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Those who spend a lot of time typing on a computer keyboard or playing on a music keyboard (piano, ..) learn that their wrists should remain as straight as possible. The idea is that the tendons that move the fingers go through a tunnel inside the wrist (the carpal tunnel) and if the fingers are moving incessantly for hours, then any angle will make the tendons rub against the wall of the tunnel. The tunnel will get inflamed (carpal tunnel syndrome) in the same way that moving a cable against the edge of a wood tabletop will make a groove in the table, and fray the cable.

carpal tunnel and tendons source, credit

Cyclists with no history of wrist pain are just as prone to wrist pain on a bike. This suggests that the pain does not arise in the carpal tunnel at all.

I do try to move my hand location frequently, but I also like to maintain a reasonably high cadence since I then pedal with the least effort. The need to shift constantly means that my hands are almost always on the hoods, and that I seldom use the other four positions.

hand position on the hoods source, credit

Even folks who are regulars at the gym may have no way to eliminate having "weak wrists". The following is wild speculation: one workout or another may strengthen the muscles around the wrist, but nothing can make the wrist joint itself stronger.

I'm familiar with the few exercises that rehabilitate carpal tunnel syndrome and that prevent its reoccurrence, but on a road bike I can confirm that the pain does not even arise from the carpal tunnel. I'm shifting often, but nowhere near as often as the number of keys pressed during a typing session (yes, yes, such as this one). Also, the pain from the position on the handlebar is not nearly as bad as carpal tunnel pain. The latter is nasty because as soon as it is slightly inflamed, the pain quickly gets worse; maybe because there is less room for the tendons to move freely. The pain from the handlebar goes away after about 24 hours, whereas carpal pain can last weeks, or longer.

I've experimented with moving the seat tube up/down by 2-3mm at a time and this seems to be successful at identifying the most comfortable height.

After experimenting with multiple rides in each of two rotational settings, I'm now about to start iterating to turn the angle of the handlebar until I identify the one that makes my wrists as straight as possible, but before I experiment, I thought I'd ask the collective wisdom here.

Is adjusting the handlebar angle a viable way to reduce wrist pain? As you see in the picture below, I have so far adjusted the handlebar angle looking after the comfort of my lower back (another weak spot that I need to watch out for), turning it up. I'm assuming that they labeled the zero line to give us a hint that we may want to start by centering that zero line.

angle of handlebar, showing the mid-line

Edit: Aligning the zero line of the handlebar (horizontal axis of the circle) with the center of the stem (red line) made the hooks position too painful for my back. My solution has been to turn the handlebars up (by about 6 degrees, which turned out to be surprisingly a lot). This +6° solved back issues, but now my wrists on the hooks are abnormally turned up, and, sure enough, this leads to wrist pain–even after multiple rides to allow for the invevitable first-couple-of-times-pain. My question, briefly, is whether to iterate (binary search?) to find just the right angle. End Edit

If the frame is too large for me, then making my wrists and my back simultaneously comfortable may be a losing battle. I could seek that perfect angle all I want, but one or the other would be unhappy. The frame feels just about right (do even professional cyclists have access to custom frames that fit their bodies to the millimeter, in the same vein that professional skiers have access to custom-built boots? But I digress). Turning too far forward/down will make my wrists happy, but strain my back, and vice-versa. Seeking the sweet spot may be just a compromise to increase comfort, or at least to decrease the pain.

It would have been nice to have some graduation to read out the angle directly without having to add hand-written notes, but that gripe also applies to the seat tube, and so we can leave these issues to the constraints of fast factory production lines.

Just to clarify, the added context made for a long question, but your answer need not be long. If you can confirm "yes, finding the right angle is a compromise" along with a bit of experience, that would be a good start for me.

