Help my bike return the love
February 16, 2009 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Questions of bicycle pain/comfort and perhaps where to buy a new-old one in Perth. Lots of text & occasional squeamish details, sorry.

While in California in 2001 I bought a Cannondale Bad Boy Rigid that it turns out is probably too small for me. I used it heavily in Ca (3 months) but only very lightly since I moved back to Australia. I've now moved to Perth where there are excellent bike tracks everywhere so I've taken up riding again in a big(ger) way and done about 300km in two weeks. The problem is that that 300km (mostly 55-75km rides from Northbridge to Fremantle and back) has hurt me pretty badly in a couple of ways, all in the last 100km.

First problem is that I seem to have gotten carpal-tunnel syndrome overnight: the bike has straight handlebars that I would typically rest my palms on, so my wrists are bent back and the pressure goes right on the heel of my palm. In hindsight: not cool, even though I have gloves. I read Sheldon Brown's whole website yesterday, starting with that article.

I had bar-ends on a previous bike that would give me one more hand position - is it worth getting something like that again or should I try something more like drop-bars? The handlebars are already about 12cm lower than the seat so I'm not sure I want to go much/any lower as it will mean more weight on the hands, even if the wrists are not bent and pronated. Can my trigger-style gear levers be transferred to drop-bars? Brake levers too? What are those things you rest your forearms on called and could I put them on my current handlebars?

Second problem is that when coming back from my previous ride, my right knee gave out: significant what-felt-like-tendons pain in the outside-front corner of my knee as I was climbing a hill, so I did the last 15km mostly one-legged. Putting load on the knee while bent (e.g. getting out of a chair) when I got home hurt. A bit of Nurofen and a rest and the knee feels fine 2 days later but it scared the hell out of me and I don't want a repeat! Yes, my seat is at the right height.

The pedals are platform things with toeclips/straps on the front. I'm very conscious of keeping my feet straight in them and using good pedaling form and have never had knee pains even on previous 100km rides through the Adelaide Hills. Would cleat/clipless pedals help me here? I hear conflicting guidance from "it's the only way to go because they keep your feet straight" through "get (this brand) because they have 15 degrees of float for natural ankle angles" to "cleats are crap, you should just use platform pedals and let the feet fall where they naturally do". Does this sort of pain sound like a technique thing or a doing-too-much-too-fast/overuse injury? Background: I do a fair amount of weightlifting including squats so high loads are not a problem, but pedalling for 6-8 hrs/week (~20,000 reps!) every week is quite new to me.

Third thing is the seat. It's a big padded "comfy" thing (probably designed for women, given that the back of it seems too wide) which my reading now tells me is a bad, bad thing. I invested in some padded bike shorts that helped a LOT, but there's still some, uh, folding & pinching of the perineum that becomes painful after about an hour that I'd very much like to avoid. Any recommendations on seats? Are the leather ones that Sheldon raves about reasonably available here in AU? Is there any particular trick to wearing the bike shorts, i.e. does one wedge the padding right in (to make sure nothing in one's undercarriage is creased) before sitting down?

So: I can get new pedals (if the collective cycling wisdom of mefi says that's a good move) and a seat easily but I suspect the major problem is the handlebars and that's probably the most expensive bit to do, particularly if it results in a very uncomfortable geometry. I'm not unfit but nowhere near bike-racing fitness, am heavy (lots of fat and lots of muscle) and I suspect that a very low aggressive racing posture won't really agree very well with me.

However, I would like to go faster, of course. If that means I should be on a more road-racing style bike then that's OK as long as it's not uncomfortable but I don't really want to make a huge loss in selling the bike I've got. So the final part of my question is: do I cut my losses on a bunch of stop-gap mods (pedal, seat, handlebar) to my existing bike and just changeover to a different, better-sized bike? I think that is probably the right answer but of course money is the problem. If I were to change bikes, it'd have to be to a good second-hand one as I'm not prepared to drop $2-5k on the newest carbon hotness. And I don't want to move to a new bike and then have to make a similar level of modification that I would to my existing one. I don't want to move down a level of quality, which means I guess I want something like a 5-10 year old Al bike with 8- or 9-ring ultegra on the back and perhaps a 105 triple front - but please feel free to make better or more appropriate suggestions. What does such a thing cost and what can I expect to get for mine (excellent condition)?

As I've only recently moved, I have no idea where the GOOD bike stores are in Perth. I bought a bunch of needed componentry from Fleet in the CBD and they seemed reasonable if not particularly enthusiastic... but I would like to know if there are any good second-hand bike places with keen staff who ride regularly. Likewise bicycle swap-meets - know of any in Perth?

your thoughts and detailed suggestions appreciated...
posted by polyglot to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total)
It sounds like you've overextended yourself. 150km/wk is a lot if you're base is 0km/wk! This is probably why your knee gave out - you haven't built up the endurance / efficiency (and possibly some of the muscles used in pedaling, especially on the upstroke). This may also be the source of your wrist problems.

Regarding handlebars and bike size and seat, I'd recommend finding a bike shop that caters to riders who are doing similar rides (ideally, a store staffed by riders like you) and ask them about the fit and setup of your bike.

