Posted by: Mike Rubbo | September 25, 2009

Why Our Beetle Posture?

David Hembrow’s marvelous blog, The View from the Cycle Path, is written from an English perspective.

But it comes from the heart of Holland, where David now lives, and is a superb source of sensible info as to what actually works when you have a society, like Holland, truly committed to safe and pleasant biking around.

It’s peer, I find is Mikael’s Colville-Andersen’s marvelous , blog, There are links to both blogs on the side, here.

David recently put up a video clip which, while lacking in storyline (something I obsess about) and snappy editing, is still quite hypnotic.

What you see is nothing but bike traffic, from the station of a town, a place called, Hertogenbosch.

The camera was set up by Mark Wegenbuur who resides there, I guess. What Mark gets is a lovely flow of unhurried cyclists, going where they need to go. None seem to notice the camera.

What fascinated me was that, in the two minutes running time, I didn’t see a single hunched-over Dutch cyclist, the default posture in Australia.

The posture was dramatically on show this sunny Sunday morning as I attended the start of a huge cycle ride through Sydney, organized by the city and Bicycle NSW .

I saw many thousands of cyclists, all eager to start off, bunched together in hundreds to be sent off in waves (I’ll post a video soon)

Few riders would have guessed that I was checking their postures closely.

Here are some of the latecomers. Of the many thousands, I saw only one bike with handlebars curved back, the rider upright, as is every rider in the Dutch video.

The rest, 10,000 perhaps, were all to varying degrees, hunched over.

spring cycle 002.jpg for behind 300

spring cycle 007.yelow jacket 300

spring one young 300

I can’t, as yet, find anyone discussing posture, asking the legitimate question, is this the way we should be riding?

Riding a bike is a sort of conversation with the world around you. If you are hunched over, looking at your front wheel for much of the time, what sort of dialogue is that?

In that position, do you encourage those who see you, motorists, pedestrians, to take up cycling, or do you telegraph a sort of fixated lonely purpose, getting somewhere at speed.

Is it not a cocoon posture, not as closed off as that of a motorist, but closed to some degree?

Imagine if you walked down the street, bent forward, head half raised. What sort of message would that send to those you passed on the pavement?

A, ‘leave me alone,’ message perhaps.

bikew in traffic

If you think I exaggerate, here’s the alternative, David Hembrow (View from the cycle path) fully interacting with a fellow rider nearby.

Would you not be tempted wave to this guy, even shout a greeting about the ride, the day?

V david hembrow, 400

More so at least than to these riders, surely! Would it be a bad thing if cycling, off the race circuit, became less about speed and more about friendliness?

leisure ccling small

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it does come from the strength of sports cycling here, so that even non racers are copy catting.

It’s a debate we need to have since it might help bring in a new type of cyclist, the sort of people who are trying the Velibs in Paris or the Bixis in Montreal

It might be better for our riding health as well, to think more about posture

My partner in bike interest, Dr Ian Charlton, tells me of a local physiotherapist, treating in a rider with some of the various common cycling pains, the crick in the neck, the sore wrists and the lower back problems, and who suggested to the woman that she give up riding.

He didn’t apparently know that there’s an easy solution to getting rid of those ills, sitting up straight like all the riders in Mark’s video.

Some of the riders at the Spring meet claimed that the Hunch-over position provides less wind resistance, seemingly a good point.

I wonder how true it is since countries with ferocious head winds, like Denmark and Holland, both favor the upright posture.

Anyway, it’s something I want to look into soon.

Thanks, Mark and David too, for the video.



  1. Very valuable testimony, Herve, because the conventional wisdom is that the sit-up bike is no good over a long distance, and yet the woollongong ride is a long distance, is it not?

    Also, you said that other riders, bent ove,r had to stretch at stops. Do you mean that their riding position seemed to cramp them?

    Did anyone show any curiosity in the fact that you were on an upright bike? Ask if you were comfortable, etc.?

    I think cyclists here are brainwashed, by whom and to what purpose, i don’t know.


    • Wollongong is a 90km ride. There are a few stops along the way, to replenish food & water. It is done mostly by casual riders, not by racers. I’m sure that for quite a few of them, it is the longest ride they have done for a while.

      I can’t really tell whether it was cramping or discomfort. I just noticed quite a few people who seemed relieved to get off their bike and needed to stretch straight away. Clearly it wasn’t the most comfortable riding position for them. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

      Nobody seemed to take an interest in my comfortable riding position. A hybrid bike looks almost like a mountain bike, so it doesn’t look that unusual.

      It seems to me that most people simply accept the environment they grew up in as ‘normal’, without experimenting too much. Most people in Holland accept the upright riding position as normal. Most people here accept the crouched riding position as normal.

      It’s only when you become aware of different possibilities that you start to question what you are doing. Hopefully theses interesting blog posts will incite people to consider riding in a more upright position. If it suits them better, then that will be a good thing. It doesn’t hurt to try.

  2. I agree, this is very odd that, in this country, you find mostly racing or mountain bikes in the shops. There are also a few hybrids, that have adjustable handlebars. If you adjust the handlebars all the way up, you can almost get an upright riding position.

    For most people, it seems that they pick up a bike and assume they have to adjust to the crunched over riding position, assuming it is “normal”.

    Coming from Europe, I don’t find it normal. I find it too uncomfortable. I ride to work a few times per week, 20km each way, on an upright bike. To me an upright bike is perfect for this, especially if you have to go around the city traffic.

    I ride mostly for the enjoyment and exercise. I find an upright riding position best for that. Speed doesn’t really matter to me.

