Cycling Posture - Upright is Right ! A view ahead for the bicycle industry For the bicycle industry to grow, we need to attract more of the 90% world‟s population who choose not to cycle. If we can look beyond cycling as a sport / leisure / hobby activity, this vast 'Blue Ocean' of potential cyclists is a huge opportunity for the bicycle industry. Like most decisions in the bicycle industry, cycling posture is heavily influenced by cycle sport, but is this appropriate for everyone?
Bicycles are designed for people to use, so like chairs and most things we sit on, they need to be comfortable and healthy. A well designed chair supports the natural curve of the spine. The lumber support seen on car seats and modern office chairs encourages the spine to curve into its natural lordotic „S‟ shape. Children are encouraged not to slouch, because with age this can cause back problems. Poor posture is outlawed in the workplace, with back problems accounting for over 100 million lost work days per year, just in the USA.
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.
Sports equipment is the most appropriate when carrying out a sport, BUT for a whole industry to pretend it's also suitable for everyday use is lazy, patronising and absurd.
So how have we got into the situation where new, urban and non-sportive cyclists are sold bikes which are totally unsuitable, uncomfortable and probably harm the back and neck? (As well as being bad for viewing the road and traffic ahead).
Historically, when the bicycle emerged over 100 years ago as affordable personal transport for everyone, comfort and good posture was more important than outright speed. The upright riding position (as seen above, on the right) evolved as the optimum posture for everyday cycling in everyday clothes. Since then in countries and cities where cycling has continuously been used as personal transport (Holland, Denmark, India etc
Cambridge, Bergen, Paris, Milan etc), the upright posture is still preferred. But in countries where cycling is just re-emerging as ideal city transport (USA, UK, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, etc.) the history is more idiosyncratic. Cars took over from bicycles very early in the USA, although there were periods when bicycle sales were higher eg racing bikes in the 60‟s, BMX in the 70‟s and mountain bikes in the 80‟s. These trends were followed by other countries, even against a back drop of local (upright) bicycle buying trends.
The knobbly tyred mountain-bike-style and its cousin the road tyred Hybrid, was a success in many countries because apart from bringing back kids fun to adult riding, it also released the „strangle hold‟ that „drop-handlebar‟ racing bikes and their „bottom in the air‟ posture held on the market. Riding a mountain bike with flat handlebars around town is much more comfortable than a racing bike. Taiwan and China emerged as the bicycle factories to the USA and the world. This led to lower costs and many bicycles becoming commodities, for example the mountain-bike-style bicycles, sold cheaply through supermarkets, and now ubiquitous world wide as rusty around town rides... soon to become landfill. Sadly supermarket mountain-bike-style factory overruns, being so cheap, have replaced the traditional upright roadsters in many cities (even in Beijing, and other Chinese cities), in spite of having inferior ergonomics for urban use (bent back, bent neck, and pressure on wrists).
Amazingly, with more bicycles being produced than cars, the bicycle industry still continues to fuel trends towards using unsuitable sporty and racing bicycles around town, this is crazy when there are much larger opportunities to sell bicycles to the other 90%. Is this laziness? Fear of change? Inertia? As a designer I know the temptation to simply „go with the flow‟ re-use the same stretched out geometry that the (enthusiast) market seems to accept – even though I know, it would be better to properly research the best ergonomics for the intended users. Even Velib, Biki, and other city hire bikes have stretched geometry – no doubt specified by cycling „experts‟. Are cycling enthusiasts like a religion, the wish to convert the other 90% of the population into the „religion‟ of sporting cycling?
So who best understands the postural needs of a new, casual or urban bicycle user? A cycling 'expert' or an ergonomist? The bicycle geometry and the posture a new cyclist will be forced into will most likely be chosen by a cycling „expert‟: A salesperson, a marketing manager or a buyer/specifier. As part of the industry, probably an enthusiast, a long time, long distance bicycle user, someone well versed in all aspects of cycling; sports, leisure, culture and especially cycle racing. Many bike brands even boast of using famous racing cyclists to design their frames, and some even become brands - good for racing but totally inappropriate for town bikes. Some bicycle shops even have a „fitting‟ service using an adjustable frame, this sounds very positive, except that the most obvious fact is usually missing – this equipment is to fit a bike for sport or racing, not for casual everyday use.
An ergonomist matches products to the human anatomy and needs. They match; chairs, handheld tools, aircraft controls, etc. to users‟ needs and anatomy. Significantly an ergonomist's guidance is unbiased... They are not interested in 'converting' someone to do the same hobby as them, nor encouraging a user to race. 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.
But, I hear the industry respond – “there is an exciting trend that sporty fixie riders are fashionably cool” , true, this is cyclings equivalent of 1960's motorcycle 'cafe-racers'.... this is ‟cool derived from exclusivity’ – which is easier to do than „natural cool’. Natural cool takes standard elements available to all and with style, elevates them to special. Natural cool is best seen in places like Milan – Italians in suits, gently riding upright bikes are effortlessly cool (even in 30 degC heat). They demolish a huge myth and objection to cycling: that it makes you sweat – BUT this is only if cycling fast, racing against the clock. „Natural Cool‟ can be mainstream – and making cycling mainstream, attracting the other 90% „blue ocean‟, wearing normal clothes, is surely the way forward for the industry?
If the cycle industry is compared to the automotive industry, the majority of cars promoted would be sports or racing cars, with little focus on normal family cars. However, as universal products, the vast majority of cars are normal family cars designed for everyone.
We need to raise a whole generation of children to rediscover the joy of the bike, and appreciate its benefits. Forget going green. Forget Sport. We need to do what generations of marketeers have done for cars - promote the upright bicycle as sexy, exciting and cool for all.
Mark Sanders – Product and Bicycle Designer, and visiting lecturer Imperial College and Royal College of Art, London. www.mas-design.com