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I remember, as a kid in the seventies we were able to ride blocks without ever touching the handlebars. Today, I only see road-bikers riding without hands - and this is rarely. I almost never see hybrid or mtb bikers go without hands.

What happened? Is it because I got older that I don't have the sense of balance anymore? Or are bikes made differently in the sense that they're not self-balancing? Or is it the forward positioning??

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    I don't think it's anything you mentioned. I ride no handed all the time and see others doing it as well. Road bikes, BMX, mountain...you name it. – ebrohman Jun 21 '17 at 20:48
  • In Russia for instance, it is prohibited (for bikes and motorbikes both) to ride without at least one hand on the handlebars. – k102 Jun 22 '17 at 8:19
  • @k102 This is quite widespread, sometimes as a law, sometimes with slightly less force. It's also widely ignored. – Chris H Jun 22 '17 at 14:37
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    I always see those cyclists in events let go of their handlebars and kind of put their hands behind their heads to air out their sweaty pits and make O's with their mouth or whatever it is they are doing. Seems especially prevalent after they've passed the finish line. – RIanGillis Jun 22 '17 at 20:49
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    Now that I've caught up on my reading I no longer need to ride hands-free. – EvilSnack Jun 24 '17 at 1:13
43

Nothing happened or changed. It's just your observational bias coupled with different demographics preferring different bike capabilities.

Many children's bikes have relatively relaxed geometry, which makes them stable which has benefits for kids. Bikes built for adults usually aren't as stable, because stability and maneuverability are at odds with each other, and the adult riders want the maneuverability.

Mountain bikers value fast handling over stability, and so do many road cyclists.

However, many triathlons or time trials are events where maneuverability is not important, so many of those frames are much more stable. Touring bikes are also in that group.

I have a bike built up from a nashbar touring frame, that is so stable I can nearly fall asleep while riding. I hop off that bike and hop onto an 80s Bianchi racing bike, and trying to ride no-handed at any speed less than 35 mph (55 km/h) is virtually an instant crash. My surly cross check is in the middle of that range.

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    Concur - I have a folder that simply doesn't turn the front wheel as you lean the bike. So butt-steering is impossible, and you can see this by trying to wheel the bike with a hand solely on the saddle. At the same time, the handlebars have almost no resistance to hand inputs, so when riding its a very reactive steering. It can't be steered when ridden no-handed at all. – Criggie Jun 22 '17 at 0:31
  • I have no real evidence for this, but I get the feeling that toe overlap is more prevalent with contemporary road bikes than it was a few decades ago. I presume that this is a trend to make them handle "better", with the consequence that they are less stable? – Sparhawk Jun 22 '17 at 2:13
  • @Sparhawk: I don't agree with that conclusion. My 80s bianchi has the worst toe overlap of all my bikes. Plus its really only an issue at nearly-stopped speeds. Additionally factors such as frame size has a larger impact on toe-overlap are far greater than frame geometry. – whatsisname Jun 22 '17 at 2:35
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    @whatsisname I had more of a search, and I couldn't find anything, so I think my postulated relationship of toe-overlap with era was probably me mis-remembering something. – Sparhawk Jun 22 '17 at 2:56
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    Ask Chris Froome about riding a time trial bike without using hands (the Tour de France hopeful apparently took his hands off the bars to blow his nose and a gust of wind caught his aero-spokes and blew the bike from under him - he's now in intensive care with a broken leg) – Mr_Thyroid Jun 13 at 14:50
15

I think there's a large element of selection bias, combined with changes to roads and traffic rather than bikes.

When you were a kid you used to ride with kids who rode a lot, probably on fairly quiet roads. Kids probably ride less than they used to, especially on roads with traffic. Now you ride as an adult, you see fewer kids riding, and pay less attention to them. You're probably riding busier roads - traffic has increased in many places; on top of that you're likely to be riding a direct route to get somewhere. On the other hand for training, racing or social rides you're likely to be going a long distance on unpopulated roads,while your riding partners (if any) get on with riding - in even a loose group you haven't got much margin for error.

On the bike paths round here I regularly see people riding no hands; neighbour's kids do too. There are also people riding on the pavement (or sidewalk, it's illegal to ride there whatever you call it) no hands, but much more rarely on the roads.

I bet you also saw a lot of wheelies when you were a kid too, and don't see many of those any more -- it's the same effect.

  • I agree with this. Our grandparents and parents gave birth to so many children that roads have constant traffic. It's a little extra dangerous to do the "look Ma. No hands" jig now. Cycling itself is hazardous due to pollution. Do encourage people to have lesser or no kids. – Nav Jun 23 '17 at 12:46
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    @Nav The health benefits of cycling far outweigh the damage done by breathing in more pollution. – David Richerby May 26 at 16:55
  • @David Richerby that depends on location and time. I shouldn't be so so sure about Delhi, Bankok, or Beijing in winter. – gschenk May 27 at 9:47
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    @gschenk That's a fair point, but for an "average" city, where the air is polluted but not crazy-polluted, cycling's a win. – David Richerby May 27 at 10:06
7

The biggest influence on how a bike steers is 'trail'. Trail is the distance that the contact area of the front tyre on the ground trails behind a line drawn through the steering axis to the ground. (see the Wikipedia on bike geometry)

It would be interesting to find if 'trail' lengths have changed over time, and thus the ease of riding hands-free has changed.

