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Road and Gravel Bikes; How I Set My Bike Saddles So I Get the Correct Height, Offset, and Tilt… EVERY Time.

A virtual cycling friend of mine, Matty, over at MattyandAnnika.life and I were recently commenting about a reader of his blog who had a saddle issue that caused pain after a mere 20 miles.  Of course, because I was just lucky enough to see the comment, I sprung into action.  There are three things and a possible fourth that will cause the saddle pain where there’s no broken skin, but rather it’s like a butt bone, or worse, the inside of your thigh bone feels bruised.

Now, before I get into this fairly technical post, if you’re wearing normal gym shorts (running, basketball, etc.) on a bicycle, that’s the problem.  You need cycling shorts.  You can wear those funky shorts and ride happy, or limit yourself to 15 miles at a crack… choose.  Click on this post to get an idea of what you want (here) and buy a few pair.  Modern saddles don’t work right without padded shorts – and those bulky, heavily padded monstrous saddles will have you hurting worse than you are now…

I suffered through this exact issue back in 2012 after buying my first real road bike, a Trek 5200 T from the local shop, used.  It came with a rather bulky 155 mm saddle… and I was just a year into riding a bicycle.  I didn’t know that saddles even came in different widths back then.  After thinking the severe pain I was feeling was due to a running issue, I had a few days off the bike before going for a run (it was too cold to ride, sometime in the winter).  Much to my surprise, that “running injury” didn’t hurt.  It didn’t take long to take three away from five to come up with a saddle problem.  I took my bike to the shop where they promptly measured my sit bones, then the saddle, and informed me it was no wonder I was in so much pain.  My bike went from:

Now, going by the common novice thinking, the saddle on the left, with its vast padding advantage, should have been far superior to that little svelte number on the right.  That thinking is wrong.  The svelte saddle is butter because it fits my butt.  I even went one better after I got the bike painted and refurbished and put a sexy, light carbon fiber number on it:

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The Specialized Romin saddle on my Venge is 143 mm while the Bontrager saddle on the Trek is 138.  After a year on the Bontrager and eight on the Specialized, I like the 138 a little better.  Without getting too deep into the woods on this, saddle width is a big deal.

Next, you’ve got your saddle height and the fore/aft position.  Now this gets a little tricky to dial in because all of the little tips and tricks for pulling a number out of thin air are great, but they’re not perfect.  They get you close.  So, we’re going to do a general saddle height set first.  With your bike hooked up to an indoor trainer, put your heels on the pedals and pedal backward… your legs should straighten at the bottom, without rocking your hips.  That’ll get you close enough for government work.  Next, we’re tackling the fore/aft position of the saddle.  For that, warm up for a few minutes on that trainer.  Get comfortable… and then stop pedaling so the crank arms are parallel to the ground.  Take a 4′ level and set the edge of the level against the end of your leading crank arm and against your knee.  The bubble should be between the black lines.  Adjust your saddle until it is.  Finally, we get to the tilt.  If you’ve got a contoured saddle, you level the nose.  If you have a flat saddle, you level the entire saddle.  A level app on a tablet works fantastically for this.  Now, what you’re looking for is a perfect “cradling” effect from your saddle.  If the nose is down, you’ll feel like you’re sliding down the front of the saddle.  If the nose is too far up, it’ll feel like the nose is digging into your crotch (and let me tell you, that sucks).  Raise or lower the nose of the saddle until it perfectly cradles you with your hands on the hoods.  Once you’re set, place your hands in the drops.  Does the nose dig into your nether regions?  If so, drop the nose just ever so slightly.  If not, you’re almost done.

At that point, once everything is dialed in close, I like to raise the saddle slightly.  I want to make sure I’ve got the saddle as high as I can comfortably get it because this improves power to the pedal as long as you don’t go too far.  If you’re too high, oh, it’s gonna hurt.  Too low… well, if you did the heel thing right, it won’t be too low.  Raise your saddle a millimeter at a time until you can feel the saddle digging in a little bit.  Once you get there, lower it a millimeter.  Then go for a 30 minute ride… uncomfortable at all – and I mean at all?  If the saddle is still digging in a little, you’ll lower it another millimeter.  That’s exactly how I get my saddle into the perfect position on my bikes.  Now, this can take months to get perfect.  Months.  Be patient.  If you’re feeling discomfort, address it with saddle tilt or raising/lowering the saddle.  Don’t change the fore/aft position (you change the stem to fix reach issues).

