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The Delicate Balance between Speed, Pain and Comfort in Road Cycling


September 2017

A fast, stout bike can make a fast paced ride seem reasonable.  They simply lack a little in comfort.

This is FAST.  When you push on the pedals, it goes and you feel it.

A comfortable road bike, well those make a reasonable pace feel wonderful, though they are a bit more work.

This is comfortable.  You wouldn’t know it’s slower unless you were able to ride a fast bike to compare/contrast but it’s a little harder to make it go fast.

While DALMAC (our four day ride covering 380-ish miles) is grueling, there wasn’t a day that I pulled into camp feeling toasted – but the pace wasn’t so outrageous that I’d have needed the faster bike either.

Both bikes have an aggressive set-up though,  because while I may be a avid cycling enthusiast, I definitely wanted to look the part.  Call it naïve exuberance.  When I bought my first real bike, the Trek above (though in much worse shape back then), it came set up closer to a leisure rider than I liked.  The bars were raised to a point where there was only a 2-1/2″ drop from the saddle to the handlebar.  Today, the drop is more than 4″.  I started messing with the shop supplied set-up only a week or two after bringing the bike home – it didn’t look anything like it does now.

There was one simple driving force:  I will make my bike look as “pro” as I reasonably can and I will get used to that.  That’s exactly what I did and so it has been for the last five years (and 38,000 miles, give or take).  My bikes, as shown above, are as close to perfect as I can get a bike to fit me but I do believe my determination to make that set-up work had a bit to play in the orchestra.

Where this gets interesting is when we throw my wife’s bike and experience into the mix.  When I bought her bike I specifically requested that the stem be flipped upside down, like my bikes:

My wife rode in that fairly aggressive position for two years but was never really comfortable.  We came to find out the biggest problem was that she had been riding on a saddle that was too wide for her sit bones.  When we fixed the saddle, it wasn’t the end I expected.  My wife liked the saddle change but still felt just a bit off…  She took the bike in for a second fitting and Matt (the owner of the shop) threw the kitchen sink at it, changing the saddle height, the level on the saddle… he even flipped the stem which raised the bar an inch-and-a-half:

The result of the new fitting was nothing short of stunning.  The day after all of those changes, my wife accompanied us on a 68 mile ride on some fairly hilly terrain.  She finished the ride tired, but with a smile on her face.  The next day she went out for another 35 with my buddy, Mike.  She rode Monday and again on Tuesday without a major complaint.

I have always been about small moves, so it was a real shock that all of those big moves paid off for my wife.

So back to the small moves.  This is my Trek a few weeks ago:

This is my ride today:

Notice the nose of the saddle.  It’s down a millimeter or two because it was putting pressure where pressure doesn’t belong.  I also felt like I was sitting a little too upright on the bike so I rotated the drop bar down.  That increased my reach slightly and lowered the hoods a bit so I’ll cut into the wind a little better when I’m riding on the hoods (something I felt I needed on that bike).

My first ride with the new set-up felt awesome.  Still, I have a record of what I did in the event I have to put it back if I end up not liking it or it causes some unforeseeable pain.

That last point is key.  When I went to pick my wife up at the shop, after her fitting, Matt handed me a sheet of paper with the old measurements and the new.  This way, if the new set-up proved awkward, we could change everything back.  I’d never done such a thing (because I’m either very sure of what I need/want or I’m very ignorant – I’m leaning toward the former but that might be a little optimistic…).

In any event, if you know your way around a bike set-up and can translate what you feel in the saddle into moving components around (that I can do), small moves and keeping track of them is the way to go.  If, however, you’re like my wife and don’t, do not collect $200, do not pass Go, head straight to your local shop and get your bike squared away.

Finally, my best efforts weren’t enough to help my wife.  God knows, I tried, but to no avail.  It bums me out that I couldn’t figure everything out for her, but the changes were too big for my minimal experience.  There is a very thin line between comfort and pain on even the squishiest of racing road bikes and I don’t recommend trying to straddle it.

Balance yes, straddle no.


  1. saoirsek says:

    I must be getting more observant, I noticed the dip straight away🙂

  2. joliesattic says:

    Just a little tweak can make a huge difference.

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