Upright Bikes – Sit Up and Enjoy the Ride

The rider-friendly features of upright bicycles tend to encourage a different style of riding than the recreation-oriented North American norm.

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Olga Canlas on the Sillgey Belle. Photo by Trevor Block.

Olga Canlas on the Sillgey Belle. Photo by Trevor Block.

Fifteen years ago, I bought a secondhand sky-blue 1979 Trek, a road bike only slightly younger than me. It was a step into an unfamiliar world of elegant vehicles – until then, my rides had all been cheap, rusty or semibroken.

Pedaling home from the bike shop, stretched over the low-slung handlebars, I noted some things.

“My hands hurt,” I told my companion, a former bike mechanic. “The seat hurts. And my neck hurts.”

“Changing hand positions should help,” he said. “The rest, you have to get used to.”

I kept riding. But the posture the sleek bike required – weight on the hands, crotch against an unforgiving racing seat, back in a range of diagonal angles, neck craning – was rekindling some old injuries.

“Could a person put different handlebars on a bike? To sit up?” I asked.

“You’d have to change out a few other parts,” the ex-mechanic said, “but you could do it.”

Conversational Cycling on Upright Bikes. Photo by Kamil Bialous.

Conversational Cycling on Upright Bikes. Photo by Kamil Bialous.

Weeks of size miscalculations and trips to the used-parts bin later, the Trek was set up like a funny, small-boned cruiser. And then I discovered something I didn’t anticipate: I loved getting around on a bike. I wanted to ride every day. The upright riding position dates back to the earliest days of cycling. From the nineteenth century onward, riders could sit up as if in a chair, whether they tooled around on velocipedes, penny-farthings, safety bicycles, roadsters or cruisers. Today – as evidenced by the Flying Pigeon in China, Denmark’s utility bicycles, India’s classic roadsters, or the Netherlands’ “opafiets” and “omafiets” models – the practical, easy-to-ride upright bike remains the two-wheeled standard for much of the world. While their names and styles vary, upright bikes often have additional convenient features like racks, rear-wheel skirt guards, internal gear hubs and chainguards, allowing riders to carry cargo, shift gears reliably and protect their clothes.

Swept-back handlebars are a common denominator of upright bicycles, but additional elements can also help riders achieve a comfortable vertical posture. These frequently include a long, upright stem (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame); wide, shock-absorbing tires; “relaxed” frame geometry (i.e., long chainstays and less-vertical head tubes and seat tubes); and a shock-absorbent, often sprung saddle.

The rider-friendly features of uprights tend to encourage a different style of riding than the recreation-oriented North American norm. In countries where the bicycle is a broadly accepted means of travel, people frequently ride simply for transportation, wearing everyday clothes. Whether a rider’s destination requires pants or a skirt, flip-flops or heels, shalwar khameez or a suit, the clothes-saving components common on upright roadsters help make owning a separate cycling outfit unnecessary.

Duncan Hurd and Cathryn Groening on upright bikes. Photo by Anthony Niblett.

Duncan Hurd and Cathryn Groening on upright bikes. Photo by Anthony Niblett.

Convenience aside, riders may find some welcome ergonomic relief when they get vertical. Sitting upright on a bike, as sporting goods mega-retailer REI’s website puts it, “reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders.” Physical therapist and bicycle commuter Jutta Schneider concurs: “It’s a very natural position to be in. Low handlebars and a really forward posture can be hard on the neck – and when you add rotation to the mix, it’s especially taxing.” Upright posture, she explained, can also help the lumbar spine, hands and wrists. “So many people we see have these wrist injuries from being in the tech world – you’re seeing so many chronic overuse injuries in wrists. The upright riding position doesn’t load your upper extremities so much, and that’s helpful.” It’s worth noting, however, that verticality doesn’t necessarily confer instant ergonomic benefits. “You can still have bad posture on an upright bike,” Schneider clarified. “You need to maintain a healthy spinal position – that’s always important, no matter what bike you’re on.”

