A poorly fitting bike – whether that’s the frame size, saddle height, reach, cleat position, and so on – can cause pain which, at best, is uncomfortable, and at worst, could have long-term effect, both on and off the bike. However, many causes of a bad bike fit can be identified – and it doesn’t take an expert to figure it out. Below are the six signs of a bad bike fit.
Your feet are the most important contact point on the bike, and there, just to make things complicated, are many variables that can affect their position and comfort.
Cleat position is an obvious cause of pain, as is shoe size, but saddle height also comes into the equation, aka “ankling”. Ankling is the rotation of the ankle and angle of the foot at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke, which, some say, can make for a more efficient stroke. The foot is angled with the toes slightly upward at the top of the down stroke and with the toes a little downward through the up stroke. Feet pain itself is another issue. If your feet hurt, either your shoes are too tight, your cleat position is wrong or your saddle height is too high. Hot foot – pain in the forefoot – can be alleviated by setting the cleat further back, allowing for a greater spread of pressure when pedaling.
The knee is particularly susceptible to discomfort and injury, and so it is an important joint to consider in the bike fit process. There are also a number of factors which can cause pain.
Knee position is the big worry. Saddle fore/aft, cleat fore/aft, saddle height and the reach of the bike can all cause pain. People forced to quit contact sports like football or rugby union often turn to a non-contact sports like cycling, and any knee pain associated with cycling is different to the ‘trauma’ injuries suffered in other sports. The most common type of knee pain [when cycling] is to do with the patellofemoral joint – so the knee-cap and the back of it – and the compressive forces that go through there. Easy ways to spot a bad fit when it comes to the knees, is if you are riding with your knees pointed out, while rocking in the saddle means you are sitting too high and you’re reaching too far for the pedals.
While many aspects of bike fit can cause pain or injury in other parts of the body, if it is lower back pain you are experiencing then, there is only one thing to consider.
Your body also needs time to adapt to a riding position, and so work load should only be increased gradually over time – with periods of stability to adapt to the load in order to avoid back pain. Working life and the effect it may have your flexibility should also be taken into consideration with regard to your limitations and the position you can comfortably achieve on the bike.
Neck and shoulders
It’s also common for riders to experience neck and shoulder pain so it’s an important area to consider when setting yourself up on a bike.
With neck and shoulders, most people will set themselves up on a bike while looking at the floor and then when they go out and ride, obviously they’re looking at the road ahead. It’s a nice little tip to remember, to remember where you’ve got to look. People will get a crick neck generally and that’s worse on long rides. To alleviate pain in the neck or shoulders – and the latter can be identified not only by shoulder pain but by numbness in the hands and locked out elbows – it is important to set the front end of the bike higher. As with the back, it’s also important to increase training load gradually to avoid putting sudden strain on the neck muscles.
Hands and arms
Stack and reach also affects the arms, with the arms having to work as hard as the neck and back if your setup is too low and long.
Locked out arms – the result of having to reach too far for the handlebar – will place too much pressure on the biceps. If your arms are slightly bent it allows you to chop and change your riding position on the bike, another important factor which people – very often new cyclists – forget or don’t realize. Your arms shouldn’t ache when riding, and if they do then it’s likely a sign of a bad fit. Your handlebar, as a general rule should measure the same as the width from acromion to acromion (the pointy bit of bone you can feel where your arm meets the shoulder) when standing upright off the bike).
A common myth in cycling is that the hip flexors are responsible for pulling up on the pedal on the upstroke.
Too aggressive a position, for example one classically adopted by a time triallist, can cause vascular problems that not only affect power output but can also be dangerous. It is not to say you shouldn’t get aero or put on TT bars, but more that your position should keep the hips open to prevent the potentially dangerous carotid artery kinking. If you feel better as soon as you get off the bike, it is usually a vascular issue and you should look to open your position up – reducing crank length, moving cleat position back, or sitting higher and more forward in the saddle. It is also recommended, if you think you are suffering from kinking, to seek out medical help as the condition could signal the end of a cycling career if not treated correctly. If hip or pelvis pain is neural in nature (i.e. it affects a nerve), then the irritation will not ease once you get off the bike, and it could point to issues like piriformis syndrome or sciatica.