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Cycling and Back Pain; My Experience and Why I Wish it would be Looked at Scientifically

I can’t explain why my back likes cycling so much, but the results of 47,000 miles in the saddle are in, and they’re good.

First, I have a confession to make; if you guessed that I ride the bike I do, set up as it is, for reasons connected partly to vanity, you’re not wrong.

No doubt about it, my bike is sleek and awesome. So is my other one. And my other one. Oh, and let’s not forget my mountain bike…

Variations on a theme…

Anyway, getting back to the point, I ride in an aggressive posture. There’s a lot of drop from the saddle to the handlebar on my bikes. The mountain bike is the only one where the drop is a bit closer to normal.

Where this becomes important is that I have a really bad back. I have suffered physical back pain for most of the last three decades, unless I’m riding a bike. I used to define good weeks and bad weeks by how many Aleve I had to eat (because of my being an addict, I never accepted narcotic pain meds even though they could have been justified – I’d end up eating them like candy, it’s my nature). Two or three pain relievers a day for six days of the week was a really bad week. Two a day for three or four days in a week was average. One or two days a week was a good week. Before cycling, there was no such thing as a week without an Aleve (before 1994 it was Advil or Tylenol but I didn’t want to have to go through the pill amount conversion).

Today, after seven years of cycling regularly, my back isn’t cured but it certainly is manageable. My Aleve habit has dropped from as many as 20 pills a week down to one or two – or even none most weeks. On my recent mountain climbing cycling sabbatical I didn’t take a pain reliever. Three days, 160+ miles, climbing hills I’m not used to climbing, and I didn’t need anything for pain. My last day off the bike was April 14th, it’s currently May 20th.

I don’t do sit-ups, I don’t do core exercises, I don’t stretch… I just ride my bike with a smile stretched across my face, and it’s all good.

I’m sure there are contributing factors that explain my results, but I don’t know how to explain the fact I’m not all that flexible (I’ve never been able to touch my toes) but I can ride my bike comfortably with the aggressive set-up I’ve got, and doing so actually makes my back feel better.

In the end, I’m sure the lack of belly fat has something to do with it, as does the fact that I still get a great core workout riding. I think there’s one other thing at work here. It’s more a law; A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Conversely, a body at rest tends to stay at rest…


What I know about abnormal pain and cycling; Distinguishing REAL pain from “my butt hurt ‘cuz I rode hard”…

Trigger (heh) warning:  I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “listen to your body” and I’ve poked fun at it from time to time.  I’m about to do it again, but only mildly.  You have been trigger (heh) warned.

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “listen to your body”.  If we’re being honest, all too often “listening” isn’t the problem, it’s the interpretation of what the body is saying that messes people up.  All too often I’m amazed at what people take time off riding or running for.  Little tweaks, minor disturbances, tiny discomforts, a little twinge here or there under the guise of “listening” to… um… something.

I go by this simple rule:  If I can walk, I can ride.  This isn’t to say that has the possible chance of being the wrong thing to do, I just haven’t run into a situation like that yet, pardon the pun.

Last week, I wrote about my back barking at me.  I was in a fairly ridiculous amount of pain all day, every day – I messed it up, somehow, but I couldn’t figure out how.  I thought the issue might be tight hamstrings, but when I think back, I never have problems with tight hamstrings unless I’m riding on a saddle that’s too wide and I haven’t changed any saddles.  Then I went back to when it started hurting in the first place – when I took the Trek to the shop to have my name put on the top tube….  I rode my gravel bike on the trainer for a week or so.  The set-up is more upright compared against my other road bikes and it doesn’t have as much cockpit reach (22″ opposed to 22-1/2″)…  That’s when my back started barking.

Still, if I can walk, I can ride…

And I could definitely still walk.  The first day outside on the bike (last Friday) in a month, hurt pretty bad but I loosened up around mile fifteen (give or take).  I didn’t care anyway, I was outside!  Saturday, Mrs. Bgddy and I took the tandem out and that hurt.  All of that time in the saddle and pedaling a lot harder (tandems are about 20-30% harder than a single bike on the captain).   Still, outside, didn’t care.  Sunday was more of the same on the tandem.  You know the drill.  I could walk, so I could ride.

