For weekend bicycle enthusiasts and competitive tour riders alike, the risk of a bicycle-related injury may increase with an ill-fitting bicycle, says the American Physical Therapy Association.
According to APTA member Erik Moen, PT, CSCS, “Good bike fit promotes good posture with muscles and joints working in harmony. If this doesn’t exist, riders will likely experience pain and be predisposed to injury.” Moen, an “Elite-level” coach through the United States Cycling Federation and director of physical therapy at PRO Sports Club Seattle, says, “The first thing I ask any patient complaining of bicycling-related pain is to bring the bicycle in to check for a proper fit. In most instances, a poor bike fit is at the root of the problem.”
Only 1 percent of America’s cyclists are elite racers, Moen notes, so the majority of his patients are recreational cyclists. But he says that the same advice holds true for everyone. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Lance Armstrong preparing for an unprecedented sixth Tour de France victory, an athlete training for the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens, or a leisure cyclist, bicycle-fit is an individual matter that reflects a person’s coordination, flexibility, strength and skeletal parameters.” He adds, “A properly fitted bicycle should allow the rider to maintain common riding positions with an acceptable level of comfort and the greatest pedaling economy.”
Moen, who races on the road and in an indoor cycling arena called a velodrome, says that the most common bike fit errors include excessive saddle height (high and low), excessive handlebar reach (long and short) and misalignments of the pedal and shoe. He recommends that cyclists do the following to ensure that they have proper bike fit:
Be sure that the saddle is level for endurance and recreational riding. If you are sliding too far forward from a forward-tilting saddle, too much weight is being placed on your arms and back. If the seat is tilted backwards, posture will be compromised and you may place undue strain on your lower back and possibly experience saddle-related pain.
The location of handlebars will be determined by a person’s height, strength, coordination and functional goals. Higher handlebars will have you put more weight on the saddle. Generally, taller riders should have lower handlebars in relation to the height of the saddle. If handlebars are too far forward, you’ll be putting strain on your back.
Moen notes that riders should re-examine their bicycle fit after bad falls or crashes, due to possible reorientation of handlebars, brakehoods, cleats or the saddle.
Equally important to proper bike fit is a rider’s physical condition, observes Moen. “Good flexibility of the hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteal muscles is crucial because these muscles generate the majority of the pedaling force and must move through the pedal-stroke in an ideal 80-90 revolutions per minute.” He adds, “proper stretching, balance and flexibility exercises help with coordination of cycling-related skills such as breaking and cornering. Moen also cautions that changes in riders’ strength and flexibility affect the ability to attain certain positions on the bicycle and may also require them to reexamine their bike fit.
Moen also points out there are bicycle accessories on the market, such as softer handlebar tape, shock absorbers for the seat post and front fork, cut-out saddles, and wider tires, that help to bring comfort to the sport.
“Cycling should be about enjoyment, not pain,” concludes Moen. “proper bicycle fit will minimize discomfort and possible overuse injury, maximize economy and ensure safe bicycle operation. proper bicycle fit will make your ride a lost more pleasurable.
Tips for Avoiding Bike-fit Related Injuries
Common Bicycling Pains:
• Anterior (Front) Knee Pain. Possible causes are having a saddle that is too low, too low of a cadence (speed), using your quadriceps muscles too much in pedaling, misaligned bicycle cleat for those who use clipless pedals, and muscle imbalance in your legs (strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings).
• Neck Pain. Possible causes include poor handlebar or saddle position. A poorly placed handlebar might be too low, at too great a reach, or at too short a reach. A saddle with excessive downhill tilt can be a source of neck pain.
• Lower Back Pain. Possible causes include inflexible hamstrings, low cadence, using your quadriceps muscles too much in pedaling, poor back strength and too-long or too-low handlebars.
• Hamstring Tendinitis. Possible causes are inflexible hamstrings, high saddle, misaligned bicycle cleat and poor hamstring strength.
• Hand Numbness or pain. Possible causes are short-reach handlebars, poorly placed brake levers and a downward tilt of the saddle.
• Foot Numbness or Pain. Possible causes are using your quadriceps muscles too much in pedaling, low cadence, faulty food mechanics and misaligned bicycle cleat for those who use clipless pedals.
• Ilio-Tibial Band Tendenitis. Possible causes are too-high saddle, leg length difference and misaligned bicycle cleat for those who use clipless pedals.