Sport-oriented road and mountain bikes predominate in North American shops – but even a mountain or road bike can be turned into an upright, provided the correct parts are available. Donald Villarreal, the recycling and reuse manager at Seattle’s cycling-advocacy nonprofit Bike Works, fixes and rebuilds used bikes. “I do a lot of our mountain bikes upright,” he said. “Recently, I’ve been building them up with narrow tires and then getting fancy with different kinds of swept-back handlebars.” One of his current rides is a mountain bike retrofitted with ultra-swept-back Nitto Promenade bars. “It’s kind of my mule,” he laughs. “It’s slow, it can carry a lot of weight and it’s comfortable to stay in the saddle and pedal a lot.”

Dawn D'Onofrio and the Felt Verza Regency. Photo by Mecky Creus.

Dawn D’Onofrio and the Felt Verza Regency. Photo by Mecky Creus.

A broad range of people (of varying ages and physical abilities and conditions) have chosen easy-to-ride, low-intensity upright bicycles as a better fit for their daily transportation needs. “I think that sometimes the style isn’t always super accepted – people come in saying, ‘It’s kinda nerdy, but I really like riding upright with swept-back handlebars,’” Villarreal said. “But you’re not nerdy because you want to be comfortable! If you’re not comfortable on your bike, you’re not gonna ride it.” Schneider, for her part, sees uprights as broadly appealing. “I think for a lot of us, riding an easy-to-use, upright bike in regular clothing is just less intimidating. And it’s safer, I think, from the standpoint of traffic-bicyclist interactions,” she observed, pointing out that sitting up makes a rider more visible to drivers, as well as better situated to easily see around.

As the popularity of upright bicycles grows, bike manufacturers are putting more models on the market. Cruisers, upright city bikes, and sometimes even imported Dutch fietsen are becoming more prevalent in shops – along with a wider array of aftermarket parts (swept-back bars and grips, long stems, stem extenders and comfortable seats) for riders who want to upgrade or convert the bikes they already have to make them more suitable for urban biking.

The increased wind resistance riders encounter in the upright position does result in aerodynamic sacrifices. But in a mixed-traffic city environment, where a breakneck pace can contribute to nasty collisions, riders may not mind some slowdown – or even notice much of a difference. “I find myself passing an awful lot of people who are crouched over on racing bikes, trying to get the most out of their spandex,” grinned Tony Dattilo, a college instructor who commutes to work through multiple cities on his upright 1980s Sekai. “And at the end of a long ride, when I’m drinking beer with my biking friends and they’re complaining about their backs, I just smile.”

In an attempt to slow the impacts of an oil-fueled economy, some North American cities are promoting a broad range of non-automotive transportation modes. Many of us are considering the bicycle as a possible option for our daily travel needs – and promoting a comfortable cycling style that requires no special clothing or degree of physical fitness may help get the most people possible onto bikes. In his writings on cycling posture and design, bicycle designer and lecturer Mark Sanders has discussed the “vast blue ocean” of noncyclists, claiming that the cycling industry’s focus on sporty road and mountain bikes (aimed at a comparatively tiny “red ocean” of recreational enthusiasts) has hugely limited cycling as a common form of transportation. We should “look beyond cycling as a sport/ leisure/ hobby activity,” Sanders wrote – and instead encourage the comfortable, ergonomic utilitarian upright. “If the cycle industry is compared to the automotive industry,” he pointed out, “the majority of cars promoted would be sports or racing cars, with little focus on normal family cars. …Forget going green. Forget sport. We need to do what generations of marketeers have done for cars: promote the upright bicycle as sexy, exciting and cool for all.”

Photo by Ben Johnson

Photo by Ben Johnson

Why Are Road and Mountain Bikes So Common?

