Aches and pains are not a normal part of cycling. If you're getting back on a bike after a long layoff, it can take your body a few weeks to adapt. Some stiffness in the muscles – particularly the buttocks – is normal to begin with. If it doesn't go away, or if you ever suffer from sharp pains, numbness, tingling, or acute soreness, there's something wrong with your bike. Cycling should be enjoyed not endured.
The first thing to consider is: does your bike fit you? Swapping bike parts will be of limited help if the cause of your lower back and hand pain is the fact that the handlebar is simply too low for you. Once your posture is right for the cycling you'll be doing and for the biomechanics of your body, it's time to address the bike's components. Mostly that means the contact points: the saddle, handlebar, and pedals. Let's start with the one that can literally be a pain in the backside for new cyclists…
How Bike Saddles Affect Comfort
The general rule is that the faster and further you plan to ride, the narrower and harder you want the saddle to be – and vice versa. The saddles on racy road bikes are narrow and hard because: a) you're expected to wear padded Lycra shorts while riding them; and b) more of your bodyweight will be carried by your feet and hands because of the riding position and pedalling effort involved. An upright roadster, meanwhile, benefits from a wide saddle that's softer or sprung because that's where your weight goes. You can comfortably ride a roadster in jeans.
A comfortable bike saddle needs to support your sit bones, the bony protuberances at the bottom of your pelvis. These tend to be wider in women than men (which means the most comfortable bike saddle for women will be different to the most comfortable saddle for men).
If the saddle is too narrow, your weight will be carried not by your sit bones but by the soft flesh in between: the perineum. A lot of nerves run through here, in both men and women. Compressing them can lead to pain or numbness. It's not just a matter of saddle width; the further forward you lean, the more pressure you'll put on your soft bits. (This is more of a problem for women than men.) Sitting more upright on a wider saddle could solve your saddle problems at a stroke.
Anatomic saddles have grooves or holes in the middle that are designed to eliminate perineal pressure, and are especially useful when you're not sitting so upright. They can be very effective, but not every anatomic saddle will suit every cyclist; some increase pressure around the edges of their grooves/holes. Leather saddles are another option. They slowly mould themselves to your particular shape like lived-in shoes.
Regardless, we guarantee that there’s a bike saddle out there that will suit your bum and make your ride more comfortable. It's almost impossible to say which because we're all different. Some local bike shops can narrow your choices by measuring your sit bones; you can even do it yourself with corrugated cardboard and chalk – type 'measure sit bones' into a search engine to find out how. Alternatively, the shop may have saddles you can try out. No luck? Ask colleagues or cycling friends what saddles they like, and even if you can borrow their bike.
The last resort is simply to buy saddles until you get one you like. Even if you end up getting three or four before you find one that suits, it's an investment that will repay you every time you ride your bike.
How Handlebars Affect Comfort
The more weight there is on your hands, the more the ergonomics of the handlebar matter. Hardly anyone gets painful hands on an upright roadster; on a drop-bar racer, many do. First address the bar position. You can learn how to adjust the height of your handlebar here. Next, invest in more comfortable bar tape or grips.
Cork bar tape helps isolate vibration to the hands. Alternatively, there's gel bar tape and/or gel strips that stick to the handlebar before you wrap it with tape, or you can simply doublewrap bar tape, for twice the thickness. Brake hoods are generally more comfortable when the flat bit that you rest your hands on is level with the bar top.
Some grips are unyielding. Try ones made from dual-density rubber, foam, or cork. Grips that flare wider towards the ends provide a broader platform to rest your hands on. On a flat-bar bike with only one hand position, such ergonomic grips can make a huge difference to how comfortable your hands are during your ride.
Alternative hand-holds improve comfort too, especially on long rides. A drop handlebar usually offers four positions: tops, shoulders, hoods, and drops. (A compact drop bar makes the drops position more useable.) A flat (or riser) handlebar offers just one position. You can inexpensively add another by attaching bar ends. Ergonomic bar ends are excellent.
A riser bar doesn't offer more hand positions but does put the grips higher, which might ease lower back pain caused by cycling, without requiring a new stem. Back-curved 'flat' bars also offer only one hand position, but as they put the handgrips closer to your body and parallel to the direction of travel, they tend to be more comfortable. For the maximum number of hand positions on a 'flat' handlebar, get a butterfly handlebar – also known as a trekking handlebar.
Fitting a new handlebar is straightforward so long as the brake and gear levers are compatible with the new bar. They will be unless you want to go from a 'flat' bar to a drop bar, or vice versa. That will require new levers at least, and may create gear compatibility issues. It will also radically change the riding position, making it 3-4cm shorter if you fit a flat bar in place of a drop (and vice versa), so you may want a new stem too.
If your bike's handlebar feels too wide, it can be cut down to size with a hacksaw if it's a flat or riser. If it's too narrow, or if you want to change something else – like the angle of the bend or the depth of a drop – you'll need a new handlebar.
How Pedals Affect Comfort
Flat pedals seldom cause problems with ankles or knees because you can put your foot where you like on the pedal. Cramps in your feet can be caused by cycling long distances in footwear that's too flexible. Use stiffer shoes or fit pedals with a bigger platform, so there's more support. You may want to invest in a pair of specially-designed cycling shoes.
Clip-in pedals (confusingly known as clipless pedals) often cause aches and pains. You can only put one part of your foot – the cleated part – on the pedal, and there will be limits on how much you can turn your foot in or out (rotational float) and how much you can move it towards or away from the crank arm (lateral float). If, for example, your foot would normally turn outward but can't because of the pedal-cleat set-up, it's likely you'll get some knee pain.
If there's no pain, there's no problem. If it hurts or niggles, the cleats are set up wrong for you. Seek advice from a bike fitter; your local shop may offer such a service. You can limit the likelihood of problems developing by choosing clip-in pedals with plenty of float, particularly rotational float.
Other Ways to Make Your Bike More Comfortable
Comfort is not just about bike fit and contact points. Your bike's tyres and the pressures you run them at will make a massive difference to how well bumps and vibrations from the road are isolated from your body. Tyres are pneumatic suspension; the wider the tyre, the more suspension you have. Wider tyres can safely be run at lower pressures without pinch puncturing like narrow ones, so they can absorb bumps rather than bouncing off them.
For increased comfort, use the widest tyres that your bike will safely accommodate. The difference between a 28mm road bike tyre and a 23mm tyre is palpable; especially if there's 10-20psi less in the wider tyre. At about 32mm and wider, tyres should cope well even on poorly-maintained roads, but if you want the ultimate in pothole-proof urban comfort, try a bike with 50mm or wider slick tyres.
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