Help me ride my new bike
June 16, 2014 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Cyclists of MeFi: I recently acquired a lovely new ride but wow, is it ever different from my daily commuter. Help me get used to drop bars and downtube shifters.

It's a 1985 Cannondale ST400 with all the stock components, and it came into my life a bit unexpectedly while I was lusting after a different bike I couldn't afford. I've been riding it comfortably on a trainer at home (while my other bike gets me to work and back) but want to get used to it on our local bike path before taking it out on the road.

Problem: I feel like I'm going to wipe out every time I switch positions on my bars, which is obviously a bad thing. I'm decent at riding one-handed for short bits of time on my much-more-upright hybrid, but the totally different geometry of New Bike and my resultant centre of gravity makes me feel like I'm gonna crash every time I go to ring my bell. Nevertheless, I haven't even attempted shifting on it yet. I'm trying not to put all my weight on my wrists and using my core to hold myself up so my stability isn't tied into my arms, but it'll definitely be another few rides before my body gets used to adapting that strategy to this frame. I just feel very very unstable and don't want to take my hands off the drops due to ridiculous fear that I won't be able to switch to braking without crashing.

Are there any helpful physical cues I should be keeping in mind while I re-learn to ride? I have a kinda substantial fear of wiping out and breaking myself and had no idea that there would be this steep of a learning curve! I live very very close to a perfect mixed-use path which keeps me away from traffic, and will definitely be taking advantage of it before getting out onto the road.

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by avocet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The hoods, not the drops, are your friend. You'll have much greater control if you stick with the hoods. That way you can keep a couple fingers on the brakes while you ride, and you'll feel more confident reaching down to shift.
posted by pdb at 9:35 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ride mostly on the hoods like pdb says; you can also rotate the handlebars up a bit to give you a more upright position. You should invest in a proper fitting. It will make a huge difference in your comfort and efficiency.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:54 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

The advantage of drop bars is that, with a good fit, you should be able to shift positions -- sometimes your hands are on the drops, sometimes the hoods, etc. But, yeah, the hoods should be your primary position, and you should be able to brake comfortably from there. The hoods will have you a bit more upright as well.

This might be a matter of getting used to the bike -- road bikes might not feel as stable as an upright hybrid -- but it could also be a bad fit.

There are small adjustments you can make for a better fit, but it can be tricky to figure this out on your own. Have you checked in with the folks at your local bike shop?
posted by bluedaisy at 9:54 PM on June 16, 2014

Almost no one rides on the bottom of the drops, unless they're zomg hauling ass in the highest gears or cruising at a high speed for long distances without having to stop. If the hoods are uncomfortable to you, get better(read:gelled up/cushy) hoods for the brake levers or switch the bars out for some bullhorns with different brake levers.(you can get similar levers for cheaper, and you'd probably want skinnier bars if you ride that small of a bike, like 38cm or maybe even 36, but anyways)...

I very rarely feel all that stable on the bottom of the drops. I generally only get down there if i've been riding at speed for quite a while, don't feel like i'll have to slow to a complete stop soon, etc. I can handle it, and you can get used to it for the most part, but my "default" stable position is on the hoods and that's where i spend like 90% of my time.

On previous bikes, i had bars like i suggested. The only reason i keep the drops on my current bike is that they're original to it, fancy, and happen to be the right width and drop for me. I found bars like that more comfortable than just riding on the hoods for like, average street/bike path riding. Drops are really more for riding not in traffic and quickly for long distances. Like if there's a long mostly cycle path along a lake near you, or something. Otherwise you're just on the hoods all the time, and at that point...

As for general stability, yea, road bikes feel different and less generally "stable" until you get used to the feel of it and the slightly different center of gravity you have. And the general point at which you pivot the bike under you because of different bottom bracket height, bar position in relation to the top tube, etc. That just takes getting used to. But don't make it overly hard on yourself by trying to ride in the bottom of the drops from the start. That's not even really what they're for, imo.

also on a side note wow, that's an awesome bike. Those old cannondales are actually some of my favorite bikes ever made. Ones that tiny are very rare too(i know, i've tried to find them for friends) so you totally scored.
posted by emptythought at 9:59 PM on June 16, 2014

Wow, that frame effectively has negative head tube length. I've never seen that before.

If you have $80 for upgrades, a pair of bar-end shifters will greatly reduce how far you have to move your hands to shift. I've only ever ridden drop bars, and even I get nervous groping around for down tube shifters.