Road bikes – loosely defined as performance-oriented bicycles with “drop” handlebars that put riders into a forward stance – swept across North America during the 1970s “bike boom,” when widespread interest in cycling enticed a flood of new bikes onto the market. Many were modeled on the graceful racing designs of the earlier 20th century, and the road bike has enjoyed wide popularity in the US and Canada ever since. They’re appreciated for speed and long-distance riding because their handlebars encourage riding postures that help cut wind resistance – also, the bars’ shape and multiple points of access to the brakes offer multiple hand positions, useful for lengthy rides.

Mountain bikes, meanwhile, are descended from the balloon-tired cruisers that mountain-biking pioneers used for off-roading in the 1970s in Marin County, California. After Specialized introduced its mass-produced “Stumpjumper” to the US market in the early 1980s, the mountain bike gained popularity for general use, eventually dominating North American markets alongside the road bike. Mountain bikes also appealed to on-road recreational bikers with a few welcome comfort-centric features – fat shock-absorbing tires, handlebar-mounted shifting, suspension (in later models), and a more upright riding posture – though in general, the bikes’ elongated top tubes and straight handlebars still tilted their riders forward.


Anne Mathews has been converting abandoned road bikes into uprights since the late 1990s. She lives in Seattle, where she edits books, writes songs and plays music with Orkestar Zirkonium and The Lonely Coast.

orkestarzirkonium.com | thelonelycoast.com

25 Comments

  • Louise Dix

    Hi, I have a Pashley Brittainia bike and you simply sail along! Such a great
    upright bike.

  • I got into upright bikes five years ago, all my bikes have been converted now, it’s great to just go out just in the clothes one is wearing, for me it’s been a whole new lifestyle.

  • Chrisb8s

    I have 5 bikes and now I also have a back issue that has forced me into an upright style. Luckily one of my bikes was a surly lht and it is in the shop right now adding on some albatross bars new brake grips, cork handlebars. The works. I already had a. Ice brooks seat on it. It is a big change for me, but mentally I am ready. No more trying to push to 70 miles for the day or worrying of my s
    Avg speed was slower or faster. I may keep the garmin on the bike because it does keep good time :). I am looking forward to a slower speed and seeing what I am riding by.

  • Rickinoz

    What about flat-bar road bikes? They seem like a good compromise. I’ve travelled more than 15,000 miles on mine & it’s great.

    • Momentum Mag

      Flat bar road bikes are definitely a good option. Really it’s just best to go with what you’re comfortable with, because the more comfortable you are on your bike, the more you’ll ride it! While uprights definitely aren’t the best choice for touring or longer trips, we love them for city commuting because they encourage a more casual style of riding that positions the bicycle as a viable choice for your everyday transportation needs.

  • Jim Anderson

    Hi Anne. My wife and I are in our early 60s and I am OK with the lean over style of riding but my wife says she wants to be able to sit upright like we did when we rode bikes when we were visiting Germany 6-7 years ago. You mentioned in one of your articles that you convert old road bikes into sitting upright bikes. Have you written an article on how to convert road bikes into upright riders for the do it yourself converters? I am hoping you can give me some tips as I attempt to convert a road bike into an upright rider for my wife without spending a fortune. Is this something you can give me a little direction/advice on? Kind of desperate in Spokane,
    Jim Anderson

    • Duncan Hurd

      Hi Jim. Great question. Making the switch from drop bars to a swept-back handlebar isn’t an overly expensive conversion, but you may need to replace more than just the bars. Depending on the style of brake levers and shifters currently on the bike, you may need to replace those as well. I’d recommend dropping by MonkeyBoy Bicycles in Spokane, they offer a great range of upright bikes and should be able to give you an idea of what parts would be needed in the conversion and costs.

    • ridon

      Might require a new stem or a riser of sorts to raise the handlebars higher. I did this with my Torker mixte, I swapped out the straight mountain bike handlebars for cruiser handlebars. I’m still leaned over but if I wanted a less “sporty” feel, I would need a riser that would angle the handlebars up. Go to a bike shop and talk to a mechanic. Should cost less than $100, but you may choose to get a new bike all together.

