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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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.




  1. Anon says:

    All these rod bike posts you put up that I’ve been ignoring all this time are now suddenly very relevant to my new bicycle! Think I need to get mentally comfortable riding it before I can judge comfort, but at least saddle height will be spot on. Three inches??? Christ!
    As for saddles perhaps that’s why my Brooks on the three speed is so nice – no padding but the leather and springs give a little instead.

    • bgddyjim says:

      See, you’re going to need those posts for the red rocket. Three inches. It’s a wonder the guy could walk after a bike ride.

      You’ll see, once you get a little bit of that speed you’ll be hooked. I give it a year, at most, and you’ll have a new drivetrain on that old BSA… Shimano 105, 11 sp., integrated shifters and the whole nine yards.

  2. Anon says:

    Not a chance – Major Tom’s staying purely stock! I don’t think one can convincingly pretend to be Eddy Mercx with indexed shifters. Using unindexed downtube shifters is a dying art and I’m always all over that kind of stuff.

      • Anon says:

        Also keeping the downtube shifters means it’s eligible for Eroica, which is quite an important factor in the value of the bike should I wish to sell it (or ride Eroica myself…)

      • bgddyjim says:

        That’s a good point, we have those over here as well, and I have a 91 Cannondale with down tube shifters as well, though not to use in an old-school ride.

        That said, I’d much rather ride my modern road bikes, when it comes to group rides. The advantage with the modern shifters is just too great – and the ride is far more enjoyable.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Nah, modern integrated indexed shifters are too annoying. Wobbly brake levers, gears you can’t feel and too much shifting. Their only benefit is easier pace matching in groups whereeveryone is using using similar drivetrains.

        Plus the old arabesque friction shifters are things of beauty.

      • bgddyjim says:

        I can definitely see the beauty in the old shifters and you may have a point about the first, and maybe even the second, generation shifters as far as their being “wobbly” but the modern shifters have all of those problems worked out. Also, it’s more than matching pace in a group… It’s about picking the right gear at any given moment, for any situation. It’s about not having to remove your hands from the hoods to shift. When it comes to groups though, they’re a must. Oh, and you don’t need to have like drivetrains… It’s more about my cadence at a given speed than those around me. I’ve got friends who ride 53/39’s, 50/34’s, 52/36’s (that’s what I have)… We all match up just fine.

  3. MJ Ray says:

    You’re probably expecting me to write this: the padding point isn’t quite right. I agree those add on covers are mostly bad ideas as they wriggle around but what matters is total padding, not only the saddle. If you ride unpadded, then you’ll need to take more care to get a saddle that fits you and it’ll be more difficult at the minute because they’re unfashionable, with most more padded sales aimed at noobs who don’t ride far, but they are out there, including reissues of classics from when chamois was real deer and not so padded. If you’re OK wearing padded nappies, then you’ll want harder saddles, but plenty of people don’t really get on with them for design reasons (seams in the wrong places, Lycra sensitivity, unusual arse shape) or practical ones (nowhere to wash and change at the destination), or just like the simplicity of choosing one saddle per bike rather than many pairs of padded shorts.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s a fair point you make. Though the extra padding tends to cut off circulation where it matters and that’s why those saddles hurt. From a commuting standpoint I can see the rub but I tend to view most things “cycling” from the perspective of fitness and enjoyment as I cannot commute to work. Thanks for making your points.

      • MJ Ray says:

        It won’t cut the circulation off if it’s the right saddle for you – it’s similar wearing padded shorts but the structured padding is on the saddle rather than your shorts. Of course, there’s a limited number of gel saddle shapes, so many people would be better off with mattress or hammock type saddles which conform to the rider more, but those are even rarer in shops than gel saddles because they look old-fashioned for noobs and aren’t often used by modern racers (Brooks Pro and Cambium excepted?).

        One point I didn’t mention, though: you need smooth/flat seams (or seamlessness) in your clothes where the saddle will press if you’re riding more than a few miles. For example, cycling far in most non-cycling-specific jeans will still suck as that lump where the seams meet will be grinding into your nethers.

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