I agree that many people feel more stable on the hoods than in the drops. If you want to ride on the hoods, though, make sure you can get enough leverage on the brakes from above. The older, non-aero style levers like yours are sometimes much harder to pull from above.

Make sure you keep your elbows bent, for two reasons: it'll reduce the shock on your elbow cartilage every time you go over a bump, which is always a good thing, and for a lot of people it acts like a cue to support yourself with your core instead of your arms.

If you never learned to lean into your turns, force yourself to take corners at moderate speed in one smooth, banked curve. I see a lot of people turn with this sort of tentative wobbling motion, often leaning alternately to one side and then the other, and I bet that feels terrifying.

Also, I noticed a dent in your crank-side chain stay, near the bottom bracket. Is that supposed to be there? (E.g., does the other chain stay have a matching dent?) If not, you should get your frame checked out. Bent frames are unsafe to ride because they can fail catastrophically with no warning.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:26 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can try rotating the handlebar up so the hoods are easier to reach and moving the saddle back for extra stability (as long as you can still reach the handlebar comfortably). As you get more used to the bike, read up on bike fitting and fine tune it, or take it to an expert. Sometimes this means a new stem or handlebar--like maybe one that doesn't drop so far down.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:33 PM on June 16, 2014

I hadn't ridden drop bars for more than 20 years, then got an old road bike. Mostly it just took some tentative rides on easy streets to get used to it. I also much prefer bar-end shifters. You can get used ones for $40 or less.
posted by unreadyhero at 10:40 PM on June 16, 2014

Get brake-shifters! Then you can just ride on the hoods most of the time.
posted by Drexen at 4:18 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also if I need to ride one handed, which I usually don't because brake-shifters, then I use the corner position.
posted by Drexen at 4:20 AM on June 17, 2014

Yes, what hydrophonic said. The hoods are way out there. Rotate the bar so you can even reach your brakes.
posted by JimN2TAW at 4:29 AM on June 17, 2014

Equally, there's no shame if you wish to swap out to flat bars; I've never taken to drops. The disadvantage of drop bars is that none of the many places you can hold them is very comfortable, so you have to be able to shift positions now and again.

Lovely bike, btw. I might want to check an aluminium frame of that age for fatigue cracks, but that's just me.
posted by scruss at 4:35 AM on June 17, 2014

The bars don't need to be rotated, but the hoods need to come back, which will require re-wrapping the bars. As they are now they look waaaay too forward on the bars.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:00 AM on June 17, 2014

Definitely want to move the hoods back. I was having serious hand numbness issues and moving the hoods back just a tiny bit made a huge difference in fit and feel. Since you have a trainer test different hood positions to find the "sweetspot" before you rewrap your bars.

If you want to get more of an upright feel and want to ditch the down tube shifters look for a used set of Shimano Sora shifters that matches your drivetrain. I got a pair off of eBay last year for $60 to replace the bar end shifters on my Cross Check and it made shifting so much easier. The only down side to the Soras is that you can't shift down when you're in the drops but if you're on the hoods (where I am 95% of the time) they're perfect.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 6:23 AM on June 17, 2014

Thanks for the advice, everyone! I had to take the bus today due to a flat I didn't have time to change this morning, and noticed everyone riding to work on their hoods...heh, guess I hadn't really been paying attention and didn't realize that was the go-to position! Will give that a shot tonight. I definitely tried riding on the corners of my bars and was having trouble getting a good grip on the brakes from there (my fingers are a bit on the short side) but not on the hoods themselves.

I haven't yet gotten it fitted, but am intending on it, and will definitely inquire about moving those hoods back. Right after I picked it up I went for a once-over at my local DIY bike collective and it's in very good shape - I repacked the front hub and adjusted my rear derailleur on their advice, but everything seems to be cool. d.z. wang, the dent you see in the pic is a feature, not a bug - it's visible in all of the frames in the Vintage Cannondale catalogue I linked to above, which I confirmed before I went to look at it. It definitely caught my eye in the first pics I saw of it.

Yay, thanks MeFi! (I am also very happy to learn that I apparently totally scored with this. It is a happy accident that we are now a three-Cannondale house.)
posted by avocet at 6:24 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to offer a bit of counter advice to everybody telling you to ride in the hoods. The drops are there for a reason. They offer the safest position. When you are on a descent, the drops offer a place where your hands will not bounce off, and you have greatest leverage on the brake levers (pulling them back vs pushing them from the hoods). If you are not comfortable in the drops, it may be a matter of getting used to them; it could be a matter of fit.

