5 Bike Setup Tips for Comfort
Posted on 25/06/2019
5 Bike Setup Tips for Comfort
when Cycle Touring
Bikers who are in pain and experiencing discomfort often suffer in silence, believing that biking is just uncomfortable. Well... we’re here to help you get comfortable on your bike! Most pain can at least be alleviated, if not completely eliminated, by making some minor adjustments.
In the photo on the right, founder of Escape Adventures, John Etherington, experiences bad bike fit and setup! You won't get far on that bike John!
If you are thinking about doing multi-day biking adventures it is really important to be absolutely comfortable on your bike so you can enjoy your experience. At Escape Adventures it’s part of our job to help people be as comfortable on the bike as possible.
We are not going to tell you the best setup for speed and aerodynamics. That doesn’t sound comfortable. We don’t care about going fast. We care about being able to enjoy the experience of riding through new places, soaking in the sights and smells of a foreign place. After you have read this article and had a fiddle with your bike you’ll be ready to sign up to any of Escape Adventures many cycle tour options, knowing that you’ll be riding with ease.
So… without further adieu, here are our top 5 tips for setting up your bike to maximise comfort while cycle touring.
1 Frame Size
Riding the correct size bike is the biggest factor contributing to your riding comfort. To a seasoned cyclist this may sound obvious. But “what size frame do I need?” is actually not a simple question to answer. Bike frames are a bit like shoes. Sizing between brands is not consistent. In one brand of bike you might be a small, and in another you might be a medium. And to add to the confusion, you might be a different size frame depending on the style of bike. For example, I ride a small mountain bike, and a medium road bike. But don’t despair. Choosing the correct size frame may not be straight forward, but it’s totally achievable. Whether you’re buying or renting a bike, in most cases there will be a professional helping you through the process.
The first confusing thing to clear up is how to talk about bike frame sizes.
Frame Size Lingo
Mountain bike sizes are talked about using:
- descriptives (small, medium etc.)
- or in inches
Road bikes sizes are talked about using:
- descriptives (small, medium etc.)
- or centimeters
The measurement that is being talked about is the length of the seat tube. Your overall height is the biggest indicator of what size frame you need. I won’t include sizing charts in this article because, as mentioned above, the sizing guides change between brands and style of bike. Every bike manufacturer should have an easy to locate sizing chart on their website that is specific to the individual bike concerned. Use this sizing chart to help you figure out which frame is right for you.
Get it Right
Riding an ill fitting bike is not comfortable or fun and could lead to injury. If you are having trouble finding the right size frame to buy talk to the manufacturer or your local bike shop. If you are coming on tour with us, Escape Adventures, don’t worry about a thing. We’ll ensure you are riding the correct size bike and make any necessary adjustments.
2 Brake Lever Position
The position of your brake levers is important as it determines the position of your hands on the handlebars. Brake levers that are not positioned correctly can cause your wrists to kink or over extend, both could become painful. There are three main aspects to consider when positioning your brake levers: angle, reach and position on the handlebars. We’ll briefly cover these below, however you’ll find a comprehensive guide to positioning your brake levers at goride.co.nz. Adjusting the brakes is a fairly easy and simple thing to do, so take the time to set them up in a comfortable position from the start for pain free riding.
When setting up the brake lever angle you need to consider what your most common braking position will be. What we mean by this is will you be braking from a seated or standing position? The position that you think will be most common is the one you want to setup your brakes for. The brake lever should be at an angle that allows the wrist and fingers to be aligned with the arm. You can test this by placing a ruler (or anything rigid and straight) on top of your forearm and extending it down along the top of your hand. Your arm, hand and fingers should be inline with the ruler. This is so the pressure on your hands is transferred evenly, without straining the wrist.
Brake Lever Reach
This is the distance the brake lever sits away from the handle bar. If the lever is adjusted too far out you may find yourself loosening your grip on the bars, extending your fingers to reach the brakes. This is bad news. It makes for a slower reaction time when braking and means you lose handling capability by loosening your grip on the handlebar. There are also disadvantages to having the levers too close, slower reaction time and cramp in your fingers from continuously contracting your finger muscles to maintain contact with the lever. Brake lever reach is easily changed using the adjustment knobs.
Position on Handlebars
When positioning the brake levers on the handlebars you need to check that there is no interference with the gear shifters. If positioned too close you may find the functionality of the shifters and/or brakes is not very smooth, ie they might catch on one another.
The main two points with handlebar setup is the distance from the saddle to the handlebars, otherwise referred to as ‘reach’, and the height of your handlebars.
When we say ‘reach’ we are referring to the distance between the saddle and the handlebars.
To adjust your reach you can move your saddle forwards or backwards on the sliders under it.
You can also adjust your reach by changing the stem on the bike to either a shorter or longer one.
