Cycling, Center of Gravity?
June 11, 2014 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Three years ago, I inherited a solid Biachi road bike from my dad. I'm pretty into it now. I usually bike 50 - 100 miles on the weekends, but as that number has crept up, I've run into some some fit issues. Maybe you can help me out with some conceptual stuff.

Last year, as my rides got longer, I started to get some knee pain. I realized after looking into it a little bit, that, duh, I'd never really been fit for the bike properly. I'm a big guy (6'4", 200 pounds), and I had just kind of winged it in terms of saddle position/handle bars/ etc.

So, I went to my local bike shop and had a fitting. They made some changes to my shoes, to my saddle, to my bars - to everything - and the knee pain has gone away almost completely.

This year, my local bike shop got some awesome new toys for fitting (some motion capture software packages and some other stuff) so I went back and went through it again and they tweaked things a little, but nothing substantial.

I believe that my saddle position is now OK and I believe my stroke when I peddle is pretty good. So, I think I want to leave my saddle alone.

However, I still have two issues that plague me on longer rides - neck pain and hand pain/numbness.

I had opportunity to go to a velodrome recently and I was talking with the coach there and mentioned this in passing and he gave me a talk about center of gravity when I cycle and it made a lot of sense but no one has ever mentioned it to me before, so it kind of shocked me that it never came up in any of my fittings.

The gist of what he said was, basically, that I was putting too much weight forward. He said I was probably putting a ton of weight on my hands when I ride, and he's absolutely right. I mean, when I ride, I feel like I'm basically holding myself up with my handlebars - like I'm falling forward and they're keeping me up.

He said I should raise my bars up until my center of gravity moves back to the point where it's really my core/lower back that's holding me in place, and my hands are mostly just to guide and steer... He said it would eliminate my neck and hand discomfort, and he seemed like a guy who knew what he was talking about.

It makes sense, conceptually, but no one has ever said anything to me like that before. In doing some tests with this, it seems like I may have to lift my handlebars a ridiculous amount to achieve this kind of shift back.

Is that how I'm supposed to ride? Everyone seems to talk about getting down low and being more aerodynamic... but that seems counter intuitive to what he had to say - so maybe it's that I can't take that next step until I get my core and lower back strong enough to hold myself in that position without leaning on my hands? I was just kind of learning to live with having my hands be numb and having to ice my neck after a long ride, but if I can change - even if it slows me down - I would love to.

If you've struggled with this or have some insight, I would love to hear from you.
posted by kbanas to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I commute approximately 20km a day, plus the odd longer weekend ride, and I've struggled with the same thing. Over the past 15 years of riding the default aggressive position of my handlebars resulted in more hand, wrist, and neck pain. I raised the handlebars three years ago, and it resolved those issues for me.

Being down low is probably more efficient aerodynamically, and perhaps even mechanically, but I'm not in as big a hurry as I once was...
posted by csmason at 10:34 AM on June 11, 2014

I can't comment on the handlebar location -- that's usually a matter of preference once it's been fitted. Some people prefer a more aggressive stance, others want something that allows them to sit a bit more upright. If you're going for distance, I wouldn't recommend an aggressive stance -- personally, I only use that for sprint distances.

What I'd recommend is working on how you sit on your bike -- specifically, make sure you're using your core muscles to hold yourself up. One of the tricks to long-distance road biking is to bend your elbows. This forces you to use your core strength to hold your torso up, and it has the benefit of being easier on your wrists and elbows. We have a tendency to hold firm onto the handlebars, but that means all of the energy from the road is going into your joints. When you bend your elbows, it redirects that energy to bigger muscles (primarily your biceps & triceps). Maybe try that for a bit?

I started doing planks to make this transition easier, and it made a noticeable difference.
posted by spiderskull at 10:37 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's a good post about fitting issues:

Sometimes just rotating the bar upwards so your shifter hoods are higher up can eliminate wrist/hand pain, since it will change the angle that you hands sit at.
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 10:39 AM on June 11, 2014

Also, how much taller are you than your dad? It could be that the frame is simply too small for you. Do you have any friends with larger bikes that would be willing to lend you their bike to try?
posted by spiderskull at 10:39 AM on June 11, 2014

Racing cyclists do race down & low.

Are you a racer? A serious racer?

I'm not, but I do like to ride. I had my handlebars replaced to a rather out of date style and I had it lifted so I am cycling rather upright. Not 1950's upright but not far from it. And I find it much more comfortable.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:41 AM on June 11, 2014

I think this guy who told you this was wrong, or at least incomplete.

Bicycle fitting is part art and part science, and one thing is for sure: you can't really change one element without it affecting every different element.