All this week I was in pain but I rode anyway… till Wednesday.  My daughter had a swim meet and there was no way I had enough time to fit in a ride, even on the trainer.  So I took a day off for the first time in two weeks.  My back didn’t straighten up.  I spent the day with a nagging back.  Still, I could walk, so I could ride.  I got home from work and dutifully mounted the Trek on the stand at quarter after Five… and 20 minutes in, I could feel my saddle nose in a way one doesn’t want to feel a saddle nose whilst riding.  I rode for another 10 minutes to see if I could shift my way into feeling better.  Nope.  At 30 minutes in, I dismounted, grabbed my Allen wrenches from the bike room, and adjusted the nose of the saddle down an eighth of a turn each on the back and front bolt (back out the back bolt, tighten the front – that’ll lower the nose).  I got back on the bike and the adjustment was a little too much.  It felt like I was sliding off the saddle, from back to nose.  I loosened the front bolt a sixteenth.


I rode the last fifteen minutes and felt quite nice actually.  Take a guess at whose back doesn’t hurt so bad this morning…  It’s not completely healed but the pressure is off and I don’t feel it sitting here writing this post, a distinct change for the better.

Folks, the normal “listen to your body” deal is take a bunch of time off and heal up, then continue at a cautious pace, blah, blah, blah.  If I’d have done that, it’d be another two months before I figured out what the real problem was, I’d be slower, fatter, and I’d have missed out on four fantastic days of outdoor cycling in the middle of winter…  Instead, I’m fitter, faster, and I fixed the root of the problem – all because I told my body to shut up and take it.

I am not a doctor and I don’t play one on this blog.  I don’t trust my doctor, either, because he’d have me taking time off too…  That’s what doctors do.  So, how do I know when to take time off and when to tell my body to suck it up?  I don’t have a good answer, other than “if I can walk, I can ride”.  The rest tends to work out in the wash.

The answer, methinks, is to do what you feel is right.  Just make sure the interpretation is the right one.  And if you’re going to hurt yourself, don’t do what I do!  Listen to your body and take some time off!  Or somethin’…


Now that you’ve finally begun, don’t quit…


The One Road Bike that can Do Everything….

When I got into road cycling, there were a few types of road bikes.  You had your road race bikes and your cyclocross bikes (though they weren’t all that popular yet).  The squishy/endurance bikes were just starting to gain a little traction as well…

Oh, if they had gravel bikes when I started cycling!

I won’t even mess with the suspense.  If you’re looking for a go anywhere, do anything road bike, you want a modern gravel bike (or maybe a cyclocross bike, though I prefer the gravel bike for the normal bottom bracket height).

However, Houston, we have a problem:  The bike, my gravel bike, in the photo above weighs a whopping 24 pounds, on the nose (10.9 kg).  It’s an upgraded entry-level bike, a Diverge Sport, but it’s a hog compared to my 17 pound (7.7 kg) Venge.

If you can feel a pound when riding, and believe me you can, seven is beyond noticeable, and tap-dancing “in your face”.

In my case, I’ve already got two decent race bikes and I was buying two gravel bikes (one for my wife, too)…  I simply didn’t have to go big on the gravel bike.  For someone looking to a gravel bike to be their only road bike, you would want to go mid-grade, or even upper echelon.  If it were me, I’d go with something like the Diverge Comp model ($3,000 – carbon frame, 11 speed 105 drivetrain, 48/32 crankset, hydraulic brakes, etc.).

The Expert (one step up) has an x1 drive with only one chain ring (up front) so I would advise against using one as a “do anything” road bike, because you can’t keep up with a fast group, especially a surge or sprint in a fast group, with a 42 tooth chain ring (max speed is approximately 27 mph).  I should note, I have a nasty disdain for the x1 drivetrain on road bikes in club settings.  One of the toughest aspects of cycling in a fast group is picking the right gear for the pace.  With the x1 drives you’re limited to 11 (or supposedly 12 in the near future) gears in the cassette and you need some climbing gears thrown in there too, so call it an 11-32 cassette.  There are a lot of 2 and 3 tooth jumps in the cassette gears, especially when you get down to the 11-15 tooth cogs, big jumps make it tough to match the pace of the group – you’ll often find yourself in between gears, which means you’ll have to push too hard a gear to keep up.  I would recommend a “do anything” bike, not a “do some stuff” bike.