Now, after you’ve done all of this, if your saddle still bugs you, you need a different saddle.  The one you’ve got doesn’t suit you.  Not all saddles agree with a cyclist.  They’re very personal that way.  I like a deeply contoured saddle.  Others like their saddle as flat as a board.  In the diagram below, I’m a Position 2 cyclist:

My friends, it is very important to be finicky when it comes to saddles.  Antin, the poor fellow I started this post off about, could only ride 20 miles before his posterior started firing up.   First, you need miles to build up heinie tolerance.  If, after several dozen rides, you still feel like one of those red-assed baboons after you get off your bike, something needs adjusting.

The best advice I can give is to pay attention to what your butt is telling you.  If you break the feeling down, you’ll probably be able to tell what the problem is so you don’t have to use a shotgun approach.

And one last point that will throw a monkey wrench into everything…  The saddle heights aren’t exactly the same on my two road and gravel bikes.  The gavel bike is a sixteenth (1.5 mm) of an inch lower than my Venge (36-3/8″) and my Trek’s saddle height is a 32nd (0.8 mm) lower than the Venge.  I truly believe that setup, headset stack and frame geometry require subtle differences in the saddle height… and this is why I go to all of the trouble I do.  I can tell you, without question or hesitation, I can’t raise the Trek’s saddle that 1/32″ and ride comfortably.  I tried it.  That 0.8 mm makes a difference.

Good luck, and if you’ve got problems, comment below and we’ll see if we can’t get that sorted out.

Swap Meet Find of the Year; Daddy Gets a New Dome Protector!

I’m a cycling helmet wearer. I’m not above going out on a solo ride without one, on dirt roads, but when I’m riding with my friends, I wear a dome protector without fail. I also come down against helmet laws or compulsory “rules” requiring them, even if I do choose to wear one almost every time I ride.  Simply put, riding in a group, it’s wise to protect one’s melon.  And I do the vast majority of my riding in a group.

That said, I’ve had my eye on an S-Works Prevail melon cover for years. I just couldn’t justify spending a whopping $225 on a helmet when a Propero III ($140) or an Echelon II ($90), or even an Airnet ($150) would fit the bill just fine… and I was actually thinking about jumping brands for the new Bontrager Specter WaveCel ($149.99 – I like the helmets that won’t let bees into the vents as I’m slightly allergic).

Sunday was our local swap meet, though, and I managed to stumble on the exact S-Works Prevail helmet I wanted, in medium, and the guy only wanted $20 for it (it had been worn lightly, but not enough the pads, strap or shell show any wear whatsoever). Folks, that WaveCel melon cover is nice, but $20 for a Prevail simply can’t be passed up. It’s an older Prevail model with the red and white color scheme:

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Even being an older helmet (no signs of wear or exposure to sunlight – a deal breaker in either case, no matter how cheap), it’s a bad@$$ brain bucket. Surprising, it wasn’t as light as I figured it would be. My Echelon II is only slightly heavier.

That said, the venting is vastly improved over the Echelon and Propero models, and the chin strap is much improved.

We browsed quite a bit, my wife and I, but I didn’t find much that really turned my crank. My wife walked away with a nice pair of fleece-lined tights, but a lot of the stuff on display was either junk, worn out, or overpriced.  There were two cool exceptions; a friend of mine was selling an adjustable track quill stem and handlebar from a 1939 Schwinn Paramount. It was spectacular… for only $700. Ouch! He also had a spectacularly restored 1976 Schwinn Paramount track bike for $1,500. The Schwinn was hard to walk away from, especially being a Bicentennial bike (USA Bicentennial, 1976). It was glorious, and I have the money in the bank.  Thank God Mrs. Bgddy was there with me.