The center of the bars are handy when drinking and shifting. The weight is most centered in this position.

In short, drop bars are a land of many contrasts.

(Also you might want to think about smaller chainrings or a bigger set of cogs. Those are some big gears!)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:38 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

As not-a-racer, you really shouldn't be crouched as low as it looks like you are. The seat's so much higher than the handlebars! If the seat height is appropriate for you, here's a couple things to try:

  • Raise the handlebars as much as you can! You might have a few inches hidden inside the headtube. You can also buy a stem extender [which goes in the headtube, and does not extend the horizontal stem], which will raise it up a bit higher if the handlebars are already as high as they can reasonably go.
  • Also try rotating the handlebars back a little bit so as you ride on the top bar and hoods, they're a little flatter. Echoing what everyone else says about moving the hoods a bit closer to you on the handlebars.
  • I bike a fair amount, often cover 20mi in a day of commuting, go on bike tours, etc, and I still can't get used to downtube shifters. I was always afraid I'd to throw myself off balance while fiddling with 'em, and I always waited too long to shift on uphills. When I switched to end-tube shifters it suddenly changed how I ride. YMMV of course; you may end up not minding them at all, and it's a little more complicated or expensive than something as simple as raising your handlebars, but they're the perfect balance of being able to work on them yourself (unlike brake shifters which are much trickier to work on at home) but really changing your sense of comfort in the saddle..

  • posted by tapir-whorf at 8:28 AM on June 17, 2014

    All of this advice makes a lot of sense (especially the hood positioning, now that I look at that photo again), so I'll take it to get it professionally fitted sometime in the next week or so and let them make all the modifications. (FYI, the pic was taken minutes after I got it so I hadn't made any adjustments to it yet!)
    posted by avocet at 8:49 AM on June 17, 2014

    Get brake-shifters!

    Brake-shifters are great but I don't think they come in lower than 8-speed. avocet has a 6-speed.
    posted by hydrophonic at 9:09 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

    installing dual control* shifters for a bike that old will lead to having to upgrade the entire component and drivetrain set including wheels, which will cost an order of magnitude more than the frame is actually worth. Friction downtube shifters, so long as the cables are clean and properly maintained, are god's gift to durability through the ages, although you will need some luck with finding compatible replacement parts (cogs, chainrings) if that becomes an issue, and it may as that appears to be the classic 80s era 52/42 chainset (front rings) with a "corncob" cogset (rear cogs) meaning it's not for the faint of heart, weak of leg or hilly of commute. You will get used to learning how to shift tho; my advice for now is to use a somewhat "easier" gear (faster rpm) than you think you need - it's always easier to spin up to speed and get stable then reach down to shift than get caught in a situation where you're bogged down in too big a gear and can't let go the bars (hills, stop signs, etc). Plan ahead and shift to easier gears before you stop.

    The thing you can do which will help you the most right off the bat is to rotate the bars to bring the hoods up. The drop ends should be pointing directly at the rear hub. This will also help your reach. If you're carrying too much weight on your hands, any road bike will handle badly; this is the basic physics of how road bike geometry operates and has little to do with drop vs. flat bars actually.

    The stem is already very high and short which infers somewhat problematic handling out of the gate. This looks to be a 44cm (extra small women's) or even a kids' frameset, so I hope you're under 5'3" or so otherwise it may be difficult to get the bike to fit properly. Road bikes are actually frequently sized incorrectly by commuters and those new to the genre because much of the focus is put on "standover clearance" and casual fitters frequently ignore the actual "reach" specific to the frame (reach is a function of top tube length + "front-center" geometry plus stem length and handlebar configuration). Standover, especially on a road bike, is an old fitting fallacy chestnut that conflates several issues, none of which have much to do with proper fit. Most casual riders worry about things like reaching the ground flat footed while on the saddle, and/or bailing out over the top tube, neither of which should be concerns for riders of even modest skill. Your saddle should be high enough on a road bike to give you full leg extension with only a slight knee bend, and you should be able to step off the bike smoothly with one leg and lean the frame over to effectively "shorten" the standover at a stop. This all creates some havoc with proper fitting process because people will ignore important concepts like fore/aft balance in favor of a too-small frame that frequently makes compromises on things like massive toe overlap (which is actually dangerous) and twitchy handling / instability in favor of standover clearance. Step-through frames also perpetuate the whole top-tube clearance myth, which ignores the fact that they were explicitly designed not to accommodate clearance, but to allow ladies of bygone eras to ride in heavy skirts without having to shock the world by showing off their legs/undergarments whilst mounting or dismounting the bike. If you're physically capable of opening your hip angle far enough to swing your free leg over the rear of the saddle in order to mount and dismount the bike (even if it means standing tiptoe and leaning the bike over, as is the case with short little me and my massive monster truck 29er mountain bike), and you're able to reach the pedals when properly seated without rocking your hips, then your frame clearance is fine.

