Following on from Brendon’s guest post, we thought it would be a good opportunity to offer up a few tips for tweaking your bike setup for optimum comfort.
We’ve been there. Nobody likes to have their ride ruined by pain and discomfort caused by an ill-fitting bike, but sometimes a few subtle tweaks are all that are required to make all that pain go away.
Whilst we do recommend a proper bike fit for anyone planning to spend a significant amount of time riding, there are some basic principles that you can employ to solve a few niggles you may be experiencing.
If your knees are hurting after or during a ride but they’re normally OK off the bike, chances are it could be one of two things. If the pain is at the front or back of the knee, your saddle may be too low, too far forward or too far back. If the pain is at the side and you are using clipless pedals, your cleats may be in the wrong place, or you may need more “float”. In SPD pedals there is already quite a lot of float, but on road cleats (SPD-SL or Look KEO) you may need to change the cleat for one with a greater degree of movement. Both Look and Shimano offer colour-coded cleats with varying degrees of float, whereas Speedplay cleats offer screw adjustment on the cleat itself.
However, before you do, look at where the cleat is placed. With your shoe on, feel for the location of the bony part to the side of your big toe, followed by the bone at the base of your little toe. You can either mark both points with a felt tip, or use an elastic band around your shoe to mark the two points and form a line across your foot. With SPD cleats the bolts should ideally be along this line, but with SPD-SL or Look KEO aim for somewhere between the top and bottom two bolts.
As for the horizontal location, aim to get the cleat dead centre and see how you get on with that. Your feet will start complaining soon enough if it needs be shifted a touch to the left or right. It’s best to keep an allen key handy and go for a short ride after making adjustments until you are happy that you’ve got it right.
Neck & shoulder pain
If your neck or shoulders are hurting after a short period of time, check to see whether your arms are locked out or not. You should have some bend in your arms, or your arms will end up transferring every bump in the road through to your neck and shoulders. You can either move the saddle forward; rotate the handlebars back a few degrees, or even change the stem for a shorter one. If you have “slammed” your stem, you could also try putting a spacer or two back on again. On a long ride –by long we could be talking 100Km or more, some discomfort is to be expected. Your head is quite heavy and your neck isn’t accustomed to supporting it at an angle for that long. It will improve with time and training, but remembering to stretch periodically will certainly help. (turn your head slowly to look across each shoulder until you feel the muscles tighten. If your head rotates around 360 degrees, you may be possessed…). You should be able to do that whilst riding, as long as the way ahead is clear.
Lower back pain
If the pain sets after a short time, it could be that your saddle is too high. With a high saddle your legs are forced to stretch to complete each pedal stroke, which means that your hips are likely to be rocking from side to side and that may result in pain in the lower back. There are a number of methods for setting your saddle height, but one that has worked for us is to:
- Sit squarely on the saddle
- Place your heel on the pedal and rotate the crank to its furthest point.
- If your knee is locked out, your saddle should be at the right height. If not, raise or lower your saddle until it is.
If the pain kicks in after 100Km or more, it could be a conditioning issue. A long ride places a lot of stress on your core, with your back and abdominal muscles holding your torso in place for a long period of time. It is going to fatigue, but you can train your core whilst off the bike with a planking regime and a range of other core exercises, but that’s perhaps a post for another day. Thanks to the interesting way muscles are connected to your skeleton, you can’t rule out issues with your hamstrings either.
Finally, another cause of back pain that people often forget about, but related to another issue we’ve discussed before, is dehydration. The discs in your back provide cushioning for your vertebrae, but when you are dehydrated your discs become thinner and provide less cushioning. If you are out on a long ride on a hot day, you will need to make sure you are sufficiently hydrated, preferably with a combination of water and electrolytes.
Hand or wrist pain
As you start out it is very easy to fall into the trap of hanging onto your handlebars for grim death. It is also easy to find yourself placing your weight onto your hands, rather than letting your core take care of things. Understandably, your hands aren’t designed for this and will start to hurt after a while. You can also end up compressing the median nerve in your wrist (particularly on flat handlebars), leading to numbness in your hands. Try to get into the habit of changing your hand position often and, if you are conscious that you are gripping onto the bars like Hans Gruber at the end of Die Hard, please try to relax. They’re not going anywhere…
Focus on letting your arms and torso go loose. They’re only there to turn corners and apply the brakes, not to hold you up. Obviously, this is something that will come with time and with confidence, but it is something to be aware of.
Getting a bike fit…
Taking all that into account, if you are still experiencing discomfort after moving things about as best you can, it may be time to get a proper bike fit. Fortunately, there are a few places in Cardiff where you can do that.
Perhaps the most convenient place for many of us is Cyclopedia on Crwys Road. They offer advanced fitting from £160 (currently) and includes Bikefitting.com’s geometry analysis and Shimano dynamics lab.
Another place is based at the Spire Hospital in Pentwyn, Pro Motion Dynamics. Their advanced service starts at £175 but pedal/cleat analysis is another £75 on top. However, they can do a range of other tests for those of you of a competitive mind, such as Functional Threshold Power and Maximum Heart Rate tests.
Finally, Health & Sports Physiotherapy in Llanishen. They do a 90-minute but fairly in-depth analysis of your before & after riding position and cleat assessment for a £150 fee.
If you are aware of any other places that we might have missed, please feel free to comment below. We have not yet tried any of them, but we probably will need to soon. The rides are not getting any shorter and comfort has never been more critical.
Gavin, thanks for a great post. Lots to think about.
But ….. for an obese, 70 year old with two tin knees, a Mechano elbow (with a 2kg weigh bearing – max!) and an electric sit up and beg bike, £150 to get my bum in the right place seems a lot ….
So would appreciate cheaper ideas to get me back on the road safely. My exercise bike in the garage is boring …….
Peter – Cyclopedia do a basic bike fit at £80 which would no doubt be all your need to start you off!