  • Regarding frame size, I am 3 cm taller than you and a 57 cm frame fits kind of ok, but I have a custom made 55cm frame with extra long top tube and it is perfect. If anything, 53.5 cm might be too small. And having a custom frame made is not that difficult, it just costs money. – ojs May 24 at 17:32
  • @ojs I was thinking that the frame may be too large, not too small, for me. If I lower the angle of the dropbar my wrists are happy; if I raise the angle my back is happy; hence, I was wondering, perhaps a smaller frame may make both happy in a middle angle. – Sam May 24 at 18:01
  • @ojs Fascinating that custom-made frames are available. I assume any competent welder can assemble a few tubes, but that would make for a clumsy (=heavy) frame. Judging by their websites, the major manufacturers are not into this, at any price point. Can you provide a hint? – Sam May 24 at 18:02
  • @Sam Your forearms in the picture you posted are closer to parallel with the ground than most professional riders, which leads me to think you're reaching too far out in front to get to the bars. That would seem to agree with your assessment that the frame is too large for you, but a 53.5 frame for someone 5'11" tall being too large seems strange. Do you have relatively long legs and/or short arms? How far back is your saddle set? Could you add a full side view of your bike? – Andrew Henle May 24 at 20:09
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    An adjustable stem is also easy to iterate and would allow you to play with the height and reach as well, which I think might help – Chris H May 25 at 19:03
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Putting your wrists at an uncomfortable angle on the bars can cause pain for any number of reasons. It can aggravate or maybe cause carpal tunnel, cause stiffness, cause road forces to not be properly absorbed by the joints, and the list goes on. So yes, there's no reason why the angle it came with should be right for you, and every cyclist needs to tune their bar angle to their liking. And yes, the nature of drop handlebars means that in doing so there will be compromises and trade-offs between how well each position works, which necessitates thinking about how much time one wants or expects to spend in each hand position.

But, it's very common for wrist, arm, and upper body pain and discomfort to be caused by bars that are too low or far away, causing weight distribution and posture problems that can't be solved by bar angle. Too much weight is going through the wrists, and more fundamental changes need to be made to do much to address it. The major parameters that are turned to here, beyond frame size and given a correct saddle height, are stem length/rise/height and saddle fore/aft. Bar extension and drop play important roles too, but are changed less easily.

It's unfortunately common to see cyclists do radical things to their bar angle on road bikes, i.e. turning it way up, to try to achieve a more comfortable position, when it's plain as day there are fit problems happening that can never be solved that way. In doing so they almost always make the drop position near-unusable.

A major reason for this dynamic is that road bikes come designed for the needs and priorities of the stereotypical athletic road cyclist and those who aspire to emulate them, hence long and low positions. There are many questions here about this.

If you want to get things actually right re: bar angle, you must never forget you can change your brake lever clamp position too. Again, there's no reason to expect the position it came with to be right. Doing so can be used to, for example, keep your posture and wrist angles reasonable in the drops while making things more comfortable on the hoods. The flip side is that usually when people feel the need to move them to extreme positions, it's again an indication of other, larger fit problems, the common example being moving them way up on the bars to get a more relaxed upper body position on the hoods, when just moving the bars up and back would do the same thing more effectively and without wrecking brake lever access in the drops.

Another way of looking at is this: If you're going to be riding drop bars, you want the drop position to be comfortable, usable, and offer good access to the brake levers. Otherwise there's little reason to use drop bars. The bar clamp angle makes a pretty dramatic difference in the angle your wrists wind up in while on the drops. (Ergo drop shapes greatly exacerbate this because they want your hands to be in one place only, while round drops offer more freedom). Trying to use bar angle to dial your hood position first and your drop position second therefore doesn't work unless you happen to get lucky. The best results are had by selecting a handlebar model, a rise/extension for it (based on the frame and stem dimensions), and a brake lever clamp position that allows everything to work all at once. The aforementioned stereotypical athletic road cyclist certainly may be able to tilt the bars up or down slightly on a new bike and go, but it's often the case that the further one is away from that archetype, the more they'll need to rework the stock position to get a fit that's acceptable.

