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In one sentence…

What is the meaning (and for which parts), the implications, and, if possible, the etymology of these three terms?

In more words…

When I hear this bike has more aggressive geometry than that one, I gather that the position of the cyclist will be lower, and hence more aerodynamic—in other words, faster, but less comfortable.

But I'm not too sure what to conclude when I hear this bike has a slacker head tube angle. I understand that the head tube will start to look like a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I also vaguely gather that it will be easier to hit small obstacles at speed, but my reaction remains "yes, and?".

Another term that the pundits throw around in online fora is this bike has more relaxed geometry, which can be an umbrella term for a longer wheelbase, but then, oddly, the cyclist's position also becomes more aggressive, which may be distinct from talking about the bicycle's geometry being aggressive, even if both imply, say, a longer wheelbase.

Elsewhere also the implications will vary wildly. A slacker seat tube angle—at an extreme such as that on those Townies that enable a flat foot on the ground while seated—means a less aggressive bike, rather than the aggressive one implied by a slacker head tube angle.

Can you provide the 101 of this jargon trio, sufficient to read cycling magazine reviews?

Also, if you've figured out why a clothing or attitude term (slack-er) rather than a geometry term (acute/obtuse), and a temperament term (relaxed) came to be used in cycling, do share.

Related

  • An excellent introductory exposition appears here.

1 Answer 1

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Not everyone uses language the same way. Also, there's no central body putting out a dictionary of what cycling terms mean. Thus, I can only attest as to what I think these terms mean, based on my cycling and reading experience. I am also writing more from the perspective of drop bar bikes, although MTB geometry also merits discussion.

My sense is that "aggressive geometry" vs. "relaxed geometry" probably refers more to the seating position, as you imply. Aggressive = lower stack, longer reach. Relaxed (may also be called upright) = the reverse.

Aggressive or relaxed geometry can also be conflated with the bike's handing geometry. However, if you prefer a more upright seat position, this usually goes with more stable steering. A more detailed explanation of steering geometry is available in this Cyclingtips article. Briefly, a steeper head tube angle makes the bike more maneuverable and more responsive to steering input. This can be summarized by the trail measurement. A steeper head angle produces lower trail and faster handling, although the trail also depends on the fork rake. I believe that synonyms include describing the handling as fast, twitchy, or stable.

(Note that touring bikes designed with front racks may have lower trail than many road bikes, yet they wouldn't be considered aggressive. The front loads slow down the bike's responsiveness to steering. Indeed, such a touring bike with an average trail figure would probably handle much too slowly.)

MTB geometry has evolved in recent years, towards relatively long top tubes/long reach, short stems, and slack head angles. These produce much higher trail than the average road bike. This makes them stable on downhills, although that is offset somewhat by the shorter stems. This trend has also come to influence some gravel bikes, especially the ones designed for rougher terrain. I've heard people say that a bike has "progressive geometry" to indicate this general tendency, or that the bike is longer and slacker (in the head angle) than bikes comparable in age. I am not sure about this, but if someone says "slack geometry", they may mean this characteristic more than a road bike with slack angles. Note also that modern MTB seat angles are much steeper than road bikes, and yet we would generally describe modern MTBs as slacker than road bikes.

I don't think that people use these general terms to refer to the seat angle for drop bar bikes, at least not right now. My sense is that most drop bar bikes have pretty similar seat angles for a given frame size. Triathlon bikes and MTBs have evolved significantly steeper seat angles than road bikes, often near 78 degrees, whereas your average road bike is probably around 73 degrees in a medium-ish size. I have a custom road bike with a 76 degree seat angle, due to short legs plus personal preference. To indicate this trait, I just say something like "my seat angle is steep", possibly with an adjective like pretty, kind of, very, freakishly, etc.

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