As a recreational cyclist, perhaps a little past his absolute physical peak, I want my bike to be more upright.
Stretching out for hours and keeping low is great for speed kings in the peloton, but for more mature enthusiasts a little more comfort goes a long way. It certainly isn’t fun to find your Sunday spin, or worse still your daily commute, hampered by back pain from stretching out too far for too long. If you know how I feel, here are a few suggestions to keep you rolling down the road without a care in the world.
You can make your bike more upright by changing your hand position relative to the saddle. Raising the handlebar, shortening your stem, or slightly bringing your saddle forward help you achieve a more upright position.
Bar End Grips
If you want a really cheap option and the easiest modification, why not think about some bar end grips?
Standard issue on mountain bikes when I first started noticing in the ’90s, to give extra leverage when climbing! They’ve gone a bit out of fashion with the development of riser bars since then, but at about $15 for some basic ones they may be a cheap way to gain a little comfort for your back and wrists.
Bar-end grips have made a return in recent times in the commuting and touring world. In fact, I’ve used my Ergon GP5 grips for a long time and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Stem extenders or risers are an affordable option to raise your handlebars up to as much as five or six inches, which is huge. Even a short, 1-inch raise makes a big difference.
They are relatively easy to fit – typically it is just a couple of bolts on top of your fork’s steerer tube. A good affordable option – much cheaper than a new bike, or a course of physiotherapy.
There are plenty of options to suit your bike and pocket. Some of them are adjustable in height, while others are fixed.
Beware though that raising your handlebar too much will completely change your riding position, and put way more pressure on your bum, in which case you may find that your saddle becomes too uncomfortable.
Another possible choice is riser bars, not necessarily the extreme kind you might remember from a 70’s Chopper or a Harley Davison!
They are typically flat bars with a slight, or moderate, kink upwards. Popular with trail bikers for their extra comfort and control, they also allow for a comfortable grip, particularly for those who prefer a slightly wider hand position.
There’s a huge variety of riser bars available. Some even have a slight back sweep to put your hand in a more neutral position.
These bars are 600mm wide and they fit 25.4mm stems. Your hand position is slightly elevated and your hands will be in a more natural position because of the back sweep.
Float like a butterfly, don’t sting like a bee! Popular with bike trekkers, these look a bit like a pair of ram’s horns (or indeed a butterfly.)
My local gym has these on the static bikes for the comfort of non-cyclists and they are hugely popular in Europe. The shape also allows you to adjust riding and hand positions to avoid getting stiff on longer rides, both from high to low and left and right.
One of my pals who rode right across France in 2018 from West to East swears by these. Prices are generally a bit dearer than for stem extenders or riser bars, but you’re getting some added benefits besides the more upright riding position, such as:
- Extra real estate to mount lights, bike computer, bell and other accessories
- Additional hand positions
- A unique looking bike
This handlebar will add a ton of comfort and a great deal of personality to your bike. It's a great companion if you spend a lot of time in the saddle.
Similar to stem risers, but they also allow the handlebar to be moved forwards and backward rather than up and down. Although they don’t usually allow quite as much increase in height as the stem riser, the ability to adjust the riding position back and forth makes adjustable stems a popular option for many. A 60-degree flex allows for riders of many shapes and sizes.
This handlebar stem is both long and has an adjustable angle so you can find the perfect position for your riding style. It can be used with a 31.8 mm diameter handlebar.
Installing headset spacers is the simplest way of raising your handlebar if there’s room for it on your headset. They are crazy simple to install. You put the rings (spacers) on the headset after removing the stem from the headtube. You can then bolt it back on, and you’re ready to go.
Stem extenders are super affordable and you can add a touch of personality to your bike by picking a custom color too.
You can also make your riding position slightly more upright by shortening the stem length. If you feel just slightly stretched out on your bike, it’s either caused by a frame that is too large for you, or by a stem that’s too long even if the bike is the right size.
Some bikes, such as road bikes or gravel bikes, naturally put you in a more forward leaning riding position than others. A shorter stem doesn’t change the basic geometry of the bike, but it tweaks it slightly.
Obviously, in an ideal world, you’d have bought a frame to fit your body like a glove, but you may have inherited a bike or bought one second-hand, which is slightly larger. A shorter stem may solve the issue in this case, but it’s not a guarantee.
Adjust your saddle position
If your saddle is too high, or too far back, you can end up in an uncomfortable position. Mine slipped without me noticing before one Sunday ride and I came back almost crippled.
Check your seat post to see if you can slide your saddle forwards and back – on my Orro Terra there is a good couple of inches difference available just on the saddle that came with the bike.
All you need is the proper key to loosen the bolts that hold the saddle in place, which can be found on any multitool. Make sure to properly tighten it once you’re done.
Get a proper bike fit
You can’t beat getting a bike that suits your body. It is like a suit – get one which fits you rather than make yourself fit a flashy steed!
Local bike shops tend to be knowledgeable and should be able to offer a basic bike fit service, probably free if you buy your bike new. My nearest shop offered this before purchase and then again if required at the time of the first service.
Even with a second-hand bike, a small payment to your friendly bike expert could make a difference, and if modification is required it is reassuring to have an expert do the job.
What not to do!
We mentioned at the beginning that an upright position comes from the handlebar height relative to the saddle, and for some, it may be a tempting idea to lower the saddle in order to achieve the same end. With a lowered saddle, your handlebar’s relative position will end up higher.
Don’t forget, however, that the saddle needs to be in the perfect position relative to the pedal too. If your saddle is too low, you’re going to end up with a knee pain, which is just as uncomfortable as a back pain.
Don’t lower your saddle if it’s at the correct height! Only do it if it is too high. Here’s a video on the correct saddle height explained in very simple terms.
Or in the long term …
If you are having back problems on your bike, a bit of physical conditioning can help (yes, even for us gentlemen and ladies of a certain age).
Exercises to strengthen your core, like yoga, planks and even kettlebell swings can help to ease the strain on your back, make your rides more comfortable in the long run and, in my case, help to fight against the middle-aged spread. It may make your cycling more fun, and faster, too!