I am not racing, I just want to get here and there.
October 5, 2011 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I find my road bike terrifying. Can you help?

After a good decade or so not on a bike, I got a used Fiji Finest 3.0 road bike. I had it checked out and everything nice and adjusted to fit me at a great local bike shop. Problem is, I find it completely fucking terrifying. I feel like I merely turning my head makes me veer crazy off course, its just not a very "stable" ride. I really thought it was just me and my lack of recent bike experience.

Then I was on vacation at the beach and the beach house had a cruiser. Man! It was a dream! Granted, unlike Atlanta, it was pretty freakin flat. But, I rode a minimum of five miles and up to 15 miles every day I was there and it was AWESOME!

I get home and ride to a festival, and bam!, terrified. I feel like I have to concentrate so much on staying upright and in a straight line that I can't enjoy just riding. Boo.

Is there a fix for this? Slightly larger tires (is this super expensive w/ new wheels and all too?), different handle bar shape?, fatter seat? I don't want to buy a hybrid, but I guess I will if I have to. I just want to be happy on my bike.
posted by stormygrey to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Get the bars higher for comfort (might need to get a new stem), and set the saddle as far back as you can, trying to get your weight distributed rearwards, for balance. But steering twitchiness or stability is basically a characteristic of the geometry built into the frame (the chainstay length, the steepness of the head-tube angle, the sweep of the fork's curve); there's only so much you can do to adjust this with a given bike. You might be better off switching to a less racing-oriented bike.
posted by RogerB at 1:08 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might be able to find a replacement front fork that fits and with more "trail" to make the steering less squirrely.

Also, if you get more recent practice in your road bike I bet you will get back in the groove.
posted by exogenous at 1:09 PM on October 5, 2011

You really should've went for a hybrid ('mountain bike' frame with skinnier road-style tires). If you're not planning on doing serious cycling, I'd take the Fuji back and get something else.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 1:09 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have several other people ride your bike and confirm, but it sounds like something is wrong with your bike.

Nuts and bolts might be loose, or the frame is a little bent? I dunno.

I hope you can have it fixed. My first stop would be the bike shop that did my fitting and tune up.
posted by jbenben at 1:10 PM on October 5, 2011

The cruiser tires were probably 2+ inches wide, which is more than twice the width of a 25mm tire, which is what's probably on your bike. Going to 32 or larger would probably make a noticeable difference; you wouldn't have to replace the wheels if the frame has enough clearance for bigger tires.

Some of it is just the nature of road bikes, though...the shorter wheelbase, less upright riding position, and higher bottom bracket mean you need to ride faster to feel stable. There isn't much you can do to make it ride like a cruiser.
posted by substars at 1:15 PM on October 5, 2011

If you got it used, why wouldn't you just resell it and re-invest the money in a new bike. Rebuilding a road bike into a cruiser just sounds like throwing good money after bad.

Sell it and get a bike that makes you happy.
posted by JimmyJames at 1:17 PM on October 5, 2011

The visibility on a cruiser or hybrid is much better than a road bike, since you are sitting upright and it's easier to look around. This probably contributes to much of your feeling of confidence on the cruiser.

Road bikes are really made for maximum efficient speed and aerodynamics at the expense (in my opinion and experience) of comfort.

If you aren't training for a race, or trying to get places as fast as possible, get what's comfortable. Riding any bike that is a pain is not a sustainable passtime.
posted by The Deej at 1:20 PM on October 5, 2011

i think you're being a bit... unfair to your trusty road bike.

Comparing driving anything in Atlanta vs. driving at a beach house is completely unrealistic. Your same road bike at the beach house riding on a beach-front [read:flat, few turns, light/slow traffic] road would have been a dream to ride as well. By that I mean you would have went faster, farther, and with less effort. Now for riding with young children or the family, or if you're just there to relax, that cruiser is absolutely fine.

From my time at GA Tech and my other ATL experiences I'd say, as much as I love biking/bike commuting, it would scare the hell out of me. That's not to say it's impossible or even all that bad but it is going to require that you get back used to biking somewhere like Piedmont Park and research your route very carefully. How about biking groups in ATL, have you tried pinging their sites/message boards?

Honestly, would you expect someone who hadn't driven in a few years to jump into rush hour traffic in ATL and be ok?

