In my case, one of the most easily overlooked items that has a huge impact on how comfortable I am on my bike is the front of the “cockpit”, the bars, hoods and stem.
When I first bought my (used) Trek 5200 it was 100% original equipment. My first fitting showed that the stem was way too long (it was something like 150mm) so it was swapped that out for an 80mm stem. The problem with the longer stem was that I had to reach way too far to get to the hoods, let alone the drops which were very uncomfortable. Had I not gotten a pro fitting right up front there’s no way I would have even considered replacing the stem. Had I been left to my own devices I’d have messed with the saddle first and gotten myself totally out of position which would have led to problems too numerous to count. The stem and reach issue is actually very easy to work through as long as you get there in the proper order. First, you get your saddle height right, then get your saddle fore/aft position correct (by lining your knee up over the pedal axles) and then you look at how far you have to reach to get to the hoods. A simple rule is this: If you feel more comfortable riding with your hands on the bar top rather than the hoods, your stem is too long. If, on the other hand, you feel too jammed up in the cockpit, your stem is too short. You can mess with trying to get the right length yourself by trial and error but your local bike shop fitting pro should have a series of complex equations and measurements that can determine the proper stem length in a matter of minutes. This is obviously much faster and it could very well be cheaper in the long run because you won’t have to mess with the error part of “trial and error”.
The hoods are another particularly difficult area to pay close attention to. Back to my 5200 again – I picked the bike up in the dead of winter (I had to carry it to the car to avoid rolling it in the snow). By the time spring rolled around I was so into riding it and considering that I’d had it fitted, I thought I was all set so I didn’t pay attention to any potential problems, I just rode it all through the spring. Now I’d just started road cycling in September of the previous year so I only had about three months of actual road experience, so saying I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground was a pretty fair statement… After a few weeks of spring-time riding I began developing a fair amount of pain in my right shoulder and lower neck. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me either. I got to thinking that maybe I was gripping the hoods a little too tightly with my hand and that’s what was causing the problem (I’m a southpaw so I figured my right side was just a bit weak and needed to muscle up a bit). I changed my grip and that did seem to help for a time, but the pain never went away and eventually worsened. When the weather really broke, I decided to take my bikes outside and photograph them for my records. A couple of weeks of pain later I got to looking at them when I transferred them to my computer and this is what I saw:
I added in a line for clarity… See that right hood (on the left in the photo) sticking up past the line? The hoods were misaligned on the handlebar. This meant that I was reaching just a little farther with my left hand, therefore putting more pressure, loading up if you will, on my right side. For this one, because I had no idea how to adjust the hoods, I took the bike into the shop. Once I saw how easy it was I found myself just a touch embarrassed (pull back hood, insert 5mm Allen wrench, turn counterclockwise, adjust hood, turn clockwise, done). In any event, once I got the hoods leveled and aligned correctly all of the pain subsided and eventually went away. I can tell you with certainty that my hoods weren’t so far off that I could have noticed it very well having just gotten into cycling. Things have changed quite a bit in the last year and a half now that I know what to look for and have been riding bikes with hoods that were meticulously dialed in. The point here is that something as simple as the hoods being off a little bit can cause some serious pain.
Finally we come to that handlebar itself. There isn’t a whole lot you can screw up with the bar. Once you get the hoods lined up right and the proper stem on there, the bar just sits there. There is, however, one thing to consider before we depart and that’s the width of the bar. This will be important only if you are buying a used bike – for a new bike you should be able to have the bike shop measure you and provide you with a decently sized bar before your bike is ordered. One thing to keep in mind here is that this is one of those areas where millimeters don’t count. Having the width close helps, especially if you’re planning on riding some intense mileage, but for your every-day jaunt ’round the block, it’s not too critical. The idea is that you want the bars shoulder-width apart, no more. As a great example, the bar on my 5200 is too wide by maybe an inch or so. This didn’t stop me from riding thousands of comfortable miles over the last year and a half or so. The bar on my Venge, however, is perfect. I feels a lot more comfortable, yes, and I’m glad I’ve got a more suitable bar, but I never would have known any better if I’d stayed on the Trek.
In the last several posts in this series I have covered every single mechanical issue I could think of that causes pain. The most important rule for noobs, no matter what, is have someone knowledgeable fit a bike to you. They are not one size fits all – not by a long shot.