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How to Unlock The Full Potential of Your Dropper Post

  • by Noel Dolotallas

How to Make Better Use of Your Bike's Dropper Seatpost

The Secret's out: Saddle Tilt Unlocks Your Dropper Seatpost's Super Powers

Rider: you've made life so much easier, can't imagine riding without you, thank you!!
Dropper post: don't sweat it but hey check this out, there's more we can do…
Rider: great story bro, gotta go! You're the best! *wheelies off*
Dropper post: hang on we're not done showing you what we... can… nevermind

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This is Part 1 of many with this first installment focused primarily on climbing. Saddle up (wink hint), this is kinda long.

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If you're short on time here’s the truncated version:

  • Saddle rotation unlocks your dropper post's super powers adding a new dimension of control, safety and comfort when matched to the "macro" terrain attributes of riding.
  • Actual science (not just bro-science) has proven that tilting the saddle nose down improves climbing efficiency and performance.
  • Saddle position is vital both when seated or unseated whether you're climbing, descending or riding level ground.

For the rest of you let's dive in shall we?

People LOVE their dropper seatposts. From the early OG of posts like the Gravity Dropper, to perennial standouts like the Fox Transfer and Bike Yoke Revive, modern droppers have enjoyed increased reliability, durability and drop length options. Lots to like for sure. At the upper echelons we have the state-of-the-art Vecnum Nivo, RockShox AXS and revolutionary ideas like the Eightpins NGS1 integrated seatpost and BMC RAD. And what dropper seatpost shortlist would be complete without at least mentioning the oft-embattled RockShox Reverb which personally, I think gets a bad rap despite being a stud (well, when it's working anyway).

Dropper posts are ubiquitous tech these days; commodities found on nearly every style of bike and price point. While the honeymoon phase ended long time ago, dropper posts are still hailed as one of the greatest modern cycling innovations and deservedly so. Don't believe us, check out this recent Pinkbike poll. But it seems we were so enamoured by their utility and utterly gobsmacked by what they did for our ride quality that, out of politeness, we stopped questioning if there was anything more they could (or should) do. At the risk of sounding Karen-esque, we collectively glossed over the fact that dropper posts - when you stop to think of it - are just the vehicle between your frame and your rump.

What constantly gets overlooked is the much grander discussion of saddle positioning, of which saddle height is just ONE aspect. And herein lies the focus of this post.

The unfortunate truth about saddle position is that most discussions are centered on things like saddle height, fore and aft saddle placements, offsets, and the shape and composition of the saddle itself. And more often than not, the topic of seat tube angles will trump everything culminating in a staunch belief that a steeper seat tube angle can solve the most vexing of bike geometry woes. But can it? Lee McCormack of Lee Likes Bikes and founder of the RAD Dynamic bike fit concept has this interesting take on seat tube angles:

"The industry has done a wonderful job convincing us steeper seat tubes are better for pedaling (and they are on very steep seated climbs), but the real reason seat tubes got steeper is packaging. In order to fit big wheels, long travel suspension and short chain stays, bike designers steepened the seat tubes to make room."

We tend to agree (to a degree) although there may be more to it such as navigating around existing design patents or just trying to introduce new ideas. Generally speaking, seat tube angle take the lion's share of attention when it comes to saddle position.

Sadly, when it comes to saddle position, very little is said about saddle tilt. Even now most riders' first reactions to seeing an aggressively tilted up or down saddle is of disdain or incredulity. But this isn't their fault. The reality is most bikes off the shop floor come with a level saddle as default and many riders just keep it that way not knowing any better. And for those that do understand the benefits of saddle tilt they simply can't be bothered with the hassle of changing angles often so one position is maintained. Most of us are guilty of the latter. But as Steve Jones said in this Electric Mountain Bike Network (EMBN) YouTube video said:

"One seat position isn't actually the optimum position most of the time… sometimes on the super steep climbs you've got to get your weight right over the front and at the same time keep some pressure on the saddle so I think this is a really cool idea."

Steve's got a point. To climb efficiently we need to reposition our center of mass forward and over the bottom bracket in order to prevent the front end from lifting while trying to maintain rear wheel traction. But we also know that riding in this position is only effective while climbing as Steve alluded to. Going downhill requires a different saddle position for safety and performance reasons, and different still for navigating long stretches of flat or moderate grades. But if we know this why do we persist to ride in a compromised way? Because we're lazy. JK. While I say this in jest there's some truth behind it but of course, more to it as well. Perhaps Travis Engel of Beta said it best… 

"Many of us simply deal with the pain of climbing with a saddle that’s sitting at a 7-percent grade because that pain just gets absorbed into all the other pain we’re experiencing while climbing. And besides, tilting the saddle nose down causes other comfort issues when pedaling on flat terrain, including forcing us to put extra pressure our hands and arms to keep from sliding down onto the top tube. So, many of us just keep it flat. But then, when we go downhill, it’s not optimal either."

So basically we keep it flat because it's easy. It's an "acceptable" compromise. It doesn't make us look weird. On top of that no one likes when you hold the group up to change your saddle angle. Don’t be that guy. (I was that guy, I know).

