Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Riding For the Long Haul: Addressing Pains and Aches on the Bike

Answering why your fingers may be getting numb while on your bike, among
other concerns.

When I started riding, I experienced pains in my knees and fingers which I thought were the result of not wearing gloves and being out of shape. Through my now six years of regular riding experience I have discovered how to ride pain free, without even requiring the use of gloves on while on my bike. Gloves should not be a substitute for dampening road vibrations and saving your hands from Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. They should only be used as a safety item for if a rider should fall and have to catch himself on the asphalt. The following are some adjustments you can make to your bike that will allow you to ride for the long haul, that is, for many more years without having to give up early due to unnecessary injury.

Why your fingers get numb:

First let's answer this by saying that it isn't due to not wearing gloves. That has been a successful marketing scheme that the bike industry has used to sell more over priced cut off gloves. What the bike shops don't tell you is that today's bicycles are more stiffer than they have ever been, with almost all bikes made of oversized tubing and straight blade forks, with the forks twice as thick as what they were twenty or more years ago. The result?  A far more jarring ride. 

For example, there is a big difference in the ride quality of my steel Woodrup and my aluminum Raleigh. The country roads that make up my ride route have many potholes, dips and cracks as well as areas where there are loose gravel. While steel bikes like my Woodrup absorb all these road imperfections, with the fork blades visibly bouncing as I ride over road obstacles, my Raleigh has no give whatsoever. The front fork, although chromoly and with a small amount of rake, does little to improve the ride quality of the bike. The result is that, unless I use gloves to ride my newer Raleigh bicycle, I'm in for some wrist pain after my ride. The same can be applied to most modern bicycles now made, regardless of the materials used. So, before going out to buy some new gloves, it might be the bike itself causing the trouble. Since gloves are less expensive than a new bike, buying gloves might be the more sensible alternative than getting a new (or used) steel bicycle. Just remember to invest in the long run, a good bike will last longer than the many sets of gloves a rider can and will go through.

Check the handlebar position. Believe it or not, adjusting the handlebars by tilting them even a few milometers up or down can have a drastic effect on your ride. For a few years I played with the tilt of the handlebars on my Raleigh, until now I am comfortable enough with my hand positioning that I sometimes forgo using my gloves. Adjusting hand position, such as gripping the ends of the drops on the handlebars, also goes a long way to easing any hand related pain one might incur.

Why your knees are hurting:

The commonly accepted myth is that the frame size of the bike is off by a few centimeters. People sell bicycles that fit them because they were "a little too big, or a little too small" for them at the time. While it's true that having a extra long top tube may cause the rider to overstretch trying to reach the handlebars, the truth is that the same principle does not apply to seat tube length.  So that we are clear, the seat tube is the tube on the frame that the seat post slides into. The seat post height is the critical factor that will determine the fit of the bicycle. Many knee injures on a bike are the result of a poor seat post height.

Here's a rule of thumb that I use when fitting a bike to my personal dimensions. I must have at least 4 inches of the seat post exposed from the seat tube in order to have a comfortable ride.  At around 4 inches the seat post starts to absorb road vibrations, any less and you will be feeling the full effect of the road surface on your posterior. If I can't at least have 4 inches of seat post then the frame is too big for me. However, the opposite is true if I expose so much of the seat post that I pass the seat post height limit that is usually marked near the bottom of the post. Too much exposure of the seat post will put too much load and stress on the post and on the frame joint, causing seat post or frame failure in the long run.

Given these rules of thumb, I can ride between a 54cm and a 56 to 57cm frame. Measured with a ruler, I ride frames that are both 21.5 and 23.25 inches tall. A more compact frame such as a 54cm gives me climbing advantages that a larger frame might not. However, a 56 or 57cm frame allows me to maintain my top speed more efficiently and have a more aerodynamic position on my bike due to the also slightly longer top tube.

When adjusting the seat post height, make sure that there is a slight bend on the knee with the pedal turned  down  and parallel to the floor. Make sure you can achieve this with the foot resting on the pedal, parallel to the ground and not tilted up or down. There should not be too much bend on the knee nor should the knee lock with the leg being all the way straight. A slight bend is a slight bend, enough to engage the leg muscles and to only use the knee as a pivoting point when pedaling. 