Wrist Pain and Road Bike Cockpit Setup; Gravel Is Fun To Ride On… Not Much Fun in Your Wrist

In a post last week, I wrote about a wrist problem I was having. I figured it might be related to the new handlebar install I did on my Trek. My wrist was a lot worse than I let on in my post.

So, the problem was in the way I installed the hoods on the handlebar, but going by looks, it shouldn’t have been a problem. We install the hoods so they follow the line of the handlebar:

Originally, I started having trouble shaving with my right hand. I’d get to a couple of key places and my wrist would lock, causing a shooting pain up my arm. My palm hurt like hell for about a half-hour after. If I gripped my razor wrong, causing the handle to rest in my palm, the pain was intense.

Before long, the tendons in my wrist were catching so much it felt like I had gravel in my wrist. This started back in November, but I didn’t miss a day on the bike and didn’t think much of it until mid-December. I thought I might be experiencing the start of carpal tunnel syndrome.

We went on vacation over Christmas, for a week and a half. I hoped, if it was bike related, the time off the bike would help. It didn’t get better. Shaving sucked, and I was resigning myself to get in to see a doctor when I got home.

On a fluke, I tried to roll my hand forward at the wrist. Make like you’re going to shake someone’s hand, then drop your fingers to the floor, bending at the wrist. The pain was hot, intense, and excruciating.

That’s when I knew it was bike related.

I left my handlebar where it was and raised my hoods, maybe an inch, so I wasn’t rolling my wrists forward so much.

Three weeks later and I just shaved pain free for the first time since this whole mess started. It was bike related, I’m not getting CTS, now that I’ve fixed my hoods… just a little too aggressive.

I just adorned the Trek with new bar tape, too, so she’s feeling good and looking snazzy:

It’s hard to tell from that angle, but the hoods were raised quite a bit.

Point is, as much as I know about setting a bike up, I still managed to hurt myself. On the bright side, I also knew enough to fix what I screwed up in the first place… so it’s not all bad.

Advanced Road Bike Setup; Getting the Shift Lever Hoods Right Can Save Serious Pain Down the Road

A couple of months ago I put a new aero drop bar on my Trek. It is fantastic on that my old 5200.  It’s hard to tell it’s a classic (it’s a ’99, so a classic just this year):

Unfortunately, there was just a little too much drop from the saddle nose to the handlebar with the new bar.  I added a 5 mm spacer under the stem to bring the bar up.  When I was done, the reach wasn’t bad, though maybe a touch long, and I could handle the drop a lot better, even with my winter five pounds…. and the bike looked awesome.

Just before Christmas, we flew to Florida to stay with my wife’s sister’s family and I started noticing some problems with my right hand and wrist. It felt like the tendons in my wrist would “catch” every now and again. The associated pain wasn’t a big deal, it was unsettling, though.  I worried it might be the onset of carpel tunnel syndrome.

When we got back, after a week and a half off the bike, I rode on the trainer with regularity and the popping and pain increased.

It took a minute (three weeks…ish) for it to dawn on me, but I finally put the puzzle together and traced it back to the new handlebar installation. Or more succinctly, I narrowed it down to something in the handlebar setup.

After a lot of thought about what to do, I settled on raising the hoods… maybe the angle was off, the way I was reaching for the hoods?

Still on the right plane, but with more rise.  Just riding yesterday was a remarkable improvement in how my wrist feels.

How did I come to the conclusion I did?

I could have done a few things to set this right: A) Lower the handlebar. B) Roll the handlebar back which would naturally raise the hoods. C) Raise the individual shift levers/hoods.

Raising the handlebar by adding spacers below the stem would be exactly the wrong thing to do.  That would increase the forward wrist rotation, exacerbating the problem.  Put your hands in front of you, like you’re holding your hoods, roll your wrist forward… now raise them up two inches.  The right thing to do would be to lower the handlebar.  It might have worked, decreasing the odd angle, but the physics of it just don’t add up; with my slight winter gut in the way.  Ahem.

I could have rolled the handlebar back, bringing the hoods up, but that would have thrown off my position in the drops big time.

