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Road Bike Myth #6,472: Cycling Will Cause Back Pain

I used to have back problems.  The origins were questionable but I’ve never had a major accident that would “cause” the pain.  Like many, when I started getting into bike riding, I thought that mountain biking was the way to go because you sit more upright on the bike.  It did help though it didn’t end the pain completely – I went from an Aleve or two once or twice a week to once every other week.  When I bought that mountain bike I was certain that I’d found exactly what I wanted, that I’d need go no further.  I had my dirt tires and a set of road tires and all was well so I was prepared for whatever type of riding that I might want to take part in.  About three weeks into using the road tires I was gearing out going down small hills (less than 2% grades).  A week or two after that and I started gearing out on the flats.  I knew it wasn’t going to be long before I wouldn’t be able to grow in the new sport that I was coming to enjoy very much.  It was time to embrace the horror and look into road bikes.  At this point, all I knew about road biking revolved around old Schwinn ten-speeds but I was worried about how I would deal with the back pain that would surely come with riding a road bike – I mean look at them, with the seat higher than the handlebar!  How can that be comfortable?

It was at that point I met and started talking to the owner of our local bike shop and I, unlike many noobs, asked him about my concerns in purchasing a road bike rather than relying on what I knew.

What he said surprised me…  As can be expected, I got the normal, “you should consult with your doctor, I’m not a doctor” stuff (and consider this my reiteration of the same), but after that he said that he’s heard from many cyclists that riding a road bike helps relieve many back pain issues.  I had no clue how this could be possible but that was enough to get my interest piqued…  I’d come to find out that I really liked the speed and if cycling lessened my back problems, that would be a bonus.  My first two bikes had a decent drop to them and over the last couple of years my once moderate back pain faded considerably after riding them.

My new Venge has a more pronounced drop than my old Trek, a respectable 4-3/4″ (more than 12cm) drop from the nose of my saddle to the top of the handlebar.  I purposely chose a smaller bike so I could get a better drop (56 cm seat tube in lieu of the recommended 59 cm) and sport a longer stem (110 mm in lieu of 80 or 90 mm).  In other words, I went out of my way to make sure that when I ride I can do so as aerodynamically as possible while considering my flexibility, which isn’t all that great – I can’t touch my toes without bending my knees a little bit.  Now, one very important thing to add to this equation is that I don’t have a gut to work around.  With a paunch I’d have a much tougher time breathing when I ride so I’d have had to opt for a larger bike with less drop.  Know this:  I have been working very closely with my shop owner on how I feel riding my bikes – he knew before I ever bought my new bike that I could handle a steeper drop than average.  My Venge is incredibly comfortable (according to Matt he could have fit me on a 54 cm frame but we agreed that wasn’t necessary because I plan on riding this bike well into my 50’s – I felt that a 54 would have been too much of a good thing).  My 56 cm Venge is so comfortable in fact, that I still have a tough time believing how nice it is to ride a race bike set up the way mine is.

When I picked the Venge as my new bike, I picked it because I found it to be absolutely one of the most beautiful bikes on the market in my price range.  I chose a race bike and I wanted it to look like a race bike when I was riding it.

With the explanation out of the way, my experience has been that my back problems are nearly a thing of the past.  I still hit the bottle of Aleve once or twice a month but I only ever need one to completely knock out the pain.  If I had to go out on a limb and guess, riding road bikes has built up my core and back muscles which did away with the pain.  I have never, in the last 25 years, been so pain-free.  Sure my muscles hurt from the effort every now and again but that’s to be expected.  My initial ideas of how road bikes affect the back were completely wrong – not only is that position comfortable, what used to be a fairly painful existence has been made enjoyable.

Don’t write off the road bike because of misperception – it’s not as bad as you might think.  Just make sure to check with your doctor first because I’m not one.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You should check with an experienced bike fitter to make sure that you’re within your realm of possibility…  Trying to ride in a pro’s position when you can’t possibly bend that far cannot be wise.  On the other hand, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself (or your fitter) to get what you want.
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