Because I work with a large range of athletes, from pros and top age groupers to people buying their first road or tri bike, I thought a bit of perspective on positioning might be helpful as there is a lot of often contradictory information about proper positioning and fit technicians out there.
Many industry triathlon and cycling people advocate aggressive forward and low positions. This can work quite well for some riders. However, it does not work well for everyone and many riders simply do not have the mileage and riding experience, core strength, or range of motion in their body to be able to hold this position. In other cases there are medical reasons (sciatica, for example) or injuries that often do not make a real forward and low position a smart decision either. Regardless of whether you are a first-timer or can turn a sub-nine hour Ironman, you should not base your riding position purely upon the positions that a pro athlete or editor of a magazine or web site is able to ride successfully. What works best for them doesn’t work best for everyone.
Just because someone has their arm pads or handlebars only a few centimeters below their saddle height, it does not necessarily mean that they are set-up poorly or inefficiently for what their body and conditioning are currently capable of and for the courses they race on. I’ve had more than a few people who had been riding their bikes set-up with low (arm pads/bars 10-17cm below the top of saddle) that they simply could not hold. These riders usually had back and neck pain and (in some severe cases) found themselves crashing when trying to ride in the aerobars. In many cases, the only position they could ride comfortably and confidently in was with their hands resting on the top of the armpads (which certainly isn’t very aerodynamic). Based upon principles of biomechanics and flexibility, I often change many aspects of these rider’s position. Often this we raise some rider’s armpads so that the rider is able to comfortably and efficiently rest in the aerobars without pain because they are within their range of motion and strength capabilities. They also gain more confidence in the aerobars as their weight becomes more evenly distributed on the bike for their level of experience and the events they are participating in. This greatly helps their efficiency as the aero position is only aero if you can hold it and you are on two wheels…
So what position should you be riding? I can’t make an accurate recommendation without seeing you. However, I can offer some insight into how to find someone to help you out. The first is to ask questions and make sure they understand the big picture. For example, two very important principles that many fitters and fit systems do not pay much attention to, or always have a very good understanding of, are how your range-of-motion/flexibility and core strength/cycling muscle development effects positioning. If a rider has only 55 degrees of motion in their hip flexor(s) and can not touch their toes, how are they ever going to hold and ride efficiently with the bars 10-15cm below the top of their saddle? Such a position will almost certainly cause them back pain and cause excessive pelvic rock which can be both inefficient and can contribute to repetitive use injuries as well. Common sense says that if your body can’t go that low off the bike, it probably isn’t going to go much lower on the bike. Find out if your prospective fitter understands this or not.
One of the most important things for a good fitter to understand is that every rider is unique and everything is related. Based upon the type of competition they will be involved in, their body’s capabilities and structure, I set some folks up 10-15cm below the top of the saddle, some 1-9cm below and a few with short humerus bones and acute comfort issues end up with their saddle even with their bars. With time and work on the athlete’s part, they might be able to move towards a lower position as they gain flexibility and strength or an injury heals. But in the meantime, you have to go with where you are at now. While lower might be faster for some, it most certainly is not for others.
Humans and their riding positions are dynamic. This is why computer and “tradition based” fit formulas do not work consistently. The best way to be positioned properly is to search-out, find and travel to someone that understands fits with a rider first approach that takes your individual needs directly into account. If a qualified technician places you in a more upright position or further back than what many advocate, realize that they probably did so for reasons beyond just aerodynamics (which is only one variable of many in positioning) and, depending upon your situation, you can be faster and more comfortable because of it. Also realize that, with work on strength and flexibility, as well as just putting in the miles, many riders can achieve a more aggressive position with time as their bodies adjust and strengthen. Because of this dynamic element to human existence, having your position readdressed at least once a season (especially if notable changes in mileage, an injury, or increased strength work and flexibility have occurred) is recommended.
In the end, there is not one position that works best for everyone. However, there are technicians that can help just about everyone. The better the technician understands the principals of biomechanics and skeletal structure/alignment, how well they interview and listen to the individual rider, and the better they understand the bike(s), technology and events/rides the rider is involved with, the better your position will be and the faster you will ride in comfort.