Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Thanks for your question about a comfortable bike position!
Frequently when scheduling a fitting appointment clients tell me that they are interested in “comfort” rather than performance, because they are “not racers.” I’ve also heard bike fitters say that their main emphasis is on “comfort,” or they tell the cyclist that they’re adjusting the cleat or saddle position for more of a “performance/power fit,” or alternately, more of a “comfort fit.”
At the risk of sounding glib, my response to you specifically, or more generally to those distinguishing between “comfort” and “performance,” is this:
There is no meaningful distinction between comfort and performance.
Decoupling them in discussions about bike position creates a so-called “distinction without a difference” with no benefits to the cyclist, regardless of what they want from their cycling. That’s not to say that cycling doesn’t often feel difficult or even downright painful, but it should not feel that way because of your relationship to the bike. Any discomfort or even suffering you experience should be because of how hard you choose to exert yourself, or how steep of a hill you’ve chosen to tackle, or similar.
The bike itself is such an efficient piece of equipment, using it (pedaling, balancing, steering) should be easy to do. With a few extremely specific exceptions, a performance-oriented position has to be eminently comfortable because any discomfort gets in the way of the most effective effort.
Whether a recreational novice or elite competitor, a cyclist hoping for a predictable performance outcome (commuting to work, losing the Freshman 15, winning the state championship), has to ride their bike in a way that’s intrinsically repeatable, sustainable, and safe (in that it doesn’t cause injuries in either the short or long term). It’s hard to get maximum performance
if the activity is awkward, painful, or unnatural in ways that make the movement inefficient.
By definition, efficiency means achieving the best results for the least amount of energy input, or effort. We are familiar with the concept in car industry fuel efficiency standards, and obvious reasons for higher efficiency in cars are the same as in cycling - cars have higher fuel efficiency because their designs are more aerodynamic, or they weigh less relative to the engine’s horsepower, or they have any qualities that make them easier to push through the air or up an incline.
It should be a given that it is preferable to perform any activity in a way that’s fundamentally easier. Assuming that’s the case, probably the relevant question for a cyclist is simply whether or not going fast is important to them. As with many activities involving forward motion, the question is more one of, “how fast are you comfortable with?” than, “would you rather have the activity be easy or difficult to perform?”
For recreational cyclists, the image of the racer’s low, aerodynamic posture is the main objection, and is what is seen as being in contrast to a comfortable position. As any long-time bike racer will attest to, the low posture is not any less comfortable if it’s your normal default position, and it becomes the default simply by spending more time cycling and organically improving the flexibility, core strength and stability that come with that. As an analogy, a basic yoga class may take someone to their physical limits if they’ve never done yoga before, but after years of a regular yoga practice that same person still has physical limits but they can go much, much further before they hit those limits. Even simply in terms of fitness, the better-trained cyclists riding up Mt Lemmon at 14mph don’t feel any less strain riding to their limits than the new cyclists whose limits are at 7mph...they’re just going faster.
Again, my highlighting of this “distinction without a difference” between comfort and performance may sound glib, or seem like some attempt to trivialize or be dismissive of comfort per se. Actually, I raise it as a topic of discussion here, or ask people to rethink their ideas about a comfortable cycling position, because I believe no one riding a bike should think that the compromise of comfort has to be intrinsic to their cycling experience.
Earlier I prefaced a statement with “a few extremely specific exceptions.” Those exceptions are worth illustrating for context. Firstly, in competitive cycling, occasionally racers have to ride solo in a time-trial, often described as the “race of truth” because there is none of the recovery and economizing that comes with drafting. Without drafting, having low drag is essential: so essential, in fact, that having an aerodynamic position is often more important than having a biomechanically efficient and consequently comfortable/sustainable position. For those who want to go fast, if an awkward, contorted position is found to be aerodynamic enough that it decreases your drag by 15%, but is so awkward and contorted that your power output decreases by 10%, as uncomfortable as it is, that 5% net change in your favor is enough that you will be faster.
Secondly, the bike set-up of some sprinting specialists can be considered unconventional. The handlebars can sometimes be set low enough that the drops may be uncomfortable as viable hand positions most of the time, but perfect for standing up and rotating forward, stomping on the pedals in a sprint.
In summary, racers may occasionally intentionally force themselves into uncomfortable positions as a trade-off to sustainability hold short-term speed. Otherwise, the benchmark for any of us is to feel like our relationship with the bike is as effortless as possible, so that it’s our choice how hard the ride itself is.