  • Jay Yarm

    I’ve been riding a recumbent tadpole (2 wheels in front, 1 in rear) trike for years – the sitting position is actually like reclining in an arm-chair. Now that’s really comfort.
    Last fall I decided to go real old school for knocking around the neighborhood, and bought a Nashbar Argyle single speed coaster brake upright for under $200 – just plain fun!

  • Robert

    Of course it is horses for courses . I have 3 bikes for various activities and love them all . However it is the upright with the Brooks seat that is the most comfortable and enjoyable . Being a heavy bike , riding in a flat city where 3 gears are fine it can go at a very respectable speed.

  • My partner and I switched from mountain bikes to Elektra Townie 21D (21 speeds) with pedal-forward technology (the pedals are a couple of inches forward) last year. We absolutely love them! They are sturdy, comfortable, we find we can ride farther than before because of the comfort factor, and can enjoy the scenery much more. The only problem is they are so comfortable that we have a hard time riding our mountain bikes, or any other non-comfort style bikes now; we feel cramped, versus the wide open feel of the Townies.

    Therefore, when it became time for our mountain biking trip to Arizona this year and we could only bring one bike, we risked using our Townies. The scenic trails are non-technical with minimal rocks and some sand. Although we had to go a bit slower, especially around sandy corners, than on our mountain bikes, the Townies handled splendidly. If we rode in dirt more often we could use mountain bike tires instead, but the amount of time we spend on dirt doesn’t warrant it, and those tires would be more clunky on the paved bike trails where we usually ride.

    My blog contains lots of Townie tales including the Arizona trip: https://encyclepedia.wordpress.com and the book that I wrote showcases rides that are perfect for comfort bikes, “enCYCLEpedia Southern California – The Best Easy Scenic Bike Rides” (2014).

  • Paul

    I bought a dutch Gazelle “omafiets” for a photography shoot several years ago (https://www.flickr.com/photos/63386893@N08/5760974578/) that I use all the time, especially in the winter months when it keeps my everyday clothes from getting ruined by street crud & mud. Built to last decades, UNLIKE the throwaway, fragile, fly weight plastic bikes sold in north America to people who hardly ride more than once a month!

  • I like my upright position as well- I ride in the city and being able to see is really important to me. We own a cargo bike- the Bike Friday Haul-a-day, and it has an OSATA frame that telescopes, as well as adjustable stems for the handlebars and seat, which means I can adapt it easily for longer, windier, less urban rides if I like (hello lakefront!) I’m happy to see manufacturers making it easy to change out components because we currently own quite a few bikes!

  • Chris Bradshaw

    The feature that both road bikes and mountain bike share is that they sacrifice utility to performance, and that translates into competition. So it’s “compete bikes” vs. “complete bikes.”

    For four years I have had a Giant Cypress with internal hub, front basket, rear paniers under a “trunk” I have rigged up. Can carry lots of stuff. For bad weather and some style, I have added bamboo fenders.

  • MarkB

    …And I discovered benefits to each. Several years ago, I set up an old hardtail with some Stingray-style apehangers, and HAD A BALL all summer on it! It just had too much front-end flex to stay with it. My present bike, a full-suss Kona MTB, has the bar level with the saddle, and I lean forward A LITTLE. The unknown advantage to this is, it stretches out my poor sore back.

    Ride what you like — but NEVER be afraid to experiment!

  • Warren g

    Everyone in the their not fast enough camp obviously didn’t watch this years tour because Quintana’ s back was at like 60 to 90 degrees as he rode uphill faster than umm well I guess faster than anyone else on the planet, btw if your worried about wind resistance you could always bend ur arms and bend over or do people in the there not fast enough camp not have elbows? That’s write I said all that with two punctuation marks.