Sadly, we’re not done yet…  While you could use tires that are okay for the dirt and the paved road, I would opt for two sets of wheels with different tires for dirt and pavement.  While you could change tires every time you change riding surfaces, that’ll get old in a hurry.  The dirt wheels will generally, unless you get the high-end gravel bike, be the wheels that come on the bike.  You get an upgrade set of carbon wheels for the road wheels and put the proper cassette on the road wheels, and all you have to do to switch surfaces is change your wheels.  That’ll take about one minute.

What I like about gravel bikes is that they can do anything a race bike, rain bike, or dirt bike can do, as long as they’re fitted with the proper tires.  You don’t miss a thing.  With other bikes, there’s always a big sacrifice.  Take a hybrid as an example.  Halfway between a road bike and a mountain bike, yet it does neither well.  No bueno.

Look at it this way, you can spend $3,000 for the bike and another $1,000-$2,000 for high-end road wheels ($4,000-$5,000 total), or you can have the trifecta:

Gravel bike, rain bike, race bike… for $8,500.

I Performed Minor Surgery…. On Myself.  Um, because Nobody else would let Me Operate on Them.

We were down in Florida, Panama City Beach to be exact (it’s like Daytona, only not quite as nice.  If you’ve been to Daytona Beach as an adult, you get the joke).  We were sitting in our rented beach house (which was admittedly, awesome) watching some late evening TV when I felt something dig into my back.  I reached back to scratch it without even thinking and got a beach burr stuck to my finger.  I picked it out of my skin, walked over and tossed it into the garbage can.  No biggie.

When I sat down, I felt an itch in the same spot the burr was dug into my back.  I reached back to scratch it…. and got a barb stuck just underneath my fingernail.  Good Lord, did that suck!

I tried to dig it out with some tweezers but just couldn’t get at it.  Then my mother-in-law tried.  Unfortunately, she took a stab at it and pushed it deeper into my finger, deep enough I couldn’t see it anymore.  That was about 31 days ago.  Now, if you paid attention in school, you probably learned that the body is amazing at pushing foreign objects out, so I decided to let the body do its thing…. As of last week it still hadn’t worked its way out yet and my finger was starting to ache so bad that I was having a tough time operating my left shift levers on my bike.  My middle finger was infected.  Bad.

Interestingly, when I was a kid my little brother got something stuck beneath is toenail at camp and never told my mom about it.  It got so infected he almost lost his big toe.  Seriously.  I had a feeling I was going to be in trouble if I didn’t get to the doctor.  I also remembered that my brother was in the hospital for a week while they drained his toe.

What has two thumbs and doesn’t have a week to sit in a hospital?

This guy.

In a last-ditch effort before I went and saw a doctor, I snuck in a few minutes early at the office, sterilized a pocket knife and some nail clippers and went to town.  I won’t get too into the descriptions but there was puss, blood and pain.  In the end, I dug that little bastard out though.

This is a week later:

I’m finally pain-free after a month.  

Now for the disclaimer:  On this hand, what I did is exceptionally stupid according to the powers that be.  If I’d screwed up just a little bit, I could have lost my main salute finger or worse.  As well, if I’d let that infection go much further I could have really been in trouble.  I should have let the pros handle it.

On the other hand, I won’t have to come up with $10,000 for my deductible either, so that’s a win either way.

Humorously, on somebody else’s hand, I’m thinking back on my post the other day, about the wussification of men who can’t even change a car tire….  A pocket knife and fingernail clippers.

What to Do the Day AFTER a Long, Hard Bike Ride.  It isn’t “Take Time Off”.  Hear Me Out…

For the cycling enthusiast….

The thing to do the day after a nice, hard hundred miles on the bike, contrary to popular opinion, is not sit it out on the couch with a well-deserved rest day.

In fact, now that I’m on this kick, the thing to do the day before a hard hundred on the bike is not polish the couch with the seat of one’s pants either.

At the very least, the best thing to do on each occasion is to ride, short and slow.  My usual group pace average is between 19 and 21 mph for 100 miles.  That means the minimum the day before and after is between 16 and 18 miles in about an hour, give or take (give for 16 and take for 18).

