Trail Ramblings: A Re-Post. When Cycling Is A Pain

I’m re-posting this blog from a few years ago because the information is as relevant now as ever. I’m also adding a link to an excellent article that goes more in depth than I do, as I only talk about the contact points between rider and bicycle: The real gold in that article is found in the links, such as foam rolling and how to deal with specific problem areas that are bothering you.

By this time in the summer everyone should be acclimated to their bikes and putting in their big miles. Ragbrai is going on next door in Iowa. The Mountain Bike events of the Cornhusker State Games were this past weekend, with the rest of the cycling events this coming weekend. The Rapha 100 km is in the books. Or you’re ready to to do some epic bike packing and touring, but you’re really getting annoyed by that pain in your hands, feet, or sitting parts. You can also be slowed by knee, hip, neck, elbow and back pain, but right now I’m only talking about the contact points between your body and the bicycle. Riding your bicycle should not hurt under normal circumstances. If it does, the first thing to look at is how your bike fits you. Also it’s important to remember that all parts of your body are, obviously, connected. Hand pain and saddle sores may well be the result of a stem that’s too long and/or handlebars too low rather than the wrong saddle. I think this may be a more common problem with women as we often have shorter arms and torsos but longer legs proportional to men, and most bikes tend to follow male proportions. Some women don’t ride because of saddle pain and say they have never experienced a pain-free ride. This is very unfortunate. The remedy may be as simple as a properly fitting bike and saddle. How long and how comfortably you can ride depends on it.

Photo courtesy of This handlebar position works well for some, but not others with different proportions. Also, a lot of core strength and flexibility are needed.

Having to stretch to reach the handlebars may over-rotate the pelvis and transfer more weight to the hands causing numbness to both the hands and soft tissues of the sitting parts. Under rotation of the pelvis caused by hunching and pushing back into the saddle can cause the same issues. This is a posture problem. Finding the position that is neither under nor over rotating the pelvis and supported by strong core muscles will go a long way to pain-free riding. A saddle too low or too high can also cause unnecessary force into the sit parts as can a pedal stroke that points the heels or toes too much.

Positioning of the hoods and shifters on drop bars too far to the outside or at an angle that causes your hand to not be in a straight line with your wrist is a source of numbness. With the flat bars used on mountain bikes, fat bikes and hybrids, the limited choice of hand positions may cause it, making bar ends helpful.

There are various ways of cushioning the contact points and correcting your grasp on the handlebars including gel tapes and flat grips but the cause of numbness still may be not with the handlebars so much as with the stem length combined with saddle height combined with it’s position forward or backward on the saddle rails, and if the saddle is tilted.

I’ve ridden with many who need to periodically shake their hands out, as do I. Having carpal tunnel syndrome makes it worse. I’ve had surgery for it but bike fit may be the cause of the numbness and pain of the ulnar and median nerves common to so many.

The third contact point is the feet. You may be feeling hot spots. Metatarsalgia may be caused by too small shoes, cleat position too far forward, too flexible soles, too stiff soles, low cadence; meaning more pressure in each pedal stroke, and too-small load bearing area. Unclipping a shoe and pedaling with a different part of the foot for a while if you have dual-sided spd/platform pedals will help, as may different insoles specific to cycling shoes. If cleat position is changed, say from the first hole position of the cleat to the last one as I had to do to compensate for my too-long crank arms, you’ll probably have to adjust your saddle height. Your foot position can influence the other two contact points. (update: I’ve since gotten shorter crank arms for that bike and that helped even more)

Needless to say, bike fit and bike pain are complicated subjects. I’m by no means an expert in this field and while my own bikes are not bad in this area, there’s room for improvement. I like endurance gravel riding and I have been trying to improve my own comfort. I do urge you to look into the many possible causes for discomfort beyond what seems to be the obvious fix, such as getting a new saddle, gloves or shoes. Do some online research and ask at your local bike shop. Ask your friends. There’s no need to let pain caused by a less-than great fitting bike get in the way of those big bike-ride plans.