I am also a spokesman for cycling shoes. Purists might say that these shoes did not come around until the mid 1980's, and that the benefits associated with them are placebo like. But let me assure you, cycling shoes make a big difference in your ride, and can even contribute to saving your knees. That is because they serve the important function of preserving the natural arch of the foot. I rode without cycling shoes regularly for several months last year. Upon visiting a chiropractor I discovered that I had become flat footed. The arch in my foot had completely collapsed as a result of putting pressure on the wrong part of my foot. I started using cycling shoes again, along with an orthopedic soles in my regular shoes. The back pains that I was having have seemed to have now subsided. I now only ride platform pedals when using my mountain bike. They are no longer an option I consider when going long distances, or going fast.

Why your back aches:

Another reason people give up cycling is because their back starts hurting. They might already have had back injuries, and cycling might be aggravating that problem for them. There are a few bicycle adjustments that can be made to avoid having any back associated pains when riding a bike.

Lower back pain on the bike comes from having too long a top tube on the frame to where the rider is having to overstretch to reach the handlebars. It can also come from having a poor saddle positioning where the saddle might be tilted inward or outward, instead of being a flat surface for the rear end to rest on. The saddle should only be moved forward and backward, never tilted up or down. There are saddle designs, like ones made by Vetta or Selle San Marco Concor, where the end of the saddle will have a small lip that flips upward, intending to catch the rider's rear end and keep it there. These kind of designs call for tilting the saddle slightly. Most newer saddles are no longer designed this way.

Upper back and neck pains are associated with stem length and handlebar width. Most people who started riding with a new road bike are conditioned to having a  sloping top tube, a riser threadless stem, and at least 42cm wide handlebars. Going to a traditional diamond framed bicycle with a flat top tube, quill stem and 40cm handlebars might make things uncomfortable at first. A quill stem forces the rider to find their comfort zone much faster than a riser them. That is because there are only mere centimeters that can be pulled out of the head tube before the height limit is reached. Quill stems force a rider to adopt a racing position much quicker because the rider has to reach below the top tube to grab the drops of the handlebars. This stretches the back in a way that might seem unnatural at first. The discomfort usually goes away in a few months. If it doesn't, then maybe it's time to look at some other causes, such as the width of the handlebars.

Why are handlebars wider nowadays? Because  we are bigger than our parents were in their prime, and our parents who are still riding have become old and fat. Wider handlebars allow the rider to breathe better, but also affect aerodynamics and top speed. The key to choosing handlebars for a road bike is not choosing the widest ones first. Choose the handlebar that will allow you to breathe efficiently while still allowing you to adopt a racier position.

Here's my rule of thumb on handlebar width. I choose the handlebars according to my tuxedo size. My chest size for a dress suit is between 40 and 42 inches. 44 inch suits will start to feel baggy on me. The same goes with handlebars. You can get the "sport" fit at 40cm, the "relaxed" fit at 42cm, or the old man "frumpy" fit at 44cm. Keep in mind, at 44cm speed gets taken out of the equation, as average speed can actually go down by a couple of miles an hour.

For some older riders or riders getting into cycling with previous injuries, these adjustments might not be enough. Some might have to buy special stem adapters to achieve a more upright riding position. Eventually, this leads to the stereotype where all recumbent riders are old guys with white beards. But road biking isn't for everyone, and some people no matter how hard they try just can't get a road bike to work for them. That's fine, that is why there are different bikes for different people.

These are some tips that may save your knees and and your wrists and may keep you from quitting the sport early. I have talked to a few people who now no longer ride because they kept injuring themselves out of a lack of  bicycle fitting knowledge until the damage was irreparable. Cycling has become so popular now that most people know about fitting themselves on a bike or know of someone who can fit them on one. I hope these tips have been helpful. Stay safe, stay fast, and keep subscribing to more informative posts from a Bicycle's Point of View.

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