The Noob’s Ultimate Guide to Bicycle Comfort: Why Yours Hurts and Mine Doesn’t (and I can ride mine ten times longer)…
The title of this post is rather arrogant, it was meant to get your attention. I apologize for that, but it’s an important topic and I run into far too many people who suffer through a bike ride rather than enjoy it. Using me as an example (and depending on where in the season we are and the speed of the ride), a medium to easy-paced bike ride, call it an 19 mph average, I can comfortably ride in the neighborhood of 85 miles before I run into any discomfort. You read that right. 85 miles or about 5 hours.
If you’re starting to experience discomfort on your bike sooner than ten miles, either you are not fit or something on your bike doesn’t fit. It’s pretty much that simple. The first of those two items is easily correctable. With saddle time, your fitness will improve and minor discomforts (achy muscles, mildly sore shoulders and neck, etc.) will fade considerably – after my bike was professionally set up I still had a couple of years with a stiff neck before I got used to putting 10-14 hours a week in on the bike, but that pain did end up going away. The latter is a little trickier – especially discerning which is which. There are a few simple mistakes and misunderstandings that can lead to an exceptionally painful ride and if they’re addressed, the only thing that will stand in your way is saddle time.
- The dreaded padded saddle. One of the most common cycling mistakes made by beginners is thinking that the answer to riding in comfort is having more padding on the saddle. This is, without a doubt, entirely incorrect – even if it sounds counterintuitive. Rather than name particular saddles, if you’ve got one of those pull-over gel pads on your seat, you’ve got too much padding – by a long shot. The general rule is none to 4 mm on a road saddle (mine has 2 mm), 2 mm to 8 mm on a mountain bike saddle (I have one with 6 mm and one with 8 and the 6 is vastly more comfortable) and 8-10 mm for a cruiser. Any more than that and you end up cutting off blood supply to some very important and sensitive areas. This makes things that shouldn’t be numb go numb. Now, if you’re thinking, “Well I can’t possibly ride on a bike with no padding on the saddle.” You’re right. The padding goes in the shorts. If you won’t wear a pair of padded cycling shorts, there are padded undershorts that will work just fine so you can wear normal clothes over them.
- Get your bike fitted to you by an expert. I know, we all think we’re smart enough to figure out how to set the saddle height. Just try a fitting. It’s worth every penny you’ll pay, especially when you consider having your saddle height too low by just a half-inch can completely zap your power to the pedals (we’re talking a difference of up to several miles per hour). I know of a fellow blogger who had been struggling with cycling for years. Foot pain, knee pain, and general discomfort all around. He went in to have a bike fit done and they lowered his saddle by three inches. Folks, I feel uncomfortable if my saddle is off by a couple of millimeters (roughly the thickness of a piece of spaghetti – angel hair). Three inches too high, I’m amazed the guy could stand three miles on that bike!
- Saddle width. Seriously, especially for a road bike. I ride a 143 mm saddle but started out with a 155 mm saddle. I ended up with some fairly sore hamstrings as a result. Saddle width matters – especially if you ride in a fairly aggressive posture, like I do.
- Reach. If you look at the photo above, when we talk about reach we’re talking about the distance from the saddle to the handlebar. If the reach is off, it leads to shoulder and neck pain – a lot of it. The easiest way to know if the reach is too great on your road bike (if you haven’t had it fitted), you’ll tend to be more comfortable riding with your hands on the bar top (the closest hand-hold on the bar to you) than on the hoods. You need to be most comfortable on the hoods, especially if you’re riding with a group (you want your hands on the brakes in case you need them). Your saddle height and it’s fore/aft position on the seat post are determined by factors related to the pedals so you typically won’t fix “reach” by moving the saddle. You simply buy a longer or shorter stem (mine, on that bike, is 100 millimeters – on my tandem I have a 130 mm stem, and on my rain bike it’s an 80 mm stem… Three different bikes, three different geometries, three different reaches that all put me in the same position on the bike).
