Continuing our series from Return to Fitness. Previous parts here:
Return To Fitness: Hands
About five hundred miles into my bike ride across America, I began to notice a loss of sensation in both hands, even though I was wearing padded fingerless gloves. It was difficult to hold a pen while writing in my journal. To open a door, I would have to clench the knob with both wrists like in a vise grip. I later came up with a do-it-yourself solution that remedied the problem. I cut off a hunk of foam from my sleeping bag pad and wrapped it around the handlebars. The numbness soon went away.
Numb hands can affect beginners as well as experienced riders. Reduced blood circulation and compressed nerves will cause a loss of sensitivity in your handlebar-clenching paws. Typically, this condition is due to hands stuck in the same riding position, hands in an overly stretched-out position on the bars, or if the body is leaning too far forward—a posture that places excess weight on the bars.
Here are several quick fixes:
- Wrap the handlebars with an extra roll of padded tape.
- Raise the handlebar gradually, because too-low bars (or stem) put excess weight on your hands.
- Lower the seat, since a too-high saddle throws your upper-body weight forward and places greater pressure on your hands’ contact areas.
- Slide the seat forward or shorten the handlebar stem, so you’re not too stretched-out from the rear of your saddle to the handlebars.
- Regularly switch hand positions and make sure to limit hand time in the top-of-the-bar position.
- Tightly squeezing the handlebars restricts blood circulation, so relax and gently rest hands on the bar (but not on poor roads or other surfaces, in traffic, or down hills—hold tight!); as long as one thumb is always under the bars, your hands can’t slip and you can steer and control the bike even when riding fast with only a loose or moderate touch.
- Avoid tight-fitting gloves that restrict blood flow.
- Use bar ends if you mountain bike, since they provide additional places to position your hands.
- Finally, occasionally shake out one hand at a time while holding onto the handlebar with the other hand; this action will help push blood out to the fingertips and capillaries—and restore circulation.
I never ride without padded gloves. They help cushion road vibrations and absorb sweat so your hands won’t slip off the handlebars. Most importantly, gloves will protect your soft tender palms in case of a fall.
Return To Fitness: Neck & Shoulders
Neck pain is another common cycling complaint, and is usually the result of riding a bike that is too long or having handlebars that are too low. Even an awkward-fitting helmet can tire out neck muscles if the helmet sits too low in front, forcing you to tilt your head upward to see where you are going.
If the saddle slopes downward, this can cause shoulder discomfort, as your body will tend to slide forward as you ride, and then you wind up using your hands to push yourself back into position. You want the saddle level.
A good riding position is one in which the elbows are slightly bent, not straight and locked, since this allows the biceps, triceps, and forearms to act as shock absorbers.
Due to the increasing number of older riders, bike companies have come out with a plethora of “comfort bikes.” These allow cyclists to ride in a more upright position. For cyclists with declining upper-body-muscle strength or flexibility, comfort bikes lessen the weight and pressure on the shoulders and upper arms.
Return To Fitness: Back
Back pain is usually caused by poor cycling posture. When riding a bicycle, the back should be arched, like a bridge, not sagging forward between the hips and the shoulders. Don’t ride hunchbacked like a cycling Quasimodo. The muscles around your spine should be in a relaxed, not tense, state.
Bike fit guru Paul Levine says, “The biggest cause of back pain is a too low handlebar. An indicator of poor bike #t for a road bike is when you can’t comfortably ride in any of the handlebar positions, including the drops.” Riding in a stretched-out position puts too much pressure on the back as well as the hands.
Pro riders with a high tolerance for pain can set up their bikes with low handlebars for improved aerodynamics, but it’s a mistake for recreational cyclists to imitate the racers.