Bicycle commuting is increasing at an exorbitant rate throughout the US, and with that, the amount of folks using a hybrid, upright, or Dutch-style bike is gaining momentum as well. The position of the handlebars, specifically the height of the bar, has been evaluated at great length with our racing and long distance road bike community. With this now-growing support of a more upright biking style and commuting, we ultimately need to ask the question: how high is too high for my handlebars when upright?
Let’s look at a real life example: me. While my daily commuter bike was awaiting a new bottom bracket to arrive, I was issued a loaner bike: a Workcycles Oma city bike, made for the flat streets of Amsterdam. Well, within 1-2 days of riding daily of this bike, I felt some unusual twinges in my lower back and neck, and I started to think about the upright riding position I was put in. Being a geeky Physical Therapist, I decided to hoist the giant on the trainer, and take some photos of my riding position for evaluation.
At first glance, you may not notice much difference, so let’s dissect this a bit more. If you look at Figure 1, the handlebar height was so high that it forced me backwards towards the rear wheel (Look at the angle of my waist, rocked backwards). In an effort to compensate for this compressed position, I rocked my pelvis posteriorly and rounded my lower and mid-back forwards, jutting my head forward. This puts the spine (most notably, the lower back) in a vulnerable, flexed position.
When the spine is put into this rounded position, our muscles don’t have much ability to generate force. Think of it like Velcro: If there is a great amount of overlap on the Velcro, your get a more secure hold. If the Velcro is barely touching the other end, it will easily pull apart. Our muscles work the same way. If we are flexed/stretched and rounded, our muscles cannot generate sufficient force to protect and support us. The stress then is not absorbed by our muscles, but by our spine, ligaments, discs, etc. Over a short time, this results in injury. The only changes made to Figure 2 is lowering the bar height by 6cm – as low as it would go. This was to try and create more forward reach and to tip the pelvis anteriorly (forward) into a more neutral position for the core to stabilize the motion from the legs down to the pedals. This created a more comfortable upright posture, a better ability to transfer weight to the front wheel, and a more stable base of support for the Velcro-like muscles.
Needless to say, my back pain vanished as quickly as it came on, and I was on my way.
– Kevin Schmidt, MSPT, CMP, Bike PT, owner/founder of Pedal PT in Portland, Oregon