Why Upright Is Right When You Are Riding a Bike

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An electric bike sitting on a piece of wood

Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

Bike designer Mark Sanders channels my mom and tells me not to slouch.

While writing about e-bikes for boomers, I admired a new design from Gazelle, the 125-year-old Dutch bike manufacturer, which has a comfortable upright position, a relatively low seat, step-through design and full chain guards. Mark Sanders of MAS-design, who designed my beloved Strida folding bike when he was in school, tweeted a link to an article he wrote back in 2010:

In the article (reproduced with permission) he asked whether current bike designs are appropriate for most riders. He notes that "Bicycles are designed for people to use, so like chairs and most things we sit on, they need to be comfortable and healthy."

Riding With Good Posture

A man in a suit riding a bike on a city street
Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

For racing and sport cyclists, speed is more important than good back posture or the view ahead, so riders crouch down and the spine is unnaturally curved to avoid wind resistance. Fortunately as these athletes are powering along, tensed muscles protect their bent spines. Unfortunately when bicycles set up for sport and racing are used casually for leisure and transport, bent spines unsupported by muscles are vulnerable to strain. Although more upright than racing bikes, mountain bikes and hybrid bikes do not give good posture for everyday and around town use; the sporty lean forward posture still strains the back, neck and wrists. Only the upright posture is really suitable for a pleasant journey by bicycle, and not a fitness training session.

Sanders notes that in countries where people bike a lot, like the Netherlands and Denmark, the upright riding position evolved as THE optimum for everyday cycling in everyday clothes.

Xrays of a person in different postures on a bike
Mark Sanders

For around town, casual everyday use, ergonomists recommend that a bicycle should have handlebars close to and above the saddle. The "bottom in the air" bent back, bent neck, poor view ahead is a TOTALLY wrong posture for everyday around town use. Just compare the x-ray pictures above, and also see the postures of other riders, for example scooter riders – scooters, another cool Italian export that made motorcycles mainstream.

Sanders says that riding upright bikes at a comfortable pace demolishes the "huge myth and objection to cycling: that it makes you sweat – BUT this is only if cycling fast, racing against the clock."

Modern-Day Bikes

Mark Sanders wrote this article in 2010, when baby boomers on bikes were still buying carbon-framed road bikes and dressing in Lycra, and when electric bikes were clunky and considered "cheating."

Gazelle bike
Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

In 2019, we have many millions of baby boomers who are looking to either stay on their bikes or start riding them for fitness and as car replacements. Sitting comfortably upright, being able to step over easily, and being able to put one's feet on the ground are all going to be very useful features on bikes and e-bikes. It is looking rather attractive to me.

Read Mark Sanders' full article here.