When you mentioned hand numbness and neck pain, yes, I also thought of your weight distribution as being an issue; there are many potential ways to fix it. One of them might be moving your saddle back, which usually goes along with slight lowering of the saddle, and can be matched with handlebar raising and reach shortening. But - there are many variables.

I've had hand numbness from certain handlebars and fixed it just by putting on a drop handlebar with a slightly different shape.

There are also issues of core strength and flexibility to be taken into account.

But we can't really get into all of that on the internet. You need to bring this stuff up with your fitter.
posted by entropone at 10:41 AM on June 11, 2014

I had your exact same fit issue -- I'm a tall not-very-flexible guy myself. I agree with the velodrome guy in that you are probably putting way too much weight on your hands. You don't necessarily need to move your handlebars wayyyyy up though. Your core support should be mostly a function of your saddle position over the bottom bracket. Once your legs and core are well positioned, the handlebar placement is more or less optimized by whatever position your arms and wrists can hang in that is low stress for your neck and shoulders.

For myself, I actually moved my handlebars down to relieve shoulder tension. spiderskull is right on, planking and relaxed arms can help a lot, and entropone is also on the money: a fitter who can actually eyeball you will give you the best input (assuming they don't have an axe to grind regarding orthodox road bike setup or whatever).
posted by mindsound at 10:49 AM on June 11, 2014

You have a few options to raise your bars, but 'rotating the bars upwards' is not a good one.

You can change the stem to rise more, or be shorter, so your reach is less.

You can add spacers to the steering tube in order to raise the bars.

If you want to change the location of the brake hoods they should be repositioned on the bars, which may require that the bar tape be removed.
posted by TDIpod at 10:54 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let's assume your bike fitter did a good job fitting for a recreational rider. If that were the case, you should be able to comfortably ride your bike in a number of positions. You could get your weight forward and really hammer on the pedals. You could sit back and rest a little sitting on the seat more. You could camp out in a comfy position and go all day. If all of these things are true, then we have to start thinking about how you are riding the bike. I like to frame all of this from my neutral position. When I am on my road bike, my weight is mostly carried by my feet on the pedals and my seat and hands balance me. My core is engaged to keep that balanced position. If I want to drop the hammer, I shift my center of gravity forward so I have even more weight over the downstroke. If I need to rest, I shift back and actually sit on the saddle a little more.

It's very possible that you have a great fit, but you have a habit of putting your weight forward. That probably works fine for a while until the core muscles, neck, and arms just get tired of that position. On your next long ride, try to focus on getting weight on the pedals by engaging your core.
posted by advicepig at 10:56 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, how much taller are you than your dad? It could be that the frame is simply too small for you. Do you have any friends with larger bikes that would be willing to lend you their bike to try?

My dad and I are actually the same height! But, he has had some back surgery and no longer has the balance to handle a road bike. I had that same concern, though - I've explicitly asked at both fitting sessions if the bike frame was OK size for me, and the consensus is that it's perfect.

Part of my issue is that I think I'm hesitant to move the saddle at all (even though it might help) because I feel like that part has been nailed down (through my fittings) and I don't want to change more than one thing because I have such a loose understanding of what's going on and what dynamics are at play as it is that I'm afraid I'll just lose it all entirely and just collapse to the ground in a heaping pile of broken sobs, so I wanted to try to just change one thing - but I guess you can't really do that with a system as interconnected as man/bike.

I guess I need to go back to my fitting guy.

I don't know. Shit's complicated.

Thanks, everybody, for your feedback.
posted by kbanas at 10:58 AM on June 11, 2014

Response by poster: It's very possible that you have a great fit, but you have a habit of putting your weight forward. That probably works fine for a while until the core muscles, neck, and arms just get tired of that position. On your next long ride, try to focus on getting weight on the pedals by engaging your core.

I think this may be a key observation that I am started to wrap my head around. The fit could be fine, but it could be habit/posture that is sabotaging my efforts to be more pain free and comfortable. The two are not necessarily lock-step - a good fit does not magically mean my posture on the bike will be perfect - I have to be willful about it - probably (I would guess) by going on shorter rides that focus my attention there - as obviously on a 5 hour/80 mile trek I just lose focus on it.
posted by kbanas at 11:00 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My fitter said the power part (saddle position and height, basically) is straightforward and that the upper body position takes a lot of tweaking. It sounds like your power setup is correct because you cured the knee pain problem, so the issue is with the upper body. I'm guessing you need a shorter and/or higher-angle stem, which will let you sit more upright.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:12 AM on June 11, 2014

i've got the same issues with my hands and the best advice i received was to work on using my core. i never really understood how to do that until i took some yoga classes and some poses really activated that area and got me thinking about how that part of my body works when i ride. the way i see it is that you have three points of contact on the bike - feet, butt, and hands - and you want to distribute your weight more to the other two if you are feeling pain in the third. one way this can be done is to alter the bike, but another way you can do this is to alter which muscles you use. you may just need to do some core exercises in addition to those shorter rides you mentioned so you can focus on solving your posture.

