Vintage vs Modern Fit

A few times, when writing about a vintage bicycle's setup, I have mentioned that it has been configured for a 'modern fit.' Subsequently, I have been asked what that means. Seeing these two bicycles side by side in our yard the other day provided a convenient opportunity to explain. I will preface this by saying that, to experts on the topic - with whom I do not doubt my readership is replete with - my explanation will come across as overly simplified and merely grazing the surface of the subject at hand. But in the interest of those new to the topic and not technically-minded, a discussion needs to start somewhere. And so I'll start mine here.

The two bicycles in the above photo belong to the same rider. Both bicycles fit him. Moreover, despite their dissimilar-looking setups, they fit him similarly - meaning, he is stretched out in a similar way when astride each one. The bicycles achieve this differently: The one on the left stretches the rider out by means of a long top tube. The one on the right does it by means of low handlebars.

If you sit down on a chair and have someone hold an apple just within your reach, this will start to make sense. If they lower the apple, you will have to lean over and reach for it. Now if instead of lowering the apple, they move it slightly further out, you will, likewise, have to lean over and reach for it.

There is a rudimentary geometrical explanation for what I am trying to describe here, but I am going to stay away from abstractions. If you do the reaching for an apple bit, you will start to see how a bicycle can be set up in a variety of ways to achieve similar upper body extension in order to reach the handlebars.

You will also start to see that, just because a bicycle has a metre of seatpost sticking out and a slammed stem, does not necessarily make it an 'aggressive' setup. In fact, depending on the rider's size, it can be quite upright. Similarly, a cyclist riding a bicycle with the saddle and handlebars level can be in a super-aggressive flat-back position.

So why are bicycles today sized down and set up with lots of saddle to handlebar drop, whereas bicycles in the Olden Times (roughly pre-1990) were sized larger, with the handlebars and saddle nearly level?

There are several overlapping explanations, and here is where we get to the more complicated stuff. The move to the modern drivetrain, with its integrated brake/shift levers, resulted in cyclists spending more time on the 'hoods' of their handlebars rather than in the drops. It therefore made sense to lower the entire handlebar setup. Some will argue that the rise in bottom bracket heights over the decades contributed also, as did the changing shape of the bicycle frame as tubing manufacturing practices evolved.

It also goes without saying that there is more to a bicyclist's position than reach alone, and the vintage vs modern setups - combined with a specific frame's geometry - will affect the overall balance and handling of the bike differently. All this is part of a quite multifaceted and sometimes heated discussion, which you can follow on many a bicycle forum.

But also... It cannot be denied, I think, that it's at least partly down to trends - which change for bicycling-related matters just as they do for other aspects of popular culture.

To the eye of today's sporting cyclist, the modern setup simply looks cool - fast, sleek, aggressive. The vintage setup looks quaint, heavy, relaxed.

But trend-based perceptions are not always in line with reality. And let's just say that quite a few of my friends of a Certain Age gently poke fun at the younger road cyclists for being far too upright on their bicycles compared to the 'correct' position. Of course the modern bikes, with their short top tubes and tall head tubes, are to blame.

What constitutes an 'aggressive' setup is subject to cultural/ peer/ marketing influence.

From a practical standpoint, the vintage vs modern fit preference matters, mainly because it determines the frame size we look for in a bicycle. For example, referring again to the photo in this post the bicycle on the left is a 57cm top tube frame, and the bicycle on the right is a 54cm. Put simply: for a vintage fit, you will need a larger frame ...and a polishing cloth for those pretty downtube shifters!


  1. Don't we know much more about the human body now than thirty years ago, therefore set-up and positions are much different on modern bikes? Being a visual person I'd love to see line drawings on the wall behind the bikes of him as he sits on each. Curious about the angles of back, hip, and arms and also head height. It seems to me that modern bikes are set up more and more with very long steering tubes, higher handlebars and more upright positions while still being efficient. It's complicated in my mind ;)

    1. Part of the reason for that handlebar position is, I suspect, the existence of brifters, and the associated existence of an obvious primary position (at some level there really isn't one on many older setups). Where some people stick the hoods today isn't too far off from being in between where hoods and drops would have been previously.
      And notice a related consideration: handlebar geometry and drop. If you're on a vintage bike and the hoods are a somewhat arms-forward position, rotating your arm downward sends your hand more down than backwards, and the deep drops aren't too far from where your hand ends up. But if the hoods are already close and deep below you, rotating your arms downward causes your hands to come down less and backwards more, putting them nowhere near the deep drops. So we now use shallower bars that put the drops less down and more behind where you'd grab the brakes. So you still end up with a continuum of positions.