    A road frame with improper reach in proportion to the rider can be made to fit approximately well by doing varying combos of compromise with the seatpost and/or stem, however one of the keys to handling a road bike properly is the rider's fore-aft BALANCE, meaning your weight should be equally distributed between bars, pedals and seat in an approximately equilateral triangle that stabilizes your centre of gravity over the bike's crankset. Women can sometimes shift their COG a bit forward with a shorter top tube / more forward seat relative to the crankset to compensate for having shorter torsos and carrying more of their weight below the waist in comparison to most men, however, if you're this uncomfortable with the way the bike handles then my suspicion is that it is likely one or more of a combination of: the stem is too high and short which will make the bike turn/handle weird, your seat is possibly too high and/or too far forward, the bike itself is too small/short for you, your weight maybe too far forward over the front hub, and last but not least the actual frame's geometry and intended use may not be entirely appropriate to your needs (**more on this below).

    To address a common current trope I see in fitting road bikes, I'll say that modern pro bike racers will frequently run a lot of "drop" saddle-to-bars (meaning their seat is much higher than their handlebars), and commonly ride frames that are technically one or more sizes "too small" for them, for a number of reasons (weight, aerodynamics, fitness, bike racer physiology favors the long-legged, etc...) Aping this sort of setup has become a popular theme amongst a certain subset of bike shops and recreational riders, however in daily practice for the layman it can lead to discomfort, neck and wrist pain, and unstable handling. Pro riders can get away with this kind of fit because they are 1) immensely physically strong through the core and stabilizing muscles and 2) they can generate the pedaling power (wattage) to do what we refer to as "carrying their frame" when riding at speed, meaning their leg and core strength combined is capable of "floating" the cantilevered weight of their upper body while either pulling back (for more power/acceleration) or using only a light grip on the bars; and 3) they have incredible handling skills by virtue of hundreds of thousands of saddle miles, and they don't "steer" the bike with the handlebars so much as guide it from their hips and with body lean. They will also frequently "slam" the stem, meaning they're getting it as low as possible, trying to minimise the stem rise / effective length of the head tube to improve handling feel and stability, which is... not what we have here.

    Bottom line - yes, get a proper fit on this bike and don't be disappointed if they tell you it is too small or you must spend a fair bit more money to install a different stem/seatpost and possibly handlebar combo to get you there.

    *proper term for combined brake/shifters

    **Another factor in the handling issue is that most Cannondale road frames of that vintage were built on what was known back then as "American criterium" geometry, meaning they were set up to accellerate and corner very quickly under criterium conditions (short lap technical races analogous to short track speed skating or roller derby on bikes). Compared to your hybrid, this geometry will feel extremely unstable at first and you may not get used to it quickly. Coupled with the stiff, oversized aluminum tubing, it can make for a rather harsh and jittery feel to the overall ride. I rode Cannondale 'crit frames in the 80s (and I was a bike racer) and I did not like them - I opted for a less-twitchy handling and smoother steel "stage racing" frame from Cinelli instead.

    posted by lonefrontranger at 12:26 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

    Whoa, so helpful, lonefrontranger! To clarify, this is a 49cm frame and I am 5'5".
    posted by avocet at 1:14 PM on June 17, 2014

    okay, I am 5'4" on a 49-50 and so you're probably in the ballpark depending on your proportions (leg/torso) but you *really* need a proper fitting and I still think that is potentially in the realm of too small depending on other factors. If you're normally proportioned at 5'5" then that stem is very likely too short which is contributing to the instability and handling issues.