    I have also done the Sydney to Wollongong ride (90km) twice, on an upright bike. No problems at all. I found it really comfortable and easy to ride a bike like that over long distance. And there are a few hills in that ride. A strange thing I noticed during the last gong ride was the many people who had to stretch during the stops. I didn’t really understand what the problem was at the time.

    With an upright bicycle, you can still lean forward if you want to, for example in the hills or in a strong head wind. At least you have the CHOICE as to which position you want to adopt. You are not forced into the crouched position.

    On a road or a mountain bike, you forced to be crouched over all the time. Some people let go of the handlebars for a few moments to get a bit of a break. This reduces their ability to react in an emergency. That is a bit more risky way to ride.

    I can understand that racers want an optimal position for speed. That is the nature of racing. For those who are not racing, it might be worth trying to ride an upright bicycle and see if it works better for you.

    That’s what makes the bike shares so great. An easy and cheap way to try an upright bike.

  3. Mike, what do you make of upright bikes fitted with tri-bars ?

    People here are simply pragmatists. The upright position is just lovely and ideal for most journeys – until you’re facing a really vicious headwind… That’s also why recumbent bikes and velomobiles sell more here than anywhere else.

    In NL, commuters are only one part of utility cycling. As they’re generally in a hurry, and may have a distance to go, commuters are more likely to use a dropped handlebar bike, a recumbent or some other way of increasing their speed than someone who is going shopping.

    While I ride the upright bike shown in the photo to go shopping or go on shorter rides with the family, I ride something completely different to commute and soon will upgrade to something quicker still.

  4. Try cycling up and down hills in an upright position, or try sustaining a decent speed in an upright position for 100kms – it’s not going to happen – and I can’t see how you would get yourself into a comfortable bent over position on an upright bike if your bent over for a long period of time.

    Riding ‘hunched over’ on a regular bike can be very comfortable – provided that you have the bike setup properly for you (most people don’t)

    Upright cycling would be nice for short trips around town on the flat – but not for a 10+km commute or cycling for fitness.

    • Rob, You are right, it might be a bit harder, but how much harder? Enough to justify being somewhat less comfortable and less safe for 100% of the ride?

      Up straight, you see better, you make eye contact with drivers, establishing a much better relationship, and it’s easier to have an use a rear view mirror, an essential safety item.

      We should set up some compartive tests

      As for hills, where I live, it’s quite hilly and no one cycles as transport, which is why I gt an electric bike.

      This bike, which still gives me a great work out (I’ve lost 12 kilos takes care of both hills and headwinds in the sense that there’s still efforr but not pain. (see first post)

    • A few other thoughts, Rob. My main interest is commuter cycling.

      Sport cycling which I guess you do, the 100 km rides, etc, that sort of cycling needs little advocacy, it seems to me.

      But using the bike to get to work, go to the shops, etc, (short trips) that’s the type of riding that’s lagging here, and which I want to help promote.

      There has been a big increase in commuting here,it’s true, but we still trail the world. In Copenhagen, the bike commute rate is 40%. In Sydney, it’s around 2%. Melb. around 3.5%

      We still need to find ways to make commuting by bike safer and more comfortable, which is where up straight, comes in as part of the solution, in my opinion.

      It can be no co incidence that all the big commuter cycle countries like Holland, Denmark, Germany etc, most riders sit up straight.

      It surely means that, if you are not interested in racing, if you just want to get somewhere, that’s the best posture.

      As for winds, Denmark and Holland have some of the fiercest winds around. I’ve cycled in northern Denmark, up Skagen way, and it’s like riding into a wall. And yet still people vastly prefer the upright position. Very curious.

      • I do a mixture of commuting and sport/recreational cycling for fitness and fun.

        It surely means that, if you are not interested in racing, if you just want to get somewhere, that’s the best posture.

        I agree (though I don’t race, but do ride as fast as possible most of the time) I’m looking into the upright bicycle option for a friend who just wants a bike for short trips – We’re considering a regular mountain bike fitted with slightly swept back bars, like these handlebars;

        but with a shorter stem.

        I would like to try an upright bike, I think they’d be great for short trips on the flat, but I wouldnt want to ride one up a hill!

        I think they would be usefull for people that are a bit worried about cycling and don’t feel comfortable on a regular ‘bent over’ bicycle – I assume they’d be easier to balance.

        I can’t personally see myself riding one for fun as I find riding a regular road bike quite fun, and I don’t think an upright bike would be practical for my commute (30km return with a few hills).

  5. Hey thanks for putting up my video! But this one isn’t really one shot, nor was it from one position. I did edit out one or two cars here…
    I do have another video from this street. That IS really one shot of ten minutes compressed into two and a half.
    And indeed nobody bending over in that one either. This really isn’t a very special street really. You could find streets like this all over the Netherlands.


    • Mark, I’ve been meaning to write to you and personally request permission to use your clip, and I do apologize for not noticing the cuts.

      I’ve been in Sydney filming the start of a massive city bike ride. maybe 10,000 riders. I was only one who was not suffering from Beetle Bane. I’ll look at your other clip with interest

  6. I have to point out what’s written on the T-shirt I’m wearing in the photo… It’s the T-shirt from a racing event I took part in last month, in which most competitors were nearly horizontal.

    To me, all kinds of cycling are worthwhile. However, for trips to the shops and other similar utility journeys you’ll usually find me about as upright as its possible to be.

    • David, sorry it always coming across as to absolutist. But if you’d been with me this morning, as I told mark, I was thousands of cyclist all file past and one one had curved bars. I talked to some and the general reason was, they did not know there was any other way to ride but bent over.

  7. What was striking to me about that video was the way the few motorised vehicles (I think two cars and a bus in total) had to creep slowly through the two-wheeled traffic, finding their space on the road that they were allowed to squeeze onto. Remind you of anything? Kind of like being on a bike anywhere else…

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