      >"and more upright positions while still being efficient."

      There's nothing magical about modern bike fit that makes being upright more aero. But some bikes currently are getting fit with the handlebars pretty high relative to the rest of the fit.

      If the saddle is back and down, rotating the rider backwards around the bottom bracket, you sort of have to raise the bars so that they're leg-to-torso angle doesn't have them scrunched over. This is how upright fits just go.

      But, what if the saddle is forward and up, as if the rider is expected to be forward and aggressive on the bike, and yet the handlebars are still not dropped that much? That is, the handlebars seem relatively high for the fit.

      Well, first possibility, perhaps the cyclist has tiny t-rex arms. So even pitched forward with their back flat, they can't reach the bars unless they're super high. This is a huge consideration with bicycle fit: it's impossible to tell how aggressive a fit is simply by looking at the drop (or rise!) from saddle to handlebars.

      Okay, but what if they've got normal proportions, and the bars are simply higher than expected given where everything else is. Well... maybe they just didn't put the bars silly low.
      Suppose you take a fit that works well, and you slam the stem without adjusting anything else. Is the rider now more aero? Realistically, probably not; to reach the newly-formed low postures, they'd have to lean forward and scrunch their leg-to-torso angle, making it hard to breath and pedal and be comfortable. Instead, they'll just use the few remaining non-aggressive options of the handlebar. This obviously makes the bike less versatile. Actually, it might even make the rider LESS aero, since they're less likely to try using postures involving level forearms and bent elbows.

      Curiously, the basic fit the LBS gave me for my 2016 Emonda ALR ended up with a lot of similarities to my '79 Fuji America. Almost no saddle-to-bar drop, and I largely default to the drops. To achieve this, no spacers below the stem were moved; since that's how it's shipped, apparently Trek expects the average customer to want a pretty considerable tower of spacers.
      I've been told that it's unfortunate that Trek would think that their customers would want to ride a high-performance racing bike in such a relaxed posture.
      On the other hand, the people I actually ride with have told me I'm hard to draft. And I'm a 175lb 5'11" guy, so I'm not tiny.
      The bars may be high, but digging deep in the hooks, I'm hardly "relaxed." Sure, I've got some very relaxed postures available, but when I'm in the phantom aerobars, I'm rarely wishing that I had more postures on the aggressive end.

    2. I agree. I'd like to see photos with the rider on each bike. Lines showing angles would be even more helpful. However, I suspect V's point is that the rider's position is very similar on both bikes, it's the bikes themselves that take a very different approach in producing the same "fit data points" between butt, feet and hands. The triangles drawn between the contact points may be very similar, it's how each bike fills in the space within each triangle that differs greatly from each other.

  2. There is an old type of photograph we used to call a style study. A profile shot of a rider pedalling at full effort, foot towards the camera at bottom of pedal stroke. Full effort on flat ground, but not cornering and not sprinting. Rider on bike gives a great deal more information than just a bike.

    Just in general, with many possibilities for being wrong in a particular instance, saddles are tilted for reasons. If a rider of the female gender has the saddle pointed down that is merely a function of anatomy. Though tilt as much as shown here would raise a question. When a rider of the male gender has the saddle tilted down the most common explanation is the saddle is simply too high and has been tilted to allow the rider to get his feet a bit closer to the pedals.

    A metre of seatpost will not work with a vintage frame. The frame isn't even made to survive all the leverage such a post puts on the seat tube and seat lug. Standard vintage seatpost is 180mm long. If you can't get the saddle where you want it with a 180mm seatpost, and have a good safe 60 or 70mm inside the frame, you should not be riding a vintage frame. A vintage frame will handle horribly with a metre of seatpost up.

    Steve Tilford has passed. He pedalled like a dream. In a field of fifty riders you could always see him. The smooth clean pedal action, the presence.

    1. Thankfully there is only half a metre of seatpost showing, so should be fine ; )

  3. New style not lovely in my eyes. When did aggressive become a positive thing?

    1. Aggressive has always been perceived as a positive thing when it comes to the look of anything associated with sport, and especially racing. The vintage racing bikes were considered extremely aggressive-looking in their time, and that was seen as part of their appeal.

