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What Pains Me About Cycling: Bars, Hoods and Stem

October 2013
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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:
Hood alignment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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7 Comments

  1. CultFit says:

    You touch on a lot of key points bike buyers ignore, for whatever reason at the time of purchase. Get fit – pay the few extra dimes for it, and ride comfortably! Better shops will let you ride for a day, get 20+ miles on the bike, for this is when all the little aches and pains start to reveal themselves. I witness too many people getting bogged down by the frame size, we can work around that to a point as you know, a comfortable cockpit truly is critical. My wife gives me grief for all the stems, bars, cranks, saddles I have lying about … my reply: “Its all about comfort babe, all about the comfort!”. Take care this weekend mate and have a good one!!!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I have shoulder pain when riding over 30 minutes on my Trek 7200 aluminum hybrid. I have no pain at all on long, all day rides on my old Trek steel chromoly road bike. I have adjusted the seat and handlebars multiple times on the hybrid – even moved grips and brakes, angle of seat and cannot get a good fit. Also got help at local bike shop. I am at my wits end with the bike. What else can I do? How can one bike fit so well and another cause intense shoulder pain? I an a strong rider, have been for years – road bike. Recently bought hybrid aluminum for trail riding, etc. was advised to switch to a touring type bike and give up the hybrid trail bike.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Well, I can say for certain if the shop left the bar its standard width your arms are at an odd angle. I’m a fairly wide-shouldered fella and I had to get the bars on my new mountain bike cut down (1-1/2″ from each end). From there I have big problems with the upright posture on that style of bike. The more bent over I am, the more comfortable I am. That said, I’d look at the bar width and then maybe lowering the bar so you can use a little more core and a little less shoulder. If you remember, please let me know what you come up with. Good luck.

      • Rebecca says:

        You are correct. The shop left them at standard width. Last week I had a bike mechanic friend who is very knowledgeable look at my fit and that is the first thing he suggested. We moved the grips/brakes in ¾ inch and it felt like a world of difference. Also moved my seat back. Today I rode 40 miles on a canal towpath, crushed stone,/dirt, very bumpy. The most I have ridden on that bike in one day, about 4 1/2 hr ride time. I stopped multiple times and adjusted handlebars. I was in a lot of pain after 29 miles. I am in quite a bit of pain tonight. Shoulders, as before, throbbing by the end of the ride, and now my lower back hurts so much I can barely bend without pain. It’s amazing to me since I can ride my old steel Trek 370 for many more miles- metric and full centuries – on the road, and am never sore. My bike friend has suggested that either we play with the stem, which I don’t think is going to help, or he thinks I should consider a touring bike. He also suggested taking my steel road bike and putting wider tires on it for canal riding. I have a 400 mile trail tour planned in a month and lanned to use the hybrid, but I cannot survive with the pain. Anything else you can tell me about the upright posture, as it sounds like this is the issue. Is it just the geometry of the Trek 7200 that my body just cannot get adjusted to? I was under the impression that anyone if they got properly fitted on a bike – would make it work. Not true? Tempted to turn my old steel road bike into a trail bike and look at buying a new road bike. Any other thoughts? I appreciate your help. It’s a bit frustrating.
        Rebecca

      • bgddyjim says:

        Well, from my own experience (mountain and road bikes) I can tell you I am MUCH more suited to the road bike position. My Venge is currently set up with the bars 5″ lower than the saddle. I ride, in the drops, just shy of flat and my back is much happier. I too struggled with back and butt pain over 35 miles on the mountain bike. After tinkering with my first mountain bike and lowering the bar (by purchasing a shallower angled stem), I did make it vastly more comfortable but I don’t have a traditional setup anymore. My bar is 1-1/2″ lower than the saddle. To an extent, I’d say you can make most bikes fit the rider with enough effort but at some point what’s most important is my happiness and mobility after the ride. If it were me, I’d stick with what works.

        For the new road bike, I’m a Specialized guy (used to be a Trek guy). I ride a ’13 Venge comp and absolutely love it. It rides like butter. The feminine alternative is the Alias. Same 10r carbon (so it’s smooth but still light) and components as my Venge and it retails for $500 less ($2,600). If that’s too much, my wife rides a Secteur ($1,400 retail) and she LOVES it. Aluminum frame, carbon fork, 105 components. It’s a great value. Whichever brand you choose, I like the sloping top tube as opposed to the flat/straight one. The geometry is amazingly comfortable, especially when riding low. Good luck, and enjoy the new ride, whatever you choose.

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