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Standing while Cycling
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by Sheldon "Siddown, You're Rocking The Bike!" Brown
revised by John Allen
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A Contentious Issue

The issue of correct cycling form and technique is a source of controversy. I believe that much of this controversy results from the tendency of cyclists who practice a particular sort of cycling to think that what works for that branch is applicable to all cyclists. In particular, I believe that much bad advice has come from racing or racing-oriented cyclists, who assume that the techniques that help win races must be the best approach for all cyclists.

This article is not directed toward racing cyclists, who sometimes, for tactical reasons, need a brief burst of speed, even at the expense of efficiency (just as a race car driver may occasionally "redline" a car engine.) It is also not directed toward rough-stuff off-road cyclists, who must deal with issues of traction for technical climbing on loose surfaces.

Rather, this article is aimed at general cyclists, recreational, utility, touring etc. who wish to get from hither to yon without wasting their efforts; with efficient use of their energy and strength.

To Sit or to Stand?

It is my belief that a great many cyclists stand up to pedal much more often than they should. I've often said:

"If you find yourself standing to accelerate, on level ground, it is a sign that your gear is too high or that your saddle is too low."

Standing pedaling allows you to apply more force to the pedals than is possible seated, because you can rest your entire weight on the driven pedal, and, even more, by pulling up on the handlebar, you can push the pedal with more than your actual weight...but is this a good thing?

Pedaling that hard is very stressful to the joints and to the bicycle, and usually involves a level of effort that cannot be sustained aerobically (that is, you will get out of breath). Unless you have unusually good form, it also tends to involve a fair amount of thrashing from side to side, which is a waste of energy. The added stress flexes many parts of the bicycle, and the energy required to do this flexing is not usually recovered when the parts straighten back out.

These extreme stresses also greatly increase the risk of breaking things. If a pedal, crank, chain, handlebar or handlebar stem should break under this abnormal stress (a very real possibility) you are almost certain to suffer injury in the resulting crash. Even a simple missed shift or the skipping of a worn chain can toss you to the ground when you throw all of your weight onto a single pedal. You should never stand up to pedal a bicycle that you do not know to be in excellent mechanical condition! The video below shows an example of what can happen. Ouch!

Standing pedaling doesn't make you any faster, except in the very short run. On longer rides, it can seriously slow you down on the average, because if you waste a lot of energy this way early in the ride, you're likely to finish the ride much slower than you started it.

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Your Gear is Too High

When you ride a single speed or fixed gear bike, your one gear has to be a compromise. It will be too low when you are going fast, and too high when you are going slow. To compensate for the gear being to high, you will often need to stand up to accelerate from a stop, and to climb hills. To avoid this necessity, multiple gears were invented. When you ride a multi-speed bicycle, you should select a gear that allows you to pedal efficiently, which means seated, with the cranks turning at a speed somewhere between roughly 60-100 rpm.

Your Saddle is Too Low

A very sizeable proportion of bicycle users have their saddles set too low. This is usually the result of adjusting the saddle height with respect to the ground, rather than to the pedals.

With older bicycles, it was usually possible to just barely balance at a stop with one toe on the ground, while sitting on the saddle. Unfortunately, there has been a trend to designing bicycles with the bottom bracket higher off the ground than necessary. Since this raises the pedals, a properly-adjusted saddle must also be higher with respect to the ground, and it is not generally possible to stay upright at a stop by putting a toe down. Most cyclists don't realize this, and adjust their saddles on their new bikes for the same reach to the ground they had with their 20-year old bikes. The result is inability to straighten the knee far enough for efficient pedaling without having to stand.

A low saddle even makes it easy to put both feet down when stopping. This is poor technique both because of the low saddle and because there is no foot on a pedal ready for a quick restart. The habit may go all the way back to childhood on a tricycle or BMX bicycle, and never been unlearned. The video here shows good vs. poor stopping and restarting technique.

See our article on starting and stopping for a more detailed explanation.

A low saddle is not just wasteful of energy. Having the saddle too low is a major cause of cyclists' knee injuries. Indeed, the two leading cause of cyclists' knee problems are too-low saddles and too-high gears, the same things that encourage excessive standing.

When Should You Stand?

Sometimes it does just feel good to stand up and blast away, and there's no harm in doing so occasionally, if your form is smooth, and if your bicycle is in excellent mechanical condition.

You may need to stand for a short burst of acceleration when starting, or if you don't have time to shift down.

On longer rides, standing is sometimes a way to relieve saddle discomfort by temporarily taking a load off. Even this, however in extreme cases, may be a sign of trouble...perhaps your saddle discomfort is related to poor adjustment or an unsuitable saddle! Check out our article on Saddles, it may help!

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