Sorry if this comes across as confrontational, I really don't mean it to be but I just feel strongly that for any sort of distance/usefulness factor a road bike is a much better/safer option in almost any given setting, even Atlanta. You just need to adjust your expectations and get back used to being in the saddle, literally.

ps - helmet mirrors are great for saving you from having to turn almost all the way around to check your blind spot.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:20 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It gets better. I'm comfortable on a road bike, but when I switched to it from mountain biking it felt like learning to ride anew. The position is quite off-putting at first but between giving it time and ensuring that the fit is good you will find that it grows on you. There is a reason that people can ride for hours on that style of bike, but it takes some acclimating.
posted by dgran at 1:28 PM on October 5, 2011

If you don't want a hybrid (a lot of them really are goofy looking), consider a flat-bar street/road bike like a lot of the cool kids are riding these days. Drop bars really make you lean forward in a way that might not be mentally comfortable yet, even when you've been riding for years. What about a cyclocross bike with flat bars? Sturdier-feeling than a road bike, but you'd have the familiar control you're used to.

I don't really know that larger wheels would help.

I'd say there's nothing weird about it. I've found that the geometry of a road bike (hunched over, more aggressively leaning forward) can make for a ride that's a bit unsettling after spending a long time on a cruiser, 29er, mountain bike, etc.
posted by resurrexit at 1:29 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I had really ruled out that it isn't a problem with the bike (the headset is tight, nothing is bent), then I would put my bike on a lawn (a big lawn), and ride around in little circles at varying speeds. I'd dodge around obstacles, and, then, when I felt comfortable enough, I'd get some friends to come over and play tag with me. Slow speed biking (on a forgiving surface) with tight turns and some bursts of speed, is a great way to feel more comfortable and stable on a bike.
posted by OmieWise at 1:30 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just learned to ride a bike for the first time in my life, at age 34. It's been one of my lifelong fears. Everyone said, "Oh, you'll pick it up and be riding with ease within a couple of weeks." Yeah, not true. It took months before I wasn't terrified. But I kept getting back on and riding around and now I feel okay about it and sometimes even love it.

So, in conclusion, just practice and give yourself time.
posted by something something at 1:35 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Riding a road bike with your torso tucked over and your head forward takes a bit of practice. It seems a little counter intuitive at the beginning, but the lower you get, the more stable your ride will be. It also will have turn radii that are a lot tighter than your cruiser, which makes it seem twitchy at first. Are you riding in the drops? Try riding on the hoods instead. Put the ball of your thumb over the part that extends out from the bars, just behind the brake lever. Then hang your fingers down over the levers/shifters. This may give you a more comfortable riding position until you become more confident on the street.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:37 PM on October 5, 2011

You should be able to shift from 'upright' to the drops without feeling like you're losing balance.

The late, and obligatorily linked, Sheldon Brown may be able to offer some advice.
posted by run"monty at 1:38 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

well...are you sure you want to have a road bike? If you don't specifically want or need a road bike, why not sell it and get a city bike or cruiser instead?

FWIW, I *hate* road bikes, though I feel comfortable enough on them. I hate not being able to see easily, I hate the hunched-over posture, and like you I feel unstable and wobbly even on a properly fitted bike, like the slightest movement will make me turn or fall over. I'm pretty sure all those things, which I see as serious problems, are actually features of road bikes. Maybe it's just not a very good bike style/rider fit?
posted by peachfuzz at 1:39 PM on October 5, 2011

Reading comments here and I feel like we need more information about your desired use case here. Ditto for traffic patterns/routes in your area of Atlanta.

You may not totally have this fleshed out either but if you're only riding 4 blocks max in any given direction then a road bike is probably a bit silly except for hipster points (but if that's a concern go fixie!).

Also, are you riding on the road surface as a slow vehicle or on the sidewalk as a very fast pedestrian? Either one can be fine. Where do you want to ride eventually? Local laws vary and we really shouldn't turn this into a 'bike usage/best practice' debate but if cops bust people for riding on the sidewalks in ATL, then that's something we need to know. Likewise if you're absolutely, 100%, never-ever, not in this life going to ride on the road itself we can take that into account.