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  • I'm settling into a distribution of holding the hoods 95% of the time, the tops 5% of the time (just to stretch occasionally), and use neither the drops nor the hooks. So basically my question is whether seeking a good angle (I already raised it, as in the picture) will necessarily involve a compromise, or whether something else needs to be changed, such as the frame itself. I think you're saying "yes, a compromise is necessary regardless of everything else"; is that right? – Sam May 24 at 18:58
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    @Sam If you've given up on the drops being usable then you can do anything you want as long you can still get a good grip for braking and also maintain fast access to that grip position. But consider why you're giving up on the drops. If the hoods are the most aggressive position one can presently tolerate, it often makes sense to change the fit so that the bars are higher and/or closer, with the intent of moving the drop position into the useful range, and increasing the overall useful range of positions the bars offer. – Nathan Knutson May 24 at 19:44
  • I haven't at all given up on the drops. I feel the necessity for that position only when I feel the wind is a serious obstacle. Since I have yet to pedal at a cadence of around 90 with the large (50-tooth) chainring and any of the three smallest cogwheels (12 smallest), my flat speed of about 35-40 kph does not warrant the drops, and so I'm settling for holding the hoods 95% of the time, and the tops 5% of the time for stretching. I'm hoping I can eliminate pain in both the lower back and the wrists while shuffling between these two positions. – Sam May 24 at 20:52
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    @Sam I travel much slower, but still I do use drops. Drops are for riders of all abilities. One can be more aero when holding the top of the hoods, but it is hard to keep that position, drops are more relaxing. Even at 25 km/h aero is important, especially in some wind. One does not have to be a racer. – Vladimir F May 24 at 22:26
  • @VladimirF I see that I have much to learn. I was keeping the drops for sprinting, but given how poorly my calf muscles are dissipating lactic acid, it seemed that that was hardly imminent. – Sam May 24 at 22:44
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I'm attempting to elaborate on Nathan's excellent answer.

The original question alludes to the fact that you generally want to keep your wrists straight in multiple settings. This extends to your position on the bike. The graphic below is from a Bikefit.com article on handlebar position. Indeed, in the graphic, they did rotate the handlebars to address wrist angle (the left graphic has these handlebars rotated too far down.)

enter image description here

How should you rotate your handlebars anyway? Bikefit observes that:

Historically the most frequently used method of determining the handlebar’s rotation was putting the bottom of the drop parallel to the ground...

This is true, and it might inform the graphic on the left panel above. However historically, handlebars were shaped a bit differently from today. If your handlebars are advertised as classic bend, they are more like historical handlebars. The photo below from a Cyclingtips article on setting up handlebars is what appears to be a classic bend handlebar, albeit with the bottom of the bar not quite parallel to the ground.

enter image description here

In any case, with this type of handlebar, your neutral position will have the bottoms approximately level. (Side note: today, classic bend bars seem to be favored mainly by professional road cyclists. They genuinely require the lower position allowed by the drops, and they actually have the physical flexibility needed to maintain that position. Most of us lack the flexibility.)

If you rotate your handlebars, you need to take care of the interplay between the angle of the handlebars and the position of the levers on the handlebars. In the Cyclingtips image below, the rider tilted the bars up, presumably to address their wrist angle.

enter image description here

However, the quote is instructive:

It’s common for riders to clock their handlebar upward in order to get the hood angle where they want it to be. However, that then places the bar at an awkward angle, and also creates a longer “effective reach” when you’re on the hoods. In reality, these bars should probably be rotated back downward, and the levers slid further up on the bar.

In addition to the quote, this influences the reach from your hands to the levers when you're in the drops. I will second a comment from Vladimir F: the drops are for all people, not just racers, and if you have average flexibility but you can't comfortably use the drops, the bars may be set up wrong.

The general advice from Cyclingtips seems to be that you should get the handlebars into a neutral position, then position the hoods on the bars so that the hoods are at a slight rise. The image below depicts a good neutral starting point for many modern handlebars.

enter image description here

This YouTube video by John Weirath, a bike fitter, is also very instructive. (note: he started with his handlebars rotated very far down for illustrative purposes.)

In sum, altering the angle of your handlebars may put your wrists in a more neutral position, but it will also affect how you use the rest of the bar, including the tops and the drops. Bear in mind that if you adjust your lever position and handlebar angle, you may change the reach to the hoods. If you shorten the reach to the hoods, then chances are this isn't an issue, but lengthening it might be less desirable depending on your flexibility. Last, also remember that professional bike fits are beneficial no matter what level you ride at; I am aware that they are pricey, but they can be very helpful in sorting out position changes like with your wrists.

