Friday, March 30, 2007

Your hoods are jacked! Or why I hate "ergo" bars

With props to Rob M for the name of the topic.

I was on a ride in California and saw a rider with what I call a "classic" bar and lever position. The bottom end of the drops pointed back at some point around the rear brake or just above it and the lever bodies were just above pointing straight forward. Essentially a low position overall.

I mention this because I also saw a lot of riders with hoods way up the drops, almost high enough to start moving in to the tops of the bar. I call this the jacked lever position after Mr Rob used the term in a funny email. I've seen other bits on why they think bars and lever started pointing up so much and I'll chip in with my two cents.

It first started with the abominable "ergo" handlebars, those with the flat section on the drops. No one really had a great idea on where this flat section should be or at what angle. For example 3ttt had some models where the ergo section was almost vertical and others where it was just above horizontal. And this was in the same year!

The problem is as follows - rider hand position requirements on the drops changes depending on the rider's current situation. For example if you are just cruising along on the drops, don't need a lot of leverage, and are simply guiding the bike with a light touch to the bars, you'll need a relatively horizontal section of bar. The flats of the "old" style rounded bars works, or, if using "ergo" bars, a more horizontal ergo section works.

However, if in the middle of your cruising along someone jumps past you and you want to react, your needs change dramatically. Instead of a light touch on the bars, you want a firm base from where you can pull and push to counter aggressive leg movements. You want to hold the drops further up so that your forearms are more level - this prevents them from your forearms from hitting the tops of the bars too hard. And you'll probably want access to your shift/brake levers so you can shift up as you accelerate. This means you'll need to choke the drops. A more vertical "ergo" section satisfies this need.

But there are no ergo bars which satisfy BOTH drop type positions. This is because combining the two ergo sections would result in a, err, rounded bar. What you might know as a non-ergo bar.


Incidentally bar manufacturers are now coming out with "super-ergo" bars. What makes them interesting is that they no longer have highly defined ergo positions. They're simply rounded bars.

Ergo bars helped contribute to the jacked lever syndrome. Once the ergo bars came around it was virtually impossible to shift from the drops. Well, you could, it's just that you couldn't do it easily while, say, sprinting. At the same time there was this movement towards radically low bars. Case in point: Michele Bartoli. If you copied his radical seat-to-bar drop position, you'd end up riding on the hoods a lot, have a backache, or both.

If you rode mainly on the hoods, well, jacked levers are more comfortable. And since you couldn't shift while sprinting, unless you had some odd looking vertical ergo bars, being able to reach the shifters from the drops suddenly dropped in priority. So levers went higher and higher.

Check out Lance for example. His bike is the epitome of jacked lever syndrome. Why do pros use ergo bars with jacked levers? Shouldn't us mortals be satisfied with what the pros use?


Pros have simpler needs than us normal riders. They are either going a very steady easy or a very steady hard. They rarely launch vicious attacks with lots of shifting and stuff - that's for us amateurs who can't make efforts longer than anything measured in seconds or minutes. Their attacks are more of a "ride the legs off the other guy" kind of thing. And for that type of hard riding, the light touch position works. You hunker down into a position that you know you can hold for 20k and try and rip the teeth off your 12T.

My attacks are something like, "Oh, well, I was on the right side of the field, I figured I should go, and I popped it in the 14 and went super hard. Then I dropped it into the 13 and then the 12. Man I was flying. I looked and saw I had a gap. Then I tried to recover a bit but by the backstretch I was toast. I had to go back to the 14 and the field caught me."

And that kind of attack takes place over, say, 60 seconds.

Roy Knickman, racing for La Vie Claire, once took the leader's jersey in the Tour de L'Avenir. He told the interviewer he decided to attack on a long, flat, crosswind section of road. His attack was pretty straightforward. He simply went to the front of the field and rode really hard in the gutter for 20 km. The gutter because the crosswind meant that to draft him you'd have to be next to him and if he was in the gutter, you couldn't draft him. The whole field strung out as they cursed him and rode in the gutter after him. After 20 km, he looked back to see who was back there.

One severely suffering guy.

Knickman told him to pull. The guy probably looked at him like, "What are you insane? I've been groveling in the gutter for 20 k while you've been pounding beef." Whatever, the answer was negative. So Knickman said to him "Oh yeah? I'm a BAMF and I'm going to grind your legs to a pulp", put it in the 12T, and rode in the gutter for another 20 km. Okay he didn't say that but he did ride that. After going really hard for another 20 kms, meaning he's been hammering for something like an hour (think of how long it takes you to ride 40 km or 25 miles), he looked back at the guy and said, "If you don't pull, I'll do that again, drop you, and you'll get your sorry ass fired for not being able to stay on my wheel while not taking a pull for an hour."

Okay he didn't say that either. But the other guy started to pull.

Knickman moved over to let the guy get some shelter, they gained over 9 minutes, then Knickman turned off the power. The field thought the two had blown. The bunch eased off, cruised a bit, did the math, and figured out when they should start chasing. On cue, they put the collective hammer down and started what they thought would be a nicely timed pounce to scoop up the break with a few kilometers to go.

That's when Knickman turned the gas back on. The pounce was all air as Knickman pounded just as hard as all the teams in the field combined. The two ended the day about 8 minutes ahead of the field. Knickman took the lead by five minutes.

From what I could tell Knickman, it seems, rarely needed to shift that day. He didn't have jacked hoods (he's old school) but if he had three speed bars it wouldn't have mattered. The point is that he didn't need super quick access to the shifters.