  • Alliwant

    I’m emphatically not a racer, but do some endurance riding in addition to commuting and errands on my bike. I only need one, with a diamond frame, 300 mm steering tube and drops. I’m only slightly bent forward most of the time, but can lower my wind resistance substantially in the hooks. Drops are very nice whether on not you race, because there are so many different ways to grip the bars. Moving the hands around is invaluable on a long ride. The long steerer lets me sit with my back about 60 degrees from horizontal, which is low enough to put a little torque on the pedals but upright enough to see well and not stress the neck. It took a lot of tinkering to get the bike the best it could be, but it’s been worth the effort.

  • GJ baan

    Shame you did not mention http://www.anddutch.com. Thy are the exclusive retailer for Hollands first and oldest bicycle brand; Burgers (meaning citizens in Dutch) They have over 43 models in various colours/gearing and size options. Perhaps worth a mention or look?

  • Bruce Alan Wilson

    . . . .they can be problematic in a very hilly environment.

  • Ted Wallace

    I have no idea how long I’ve had this bike but it’s a blast to ride. Townie 21 is what it’s called if that givres you any idea. I’ve got bad shoulders and no interest in sitting on a flag pole.It’s big, sturdy and stable. No need to change clothes to ride it, at least not until I’m done.I likee the way the pedals are slight forward of the seat, makes it more comfortable and with 21 speeds to pick from I can go as fast as I want. It’s good looking too
    .It must be ancient since I didn’t pay anything like $700 for it brand new.

  • teddy

    I tried road bikes, I’m just not suited for it. The upright position is just where i want to be. Eastvanistan, to each their own, go up BBy mtn if you want that kind of torture on a road bike, but that aint me baby. More power to ya. I believe that in the most of Vancouver, save for the stupid bike route that they call “Ontario”, an upright bike is perfect. I don’t believe that a road bike is necessary on most streets in Vancouver. Why go so fast? Slow down and live longer.

  • Eastvanistan

    The article is big on praise for the upright bike but short on objectivity. The fact of the matter is that the range of geometries available reflects the range of uses people have for their bikes, and there are plenty of reasons for preferring less upright posture to more (sadly, none of which are mentioned here).
    I commute 16.5km every morning and again every afternoon but I just dont have the time to spend 75 minutes on an upright twice a day. Instead, my commute is also my workout and it takes 40 min on my road bike. I used to commute up to SFU on Burnaby mountain and this is simply not possible on an upright bike. I enjoy cycling because I can move quickly and efficiently wherever I want to go. This simply no possible on an upright bike.
    Look around: the people who want to move quickly are on road bikes, the people who are covering long distances are on touring bikes, the people riding trails are on mountain bikes, and the people rolling down the block to the coffee shop in their street clothes are on uprights. Don’t try to tell me that this is the bike that’s going to do everything with style and grace because its not.

    • The snag is the whole bicycle industry is run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts… Ie people for whom speed is king. Whilst it’s good to have choice, in the bike world every other bike shop is like a Formula 1 or indy car outlet – if the bike industry better reflected the population as a whole like it does in Holland, there would no longer be a label ‘cyclist’ … Just people, who use the most fun and effective form of local transport. All ages, all folk. …. Ironically, as in Holland, bike shops would sell more bikes too!

      I sometimes get the impression that like many hobbies, enthusiasts don’t want their special expertise watered down to become normal :-)

  • RideHappy

    I love upright riding. A couple years ago, I converted my stock Surly Long Haul Trucker to an upright by removing the drop bars in favor of Nitto NorthRoads swept-back bars and new brake levers. I love this bike like no other I’ve owned. I’m planning on selling my, now rarely ridden, road bike this summer. Thanks for the great, timely article.

  • Josh Smith

    Love riding uprights! So much more comfortable than the classic road bike. Just heard about this new project from a company called MiiR. They have a his and hers upright with a 5 speed internal hub, and they do a buy one give one program so every bike purchased helps give a bike to someone in need. Check them out at miir.com. Some really cool stuff going on in the bike world!

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