Don't suffer in silence, there are plenty of ways to improve the comfort of your bike
Cycling isn’t always an entirely pleasurable sport. Let’s face it, we all like to see ourselves as that little bit harder than the general population, willing to push our bodies through pain and suffering, knowing that we’ll come out the other side feeling all the better for it.
However that doesn’t mean that all pain should be embraced. Long weekend rides can be demanding enough as they are, so the last thing you need is for knee or lower back pain or aching to spoil the ride. The good news is that there are plenty of adjustments you can make to your bike to improve your comfort in the saddle.
Check your reach
Getting the right reach (i.e. the horizontal distance from your bottom bracket to your handlebars) is key to making sure you’re comfortable on the bike. If you’re not flexible or simply have a slightly shorter torso than most, then having to stretch too far to reach the handlebars can cause pain in your neck, shoulders, and back, and even give you saddle sores.
So if you get back from long rides wishing that you’d got a soigneur at hand to massage those aching muscles, then decreasing reach could make a big difference. The best way to do this is to buy a shorter stem. However, this clearly requires spending money, so if you’re looking for a cheaper option, then sliding your saddle forward might do the trick. The only problem is that this could cause problems in other areas as it will alter your pedalling action.
Check handlebar height
Just as important as how far the bars are away from the saddle, is how high they are in relation to it. The temptation, especially when you’ve just bought a shiny new race bike, is to immediately discard all the spacers and the slam the stem, meaning a huge drop from the saddle to the bars.
While this might look cool, it can also throw up plenty of issues that can make you uncomfortable, particularly on longer rides. If you’re not flexible enough, then it can cause pain in your hamstrings and lower back, while riding in this position in the drops can put increased pressure on your arms and wrists. So if you suffer from pain in any of these areas, it might be worth putting a few spacers underneath the stem to raise the handlebars by a centimetre or so, which should hugely increase comfort on longer days in the saddle.
Try a different saddle
If you suffer from pain in, well, sensitive areas, then chances are that the relationship between your undercarriage and your saddle is not a match made in heaven. Especially when buying a new bike, it can be tempting just to use the saddle supplied with the bike and get on with it, even if this saddle is not anatomically suited to your needs.
Plenty of brands and bike shops have trial saddles which let you use them for a couple of weeks before making a purchase, while some will even take measurements and test you on a jig to make sure there’s no chance of the dreaded saddle sore. With all these options out available, there should be no reason to ride through the pain, and even if you’re buying a new bike, most bike shops will be happy to swap the saddle supplied with the bike for one of your own choosing.
Check saddle height
Of course, there might be no need for such expense. You might find that you have the right saddle after all, but the problem instead lies in how you’ve positioned it. Having your saddle too high can cause IT band syndrome, which is responsible for 15 per cent of all knee pain in cyclists, and while having your saddle too low is less likely to cause injuries, it can seriously compromise your pedalling efficiency.
A good starting point to make sure you set the right saddle heigh is to take your inside leg measurement, subtract 10 centimetres, then apply this measurement to the bike as the distance between the centre of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle. This will give you a basic idea of your correct saddle height, allowing you to make small tweaks further down the line depending on your flexibility, crank length, and choice of shoes and pedal systems.
Check your saddle angle
The final way to deal with pain in sensitive areas is to make sure that the tilt of your saddle is correct. Particularly if you’re time trialling or spend extended periods riding in a low, aggressive position, then you might suffer from numbness in your nether regions. If this is the case, try lowering the nose of your saddle by a couple of degrees, which should relieve some pressure on sensitive areas.
The downside with doing this is it will mean less weight is placed on your saddle, meaning that the slack must be taken up by your arms. This is a particular problem if you go too far with that downward tilt, meaning that your effectively having to push yourself backward to stop yourself from falling off the nose of the saddle. Like saddle height, it’s all about finding a balance, so you should start with a level saddle, and then adjust from there.
Check cleat positioning
The connection between your feet and the pedals is the most important of your three contact points with the bike. You will turn the pedals over thousands of times even on relatively short bike rides, so if your cleats aren’t set up correctly, meaning that your foot is attached to the pedal in the wrong position, then it can cause big problems with ankle, knee, and hip pain.
A good starting point is to have the cleats positioned in line with the ball of your foot, angled straight. You can then change this as you go along if you experience discomfort or feel you lack power through your pedal stroke, and you may well find that you need a different position on each leg. However most pedals and cleats offer some degree of float, allowing your foot to move in the pedal, giving a small margin for error in the setup.
Double wrap bar tape
If you’re doing particularly long rides, especially if they’re over rough surfaces (let’s say you’re mad enough to be taking part in the Paris-Roubaix sportive) then keeping your wrists and hands free from pain will be a major consideration.
The simplest way to do this is to follow the pros and wrap your handlebars with two layers of bar tape. This is easy enough to do yourself at home, and will give you a little bit of extra padding to take away the worst of road vibrations and pot holes. And if you want even more padding, then you can even put gel inserts underneath the bar tape.
Reduce tyre pressure
Having a similar effect to double wrapping your bar tape, running your tyres at lower pressures will help to take the sting out of rough roads. While roadies have traditionally run tyres well north of 100psi in the search for lower rolling resistance, the added protection of lower tyre pressures keep you fresher even at the end of long rides.
You can make particular use of this trick when using wider tyres, especially on wider rims, which will allow for a greater volume of air in the tyre meaning even better ride quality. However you don’t want to go too low, as this could put you at risk of pinch flats. And there’s nothing comfortable about having to stand at the side of the road fixing a puncture…
While fitting mudguards might not keep you free from pain, it will still help with your comfort on the bike, keeping your bum and back warm and dry when riding on wet roads, which will almost certainly mean you have more motivation to stay out for that little bit longer instead of retreating to the warmth of your living room.
For the winter there are plenty of clip-on mudguards to choose from which should be able to fit the majority of road bikes. However if you don’t want to spoil the sleek lines of your pride and joy come summer, then other options such as the Ass Saver and RRP Rearguard will clip under your saddle, keeping you dry without spoiling the look of your bike.
Buy a new bike (and make sure it’s the right size)
Unfortunately if you’ve tried every trick in the book to get comfortable on your bike, but still finish every ride aching all over, then you might just have to face up to the fact that your bike is not the right size. Of course this is the last resort, and it will be up to you to decide if the discomfort of riding is worse than the financial pain of having to buy an entirely new bike.
If you do decide to buy a new bike, make sure you’re properly assessed to get the right size this time around. This might mean splashing out on a trip to a bike fitter, who will take all the vital measurements and recommend the ideal size bike for you. After all, however amazing a bike is, if it’s not the right size for you, then you can’t ride it.