The hardest option, moving the shift levers themselves, was the option I chose because that would give me exactly what I needed, even if it was a lot more work contrasted against the other two options (getting the hoods in the right position, level and square to the handlebar drops takes a bit of ingenuity and attention to detail).

What went wrong initially?

In my pursuit of being perfectly stylish, I tried to set the shift levers to perfectly follow the plane created by the drop – as should be (my wife’s old bike in the foreground is all wrong, but the way they did things on sport bikes vs. race bikes twelve years ago).  It looked awesome and aggressive, but even with the decent drop from the saddle to the bar, the long reach meant I had to slightly roll my wrists forward to hold the hoods.  I was putting a lot of pressure on my wrists while they were bent in a way they shouldn’t be bent.  Over time, this aggravated the tendons in my wrist which inflamed them, thus I felt like I had gravel in my wrist.  In fact, just sitting here typing this report up, I tried to mimic that movement, rolling my wrists forward.  Without any weight on my wrists it hurt.  I got a jolt up my right arm and I could feel the pressure in my left (I’m left handed, it would make sense that, being left hand dominant, it would take a little longer for problems to show there).

The conclusion.

The causes of my trouble are many little things rolled up into an ugly ball; cockpit reach (length of the stem in this case), geometry of the bike (I don’t have this problem on my Venge – standard vs. compact frame), choice of handlebar (I didn’t have any troubles with the last handlebar – the rise and reach are different on the new bar) and the location of the hoods on the bar.  All of these things combined make for an ugly problem in my bike’s setup.

Thankfully, I’m picky enough to have caught it before any real damage was done.  I hope.

Riding a Bicycle; Eight Signs You May Not Be Doing It Right and What to Look For If You’re Not.

First, this is not going to be some “go out an buy a $10,000 featherweight road bike for your first ride” snob post.  To be fair, I wouldn’t know how to come at it from that angle, as I’ve never owned anything approaching a $10,000 featherweight road bike, myself.

do have a $6,000 featherweight road bike, and it is indubitably sexy.  If you can afford one, I highly recommend picking up one or two.  They’re unquestionably fun.

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Here’s a list of eight things that will help you identify something wrong and what to do to correct each item.

  • Your butt feels like you’re riding on barbed wire after ten miles.
    • Okay, so this isn’t exactly perfect, because one must get some miles in before one’s heinie stops hurting.  On the other hand, it won’t hurt bad enough that you actually check to see if someone put a piece of barbed wire on your saddle.  If someone did, check your friends – you’re doing something wrong there.  Just a guess, of course.  Otherwise, your saddle is one of these:  Out of position (too high, tilted too far forward or back), or too narrow/wide for your sit bones, or has too much padding.  That’s right, too much padding.  Those big-ass seats, all irony aside, stop blood flow to the nether-regions.  That’s no bueno.
  • Your hands go numb in the driveway.  On your way out.
    • Your hands shouldn’t go numb unless you’re on a very long ride.  Hours long.  If they do, there are a few simple things you can do to correct this.
      • The drop from the nose of the saddle is either too great or too little.
      • The saddle nose is tilted down too far, it’s sliding you into the handlebar.
      • You’re gripping the handlebar too tight.  Think of gripping a baby bird in either hand.  Don’t kill the birds.
      • If the drop from the nose of your saddle to the handlebar is off, you probably need to raise or lower the handlebar.  Lowering the bar may seem odd, but I had to do this myself on my mountain bike to get some of the pressure off my hands.
      • If you’re gripping the handlebar too tight, stop it.
      • In all seriousness, if you’re gripping the handlebar – hoods, bar top or drops – with a decent amount of pressure, you’re definitely doing it wrong.  The idea is to hold on just tight enough that if you hit a bump, you don’t let go.
  • Your neck hurts.
    • Your neck shouldn’t hurt too bad, from looking up the road.  If it does, the problem is related to the drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar.  Don’t raise your handlebar quite yet, though.  Do some yoga or stretches or anything to fix your neck first.  Low is fast.  Fast is cool.  Therefore, low is cool.  By default.
    • Riding is cooler than not riding.  If you can’t get your neck comfortable, raise the handlebar.
  • Your knees hurt.
    • Your knees shouldn’t hurt.  There are three things that cause this
      • Your saddle is too high (front of the knees will hurt)
      • Your saddle is too low (back of the knees will hurt)
      • Your cleats are misaligned.  Believe it or not, this is a really big deal.  You can do some damage if this isn’t addressed.  Your local bike shop should have what’s needed to get you sorted out.
  • Your feet hurt.  There are a couple of issues, maybe a few, related to the feet…
    • Your shoes are too small.  This ain’t hockey.  You don’t have to cram your size 11 foot into a size 8.
    • Your shoes are too tight.  One would think, especially for those who clip in, that the shoes should be ratcheted down pretty tightly.  This isn’t the case.  Snug does the job.  Tight increases pressure unnecessarily.
    • Again with the cleat placement – in this case, too far forward or back depending on where the pain is.
  • Your back hurts.
    • Check your bike setup.  Get your bike fitted if you haven’t already.  Doing so is incredibly important.
      • There are quite a few things that could cause this.  Saddle too far back, too far forward, too high, too low… you’d need a shotgun and a lot of hope to hit the answer on this.
  • Your butt hurts, but your saddle is right.
    • You need better shorts.  Click here and learn.  You don’t have to feel the burn.
  • You’re not having any fun.
    • Dude, how can one not have fun riding a bicycle?!  That doesn’t even make sense!
    • Seriously, if you’re not having fun, maybe try a different type of cycling.  Don’t like paved roads?  Try dirt.  Don’t like roads?  Try mountain biking.  It’s supposed to be fun, and a lot of it.

