making us all ride 16lb carbon bikes and dress like slightly porcine versions of Tour de France riders. ‘Fast’ bikes look fast standing still – they look fast in the shop and on the pages of magazines. Fast bikes are light, bright, hi-tech and brittle…

Fast? Yes, but is it relevant for real world riding?

But for mere mortals like me, riding to work, riding for relaxation, riding for fitness, I’m not convinced that riding a ‘fast’ bike makes me any faster. I’m not convinced that sport-infused bikes are relevant for real world riding, whether we’re talking about the daily commute or an all dayer in the hills.

This growing realisation has recently led me to give away my 20lb aluminium/carbon road bike. The bike had all the usual proto-race bike features -23mm tyres, tight clearances and a carbon fork. It’s also bright red. It looked fast and it felt fast; it felt light when you picked it up (something which always seems to impress non-cyclists and some hard-of-thinking cyclists who fail to factor in the effect of parking around 13st of rider on top).

With the fast bike gone this means that I’ll do 95 percent of my riding on a 30lb steel touring bike with 35mm tyres and high mounted drop bars. It’s green, it doesn’t look fast, it’s got full mudguards and a front rack – it looks like a classic road bike from around 1955. The italics are there to emphasise that back then, ‘road’ didn’t mean ‘race’. Clubmen and women would ride big distances on efficient, yet comfortable, bikes. The same bikes would be used for commuting, youth hostelling, camping and club runs.

A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.
A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.

Here’s some (admittedly anecdotal) evidence. I’ve ridden an extended commute from Liverpool to Manchester (around 37 miles) on the ‘Fast’ bike and it took around 2 1/2 hours, depending on the wind direction. I arrived rattled and stiff necked, with dirty fingers from at least one punture repair. I’ve done the same journey on the ‘non-fast-looking’ bike a number of times and it took, well, about 2 1/2 hours. It didn’t feel as fast (probably due to the 35mm tyres cushioning vibration – which we all associate with speed). I probably wasn’t going as fast up the hills – a 10lb difference ‘is what it is’, especially uphill, but the trade-off was marginal. But everywhere else I was just as fast – if not faster on the rougher sections of the route. The ‘slow’ bike was definitely faster when you take into account time spent at the roadside fixing punctures – an inevitable fact of life on practically every long skinny-tyred ride I’ve ever done.

As referenced earlier – none of this is groundbreaking stuff – it’s just that this unfashionable knowledge has been lost by the current generation of riders and manufacturers (save for an enlightened few). ‘Cyclotouristes’ have long known the zen-like joy of the efficient fat tyred road bike – with French manufacturers like Rene Herse and Alex Singer perfecting the ultra distance bike. These designs have been resurrected by modern day manufacturers like Rivendell, Surly and Kogswell to name but three, while the much ignored ‘touring bike’ has never really gone away.  Such bikes, to the untrained eye, look sedate – but are efficient, tough, comfortable and practical for a whole range of uses, from daily commuting to Paris-Brest-Paris.

Resurrectio - The Everyday Cyclist's weapon of choice.

To prove this, I’m going to pilot Ressurectio around a brace of Sportive rides this year. I’m not going to blend in among the peloton wannabes – I may even get scoffed at. I’m also fairly sure I’m not going to be the quickest but I never was on the ‘racy’ bike. But I’ve got a hunch that the time margins will be small and the comfort margins will be huge. And the bike that’ll carry me around the sportive course will also work faultlessly on the daily commute, the overnight camp and the fireroad trails.

Further Reading

Bicycle Quarterly has an excellent summary of the key features of the randonneur bike, and a excellent article on high performance fat tyres here. If more proof were needed, here’s another testimonial on what can be achieved on ‘cyclotouriste’ bikes.

Bike Luggage: Carradice Zipped Roll Coming Soon

The Zipped Roll - coming to a handlebar near me...

On it’s way in the post as we speak. For a while, I’ve needed a smaller bag that’ll fit on the handlebars or the saddle. I currently own a Carradice Camper Longflap which is excellent for toting the laptop and other commuting junk. But there are times when I want a light and unencumbered ride but don’t want to use a backpack or even worse – overloaded jersey or jacket rear pocket – there’s nothing worse than the ‘cyclist’s bustle’, as a friend of mine coined it.

The Carradice Zipped Roll is manufactured in Nelson, Lancashire from heavy-duty waterproof waxed cotton duck with thick leather straps and is 14cm x 30cm – the perfect size for day-ride essentials. Its roll shape is a lot more useful that the conventional saddle wedge shape and will equally at home on the handlebars or the saddle.