From your profile it looks like you might have some intentions of using this as a viable alternate transportation method and not just a 'sunday cruiser' so I'm still leaning away from cruiser but I wouldn't rule out a more relaxed (not a hybrid even) geometry as, potentially, better for your use case.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2011

If the road bike feels twitchy, you generally are looking for a longer wheelbase.
posted by rhizome at 1:50 PM on October 5, 2011

Don't worry, it will get easier. I started six years ago, not having ridden a bike in the 15 years previous, and bought a classic-style Schwinn cruiser. I went from that to a modified track bike. I'm now very comfortable on bikes with a road/track geometry, and I've just ordered a Colnago, but it took at least a year for me to get used to the body position, particularly in traffic. Eventually it becomes second nature, although I'd say I'm still more comfortable on the hoods than in the drops (although that may have to do with the specific bars I'm using now).

Also, don't be afraid of crashing. You probably won't, but even if you do, it won't be as bad as you think. You may have a few bumps and bruises, or a bit of road rash, but you'll probably be fine.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:50 PM on October 5, 2011

Road bikes will feel twitchy at first. If you don't get used to it, I'd go with a bike similar to the Novara Buzz. I don't want to say "hybrid", because that term doesn't really mean anything anymore.

It could be a fit problem causing your issue. If your bars are too low, or your stem or top tube are too long, that can cause you to put too much weight forward, and that makes steering feel twitchy.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:52 PM on October 5, 2011

Response by poster: I am riding in the road, mostly without bike lanes, in moderate traffic, after dark, around 2 miles each way to work on the weekends.

I would like to get to where I can ride to my other job, which is 8 miles each way in higher traffic, weekday mornings.

I have done two 15 mile group rides around downtown and other parts of the city and try to ride to the park, zoo, whatever that is about 2-4 miles ou,t a time or two during the week.

I think the weight forward part is a huge issue for me, I put an incredible amount of pressure on my hands it feels like and it gets really painful and crampy (which of course leads to more twitchiness)

I got a pretty sweet deal on this bike and I'd like to make this work.
posted by stormygrey at 1:59 PM on October 5, 2011

Keep the road bike. Your use case dictates it. Check fit at shop again. Ride more. Any concerns PM me if you want.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:05 PM on October 5, 2011

Ok, since you want to make this work-

Part of the twitchy-ness (especially the pressure on your hands thing) you'll get accustomed to over time. As you build your core muscles and get used to riding, you won't feel like so much pressure is on your hands. (This is assuming the LBS you took it do did a good job with fit.) Every winter I get out my hybrid and get used to the more upright posture, then every spring it takes a month or so to get back in shape to ride my other bikes comfortably. I have bad shoulders and they actually take even longer - like 2 months of almost daily riding - to get used to being in that position. It's a matter of conditioning.

You can get cushion-y bar tape or even put gel pads underneath bar tape, which I have on my cyclocross/commuter/touring bike. Also, bike gloves are a must for me for rides longer than a few miles.

You could also get cross brake levers added to your brakes so you can comfortably ride on the bar tops rather than on the hoods and still have access to your brakes. They are fairly cheap and easy to install. This would give you a more upright position as you get used to your frame geometry, then over time you can move out over the hoods and even into the drops.
posted by misskaz at 2:10 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you choose to keep the road bike, consider investing in a professional fitting. I just spent $100 on a fit at my local shop and it's made riding my road bike far more comfortable and fun. I walked out with a new stem that puts me in a slightly less aggressive and more upright position, which means I'm supporting less weight with my arms when I'm riding. And I'm not racing, so it's not like I need to trade comfort for speed. I also got a new seat; turns out the original one was too wide for me, and had been pushing me forward, which essentially meant that I was mostly sitting on the nose of the old seat when I was riding. Not comfortable!

The guy who did the fit is certified by Specialized and spent a full two hours on the process--or about 1:59 longer than the guy who originally sold me the bike.
posted by bassomatic at 2:18 PM on October 5, 2011

Get something you will look forward to riding -- for the amount of money that you've spent on the bike, it's not worth it to needlessly deal with the hassle and trepidation. The fact that road bikes like Fuji's are twitchier than e.g. cruisers is more of a feature than a bug (twitchier bikes are much easier to maneuver quickly, especially once you've built your core strength).

This is an aside, but since you're riding after dark, please invest in good lights. Don't cheap out -- no Catseye or Bell lights. I'm talking one of these bad boys -- bright, long battery life (and rechargeable!), durable.
posted by spiderskull at 2:29 PM on October 5, 2011

One suggestion that will make riding in traffic on city streets much less stressful: get yourself a mirror. Or two, even. I find that having a mirror almost completely eliminates anxiety from riding in traffic with motor vehicles. In my experience, most people can't look over their shoulder (to check if it's safe to change lanes or whatever) and still ride a completely straight line. (Yeah, yeah, everybody should be able to and if they can't they ought to practice until they can... but I'm talking about what I actually see my fellow cyclists doing as they ride.) Having the mirror means I can tell that it's clear enough behind me to safely do a shoulder check.