If you were on his wheel, what good would it do if you could shift really quickly? Nada. You'd be as toasted as everyone else in the field as you flail through your gears really fast. Toast doesn't make pros go fast and everyone, even the eventual winner, was left behind.

The winner's name? A young, upcoming Spanish rider named Miguel Indurain.

Unfortunately Knickman got sick and dropped out about a week after his heroic ride.

Anyway, I think I've illustrated my point. Pros are really, really strong. They don't need no stinkin' fast shifts. They just hammer.

And the really big pros, the ones that do the Tour and stuff, the ones in the magazines, well, they climb a lot. And I mean a LOT. For me, 150 meters is a climb. I shift. I prepare. I psych myself up. And I hit it. And at the top I think, "Phew, I made it, wow that was a hard 8 pedal strokes."

Pros don't even notice 150 meter climbs. They don't call it a climb till it takes 5 or 10 minutes to finish. And those are the short ones. It's the 30 or 45 minute climbs which determine, say, the Tour. So for riders targeting those days, it's important to optimize the bike for climbing for what would seem like forever, not for something inane like jumps or sprinting.

There's no questioning that if you're climbing for a while, jacked hoods are more comfy. Your wrist bends a bit less. You feel like you're a bit taller on the bike. And there's a secure feeling when you grasp the hoods, stand up, and lean forward. Hence the jacked hoods in the pro peloton.

But that's not the real world. That's the pro's world.

I don't race 150 miles in the mountains, up 10 or 15 mile climbs. Neither does anyone I race against. In fact, I think I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who was not a pro that raced a 150 mile road race with 10 or 15 mile climbs.

Like everyone in the real world, I do dinky crits which pros wouldn't even consider a warm up. The pace varies wildly - sometimes we're going 18 mph, other times I'm hanging on at 35 mph. Guys blow up, they sit up, and we slow. Or someone attacks, everyone else swears, and we go bananas for a lap or so, shifting furiously into our bigger gears, the field stringing out, everyone frantically looking for shelter.

In races like those you're shifting all the time. And you're virtually always in the drops, since that's where you should be when you're making efforts, cornering hard, riding in super close quarters, etc.

And, if you have jacked hoods, you won't be able to shift when you're on the drops.


Simple solution: lower your levers a bit and enjoy the chaos in the working class races.

Leave the jacked hoods to those climbing gods.


Anonymous said...

well I had my levers flat. Last year I had a knee injury(overuse, go figure) and went to see a cycling fit specialist (no names will be mentioned) who pointed out all these pics of pros with their levers "jacked" and he recommended that I do the same.
Well, I can't shift easily when I am sprinting and it doesn't feel right when I am in the drops for a long time. Have been lazy about changing them but will be lowering them for the final race. Thanks for all the material aki.

Anonymous said...

Knickman was using downtube shifters. Your argument crumbles like a house of cards. Mwuhaaahahhhahahah!!!!!

Aki said...


At least you read till the bit about Knickman. You might have missed a quote though:
"The point is that he didn't need super quick access to the shifters".

But thanks for commenting, better than not. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I live in the hudson valley NY, regularly-once a week do 30 miles with 3300 feet vertical. I race hill races-hillier than thou, 110 miles 11,000 feet of climbing. I keep my hoods jacked-I'm a Cat 4 upgrading to a 3.

Irish Pat

Anonymous said...

Lowering the levers is not just about sprinting. "All" riding in the drops needs the levers easily accesible for braking and shifting and aggressive riding. Good article.

Curtis Corlew said...

Interesting and well written.
Photos, or drawings, would help lots.

Anonymous said...

A lot of words and a false conclusion. The reason hoods have gone up is that frame sizes have gone down. Now that the hoods is the primary position, comfort is key. In the old days the drops were the primary position, so frames were larger and the bar positioned much higher. In order to keep the basic fit triange the same on a newer, smaller frame, the hoods become the primary position. It's called evolution. Jacked hoods are comfortable, and we even have bars nowadays that place the hoods at the same height as the tops. Low hoods are for old-school bikes with old-school fit. The end.

Aki said...

I'd respectfully disagree with the whole of your statement. Yes, the front end of frames have been getting lower. Yes, there are riders that have moved to a higher lever position. But "jacked" hoods end up much higher than the tops of the bars - that's not conducive towards good control over the bike.

The rider that most influenced this is Lance, although I didn't want to state it in the original post. His levers end up very high even though his bar height doesn't significantly change. I understand that for him climbing is his main focus and the high lever position helps that (comfort, seems that his wrist is less bent when standing, etc).

However, for us regular racers in a Cat 3 crit, the hoods are not where it's at. High lever position discourage drops use due to lack of control - you can't brake or shift from the drops if your levers are too high. Riders end up using on the hoods too much, compromising control over their bike.

When you're on the hoods you give up some control due to poor weight distribution, lack of leverage, and the safety of not being able to push your hand over the lever. On the drops you have optimal weight distribution, good leverage, and it's hard to push your hand through your handlebar.

I watched a good rider, on the hoods, crash his bike in a corner when the guy in front of him fell over unexpectedly. Because he couldn't slow enough, he couldn't turn enough, he couldn't do anything to avoid the guy in front of him, he fell (and his bike bounced off my neck). The rider is much better than me, a good cross racer, a good crit racer (he's won national titles in both disciplines), yet because he was not in the proper position on his bike he couldn't carry out a standard, normal, evasive type maneuver.

When the exact same scenario happened to me, while I was on the drops, I was able to avoid the rider that fell directly in front of me. It happened at a much higher speed, in a sharper corner, yet I never put a foot down. I recovered enough to place in the race, about 200m later.