Learn to Ride in the Drops
“Hands in the drops, please!” As the Head Mentor for the NCNCA (Northern California/Nevada Cycling Association), this is a phrase I find I have to repeat over and over as I am instructing beginning racers. Riding in the drops (the lower, curved section of your handlebars) is a basic skill that takes time to learn and perfect. Many riders and even racers are reluctant to ride in this position for any length of time.
Why is this particular skill underutilized and how can riders be encouraged to take advantage of this safer and more aerodynamic position?
A wise coach once told me that the time to be in the drops is any time riding gets ‘exciting.’ What does that mean? Maybe you are descending on a twisty road and unfamiliar road. Or there is a stiff crosswind and your bike wants to veer off the pavement. Perhaps you are racing knuckle to knuckle in a field of 60 riders or you are trying to maintain a speed right on your red line. In other words, ‘exciting’ means any time you need maximum control of your bike or a little extra ‘free’ speed.
By riding with your hands in the drops you have not only lowered your center of gravity and allowed yourself to lean farther to either side for better cornering, but also have a more aerodynamic profile that allows you to ride with less effort at the same speed than if you were riding with your hands on the brake hoods. By moving to this lower position with less wind resistance, most riders will increase speed a half a mile an hour or more and have a better grip on the bars on a bumpy road.
So why don’t people ride in the drops all the time? The reason I hear most often is that it is just not as comfortable as riding with hands on the hoods. Why? It could be that as with any kind of adaptive training, your body is just not familiar with the new position. With your hands in the drops, you should not feel tension in the neck, arms, shoulders or low back right away, although it is common for riders who are not experienced in the position to notice these symptoms after riding for several minutes as they become more fatigued. By gradually increasing the length of time you spend in the drops, your body should be able to adapt.
If you find that your tolerance for riding in the drops is not increasing despite regular practice, you probably need some adjustments to your bike fit. If your bike fits properly, you will be able to have your hands resting in the middle of the curve of the bars while maintaining a slight bend in the elbow (see photo). Your fingers (1 or 2) should be able to easily reach the brake levers and you should be able to see where you are going without any neck strain. If you find that you can’t maintain a relaxed bend in your arms, can’t reach your brakes, or you immediately feel any tension in your neck or back when you go to the drops, get a bike fitting from your coach or a qualified bike fitter. A fitter can make adjustments, such as changing the length of the stem, raising or lowering the handlebars, shortening the reach to your brake levers or tilting the saddle to make a lower and more aerodynamic position more comfortable. As you become stronger and more flexible in this new position, further adjustments can be made to make sure you stay comfortable while further improving aerodynamics and producing as much power as possible.
“My fit (saddle, shoes, shift/brake levers, and bars) are set up so that being in the drops is my most comfortable position. I love my set-up for a lot of reasons but mostly because I get to use my core in addition to my arms and legs to go faster!” ~ Former Wenzel Coaching client and Academy Cycling professional racer Mary Maroon.
Even if your bike fits well, it can still take time and practice to become comfortable in the drops. Recreational riders should be able to ‘assume the position’ for 10 minutes at a time and racers should be able to ride in the drops all day in a bent-elbow, aggressive position. For practice, ride in the drops for at least a few minutes on all your training rides, especially during group rides or when descending.
If you are not comfortable and the position is relatively new to you, it is best to start practicing on a mostly level and straight stretch of quiet road with few stop signs or lights. Keep your head and eyes up and looking down the road. Relax your neck, shoulders and hands to help avoid unnecessary fatigue. Push your butt back in the saddle a little if you feel like you are too far forward. Rotate your hips slightly downward to keep your back flatter and avoiding arching it and scrunching your breathing area. When you are more comfortable, move on to a road with turns or wind. Remember to practice whenever the riding gets exciting.
Set up your bike to make riding the drops possible and then give it a try. See if it doesn’t help you ride and race faster and safer.
Coach Meredith Nielsen specializes in helping intermediate riders and beginning racers of all ages learn and build solid skills and is available for clinics and one-on-one sessions.