    Roadie fit 101, or the tl;dr version of all the blathering above: You need to figure out how to optimize your fit to distribute your weight evenly fore/aft over the frame. The goal is for you to be able to go from seated to standing easily without much of a conscious weight shift or effort really because you want your center of gravity to sit right in the "heart" of the frame (around the bottom bracket aka crankset/chainset region). if you wobble standing up you're probably too far forward. if you have to "lunge" to get out of the saddle, you're too far back.

    most riders when I'm fitting them for road bikes I make them sit locked in on a stationary trainer and pedal and I do the various adjustments and then I ask them to pedal up to a comfortable cadence while riding on the hoods and then without changing cadence or their body position, I ask them to "float"; meaning: let go the hoods and put their arms out slightly to the side.

    If they can comfortably hold that position without rocking, wobbling, falling forward or back, then their fore/aft weight distro is properly sorted on their fit.

    Oh and I forgot one key thing: Using the proper saddle at the proper height and making sure it's dead flat level helps considerably with fit and balance. Whatever you do, don't fall prey to the temptation to drop the saddle nose for comfort. Riding longer distances does involve some "break-in" transition (translation: your ass will hurt for a bit; this is muscular adaptation and it does go away) If you do feel like you must drop the nose of your saddle to maintain comfort, then your saddle is either too high or it is not the right saddle for your butt. If you're riding with your saddle nose down, it throws your weight forward onto the handlebars and no amount of fitting will ever help your handling, not to mention it leads to neck and shoulder pain and wrist numbness, and poor handling/cornering skills. Not to mention for women especially it causes soft tissue numbness and other problems - you should be sitting on your sit bones, not rocked forward on your pubis.
    posted by lonefrontranger at 2:05 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Your bike seems like it might be a bit small, which would explain why you are in the drops -- you can stretch further forward more easily. (I'm 5'6", female, and I'm most comfortable on road bikes that are 52-54.)

    The smaller size might also be why it feels a bit unstable.

    Also, a heads up that a formal bike fitting is something that takes a few hours and not necessarily something you can drop in to do in any shop. You can definitely ask any shop folks for help with fit generally, but a more formal fitting can mean swapping out different handlebars, saddles, stems, etc. I'm not sure you'd want to go all out for this bike if, in the end, it might be just a bit too small.

    So, maybe ask for some tips at your bike shop and see what they can help you with, and ride it for a few months and see how it feels. Have fun!
    posted by bluedaisy at 6:17 PM on June 17, 2014

    clarification: "proper fitting" means vastly different things to different people and I am in no way intending to say you need to drop hundreds of dollars on a professional racing system fit at a "pro" shop. Don't do that, IMO they are truly not worth it even for many (most?) amateur racers unless there's some physiological problem / injury needing to be addressed. Honestly the best bike fit I ever had done in my life took 5 minutes and was done by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere rural Switzerland by some greasy old Swiss bike shop owner who had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth the entire time he was working on me & my bike.

    I can get 90% of the riders I've ever worked with 95% of the way there in 20-30 minutes using nothing more than a stationary trainer and a plumb bob, and this goes double for if I don't have to do cleat shimming nonsense, which if you're not using clipless pedals and it sounds like you aren't, a fit should take maybe 15 minutes tops. The rest of that crap is just marketing and mirrors.

    Any decent coach with a modicum of skill and experience can do this. Many people who frequently work with beginner riders like a community cycle shop can do this. It is not rocket science, you just need the right experience.
    posted by lonefrontranger at 9:03 PM on June 17, 2014

    Thanks for everyone's advice. I started looking for a new bike after I started the Sufferfest novice program on my colleague's recommendation, then I quickly realized a number of the videos weren't meant to be accomplished on my Cannondale hybrid. I am training just to improve my endurance and distances (and 'cause that first week was one hell of a lot of fun) - I have no intent on racing anytime soon! I realize the bike is definitely on the small side, but I didn't pay too much for it and figured some professional adjustments could make it work for me. If not, oh well.

    I do ride clipless but wasn't planning on swapping pedals until I got used to riding this bike. I was planning on making an appointment instead of just showing up because I appreciate when people do the same in my line of work!
    posted by avocet at 6:40 AM on June 18, 2014

    and to clarify, I was definitely intending on going for a proper fitting anyways, but am looking for tips on what *I* need to do differently. I realize much more now how much these two things are totally interrelated!
    posted by avocet at 6:48 AM on June 18, 2014

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