    2. Vocabulary changes over time. Have not heard panache or brio recently. We seem to no longer have riders with férocité or audacité. Souplesse and suffering are out of style. But I do agree that one look at the bikes above says they belong to aggressive rider.

  4. What are these bikes used for? How many miles per week and how long is the average ride?

    1. The bike on the left (this one) is used mostly for transport, though it has been modified over time to be more aggressive and is occasionally ridden for longer distances as well. Can't tell you milage per week, but average rides are probably 10 vs 35 miles. Of course fit is not the only difference between them.

  5. Is it only me, or does the bicycle on the left simply look both more comfortable and faster at the same time? Like you could just snug up into those drops and...go!

  6. Nice post, when talking about bike fit I've always thought that theres a 'correct' fit for saddle height, cleat position, Q factor etc. Which can in effect almost be calculated from anatomical dimensions. Your article and the Apple analogy really highlights IMO the grey area in bike fit around the cockpit. Whilst I'm sure others may disagree with me on this, I feel handlebar height and reach should be positioned where the rider is comfortable and relaxed, which is determined more by feel than by body measurements. I'll probably reuse the Apple idea when talking fit in the future! 'Position the Apple where it feels right'.

    1. "Fit" involves not only dimensions but strength, flexibility, joint mobility and a host of other biomechanical functions, all of which are subject to change.

  7. Prepare yourself for comments about the saddle angle(s)

  8. I take objection to the use of the word "evolved" to describe modern tubing manufacturing practices. Otherwise, great explanation.

  9. Riders just touching handlebars with fingertips not an unusual sight today. If they went down in the drops in something else than full speed they would lose their balance.

  10. I prefer modern. I find it much more comfortable to angle the arms down, rather than overly stretched out. In my opinion slammed stem and short reach is much less tiresome on the hands.

    But I used to be one of the other guys ;-)

  11. I always get a laugh when I, an old fat guy riding a steel frame bike with the handlebars as high as my sprung leather saddle, ascend a hill passing all the whippets on their plastic bikes, with handlebars down around their knees, just because I know how to use the (limited) strength in my (aging) body.

    Those seat angles are a direct route to numbness of the hands and excessive pedal pressure as you try to keep from sliding off to the front. Clearly a style, not a functional, choice. Level out those saddles, use one of appropriate width, and learn how to spin rather than mash, and your performance and endurance will improve drastically.

    A lot of times a larger frame can actually result in a lighter bike, as the extra length of tubing is lighter than the additional weight of extra long seatposts and stems.

  12. Frame size/fit evolution? Hmmm. Thirty years ago i was told that my ideal frame fit for racing was a 56cm road & 54cm on the track (the thinking being that on the track one needed a smaller frame to get that aggressive sprinters' position.) The seats were high, the stems long and "slammed" and fitted with the deepest drops available -that was the fashion and practice of the times. i was never comfortable and i think that the numb and achy hands i experience today have much to do with excessive pressure from too much body weight on the bars.
    As i aged, i found it better to move up frame sizes to ease my hands, neck, and lower back. My road racing bike went to a 58, the track a 57. Now i ride a 60 or 61 road frame (the track iron long retired-) and shortened and raised the stem keeping the bar tops within a couple of centimeters of the saddle top. i'll add that i exclusively ride "classic" style frames with level top tubes (i abhor the 'modern' designs with the ridiculously long seat pillars and huge head tubes.)i'm much more comfortable nowadays, and yet avoid a "sit-up-and-beg" position.
    "Proper" bike fit is an arcane science- a matter of religious fervour for some, and a money-maker for some shops that claim to specialize in "professional bike fittings." i think the 'evolution' of setup has more to do with the changes of an aging body than any advances in fitting philosophies.

  13. "the bicycle on the left is a 57cm top tube frame, and the bicycle on the right is a 54cm"

    Somewhat negated by the different bar reach on display though?

    Although both bicycles appear to have similar length stems, the one on the left clearly has modern compact shape bars, probably with a reach off 75-85mm

    The one on the right has an older (but not vintage) geometry bar, reach looks likely to be int he 100-110mm region maybe?

    This 25-35mm difference is very close to the difference in TT length, even discounting any changes in bar height, an whether you were referring to 'virtual TT', 'actual TT' which can both be influenced heavily by seat angle depending how/where you measure.

    When discussing frame sizing I am a big fan of the Stack and Reach approach, as it allows frames to be compared fairly independently of anatomical peculiarities of exactly where you set you saddle and bar, as you have rightly pointed out in your article it is possible to get good fit (and even identical fit) in terms fo contact points on two very dissimilar frames.