I have seen a lot of people mess this up, so I’m going to lay out how I do what, when, so the legs stay as fresh as possible.

First, the worst thing I can do is take a day off the day before a big ride.  Second worst is ride hard the day before.  The key is balance.  Save the legs for the big days and go easy before and after.  Simple.

For example, I know Tuesday and at least one weekend day will be hard.  That means, without a doubt, Monday will be an easy day.  Wednesday is going to be easy, as will Friday (though I go longer on Friday, 30-50 miles).  Thursday and one weekend day will be moderate.

The trick is to make sure I do my best to have an easy or moderate day before a hard day.  That’s the balance and it requires flexibility.

I have a friend who, God bless him, would choose to do an interval day the day before our club ride earlier this season.  Intervals.  He’d show up Tuesday night with sore or dead legs.  He managed to stay with the group by hiding and sucking wheel, but he complained about it during the warm-up a few times.  Eventually, I did say something.  You have to pick your days for the hard efforts.

The key, in my experience, is to keep the legs spinning the day before and the day after a tough ride.  If nothing else, it’s a perfect excuse to take in the surroundings and enjoy sitting up a bit.  Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Even though riding a bike is play, working too hard at it will make your legs dull.  We enthusiasts need our happy time.  It makes the work that much more rewarding.  Trust me.

Don’t bother with a day off before a big ride.  Take the day off two or three days before the event.  Then use the day or two before to spin your legs up and get ready.

Leaving it all on the Road

I rolled out with my wife and friends at 8:02 yesterday morning.  Why the 02?  Winston texted me at 7:56 that he was running late.  Punctuality is not his strong suit.  He pulls like a tiny Clydesdale though, so what’s two minutes between friends, eh?  Nothing.

It was a perfect day for cycling.  60 degrees to start (15 C) and not a cloud in the sky, and no wind.

At 8:03 on Sunday morning we had 5 hours and 18 minutes – and 99.75 miles – to go.  No hill for a mountain climber.

At some point, around 20 miles in, the guy at the front missed pointing out a hole in the asphalt.  It was hard to see, as the road had simply sunk in a 6″ round hole so there was barely a shadow.  I missed it but several behind me didn’t.  Lynn didn’t.  He was taking a swig one handed when he hit it.  He lost control and endo’d down a 10-15′ deep ditch.  It was something out of a TdF crash video.

Amazingly, he was okay.  A little scratched up and his bike was going to need new bar tape and his shifter lever straightened, but he was back and riding after we formed a human chain to pull him out of the ditch.  Seriously.

We sorted him out and once we were certain he was okay, we rolled on.

From that point, there were a few issues that popped up.  One of the guys was struggling to keep up so Winston and I dropped back to bring him back to the group.  Chuck’s rear wheel decided to start rubbing his frame so he dropped out of the group to wait for a ride to pick him up (he ended up letting a little air pressure out of the tire and that gave him enough clearance to finish but he was out there for 45 miles on his own – talk about gutting it out…), and Lynn’s adrenaline from the accident finally wore off and he slowed down and dropped off the back.

In the end, we all finished and my buddy Mike took the sprint at 99.5 miles.  I took the final pull, starting at 95 miles, and kept it between 21 and 22 mph until we hit 98-1/2.  The idea at that point was to ramp it up to see if I could drop everyone else and cruise over the line alone.  I was so close too.  I dropped everybody but Mike and Brad – they managed to stay on like dug-in ticks…  I came over a little rise at 25 and accelerated to 28 heading back down what could barely be called a hill.  Brad ran out of gas but Mike got me by a half a bike length.  Unfortunately my strategy was a little lacking.  I didn’t have anything left – no more gears left in me to answer him.

In the last ten miles I’d pulled all but three of them.

There once was a time, not too long ago actually, when an 18.9 mph 100 miles would have been a bummer.  I was always shooting for that 20 mph average.  Those days are long gone.  Nowadays it’s more about spending time with my friends and building memories to laugh about as I get older.  If I feel I need to work a little harder, all I have to do is stay up front.

Lynn and Chuck left a lot more on the road yesterday than I did (I still feel a little selfish for not waiting for Chuck and letting the rest of the group go).  It was still a heck of a lot of fun and I left enough out there for government work.