I’ve talked to quite a few people who say that they need a new bike saddle because their butt hurts or they want to raise their handlebars because their hands hurt. These people are many times those that have purchased their bicycle from a shop that offers professional fitting services. I’ve never been personally fitted either because the service is cost-prohibitive for me and it’s easy to see why a new cyclist may not see the value in it. I offer these folks my self- prescribed knowledge of bike fit,
Me: “Have you ever experimented with your saddle position?”
People: “Oh yeah, it’s right where I want it.”
Me again: “Well have you experimented with the different fore and aft positions or adjusted the pitch?”
People, making a confused face: “What’s that?!”
I think (I hope I’m wrong) a lot of shops don’t talk to customers [enough] about saddle position. The customer says, “I don’t think I need a professional fitting”, so that’s the end of it. But perhaps a brief or more comprehensive conversation about saddle position is in order.
So let’s try some things. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume you’ve at least chosen a bike that is “your size”. I put that in quotes because the right size for you depends on many factors including your riding style and whether you are, as Sam would say “leggy”. But perhaps I’ll discuss sizing in another post.
If you are not comfortable on your bike, there are usually three groups that you may fall into.
1) “My butt hurts”
2) “My hands hurt”
3) “My butt and my hands hurt”
For these problems, there is a short list of potential solutions that require some explanation. When your butt hurts, many people (including sales associates) immediately think a new saddle or some new cycling shorts are in order. And it may be. But not before trying some things first. A fancy new saddle will do little good if it is also adjusted poorly.
First, ensure you’ve chosen an appropriate height for your saddle. You can do this by loosening the binder where the seat post goes into the frame. This is usually a bolt or a quick-release lever. When standing next to your bike, adjust the height so that it is approximately level with your hip bone. Once you’ve done this and snugged the binder, sit on the bike while holding onto something solid to keep yourself upright. While pedaling backward, your knee should be slightly bent when your foot is at the very bottom of the pedal stroke. Your foot should be level. Don’t point your toe to reach the pedal. Once you’ve achieved these things, your saddle should be at or very near the correct height. (Note from Sam: I really like the “Lemond Formula” — That is, inseam measurement multiplied by 0.883. That gives you the distance between the center of the bottom bracket spindle to the top of the saddle. — for finding the correct saddle position. I usually use this formula to get my starting point and then make very small adjustments based on the pedals, shoes, and saddle I am using. It is a bit more time consuming but sometimes measuring things makes me feel better.)
Saddle height is the easy part of the equation. If the saddle is at an appropriate height and you’re still experiencing pain in your hands or your butt, my first suggestion is always the same: to tilt the saddle back. That is, to raise the front of it so that it points upward just a bit. The goal is to find the position which best “cradles” your pelvis. When I was experimenting with my own fit, years ago, I started at level and continually made the smallest adjustments possible until I knew it was too high. I was sliding off the back. Then, with a couple more incremental adjustments back the other way, I found the perfect angle. This for me was enough to alleviate any pain and numbness in both my behind and my hands. (Note from Sam: I follow this method as well. I would add that it is important to make sure that you are sitting on your “sit bones” not on soft tissue. This keeps numbness away. Also, having the saddle positioned just right, so that your sit bones are centered, allows the saddle to do its job properly, to flex as it was meant to etc. Adjusting the fore and aft position in small, measurable, increments allows you to get that part right. I believe that to be the most critical part of saddle comfort.)
If you’ve got the right height and saddle position and you are still experiencing pain in your hands, raising the handlebars may be the next step. This is best done with a new handlebar or stem. Handlebars feature varying amounts of ‘rise’ which is a measurement of grip height in relation to the clamp at the stem. Additionally, stems come in different heights and angles to alter the height of the handlebars. You and/or your shop can measure or estimate to determine an appropriate handlebar or stem swap. (Note from Sam: I love a good high handlebar! Sometimes however it may simply be an issue with handlebar position or rotation. Often there isn’t any more height to be had at the stem. In those cases, you can select a handlebar with more rise or rearward sweep to bring the handlebars up and closer to you. Depending on the bike the issue may well be something else entirely but this is a good place to start looking for trouble.)
These suggestions are less precise than a professional fitting session which may be more helpful especially if you’re putting in several thousand miles per year. However, many folks that seem to struggle with comfort on their bicycle express significant improvement based on these suggestions alone. If you’re still having issues, bike shorts with a padded chamois or a new saddle may be worth considering. That said, Sam likes his chamois while for me, most rides call for some hybrid board shorts and cotton under-britches, even for long rides. Making sure everything is where it should be is very important even if you intend to wear padded britches. In the end, you may not even need to.