Selle Anatomica
Side of a cyclist's hand with smiley-face glove, gripping the hoods of their handlebars as they pedal

How to Avoid Unsafe Hand Positions as You Increase Cycling Speed

When you get on the bike, you make contact in three different places: the pedals, the saddle, and the handlebars. But, while the former two spots have a big impact on cycling power and comfort, only the latter location introduces the element of choice to your cycling position.

For road cyclists with traditional drop handlebars, there are three hand positions to choose from at any given time. Where you put your hands isn’t simply a matter of preference, though, it’s primarily about safety. Simply put, your speed dictates where your hands should be.

“If your hands aren’t in the correct position, a crash is much more likely to happen,” says longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie. 

To help cyclists know where they should have their hands at any time, Coach Darryl coined what he calls his “Rule of 8s.” With this simple rule in mind, you can easily decide the safest hand position based on how fast you’re pedaling. Here’s how it works. 

At Around 8 MPH — The Tops

At lower speeds, you are safe with your hands in any position, but most cyclists find them comfortable on the tops — the straight center section of the handlebars. In this spot, also known as “the climbing position,” your knuckles face straight ahead and your thumbs point toward each other near the center steering post. However, this is only safe when you won’t need to brake suddenly.

“It’s not safe to have the hands here when going faster, because you’re too far from the brakes,” says Coach Darryl. “If a complete stop is mandated, it will take a second or more to get the hands to the brakes — one at a time.”

If you’re going 20 miles an hour, or 30 feet per second, that extra time may be the difference between a quick stop and a sudden collision. 

At Around 18 MPH — The Hoods

That’s why, around speeds of roughly 18 miles per hour, you need to move your hands to the hoods — the top position above the drops, where your thumbs face forward and your fingers angle down toward the brakes. Here, you can quickly brake when you need to, but you’re still comfortable whether you’re climbing or pedaling fast on the flats. Darryl estimates that most cyclists spend around 70% of any given ride in this position.

You can maintain this position at slower speeds, but you should never have your hands in the tops when you’re going faster than 8 miles an hour. Likewise, once you get past 18 miles an hour, you need to consider another switch.

"If you hit a bump, especially if you’re going downhill, you don’t want your hands bouncing off the tops or the hoods,” Darryl explains. In fact, one of his cycling friends spent 60 days in the hospital after hitting a downhill bump at over 30 miles an hour with his hands on the hoods. One hand slipped off the handlebars, and down he went.

At Around 28 MPH (Or More) — The Drops 

In that situation, there was only one safe position for Darryl’s friend to have his hands: the drops. Here, your your fingers and thumbs grip the hooks below the hoods, and your knuckles face forward. You still have easy access to the brakes, but your hands are locked securely into the hooks in case you get jostled by anything on the road.

The drops are a safe spot for your hands at any speed, but they’re essential for fast downhills. Really, once you get above 23 miles an hour, this is the only safe position. When you’re going that fast downhill, it’s far too easy to end up flying over the handlebars — the kind of wreck that can be disastrous.

Unfortunately, Darryl sees far too many cyclists avoid this position because they find it uncomfortable. Proper hand positioning is far too important for your safety, though. Instead of avoiding the drops, you need to practice riding in this position until you’re comfortable with it. 

To get accustomed to riding in the drops, Coach Darryl recommends the following tactic:

  1. Go out for a solo ride on the flats.
  2. Put one hand in the drop while keeping the other on the hood and pedal for at least a minute.
  3. Move your hand back to the hood and pedal for a few minutes with both hands on the hoods.
  4. Move the other hand to the drop and pedal with mixed positioning for another minute or more. 
  5. Repeat this process until you’re ready to put both hands in the drops.

Always Keep the Brakes in Mind 

Practicing the correct hand positioning at each of these speeds is an essential component of cycling safety. However, it’s also important to ensure you’re always mindful of the brakes when you’re going above 8 miles an hour. Whether you have your hands on the hoods or in the drops, your fingers should be close to the brakes and ready to engage them immediately when necessary. 

When you’re traveling at 15 feet per second — or even faster — every fraction of a second matters. Being ready to brake could save you from hitting a bump or rear-ending another cyclist. It also signals to other cyclists that you’re a safe, alert pedaling partner.  

It may seem like an afterthought or a mere question of comfort, but hand positioning is much more. When it comes to cycling safety, it’s everything.


Are you eager to take your cycling safety to the next level? Follow our blog for fresh weekly tips that will help you ride like a pro. As always, you can also check out Coach Darryl’s website for more of his insights.

Photo by Tom Austin on Unsplash