A final side note: I see you are using 10-speed Campagnolo shifters. I am unable to conclusively verify this, but I recall hearing that these shifters may work better with certain handlebar types than others. I recall that on a more modern ergonomic handlebar, I had the hoods positioned well, but the reach to the brake levers was slightly long when I was in the drops. In this forum thread, several posters seem to be saying that they felt Campagnolo shifters work better on handlebars with classic bends (i.e. more traditional drop bar style, not more modern ergonomic bends). They did not specify which generation of Campagnolo shifters this applied to, and I cannot verify this from my own experience. This may ultimately be a non-issue, but perhaps it is something to be aware of.

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  • Fascinating and illuminating. The linked video is particularly good at illustrating how the shoulders' position can be affected. The motto may be: for a comfortable ride, grab your bike well by the horns, or the hooks. – Sam May 27 at 5:44
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(The following is unproven. After a few experiments, I will either remove this line or delete this answer.)

My question was off in one important detail. Turning the handlebars up simultaneously makes my back and my wrists happy. The issue then is not whether to turn it up, but by how much.

A bike fitter is no doubt helpful, but a personal cycling instructor, one who inspects a cyclist and points out what they're doing wrong, may also be helpful, and in a complementary way. In a sense the former fixes the bike; the latter fixes the cyclist. The discussions here acted as the latter. We're really talking here about bike riding ergonomics. Continuing the analogy with typing, a physician or a physiotherapist may recommend lowering the keyboard shelf, to enable more straight wrists, but their help is pointless unless the user understands the need to type with their elbows beside their waists.

The solution (and this is personal, i.e. YMMV) was to learn how to use the hooks position properly. I cycle on asphalt trails, shared with adults, unpredictable children, and wild ducks and geese that think, correctly, that they own the place. I was hence putting fingers 2, 3, and 4 (counting with the thumb as finger #1) on the levers, all the time that I'm on the hooks, which is most of the time. I'm not sure why I did that. I don't drive with one foot perpetually on the brake pedal, but on a bike I figured I might as well be perpetually in the "ready to shift or brake" position. Having recently moved from an MTB may have been a factor. On an MTB it's not really feasible to keep the thumb and index constantly on the rapid-fire shifters, and a new road cyclist may be tempted to think "here is finally a shifter that I can hold all the time."

It may be more sensible to hold the handlebar, and to move fingers 2, 3, and 4 to the levers anticipating the need to shift or brake, then return to wrapping the fingers around the handlebars.

Moral of the story: if your car has a manual gearbox and you sometimes keep your right (left in the UK etc) hand perpetually on the gear stick (gearshift/shifter) since 1- you're shifting frequently in traffic, 2- you have no other as useful position for that hand, or 3- laziness, since it avoids having to constantly drag that hand between the 2 o'clock (10 o'clock..) position on the steering wheel and the shifter, you may have decided when starting to road cycle that putting the fingers perpetually on the levers is a good idea. It isn't. Holding the levers turns the wrists up by an angle that makes the carpal tunnel no longer straight. That is ok while shifting, but it's not a good position to keep for long.

If the above holds, it's unclear what useful customization is provided by an adjustable stem. Possibly, an adjustable stem fine-tunes the size of the bike frame, making an off-the-shelf bike size better match the rider, who would otherwise be somewhere between two sizes.

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  • Usually the adjustable stem is unnecessary and handlebar height is adjusted by swapping spacers above and below the stem. – ojs May 27 at 6:31
  • @ojs Thank you for the hint and the keyword (I just love bicycles.SE). Are you talking about something like this: amazon.com/Sumind-Pieces-Carbon-Headset-Bicycle/dp/B076QBGXPF , matching either the frame or the fork (alloy/carbon)? – Sam May 27 at 6:43
  • Your bike should already have some. If not, the steerer tube has been cut too short and the stem can't be adjusted. Seriously, it would be really helpful if you could post actual photos of your bike and your position. Otherwise we can just keep guessing. – ojs May 27 at 7:11

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