that said, i'd definitely go back to your LBS since you've already gotten fittings there before and point out this continuing problem since their last fitting. maybe they will have some positioning pointers as well or if anything i'm sure they'd be happy to sell you more parts to solve the problem :)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 11:14 AM on June 11, 2014

Right, exercises. Here's a fun one. Ride your bike, but try to put as little weight on the handlebar as possible while still holding the brake hoods. This isn't the ideal way to ride a bike, but it's a good way to get a sense of how you'd move weight backwards.
posted by advicepig at 11:18 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your saddle position has a little bit of variability along an arc; it can be a little higher and further forward, or it can be lower and further back. I wouldn't stray too far from your pro fit, but you'd be surprised how much difference a few mm can make in terms of comfort. Just mark your previous position and experiment.

As posted above, the ideal is to have your core and legs supporting your upper body like a cantilever, with your hands barely touching the bars. If you're crouching, the further forward you want to reach, you need to drop lower and get your butt back to stay balanced. So the suggestion TDIpod mentioned is a good start— a shorter/taller stem is the easiest place since you may not be able to add steerer height on a threadless bike (If it's an older bike with a threaded stem, just loosen and raise it, being mindful of the 'minimum insertion' mark).
posted by a halcyon day at 11:47 AM on June 11, 2014

How steep is your seat tube angle? Since that's a fixed part of your frame and not something you can muck with, can you try another bike for a couple rides that has a similar geometry but just a slightly more relaxed seat tube angle? Imagine this - you could have two similar bikes set up with nearly identical distances between the key contact points; same seat to bottom bracket distance, same effective seat to bar distance, etc., but the one with a more slack seat tube is going to move more of the rider's weight back and down, and the steeper seat tube will put weight forward on the hands. Sure maybe your bars need to come up a hair, but the height of the bars isn't the main thing that determines the distribution of your weight. The effective min/max distance you need from seat to bar is more or less fixed for any bike you ride by the length of your arms and torso, but the frame geometry changes the angle of the imaginary line between these points and one or two degrees might feel like a huge difference even when the distance doesn't change. You can tweak this with the position of all your components but your frame, not your bars, is dictating a certain range of reasonable fits and positions and maybe yours isn't quite right for the riding style you want. By all means work on your core, but if that doesn't work, don't blame yourself if it's really the frame.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:00 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a guy who is 6'4" and 200 lbs, I feel your pain.

When I was 6'4" and 160, I had no hand pain, and neck pain and I could ride for hours and hours. Now that I am heavier, it's just not possible in the same position.

What worked for me was moving the seat back a little bit and moving the bars up. That way there was less weight directly on my hands. I also double wrapped the handlebars - to make them larger and bit cushier. I doubt I could do 100 mile rides like I used to, but at least my fingers don't tingle after 20 minutes now.

The thing I also want to do and haven't really yet is - lose 20 lbs. I eat like shit and drink too much beer, and haven't been highly motivated to change that.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:24 PM on June 11, 2014

Yeah, so I am a very casual cyclist, but I am a little geeky and like to read up about the sports I am doing. I remember reading something saying that when you are cycling there are 3 major "pivot points" where your power comes from and you are supposed to balance all three of them. It was the arms, core/hips and the knees.

The other thing is, can you get some gloves? Your hands are shock absorbers when you're on the bike so I think part of the purpose of gloves is to absorb some of that.
posted by mermily at 1:56 PM on June 11, 2014

The easiest and most effective solution to neck pain and wrist pain on a bicycle is to switch to riding a recumbent bike. The bike conforms to fit the person, rather than the person being expected to conform to the bicycle.
posted by aniola at 3:08 PM on June 11, 2014

One thing that I am regularly trying to communicate to the riders I work with is that you steer with your hips, not your arms/shoulders/hands. Can you ride hands free? If so, can you feel that hip-steering when holding the bars?

Also make sure your saddle is level, not nose angled down. This could be exacerbating the feeling of "falling onto the bars."

But please bear in mind that even a super qualified bike-fitter may make changes that your body just won't like. (Anecdata: a person who is renowned as a great fitter in my town raised my saddle to a ridiculous height. The first day, I lowered it back to where it had been, after 10 miles of my hips ducking back and forth.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:14 PM on June 11, 2014

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