While saddle tilt research is relatively scant (especially for MTB), a recently published paper by Ross D. Wilkinson and Rodger Kram entitled "Nose-down Saddle Tilt Improves Gross Efficiency During Seated-Uphill Cycling," highlights the improvements derived by saddle rotation. To summarize, the PhDs wanted to challenge the hypothesis that riding with a nose-down saddle could improve uphill cycling efficiency, which, in a previous claim, could deliver up to 6% improvement. They gathered 19 subjects for the study and found that 16 of them exhibited increased efficiency. Here is a short excerpt from the paper:

In our sample, 16 of 19 subjects exhibited increased efficiency. Based on the probability distribution of our data (Fig. 2B), ~ 91% of cyclists are likely to improve their gross efficiency by tilting the saddle nose down by 8° when cycling on an 8° slope. Furthermore, ~ 27% of cyclists are likely to experience a > 2% improvement in gross efficiency.

If you're keen to explore more on the topic of saddle tilt, saddle position or seat tube angles, we've rounded up some of the best articles, papers, videos, and forum discussions below.

Before we get into how saddle tilt can unlock your dropper post's super powers we need to establish some key concepts first, namely: 

  1. The 3 Immutable Macros Conditions of Cycling
  2. Saddle Angle Mismatch
  3. Operational Height Zones

The Three Immutable Macro Conditions of Cycling

Brace yourself for this one… no matter what kind of bike you ride (eg. XC, trail, enduro, DH), where you ride (eg. mountains, streets, gravel), or why (eg. pleasure, exercise, or commuting) you will, at any one given point in time, encounter one of these 3 immutable conditions:

  1. Riding UP an incline or positive grade
  2. Riding DOWN a decline or negative grade
  3. Riding on a FLAT or level grade

I can already hear the salty chirps of "just ride yer bike." *rolly eyes emoji here*. The key takeaway here is that the difference between each macro is just a matter of degrees, all else being equal (ie not accounting for speed or friction).

Saddle Angle Mismatch (aka SAM)

The next concept to consider is a sensation we call Saddle Angle Mismatch™ or "SAM" for short. Saddle Angle Mismatch can be described as the threshold point (degree or slope percentage) beyond which a rider experiences increased levels of discomfort and energy exertion due to an increase in the climbing grade. Short version: your junk, heart, and muscles get triggered when the climbing gets steeper. #SAMsucks.Saddle Angle Mismatch happens when the slope steepens beyond your comfort level

Once your SAM threshold is passed, discomfort increases because the nose of your saddle adds pressure to your sensitive region or perineum. The steeper it gets, the worse it gets. The only escape is to stand and mash, or engulf the saddle nose where the sun don't shine - not nice. In men SAM can also lead to numbing due to increased pressure on the penile arteries. Something to bear in mind is that SAM thresholds are different for everyone and may be more pronounced for women. More potential negative outcomes of SAM include accelerated muscle fatigue, increased chances of lower back pain due to the arching of the back (thanks, no thanks long reach geo), and potential knee and joint pain.

It may be hard to notice the onset of SAM because we automatically adjust our riding positions when the slope steepens to prevent sliding backwards and to keep the front wheel down. Adding to the complexity, your personal SAM threshold is in constant flux dependant on internal variables such as your energy level or groin sensitivity that particular day or moment. Muscle activation and coordination patterns change at varying rate as the slope increases. Typically, when met with a slope change we shift our Center of Gravity forward in attempts to (a) reduce pressure on sensitive parts, (b) open up our hip and torso angles for pedaling efficiency, and (c) find a good balance point to keep both front and wheels holding traction, not to mentions trying to prevent wheelies.

What is your SAM threshold?

OH Zones (Operational Height)

Lastly, let's talk about the concept of Operational Height Zones or OH Zones. While there are infinite points along a dropper post's axis of travel, in practice we vacillate among 3 major zones which, you guessed it, line up with the 3 macro conditions of riding: one zone for climbing, one for descending, and one for undulating terrain. Each zone has an optimal saddle tilt for heightened performance, safety, and comfort. Refer to Fig. 1.

FIG. 1. Your Dropper Seatpost's 3 Operational Height Zones

Dropper Seatpost Operational Height Zones:

  1. Climb Zone - highest region of dropper travel
  2. Roam Zone - middle region of dropper travel
  3. Flow Zone - lowest region of dropper travel

Ok I know… these concepts are mind-numbing right (queue the sarcasm)? But in all seriousness that's kind of the point. We're trying to illuminate that, while obvious, as riders we have pretty much glossed over these details and taken them for granted. Our goal is to shed light on ways to profoundly improve your riding experience by paying attention to a few small but important details.

Now that we have the concepts down, let's get back to addressing how saddle tilt can draw the full potential out of your dropper post for climbing. We've already noted that science has begun to explain the benefits of saddle tilt but let's dig deeper into practical on-trail applications.