My current repurposed bar bag - originally a Swedish Army gas mask bag. We'll see how it fares against the bike specific Zipped Roll.

Currently I’ve got a repurposed Swedish Army gas mask/barbag as a bar but I’ve been toying with buying a Zipped Roll for a while. My original plan was to buy some Carradice leather straps to hold the Swedish bag on (it’s currently secured with zip ties which keep snapping and don’t allow me to remove and replace the bag in a hurry). However, the Carradice leather straps alone would have cost around £18 including postage, and I’ve got the Zipped Roll (which includes three straps) for £23. A no-brainer…

When the time comes for some overnight camping, I think I’ll be able to accommodate my full S24o kit using a combination of the Camper Longflap at the rear, the Zipped Roll at the front and maybe a stuff sack on the Nitto front rack – cyclotouriste style.

Watch out for a full review when the new bag arrives in a few day’s time.

Daily Commuting Tip: Is your bike “Ready to Ride”?

My overriding philosophy (don’t you just hate people who’ve got overriding philosophies) for a commuting bike is that it’s got to be ready to ride whenever you are.

Your commuting bike shouldn’t sit there, like that impulse buy home multigym, making you feel guilty for not doing ‘serious’ exercise. It should lean casually in your hallway, like a two wheeled 50s era Marlon Brando, casually ready to ride.

Your commuting bike should never make you dress up for a date. A proper commuting bike should take you just the way you are. You don’t need to put on special shoes or special pants before you’re ready to go.

Your bike should be ready to go at all times and in all weathers. It should have mudguards, flat pedals and bags to put things in (bags on your back are a bad idea).

Your bike should also be ready to stop whenever you feel the need. A built in wheel lock, Dutch style, is the way to go. Flip the lock, immobilise the back wheel, pocket the key and pop into the shop on the way home for those groceries. Swap out that quick release on your front wheel too. Get a security skewer or a nutted front wheel. Seriously, how much longer does it take to undo a nut as opposed to a quick release? You’re not racing are you?

Get a prop-stand. Practicality aside, there is simply no cooler sight that a bike leaning, James Deanesque, at the side of the road, and that jaunty, 10-degrees-off-vertical angle.

The elite level commuting bike will not only have all these utiluxuries. It will be a Plain Jane – it’ll dress down, blend in with the street furniture. Subdued, natural colours and no logos are the way to go. Who wants to be a billboard, when your target audience is are bike thieves?

You can buy bikes like this everywhere, but bike shops seem reluctant to sell them. There is a movement out there, but it’s glacial. Google ‘Dutch Bike’ and you’ll find loads of outlets for quality town bikes.

But, evolved as Amsterdam Black Widows are, there’s no need to go Dutch. Maybe you’ll want a bike that’s good for high days and holidays too? Base your commuting bike around a good, light touring, hybrid or all-rounder frame and you’ve got a true multipurpose bike, ready for day rides and touring, as well as the daily potter to work; highly evolved for commuting, but not too specialised that it’s not suitable for a quick getaway.

Daily Commuting Tip – Mix it up and keep it fresh

Do something every day and it gets boring. You know the drill – drive to work the same way every day and you see the same miserable rush-hour faces. Have the same type of breakfast cereal every day and it soon turns stale. In life, routine is always quick to enslave you and the same goes for commuting by bike. Good news is, it’s easy to break the monotony. Here are a few ideas.

Have ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ days – On Monday, dress in your cycling kit and try to set your commuting personal best – sprint from every traffic light and attack the hills. This is great on wet weather days, when you’ll want to get off the road quick and when you’ve got a change of clothes. Next day, if the weather is fine, dress in your street clothes, give yourself extra time and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city – stop for a cappuccino on the way.

Vary your route – Crank up Google Maps and check out three or four distinct routes into work. Alternate between them and avoid Groundhog Commuter Syndrome

Don’t be afraid to have a ‘day off’ – If your bike commute gets monotonous, take a break – get the bus or train, walk or (dare I say it) use the car for one day a week. If there’s one thing that will get you back into your commute, it’s spending a day or two behind the wheel, stuck in a traffic jam

If you’ve got more than two bikes, use them – not at the same time obviously… but taking the fast road bike one day and the old 3 speed roadster the next really gives you a different perspective on the ‘same old same old.’