    Bike fit is a fascinating topic and a rabbit-hole of reading material awaits anyone interested enough to investigate, beware of the zealots though!

  14. So, I get it if you're saying the same rider can ride different looking bikes and have similar reach. That makes sense because I can watch riders all day long from my park bench and observe, despite a variety of bikes, that those looking the most comfortable have very similar reach. Even on upright bikes it becomes clear that there are certain angles at play. Then someone would go by with an odd reach issue happening, either hands way out in front or uncomfortable close to knees and I can't figure out the whys and implications. I still don't understand the 'modern' vs. 'vintage' terminology. Are you saying modern bikes are all set up with lower bars than vintage? Or are you speaking of performance bikes, mostly? Sorry, still confused.

  15. Great article, thank you!

    My dad, at the same build and height as me but with 30 years more cycling experience, would always ride a traditional setup such as your bike on the left, in a 60cm. The story was that, as a teenager, Harry Hall sized him up as a '60' by eye alone, and the 50 years of riding since have proved him right.

    Coming to road cycling from mountain biking in the 90's, as many did, I started on a 56 frame with a foot of seatpost and bars round my ankles, because that was what mountain bikes looked like at the time. Only after 20 years riding bent double have I discovered (while riding a vintage Holdsworth rescued from a skip) that a 60cm traditional frame means I don't need to finish every long ride with my fingertips just touching the bars to save my aching back, nor do I end up with numb parts from the 6 inch drop to the bars, which I had previously thought was just a necessary sacrifice of riding a road bike. And, would you believe, I can use the drops! The 'sportive' bike with tall head tube seems to be a way for the industry to find it's way back to the old genre of fit without sacrificing the 'pro' look of the compact frame.

  16. The basic design of bicycles is so sound, so strong, so good, that all manner of unusual and improbable builds will work. The human side of the equation is even more flexible and adaptable. When traveling I have set up bikes just about exactly like the Damiani above. And have set up such bikes for visitors. They qualified as rideable. A big rider on a little roller skate of a bike is not optimum.

  17. This is a fascinating topic, and one to which I have given a lot of thought recently. Having spent a career in the Marine Corps, I have a heavy upper-body. Riding in drops puts so much weight on my hands and wrists that I can only do that comfortably for a short ride. I have found that, the more upright the riding position, the more comfortable I am. Of course, this precludes any notion of riding fast because of compromised aerodynamics.

    So I have replaced all my drop bars with one I've found that has a slight rise and slight pullback, and then installed ergonomic grips. Problem solved, and I can ride all day now. As for distance, I always get there eventually...

  18. Dear Velouria,

    loving your blog, I feel it’s time to comment for the first time.

    My feeling is that the setups vary in the expected manner, but not so much in a vintage vs. modern way, rather in an „every day“ vs „sports and exercise“ way. So „randonneur“ (for commuting) vs. „road bike“. If the more vintage bike was used for the latter purpose, I’m sure it would end up with a more aggressive setting as well.

    However, the setup of both bikes remind me very much of my own bike-fit experimentation phase.
    (At 1.98m, it’s not easy to get a good bike fit - and a fitting bike.)
    To me, the setup looks like the rider is not too flexible in the lower back any more, probably on the strong and tall side for either bike - perhaps between 1,80m and 1.85m and at least in the late 40ies?). A better fit might result from using a higher (and perhaps longer) stem, moving the saddle a little further back, and finally, turning the saddle horizontal again. Which would correspond to a rearward rotation of the rider around the bottom bracket for both bikes.
    The resulting horizontal saddle would enable the rider to „play the piano while cycling“ again - as recommended by the great Bernard Hinault - while giving far more control on decents, a better overview in town, and probably more endurance.

    But obviously, I might be wrong with my „playing detective“…

    But please continue the excellent work on your fine blog!


  19. I'll admit that my newest personal road bike is a 1989 Nishiki which I have set up with the stem and saddle more-or-less in line. It came with crazy deep drops which I found with my - ahem - stature, led me to kneeing myself in the gut every pedal revolution. I shortened up the drops and raised the handlebars. Nearly all of my drop bar bikes have bars set up somewhere near parallel to the saddle, and are in the 58-62cm range.