How do you know what the correct ‘reach’ position is? It’s mostly personal preference. A longer reach is a more aggressive position that is typical for a racing setup. We are wanting to achieve comfort for cycle touring, so a slightly more upright position is going to be the ticket. But not too upright as this will cause more pressure to be put the seat bones. We’re going for a perfect balance of weight distribution between hands and sit bones. It will be fairly obvious if the reach is too long as you’ll feel stretched out, and you’ll feel squished up if the reach is too short.
Lower handlebars are associated with setups that are more focused on speed. As we are focused on comfort, a medium to higher handlebar height is advisable. This will put less pressure on your wrists. It should also help to avoid upper back and neck pain that sometimes occurs on cycle touring rides.
4 Bike Saddle
People often believe that buying an expensive bike seat is the solution to all their saddle worries. The comfort of your saddle actually has nothing to do with the price tag. You see, like snowflakes, we are all unique butterflies. There is no ‘one size fits all’ option. The important thing when cycle touring is that you have a saddle your butt is already familiar with. If you are going to be cycle touring on a rented bike, bring your own saddle with you. This is not because the saddles on the hired bikes are cheap or wrong, they are normally a standard fit saddle… but whose bottom is standard? Below are some tips for setting up your saddle to optimise comfort, no matter what saddle you have.
Seat height is very important. Too high and your hips will rock side to side in order for you to stretch down to the bottom of you pedal stroke. This may cause some hip pain. This also means you are constantly moving on your saddle causing friction which will lead to discomfort. If the seat is too low this can lead to sore knees and quads. Your seat both too high or too low is not good for your pedaling efficiency, it just makes you work harder.
So how do you know what height your seat should be? Here is one common and basic way to get your seat in roughly the right place.
- Sit on your bike, using a wall or something sturdy to stabilise yourself
- With the pedal in the 6 o’clock position (right at the bottom), place your heel on the pedal
- In this position your leg should be straight for the correct seat height
Tilt is the angle of the seat once mounted to the bike. When sitting on the seat your weight should be transferred to the saddle through your sit bones. So it’s another case of even weight distribution between pubic and sit bones. If you have any pressure on the pubic bone try tilting the nose of your saddle down a little. If you have too much pressure on your sit bones try tilting the nose up a little. Take some time to experiment with the tilt adjustment on your saddle to see what is most comfortable for you.
We’ve talked about this already in the handlebar section above. Moving your seat forward or backward using the sliders under the saddle is another way you can adjust your reach.
If your saddle is causing you pain try these minor adjustments. You might find they significantly improve the situation.
The nick nacks you have with you on a bike ride can greatly add or detract from your experience when cycle touring. So choose them wisely.
Hydration is crucial when cycling for any period of time. You can carry water in bottles on your bike if it has a bottle cage. Two bottle cages is even better. A backpack with a water bladder is a great option. It makes sipping on water very easy. You also have the luxury of carrying other items, like spare clothing and food. We love Osprey Packs which are sold in New Zealand by Ground Effect Clothing, among other places. It’s great to have a backpack so you can put everything including the kitchen sink in it! But be mindful to not over pack. Remember you have to carry it all!
The same applies to shoes as does with saddles, it is important that you ride in shoes and on pedals that you are familiar with. For a cycle touring trip choose shoes that are already worn in, that you know your feet are comfortable wearing for extended periods of time.
It’s personal preference if you ride with flat pedals or clip pedals. If you are going to be touring on a hired bike, bring your clip pedals and shoes (if you use them) so they can be put on the bike you’ll be riding.
We understand the appeal of the gel saddle cover. However this is an accessory we are reluctant to recommend for a couple of reasons.
- In our experience gel saddle covers tend to increase the contact area, increase movement in the saddle and increase heat, none of which are positive over an extended period of time on the bike.
- If you have a properly fitting saddle that has been well adjusted there shouldn’t be a need for a gel seat cover as your nether region will be happy.
If you are still considering buying a gel seat cover after reading the above… STOP! Your money will be better spent on a good quality padded pair of riding shorts. We highly recommend Ground Effects Clothing’s lycra options. They have a great women’s selection here, and men’s here.
There are a lot of accessories and gadgets you can buy to (supposedly) increase your cycle touring comfort. If you’re new to cycle touring, I’d recommend starting with these tips. If you have been feeling uncomfortable on the bike you may find a few minor adjustments significantly increase your comfort levels.
If you are cycle touring on a guided trip with rented bikes it is crucial that you are assigned the correct size bike and have the appropriate adjustments made, ie seat height, saddle position and handlebar reach and height. At Escape Adventures we ensure all our riders are riding appropriately sized bikes. We are careful to individually setup each riders bike and make fine tune adjustments as the tour continues.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to get in touch with us. We’d love your feedback.