I have this handlebar mirror from Rivendell Bicycle Works, which I like a lot. I also want to pick up a glasses-mounted mirror (the temple pieces on my previous glasses wouldn't hold a mirror securely) to make checking behind me while stopped easier.
posted by Lexica at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2011

Sounds like your frame could be bent
posted by Blasdelb at 2:40 PM on October 5, 2011

Maybe there's something wrong with the bike. I agree with the advice that you have more knowledgeable friends check the ride.

Fatter tires will not help. A different seat will not help.

Mostly, this is a matter of acclimating. If you're not used to riding on a road bike, there's a lot to get used to. The forward position and carrying your weight on your hands especially. I can't promise you that after X amount of time you'll be more comfortable, but in my experience, it takes people about 200 miles of regular riding to adapt. I got a friend interested in road cycling, and despite plenty of experience on commuters, her first outing on a road bike (compounded with the novelty of clipless pedals and integrated shifter/brake levers) had her hyperventilating in terror after about 10 miles. After a few rides she was fine.

Because of their geometry and your weight distribution, road bikes are objectively less stable than beach cruisers—this is another way of saying they're more maneuverable. So they're not newbie-friendly. The trick is getting over that hump. You can do it. Try to find a place to ride where you don't have traffic to think about on top of the strangeness of the bike, and you can chip away at that 200 miles. I think you'll get used to it.
posted by adamrice at 2:43 PM on October 5, 2011

I've ridden many 10s of thousands of miles on road and other bikes and I still find a bike here and there that just isn't comfortable. Riding a 29"-wheel mountain bike is like driving an SUV now, after spending the majority of my time on a road bike that's more of a Ferrari. I had the same problems when I first starting racing motorcycles, too.

Two approaches I'd take are: a road skills class that your local bike coalition/group may offer, and taking the bike to a shop so they can try longer/shorter stems and such in order to take some of the twitch out. Heck, a lot of the time simply going too slowly can be the problem: you don't get the gyroscopic effects keeping you upright and turning is unnatural without the ability to countersteer. Speed is good. :)
posted by kcm at 3:03 PM on October 5, 2011

Turning and looking over a shoulder without turning the bike is a skill that requires a bit of practice. We did some road skills sessions when I was racing, and one of the sessions involved riding on the center-line (of a car-free road!) with another bike right behind you. The person behind you would hold up some fingers, and you would have to look back and announce the number of fingers while keeping the bike on the center-line. It does take a bit of practice, since the tendency is to shift the whole body along with your head, which causes the bike to turn. But once you try it a few times, conscious of the natural turning effect, you can do it pretty easily.

Your issue does sound like a practice-makes-perfect thing. Road bikes, especially with a tight geometry, can feel really squirrelly. But it's mainly an issue of putting in time and getting used to it. The trade-offs are speed and silly control when you finally get there!
posted by kaibutsu at 3:26 PM on October 5, 2011

I think part of the twitchyness is just due to the design of the road bike. The bar is narrower, your hands are much closer together and closer to the pivot point at the stem. The slightest movement of your hands makes a large turn of the front wheel. On a city bike, the bar is a lot wider, your hands are much farther apart, so it takes much more movement of your hands to generate the same degree of turn in the front fork. The usual twitches from body movement, checking over your shoulder, etc. result it far less uh... turny movement? translated to the front wheel.
posted by xedrik at 3:49 PM on October 5, 2011

I can almost guarantee your bike needs further adjustment if your hands hurt after two miles. If you are putting so much weight on the bars that you could not lift them off for a split second and put your weight on your butt and feet, something is wrong.

Things to try:
- saddle slightly farther back
- bars higher
- saddle angle should be really close to level or even ever so slightly nose up; you may have it tilted nose down to protect your soft bits from chaffing, but that's a bad idea in the long run. If you're sitting on the saddle correctly, with your sit bones, and it's a good saddle without too much squishy padding, and you're wearing clothes where the seams don't rub your crotch, your junk will be fine.