    I've ridden modern bikes like the one shown, and I can't get comfortable. It's "OK" on the hoods, but drops? Useless to me. I've been waffling on buying a brand new bike that would be my every-day bike, and if I were to do that, it would be a modern "vintage" bike - a Surly, most likely...

  20. The other day I was sitting enjoying a free cup of tea, courtesy of Waitrose, half way through a very enjoyable 40 mile bike ride (on a mixte, average speed about 9 mph, lovely) when along came a lady a bit older than my 61 years, on a pretty old (and looking as if it needed some maintenance....) Mercian road bike. I'd heard of Mercian but never seen one. How interesting, I thought, that her saddle is about the same height as her handlebars - I thought this was odd. Along came Husband with similar bike (in similar condition, with ancient Carradice saddlebag) and same sort of saddle position. I also know of an elderly Lejog-er who did it on a bike her husband built for her, and I remember thinking, seeing the photos of her bike, that surely the saddle was much too low, being level with the handlebars, but I said nowt. Apparently someone had actually told her that her saddle was much too low, to which she had taken huge offence. Now, after reading your post, I am beginning to understand why maybe her saddle was NOT too low.

  21. See link for interesting discussion on this topic by the Retrogrouch from a few years back. The post in turn links to a relevant post by Dave Moulton on how the evolution of frame design has affected rider position.

  22. Thank you for noting it is possible to ride flat-backed on many different types of bikes. I do it on my DL-1 with flat bars about an inch above the saddle. It is not about aggression, it's because the big DL-1 catches a lot of wind, in a headwind on that bike you will try anything. Flat back comes from bending forward at the hips instead of bending somewhere in the middle of the back.

  23. Something about this topic really gnaws at me and while I don't fully agree with you're analogy I don't exactly disagree either.
    Being a little older then you and having worked in a bike shop, I know you can't really generalize too much about vintage frames, because they had they're own fads that came and went. sometimes in the 70's there was a short trend toward smaller frames with LOOONNNG stems & seat posts raised to their max. the feeling being that smaller frames were lighter. Sill I know! Another thing that happen with vintage frames even supposedly "Custom" frames is that they got into kind of a rut with frame dimensions, many dimensions were more or less standardized (like Chain stays, seat angles, etc.) and the rest of the bike from there could be dictated by the lugs available, etc. design broke down even more between different countries and traditions of building, which is why some people like Italian bikes or French bikes or old Raleighs.
    Today, we have people who are not only frame designers/builders, but students of the past, they can look at the frames of the last century, see what worked and what didn't and react accordingly.
    Important to realize that cycling is more mainstream then it's ever been, there is much more incentive to innovate and tempt customers with more and more cutting edge design.
    Back when I started cycling "seriously" anybody riding by themselves on a bike in the middle of the country was eccentric or "a nut", etc. Ordering a "Custom" bike was not only seriously ambitious, but really a total shot in the dark unless you lived local to a customer frame builder or could travel to be fitted.
    I feel like if the average vintage builder rode a modern frame, they would probably go back to their shop and start copying it straight away! - masmojo

  24. What stands out in comparing the two bikes is the steep seat tube of the bike on the right and the resulting position of the saddle relative to the pedals. The pedals are moved closer under the saddle causing an unbalanced riding position. Going back to the apple and chair analogy, stretching for the apple is much more natural and comfortable if one's feet are positioned in front of the chair seat rather than tucked back underneath. Pedaling a bike is similar to a natural walking gate, and no one can walk without placing one foot forward at a time. This seems to me to be at least as important as top tube length and bar height, and perhaps much more primary to a comfortable and natural riding posture. Offset seat posts and saddles adjusted to the rear are a good place to start the bike fit process.

  25. Opinions may vary. In 65 years of cycling I've found that trends come and go and this is really no different.
    In the 60's, 70's and early 80's bicycle frames came in many sizes from 48 to 62 cm. as the baby boomers passed through the bicycle buying phase of their lives, the manufacturers had to come up with new ways to change the product to keep and get new customers. One way to do this was to introduce new features i.e. indexed shifting, more gears. different headsets, new style bottom brackets, new frame materials, and many many more. The list would cover pages.
    The frame size and fit issue was really caused by manufacturers realizing that they could make fewer frame sizes and keep essentially the same fit by using longer stems and seat posts. It works but it looks ugly (my opinion). I try to tell my new to cycling friends and customers that that the best bike you can buy is the one you'll ride and be happy on.
    Sorry about the rant

  26. Wishes of an excellent 2018! Hope to read again from you here, in 2018



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