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    This seems to be an implicit question (has trail changed enough to make a difference?) rather than an answer. It seems more suited to being a comment, to me. – David Richerby Jun 22 '17 at 14:32
  • I think it is a combination of steering angle and rake. I think that for the same trail with different angles and rake leading to same trail, the handling would be completely different. – Crowley Jun 22 '17 at 15:20
2

Look Ma, no hands!
Look Ma, no feet!
Look Ma, no teeth!

The point is, you cannot ride a bike without touching at least one more point than your saddle. When you ride without hands, that second point is your feet. Lose the pedals from under your feet, and disaster is unavoidable. You won't be able to do anything about it. You won't be able to grab the bar, you won't be able to brake (the brake levers are on the bar), and you won't be able to steer.
If you happen to be heading into a moat, you'll go into the moat.
If you happen to be heading for a wall, you'll go into the wall.
If you happen to be heading at a truck, you'll go into the truck.
You are just a passive passenger on your way to disaster.

When you ride without hands, your pedals are a single point of failure. Thus, you are risking your life for absolutely no gain.

Now, road racers click their feet into their pedals. This allows them to pull the pedal up at the back stroke, but it also makes their connection to their pedals much more failsafe than when you ride without this feature. If you do not have this extra safe connection to your pedals, don't ride without hands.

So, the best possible answer to your question would be: Because riders have wised up and learned to avoid this needlessly dangerous behavior. I don't know whether that's actually the case, though.


Ps: I learned this the hard way, including four weeks on crutches. Even a quarter century later, this accident still scores as my worst accident ever. Please learn from my experience instead of making your own.

  • Not just road racers. MTB riders, road enthusiast, commuters, all these use clipless these days. And being able to put on a jacket without stopping is a handy skill to have (but I don't have it). – Vladimir F May 27 at 10:23
  • Its a super handy skill to have in the mountains when you might want to put on / take off a gilet before/after long climbs/descents. Also when riding with a fast paced group - better to drop 20m off the back and stash gilet on the move than stop and have to chase back on several 100m of lost ground. – Andy P May 27 at 11:36
  • @VladimirF That may be the case where you ride. Where I ride, I would say that over 90% of the riders I meet on the road do not use cleats of any fashion. Of course, that's in a big city, with loads and loads of casual riders: When you only ever use your bike for a kilometer or two and have to stop twice at traffic lights along the way, you definitely do not think about installing clip-in pedals. That's the background of the vast majority of riders I meet. – cmaster May 27 at 18:08
  • @AndyP Sure. Note the paragraph about no-hands-riding being much safer with clip-in pedals (I guess that's what you are doing when you ride an a fast paced group). My point is about the vast majority of bikes that use only flat pedals, where riding no-handed to put something on would indeed be playing with your life. – cmaster May 27 at 18:12
  • Riding hands-free is a very common thing here.* Serious bike accidents are very rare though. Serious bike accidents that do not involve lorries or cars are even rarer. Are you certain your emphasis of the dangers involved is entirely adequate? * I've seen at least three riders on my commute home today. In the pouring rain. It has a long swift downhill section though, where people like to relax and stretch a bit. – gschenk May 27 at 20:51
0

Besides the variables mentioned in the other answers, most importantly trail, i.e., the distance between the points where the steering axis crosses the ground, and where the front tyre touches the ground, there are a few further key variables. Larger wheels with heavier tyres have both more rotational inertia, essentially acting like a big gyro that stabilises the ride, and also higher damping through losses in the rubber, which has a further stabilising effect. Just putting heavier tyres on the same bike can make it easier to ride it hands-free (and heavier tyres are obviously counterproductive if you want to go fast). And then there is the location of the handlebar and everything attached to it with regard to the steering axis: a long stem that brings the handlebars way forward of the steering axis stabilises and makes it easier to ride hands-free, while a short stem together with handlebars angled backwards makes it harder.

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    OK but the question is about why fewer people ride hands-free than the asker feels was the case in the past. Are you proposing that bicycle wheels and tyres are becoming smaller and lighter? I can believe "lighter" for top-end wheels, at least, because of carbon fibre. But road bike tyres are getting wider (25mm is pretty normal, whereas 19-21mm was the norm in the past) and mountain bike wheels have got bigger (29ers rather than 27"). So it's not clear that the trends in bike design are supporting your hypothesis of what the cause is. – David Richerby Jun 10 at 9:47
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I have wondered about this for years after buying/riding many modern bikes,

The answer above relating to 'trail' or castor angle seems very logical, early BSA 26" mens bikes had curved forks putting the rider further back from center of of wheel, in addition the handle bars where much wider and centered close to stem.

Modern mountain bikes tend to have the rider more over front wheel head down position, forks can also have shocks which work better with straight forks.

Here's the best image I could find quickly, note the seat/handle bars way back.

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/images/superbe54.gif

Thanks for posting, been wondering for ages - now know what to look for !

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    Forks were bent forward (rake) to reduce trail, not to increase it. Trail in the bike you linked is so huge because of the very slack head angle. You will not see bends in today's forks because (a) they are usually not made of steel (b) simply angling them forward is much better geometry (go the direct route, not a curve). The fork rake might be the same though. Modern MTB often have extremely slack geometry with lots of trail. – gschenk May 27 at 9:36

protected by Gary.Ray Jun 13 at 16:33

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