Sorting Out the Difference In Pain Related to Cycling; How I Tell the Difference Between Fit or Fitness

My wife had been experiencing some pain related to cycling.  She’d switched from her normal road/triathlon bike to her gravel bike – she’s technically riding both, probably a little more on the road bike, but not by much.

Now, normally we’d have the gravel bike set up fairly close to the road bike*, but in my wife’s case, she’s got a mix-use road and triathlon bike, so the geometry is very different between the two.  In my case, the road bikes are really close and the gravel bike is pretty close.  Anyway, immediately my wife thinks she needs to start tinkering with her bikes’ setups.  This saddle needs to be moved back, the other one forward and down…  Folks, that’s a tough spot for me to be in right there, because I tinker with my bikes a lot, and she knows this.  This is different from tinkering, though, and took me a day to kick it around and figure out how to respond, because I didn’t think the issue was her setup.  See, just the week before, she’d been raving about how comfortable the road/tri bike was, how she liked the new wheels, and how “right” everything was.  You just don’t go from being content to having to change the saddle height and location in a week.  I had to gently let her onto the idea that it’d be better to ride through this one.

And I knew this because I do it all the time.

It took tens of thousands of miles and experience to understand what I can ride through and when something’s wrong with a bike’s setup.  The pains are different and in very specific and recurring places if the setup is wrong – and in the case of the saddle’s fore/aft location on the seat post, if the saddle’s too far forward all of a sudden (because you made a mistake putting it back, ahem), it’ll sap your power enough you’ll be crushed and dropped off the back on a long ride.  Yes, that did happen to me on a hundred miler a few years back.  It did suck – and it was quite humbling when I discovered what I’d done.

So, fit vs. fitness…

Fit problems that cause pain are recurring and localized.  In other words, if I’ve got a fit problem, the pain related will be a nagging, stationary pain.  Say my saddle is too high.  This will cause a few posterior problems, but typically on the sides, where my hip bones hit the saddle while I’m pedaling, from the pelvis rocking back and forth so the feet can reach the pedals.  It’s not the sit bones, either, which would be further back.  Too high will also, likely, cause back pain if left alone too long.  How about a saddle that’s too low?  Pain in the back of the knee is generally the first thing you’ll notice that’s wrong… And there are dozens of other pains and causes, that range from a sore neck (handlebar too low), to numb hands (handlebar too high or possibly too close).  Too much reach, if you’re constantly sitting on the horn of the saddle, or you ride on the bar tops more than the hoods and drops.  The point is, it’s been my experience that we’ll have the same pain and problems every time we ride the bike.