Without trying to split hairs, there are 2 major external attributes that can define a typical climb:

  1. The slope or steepness of the incline grade
  2. The level of technical difficulty

Following the above then, mountain bikers generally face the following types of climbs on a given ride:

  1. Technical climbs - think rooty, rocky, loose surface etc
  2. Fire road (FSR) climbs - long stretches, wider path, usually moderate grade, gravel filled and pock-marked with holes
  3. Singletrack climbs - skinny single-lane trails with varying grades and level of technical difficulty

Of course we may encounter combinations of the above during a ride as well. Depending on the obstacles and level of difficulty we usually toggle between seated and standing climbing but unequivocally, seated climbing is advantageous for preserving energy. Generally speaking, the higher the saddle, the better positioned we are for climbing but there is a caveat: too high and you'll feel unstable especially during technical sections where dynamic movement is required. 

Variable saddle height combined with optimized saddle tilt will allow you to unlock the full potential of your dropper post.

But what makes climbing so hard in the first place? While there is a lot of research on this topic focused on road cycling, there is very little by comparison for mountain biking. Generally speaking, however, climbing is difficult because gravity, rolling resistance, and to a lesser degree air resistance, requires alterations in one's pedaling forces, economy and efficiency, joint movements, kinetics and kinematics, and neuromuscular patterns as described in the paper "Biomechanics and the Energetics of Uphill Cycling: A Review", by Fonda and Sarabon (2012)

 

Biomechanics and energetics of uphill cycling

"Biomechanics and Energetics of Uphill Cycling: A Review" Fonda, Sarabon (2012)

The next time you're out on the trail, take the hex keys out and tilt the nose of your saddle down just slightly, say 5 to 8 degrees. But before you do, refer to the simple Saddle Positioning Guide for climbing only (see Fig. 2) which suggests dropper height and saddle tilt combinations dependent on steepness and level of technical difficulty. Fig. 2 features a quadrant chart with steepness on the X axis, and technical difficulty on the Y axis. Each of the 4 quadrants suggest a different combination of saddle height and saddle tilt depending on these 2 variables. There are of course more permutations within each quadrant but this is a basic look at how to get started. A more detailed version of this chart will be featured in a later post.

Also keep in mind that we are all different with respect to our levels of fitness, riding techniques, experience, balance, etc so take from this chart what you will. Also, note that each of the three OH Zones divide further into high and low positions with "Top High" signifying a dropper post at full extension, and "Bottom-Low" being a dropper post with zero extension (ie slammed).

Saddle Positioning Guide for Climbing

 Fig 2. Saddle Positioning Guide - Simplified Version Limited to Climbing only

OH Zone Legend

The benefits of riding with a nose-down saddle: what you will EXPERIENCE 

Here is a run down of what you will notice immediately after riding with a nose-down/rear up saddle while climbing:

  1. Less sliding off the rear of saddle because of the support provided by the up-tilted rear portion of the saddle
  2. Less effort required to keep the front wheel from lifting up
  3. Increased rear-wheel traction due to equalized distribution of system mass (bike and rider system)
  4. Less effort to spin the cranks, feels akin to flat-level riding
  5. Reduced pressure on sensitive groin region
  6. Negative effects of Saddle Angle Mismatch (SAM) diminish

    And here is what you may notice after prolonged climbing with a nose-down saddle:

    1. Less energy required to cover distances leaving more energy for the fun stuff woohoo!
    2. Less knee strain
    3. Less arm fatigue because you no longer fight to pull yourself to stay forward biased

      Likely one of the biggest benefits you may discover from riding with a tilted saddle is a reduction in lower back pain. Certified physical therapy expert, passionate rider, and bike shop owner, Dr. Josh Harris had this to say:

      "As a doctor of physical therapy who regularly treats individuals with back pain, and a lifelong mountain biker, I'm digging the concept of SwitchGrade. A nose down saddle position increases what is called anterior pelvic tilt. This promotes optimal lumbar spine alignment which can help to prevent or alleviate lower back pain in many cases. I can also see the obvious performance benefits that could be had on long, steep climbs in the saddle. I'm stoked to try one out!"

       

      Check out Dr. Harris' YouTube video to learn more about how to manage ride-related back pain.

      So why exactly would you experience any or all of the above? Well a few key mechanical benefits occur when you nose the saddle down / tilt the rear up, namely that your center of gravity is moved forward over the bottom bracket and your hip, torso, and shoulder angles open up. These points cannot be overstated enough and we'll cover them more extensively in a future post so stay tuned.

      In closing we really do encourage you to try nosing down in conjunction with various dropper post positions. And of course, there's no easier way to ride without compromise than with a SwitchGrade bolted onto your dropper post. 

      So now you know: tilt down to boogie up! Consider yourself "Switched On" (that's the name of our newsletter by the way which, if you haven't subscribed to yet, what the heck are you waiting for?) 

       

      Next up: Part II - how saddle tilt improves descending, jumping, and flow riding

       

      Additional References related to Saddle Tilt, Saddle Positions, and Seat Tube Angles

      Articles


      Research Papers


        Videos:

        Web Forum discussions

         

         

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