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It Could Be a Short Ride to Comfort

Exercise: New saddles and other products can keep cyclists pain-free, but sometimes so can adjustments, which can be done at home.

March 19, 2001|ROY FURCHGOTT | WASHINGTON POST

It took only one $40 bike part to turn Leslie Tierstein, of Arlington, Va., from a cyclist whose shoulders, hands and back ached during recreational rides to someone who can ride "up to 130 miles in a day pretty comfortably," she says.

The miracle bike part? A handlebar stem that moved the bars closer to the seat. But don't rush to the bike store just yet. The real trick wasn't the stem itself but the adjustment it allowed that put her in the proper position for comfortable cycling.

For baby boomers and others seeking a low-impact alternative to jogging, cycling may be a good solution, says Jeff Potteiger, director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Cyclists typically burn 10 calories a minute during moderate exertion.

But who would want to take even a moderate ride when a Sunday spin on the bike makes you feel like a contestant in a porcupine rodeo? Cycling stalwarts may delude themselves for a while, as Tierstein did. "Something didn't feel quite right, but I thought that's how a bike is supposed to feel and that I'd get used to it," she says.

Toughing it out is not the answer. The problem facing the bike rider is that the body's entire weight rests on just a few small spots--a bit of both hands, a small portion of the buttocks and, periodically, the feet. That not-quite-right feeling may lead to pain in the neck, shoulders, elbows, feet, hands and--truly scary--the nerves to the reproductive equipment. (More on this later.) Unattended, some of those hurts can become chronic injuries.

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Fortunately, the bicycle industry feels your pain and is addressing those aches with shock-absorbing materials, new saddle designs and even a hot-selling new breed of machine dubbed the "comfort bike," which incorporates an upright riding position, fat tires and shocks fore and aft for a cushy ride.

You also can forsake the standard steed altogether and opt for a recumbent, a style of bike that lets riders pedal from a reclined seat with a back on it. Riders look as if they are on two-wheeled lawn chairs, but their torsos are supported in a relaxed position. The downside is that some recumbents aren't as easily seen in traffic, and they are not as efficient for climbing hills--you can't stand up on the pedals.

For those of us still wedded to the standard model, all the shock absorbers and gel saddles on the planet won't compensate for a bike that doesn't fit properly. The most common problem is knee pain, says John Hollands, a custom bike builder in Reisterstown, Md. The cause is easily spotted at any group ride, he says. "You see people flogging the bike, struggling, and they are invariably too low and too far forward."

Doctors agree.

"The patella [kneecap] is especially sensitive to seat height. I tell people to try it a little on the higher side," says Nicholas DiNubile, orthopedic consultant for the National Basketball Assn.'s Philadelphia 76ers and former special advisor to the President's Council on Fitness. "You can overload the kneecap, especially if you are doing a lot of hills and don't use your gears properly."

Cyclists also can hurt themselves by having the seat too high. That can cause the hips to rock from side to side and lead to unpleasant chafing of the nether regions. In rarer cases, it also can cause hyperextension of the knee.

But for all the focus on the part of the bike bearing the most sensitive parts of our anatomy, it's not the seat of all ills. Aches in the neck, shoulder and back--after the knees, the next most common trouble spots--are usually symptomatic of a handlebar-fit problem. The tricky part here is that the pains from being too stretched out are much the same as those from being too bunched up.

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The remedy--seldom addressed--may require not just raising or lowering the bars, but buying a new stem (the upside-down L-shaped piece that attaches the handlebars to the front forks). In Tierstein's case, an article in a cycling magazine alerted her to the problem by pointing out that men's bike frames don't always accommodate women, who typically have shorter torsos.

"I measured the bike, and a light went off in my head," Tierstein said. After changing the stem, "it was like night and day. My back felt better, and I could go longer. Then the seat problem manifested itself."

Which reveals an unfortunate truth--any adjustment in one area can cause a problem to another. That may leave you wondering: With so many variables, where do you start? The easy answer: with the geometry between seat, pedals and handlebars.

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