My favorite example is the saddle that came with my 5200.  The original saddle was big, bulky, heavy and 155mm wide.  Unfortunately, my sit bones are about 142mm apart (I ride, comfortably on a 143mm Specialized Romin and a phenomenally comfortable 138mm Bontrager Montrose Pro), so as soon as I started riding the bike, I found myself with severe hamstring issues.  I thought it was due to running, but after some time of cycling and running, the issues came back immediately during my first ride back after some couch time.  I had a new saddle within 24 hours.

Now, that first ride back, I could feel the pressure on the sides of my groin, but nothing in the sit bones (because the saddle was so wide, I wasn’t sitting on the sit bones).  That first ride back, the sides flared up something nasty, and I could feel the pain radiate to my hamstrings, and that’s how I knew what was up.  Localized and recurring.

More elusive are the random pains.  These are the pains I ride through.  I will get the odd sore neck or shoulder… maybe a sore knee or ankle.  That I know of, you can’t ride the amount of miles I put in, at the speed I do, and not have a few pains flare up now and again.  It just comes with the exercise.  For these, I take a Tylenol in the morning and a bike ride in the afternoon.  That usually does the trick.  For those elusive, mobile pains, I ride through them until they become a bigger issue.  I don’t change anything on the bike’s setup for these.  They’ve always gone away with time – usually a matter of hours, no more than a day or two.

I’ve built a vast set of experiences in regard to cycling in running from which to pull if I experience something that just doesn’t feel quite right.  Over 60,000 miles and the only time I’ve taken time off the bike for an injury was the wide saddle issue. Still, I’m not (near) always right.  If I run into a pain that I haven’t experienced or already ridden through, that I just can’t put my finger on, I head to the bike shop to consult with the owner and a couple of the mechanics I trust.  I do this before I change anything on the bike, because I’ve been known to make the wrong correction a time or two.  And I know enough, if the pain doesn’t subside after all of that, to go see a doctor.

*I wrote “fairly” close when referring to the setups of the gravel and road bike because quite often the two aren’t exact.  For instance, I purposely have my gravel bike set up to promote a more relaxed, upright posture.  I do this so I can better see bumps and potholes coming because anyone who knows anything about dirt road riding in Michigan, knows to hold on, ’cause it’s gonna get bumpy.  My road bikes, on the other hand, are mainly about speed and aerodynamics.

Day Two of My Much Better Back; Stupid Lumbar Support Car Seats…

My Thursday evenings have been thoroughly packed for years to the point I can only afford a short ride after work.  After having found my lumbar support digging into my back for better than a couple of months, with a four-hour-a-day commute, and correcting the issue, I feel so much better it’s hard to put into words.  I went from fully healthy, bounding up dozens of flights of stairs every day at work to having a tough time walking two flights.  I fought in my head for more than a month, trying to figure out what went wrong.

In fact, I was in so much pain when on my feet at work (a large part of my job), that when I discovered the lumbar support in my vehicle’s seat pushing into my back, I worried it couldn’t be that simple…

I rode last night, just my second day (first full day) removed from discovering the problem.  I turned in an easy 14 miles in 43 minutes.  That’s almost 19.5-mph, for a fun, semi-easy spin.  It’s hard to describe the relief I’m feeling – not only the physical, but the mental.  It’s not easy to go from fully fantastic to struggling to stay on your feet for more than a couple of hours.  All I could think was, “what the hell?!”

I rolled out with the wind in my face, and was content to keep the pace mild, at 17-18-mph.  Originally I’d planned on an easy day.  On turning left, into a cross-headwind,  I changed my mind on the easy part as I passed 20-mph on the computer.  I wanted to see if I could break 19-mph with the stiff, late summer breeze.

Without ever really pushing too hard, just keeping it steady, I rolled into the driveway at 19.5-mph average.  Good enough to be relieved that my back is back.  I think I can turn the page on this ugly episode, thank God.

Happier days are ahead!