And as my local store says, the only way you can tell if a seat is going to work for you is to try it for a few weeks, so see if you have a store with a reasonable return policy for bike seats and try some out until you're more comfortable.
posted by zippy at 6:35 PM on February 16, 2009

I ride an MCM Selle An-Atomica Titanico LD saddle in Watershed leather and love it. They're hella expensive. They offer a 30 day money back guarantee. It looks like Chari in NYC has them cheaper but the web site doesn't specify which model they are. Might wanna give them a shout.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 6:47 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: I would recommend that you stay with this bike, as long as you can get past these physical difficulties. In general, a smaller bike is easier to set up to better fit you than one too large. But the body is an amazingly adaptive device, and will get used to almost anything. When I think of the ill-fitting bikes I've ridden over the years... but I digress.

Yes to a new saddle. Saddle choice is a very personal decision. What one person raves about will be another person's saddle sore. Try a bunch out and go with what feels comfortable enough that you don't notice it. Leather saddles are supposed to be great, but they require a certain amount of maintenance (riding in rain, for instance).

Yes to clipless pedals. I think the main issue with your right leg "giving out" is that you were spending too much energy "mashing" the pedals, i.e., engaging your quads. Clipless pedals allow you to pedal in a circle, meaning pulling up as much as you are pushing down. Some of the popular mountain bike pedals are Time ATACs, Eggbeaters, Shimano, and Ritcheys.

Yes to bar extenders. Drop bars probably wouldn't work on your bike, but really it's up to you. As a diehard roadie, I think drop bars are the best because they allow for the most positions. And you might want to consider raising the bars, if your stem permits it.

But based on all these issues, you should consider a proper fitting at a bike shop. More than somebody eyeballing you and saying, "Yeah, looks ok." You say your saddle height is ok, based on what? If the saddle is too wide, then your hips might be forced to splay outward somewhat.

And ultimately, if you want to get faster, just keep riding. Don't worry quite yet about upgrading to the latest carbon fiber hotness. Ride more, figure out what you like, and save for the upgrade down the road.

(Another source for solutions to bike-related pains and difficulties is the "Form and Fitness Q&A" on They have a whole panel of coaches and physio-trained people to answer questions. Most questions tend to come from racers, but lots of solid advice can be found here.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:48 PM on February 16, 2009

keeping your feet "straight" isn't necessarily what you want. i'm a bit pigeon-toed and asymmetrical. i use look pedals that let my heels stick out slightly and my feet rotate significantly through my stroke. depending how much you reef them down, clips can actually be more restrictive than clipless pedals, so if you're not properly aligned to begin with, you could be putting a lot of stress on your knees.

i don't think you mentioned what kind of shoes you wear. it makes no difference which pedals you choose if you ride a lot in running shoes. your life will suck. get proper (rigid) cycling shoes.

it sounds to me like the best thing to do is get a thorough professional fitting. my local store has a special jig that they put you on. it has a modifyable geometry that they can use to sort you out.
posted by klanawa at 6:53 PM on February 16, 2009

You need professional help.

No really, call around and find the best bicycle pro-shop in town and go in for a custom fitting.

Note: a fitting is a consultation, they sit you on a special chassis and make all sorts of adjustments and measurements of you and the bike. It will cost you, but it's generally not that expensive.

What you'll come away with are specific measurements for seat height, position (for and aft), stem length, frame geometry, etc. All of that will allow you to tweek your bicycle to perfection.

Most of the injuries you describe are possibly just from over exertion, but they could also be closely related to the fit and adjustment of your bike.
posted by wfrgms at 6:58 PM on February 16, 2009

1. Changing handlebars may turn out to be disproportionately expensive. The shifters and brake levers to go with it cost a fair bit. I advocate riding road bikes on the road. It's true that you will find the position uncomfortable for a couple weeks. Everybody does. Then you get used to it.

2. Clipless pedals are good.

3. Pointing your feet in a direction they don't naturally want to point is bad.

4. Fat padded saddles are bad. I'm not a big fan of the old-school Brooks saddles either (Jobst Brandt aptly calls them "ass hatchets"), but the padding interferes with your pedaling action.

5. Knee injuries are a classic sign of a classic problem: grinding in a too-high gear. You don't say what gears your bike has, or what gears you're riding in, but I'll bet the gear you're riding in is too high. You want to work on building up to a higher cadence (80 or 90 rpm) in a lower gear. If there's a low-traffic loop where you can do sprints, practice doing, say, 500 m in a very low gear at the highest cadence you can manage without bouncing off the bike, and then cool off for 1500 m. Repeat 8 times. Do that regularly for a week or two and you'll be able to ride comfortably at a higher cadence by the end of it.
posted by adamrice at 7:35 PM on February 16, 2009

Bad boys are a weird, weird geometry... i wouldn't use them for more than short (10 mile) rides at most. Putting a better saddle on it won't change much (the harder and narrower the betteror)
If there is any bike shop near you, for almost the cost of switching the bad boy's bars out, they'd likely have an entry level road bike, (fuji etc) that will run you relatively cheap that you can get roughly your size. For 300-400 (US$) you should be able to get a road bike that technically fits. Ride it for a month or two, in the same regime, see if that helps. Don't get rid of the bad boy, but just know that it's not a long distance bike. The new road bike will be much more versitile in terms of stem position and workable seat angles. Configure at will.
But as far as cages vs. clips. I don't think it matters so much, but seriously seriously seriously, make sure you're wearing the right shoes. Stiff soles are essential to making sure your heels don't drop and take that much more strain off your calf and knees. (I learnt this the hard way with fallen arches)
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:22 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: Hi guys, thanks for all the quick replies. I've found what appears to be the local enthusiast/pro store and will be getting a fitting tomorrow afternoon.