- Drop. For the purposes of this post, “drop” refers to the drop from the saddle to the handlebar top. The saddle height is set, so if you prefer to sit more upright, you can achieve this in a number of ways. You can raise or lower the stem (if you have enough spacers to do so), you can rotate the handlebar up or down a little bit or you can raise or lower the hoods on the handlebar. My bikes are set up with the newer norm “hoods are on the same plain with the bar” (see above and below).
I lowered the hoods considerably from where they were when I first bought the bike because I wasn’t as comfortable with them in their original position.
Once you have your bike dialed in, all that’s left is getting in the requisite saddle time to become comfortable in the new position. I always recommend noobs have their bike professionally fitted and pay attention to what the fitter explains. Watch what they do to improve your setup so you can do that to your other bikes. Keep an eye on the measurements and how they’re taken… Before long, you’ll be able to make your own adjustments when you feel it necessary.
I saw a guy struggling through a 100 mile ride over some exceptionally hilly terrain last weekend… He was a shorter fella, maybe 5’5″, on a bike that was too big, with a saddle that was too high… He was hunched over so bad that he must have been laying on his twig and berries and he had to pedal with his toes pointed to the ground. Honestly, I almost said something to him as I passed him – I don’t know how he did it.
Modern bicycles, especially the high-end bicycles shown above, are meant to be fit to the rider. If you’re experiencing pain on your bicycle(s), there’s a very good chance that you tried to fit you to the bike. Just know that riding is not supposed to hurt like that.
I like the line, “take care of your body, it’s the only one you get”.
I don’t argue for expunging meat, burgers, pizza or any other fun food from the diet. I’m not going to recommend a diet that consists of food from an Era when, seriously now, the average lifespan of a man was less than half what it is now. I don’t recommend a diet of extremes, neither only meat nor only vegetables. Both are equally laughable as far as I’m concerned. In fact, while in line at a local Subway the other day, a woman asked the sub maker to change her gloves to make her veggie sub… So I asked her to change them again when she got to mine so she didn’t get any veggies on my meat.
I haven’t had to completely give up ice cream or chocolate chip cookies. I still eat popcorn every now and again. I still enjoy a donut two or three times a year. I eat pizza once a week and always have the flexibility to fit in a good burger in for dinner.
There does happen to be a but coming though. There’s always a but, or in this case, it’s either a but or a butt and a gut.
I can’t eat a lot. Even in mid-cycling season when I’m cranking out a thousand miles in a month (I had 920 in May), I have to watch how much I eat. I can have a treat now and again, especially after a long day on the bike, but for the most part I choose to abstain so I can look awesome in my cycling kit.
Then there’s part two of the but. I actually have to put in long days on my bike every now and again. I have to find time for fitness (or we could say I have to make time, you say tomato…).
An hour a day on the weekdays and a couple of long days on the weekend. The shorter hour-long rides during the week help me to cope with stress and allow me to eat what I enjoy – not try to make otherwise gnarly, calorie sparse foods (i.e. quinoa or chia seeds) seem appealing by dressing them up a little bit.
Last week, one of my customers said to me, “Damn Jim, at your age you’re wearing shirts that I haven’t been able to fit into since I was in high school”. Ladies and gentlemen, the circumference of my waist is still less that of my inseam. This isn’t by accident and it certainly isn’t because I have good genes (they’re fair, nothing more). The reality is, I found a way to stay fit that keeps my interest and puts a smile on my face in cycling. I wasn’t always so lucky though. For eight years I stayed fit by running three or four times a week. I put up with running because it beat gaining weight, but I never loved it like I do bike riding.
The secret to my success is this: I found something I could live with until I found something I loved. It’s as simple as that.
Fat is no more an accident than fit. Just remember not to quit five minutes before the miracle happens.
Ride hard my friends.
UPDATE: Rex added in the comments section: “The one thing I hope readers don’t miss here is that you cannot neglect proper nutrition! The latter combined with exercise is what will give folks results like you’re seeing.” Rex and I are in complete agreeance on this. I always find it difficult to make sure and get this important reality across clearly. Thanks Rex.