Also, some of it is just time, core strength, and coordination. But I think your #1 problem is fit. Go back to the shop and tell them where it hurts.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:53 PM on October 5, 2011

So having read all the other responses I'm going to suggest it may be a break-in period. You should definitely get your fit double-checked but as a teenager I used to get very sore hands/arms from any ride longer than 10 minutes. 20 years later it's not an issue. I think you may manage to get used to it in less than 20 years though.

ideally you distribue your weight between your feet, your butt and your hands so that you're comfortable. As you get stronger a surprising amount of your weight is borne by your legs/feet because your'e always pedaling. I think most experienced cyclists forget that this takes some getting used to.

Also, if you bicycling at night, get lights. A ton of them.
posted by GuyZero at 4:44 PM on October 5, 2011

Is this your bike? http://2010.fujibikes.com/Womens/Sport/Finest-3-0.aspx

See how the hands are right over the hub? There's very little fork offset, that's what makes it twitchy. Try riding down in the drops, with your hands as far back as possible, even putting your pinkies off the bar. See if that makes it less twitchy.

Why the hating on hybrids? Is your thought there strictly financial, or style? I ask because I think a more relaxed geometry may suit your needs better. Go to a bike shop, try a bunch of different bikes. Try a commuter bike with gears (for the hills) but with handle bars that curve around toward you (like the cruiser you liked).

Your bike was over $750 new, you might sell it and set a bike that suits you better and make money on the deal. You say you're in Atlanta, a quick scan of craigslist there shows this $150 one that might suit: http://atlanta.craigslist.org/atl/bik/2634114619.html

And... apropos of nothing, you might consider a kickbike: http://www.kickbikeamerica.com/mrktng/sub_pages/city.html. I have no vested interest here, just think they're cool, and am wanting one myself.
posted by at at 5:20 PM on October 5, 2011

An 8 mile ride on a kickbike would not be fun honestly.
posted by GuyZero at 5:25 PM on October 5, 2011

This is probably not your bike's problem, but may be something to check out:

I have a Trek hybrid bike that I found very wobbly when I was first using it. Like, wobbly enough that I would be nervous riding between posts that were three feet apart. I thought I just sucked at bike riding (well, I did, but not in that way). When I brought it in to get a tune-up, the bike guy said that it was missing a part from the . . . headset? The round doodad between the handlebars? (Obviously I don't know bike lingo). Anyway, after that part was put in place I found my ride to be totally great and I feel very confident riding through narrow spots now.

So I agree that you should have some other people give your bike a try to see if they also think something is off on your bike. It's possible someone at the bike shop overlooked something.
posted by imalaowai at 6:29 PM on October 5, 2011

Are you riding with your hands on the bottom curve of the handlebars? I commute on a roadbike but I always have my hands on the top of the handlebars, and end up not much hunchier than someone on an upright bike.
posted by threeants at 8:40 PM on October 5, 2011

Ask someone familiar with bikes to ride it. It might be built for fast cornering (which makes it twitchy). One of my old steel bikes was simply designed with very fast steering. It was fantastic for snapping around in crits but demanded your attention to keep it going straight. If that's the case for your Fuji, you'll get used to some of it but the steering will never be slow enough to ride no hands while you pull off a jersey, etc. I put ~ 15k miles on that twitchy steel beast, so it can certainly be made to work.

Alternately the headset may be trashed and you have sticky steering. Or the stem length is totally wrong for the bars / head tube angle, etc. A bike shop can help you.
posted by introp at 9:22 PM on October 5, 2011

I think the weight forward part is a huge issue for me, I put an incredible amount of pressure on my hands it feels like and it gets really painful and crampy (which of course leads to more twitchiness)

This shouldn't be happening, your weight should be evenly distributed. It sounds like a fit issue, though you should get your headset checked out if it feels unstable. You should be able to go up a little bit in tire size, from say 25mm to 28mm without having to change anything other than the tires and tubes. The contact patch (the area that sits on the road) is proportional to the square of the width so a small increase in width can make a noticeable difference. I'd reccomend switching up to 700x28's but no real need to go any bigger.
posted by tallus at 12:10 AM on October 6, 2011

I think the weight forward part is a huge issue for me, I put an incredible amount of pressure on my hands it feels like and it gets really painful and crampy (which of course leads to more twitchiness)

This is a big red flag. Before you spend any more, go to a shop where they know how to fit bikes properly (most don't) and make sure your fit and set up is right.
posted by normy at 6:19 AM on October 6, 2011

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