To reply to a few things above:
- my base is probably more like 30km/week due to regular use of exercise bikes at the gym. Certainly not the 150 I was trying to do because I want to replace the gym with the bike.
- my seat height is (I think) correct because my knees have a very slight bend (5-10 deg?) at full downstroke and I can pedal smoothly without hip rocking or ankling. Am I wrong?
- I don't think I'm a grinder: I'm typically at 85-110rpm if I'm actually exerting myself and tend to drop to 60-70rpm only where no effort is required (or I run out of gears climbing!) instead of coasting. 130rpm is about where I lose good form and I'll completely spin out at about 150-160rpm.
- yes, I wear sneakers; they've never been a problem for me so far but I can't say that that's not due to me only doing short and/or infrequent rides.
- I'll talk with a few stores about costs on handlebar changes and what their asking prices are like for 5-10yo bikes. Depends too on what I see from the fitment tomorrow and how easily the current bike can be adjusted to suit.
- new pedals and saddle are definitely on the shopping list
posted by polyglot at 9:31 PM on February 16, 2009

Response by poster: bah, what should have been in the link and I'm damn sure I pasted the right link in there!
posted by polyglot at 9:49 PM on February 16, 2009

Best answer: You're not in such a bad spot. You're just getting used to the new strains put upon you.

1. Get better handlebar grips. I love my Ergon grips - i have used them exclusively on my workbike for years. The wide area for your palm should help with your cramping. They can be found for $25-40 US, and are carried by several distributors so you should be able to find them in AU. But know this - no matter what you have as grips, you still should shake your hands out, move them to a different position, get the blood flowing. Hold the bars one handed for a bit, then switch. When doing distance rides, its essential. Bar-ends would help in that you gain another position. You could also get a stem with a higher rise than what you currently have - bringing the bars up and changing your position on the bike. You can't put your trigger shifters on drop bars, but you could put a riser bar on to raise things as well. You could put clip on aero-bars (a friend had this on his badboy when we toured america) on your bike, but you should get a saddle that would suit this forward position they give you as well.

2. IANYD, but the knee pain was mostly due to overexercion. Gear down, learn how to spin better, and follow the RICE method if you should suffer another blowout.

3. I have all sorts of pedals on my 9 bikes - Time ATAC MTB clipless, Look Keo road clipless, Suntour Sprint track pedals, generic BMX platforms, etc. Yes, clipless will be more efficient, but i dont think they are necessary. In fact, apart from racing, I dont really like them! I work on my bike, which includes walking up plenty of slick steps, and i always prefer my soft soled sneakers. I even rode across America and around Europe, doing 120+ miles a day in flimsy, floppy canvas sneakers. YMMV. There is no doubt that they perform better - the stiff sole lets all your power get transferred, as well as being able to pull up as well as push down - but you could work on improving your base before comitting to the $200 or so shoes/pedal purchase.

If and when you do decide to go clipless, I would get a MTB oriented pedal. MTB shoes have treads on the bottom, with recessed cleats, enabling you to walk around somewhat normally. Road shoes do not have any tread - just the larger plastic cleat and a rubber heel pad. It is harder to walk in, and god help you if you have to deposit something at the marble-floored bank before the start of your ride...You can also get a platform style clipless pedal, such as the Crank Bros "Mallet" which would let you take short rides to the store in normal shoes.

4. I would change the seat. Those big comfy seats are meant for sitting straight up on, on beach cruisers and the like. They are also designed to go only so far - down the boardwalk or so, and are not going to fit like a touring or racing saddle meant for being in all day. It is good to stand up, coast and let the blood flow every once in a while. You say you have about 6" of saddle-bar drop - you should get a saddle that suits the forward leaning position you ride in. Regarding leather saddles, they are not that hard to maintain, and after being broken it can be extremely comfortable. Some models only work well with the bars being level with the saddle - such as the Brooks B-17 model. You shouldn't have problem finding them by you. (out of Seattle) is one of the largest leather saddle proponents/webstores, and they have tons of info about their products on their site.

5. Going faster takes time. As mentioned above, work on your base. You don't need to sell the bike or get a dedicated race bike to get quick - you just need to build up to the strength. Then, buy your flashy new bike, It'll be like taking the donut off the baseball bat when you get up to swing (dont know the aussie equivalent).

To summarize: follow what everyone else has said and get fit. Ask whether the calculations they give you are for racing or for touring/training. Set up your bike from there. Hope this helps!
posted by stachemaster at 11:27 PM on February 16, 2009

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