Workshop: 10 steps to road bike comfort

By George Ramelkamp | Wednesday, December 31, 2008 9.00am

Some riders just don't get on with the classic bum-in-the-air, flat-back road bike position. If you're one of them, here are 10 ways you can get more comfortable without sacrificing much of the bike's speed and the range of hand positions offered by drop bars.

Tools Required

Multi-tool, scissors, electrical tape, oil, women's handlebar (www.bontrager.com), gel-tape, suspension seatpost (System EX, www.extrauk.co.uk), bar padding (Marsas shock absorbing foam padding, www.sjscycles.co.uk), upright stem (Ritchey, www.paligapltd.co.uk) and wider tyres (Michelin Lithion www.michelin.com)

In this case, it was hard to beat our local bike shop for good advice and one-stop shopping. We could get a close-up look at the accessories and feel their textures, dimensions and weights. Your local will also ask the right questions about bar and stem clamp dimensions, and the correct seatpost diameter for your frame. Thanks to John's Bikes, Bath.

1] Handlebar Tape

Handlebar tape: handlebar tape

The padding on your handlebars is one of the easiest and most effective ways of making your bike a more comfortable ride. Some tapes contain a gel-like material integrated into the fabric to make it even more forgiving.

After you've removed the old tape, start winding the new stuff from the bottom of the handlebars upwards. The trickiest bit is getting the tape to go around the brake lever body in a tidy way; use one of the extra pieces of tape provided to hide the lever clamp – too many wraps around the clamp zone and you may run out before you get to the top of the bars.

Finish off by cutting diagonally in line with the edge of the bar bulge and tape the edge over with some black electrical tape to make it neat and tidy.

2] Extra padding

Extra padding: extra padding

If regular tape doesn't provide enough comfort, another effective improvement can be made by inserting additional bits of padding under the tape and the hoods. In this case, we've used the excellent Marsas foam inserts.

After positioning and holding them in place with electrical tape, try not to overlap the bar tape as much as you would normally when wrapping – you'll need to save a bit for the extra bulk and slightly bigger diameter of the padding to make it last to the end at the top of the bar.

Other padding can be installed under the brake hoods, but this takes a bit of doing, as you have to roll the rubber back far enough to make access easy and prevent folds. Do this before taping up.

3] Riser stem: heads up!

Riser stem: riser stem

A simple stem swap can work wonders. Start by removing the old one with the bike on the ground (to stop the fork falling out). The M6 threaded Allen bolt in the top cap holds the stem to the fork and adjusts the headset.

Use a 5mm Allen key to remove the cap. You'll then be able to swap stems after loosening the clamping bolts. A light coating of grease on metallic mating surfaces or some assembly paste on carbon steerers will keep things creak-free later on.

Tighten the bar and steerer clamp bolts by nipping up gradually and evenly. Don't overdo it on modern lightweight stems with fragile 4mm Allen bolts; just tighten enough so you can't twist the bars when holding the front wheel between your legs.

4] Lever adjustment

Lever adjustment: lever adjustment

As well as making life safer and less tiring, getting your lever reach correct will boost your confidence by increasing your braking control. Some Shimano STI levers can be moved closer to the bar by either screwing in the small adjustment screw as shown (Sora models) or inserting a set of spacer shims (current Tiagra, ST-R600, ST-R700).

You'll need to release a bit of cable at the brake anchor bolt to bring brake adjustment back to normal, then retighten firmly; but check that the cable hasn't suffered from cut strands at the old pinch point, and replace if in doubt.

If your levers have no adjustment, releasing a little cable will help you achieve an easier braking action, especially if you have smaller hands.

5] Slippery shifting

Slippery shifting: slippery shifting

Slippery cables reduce shifting effort. Shift into the lowest gear (largest cog) at the back, then, with wheel and crank stationary, activate the return lever while gently pulling on the cable to create slack. Pop out the cable outer from the slot, wipe the inner clean, then lubricate generously with medium viscosity chain oil.

Re-insert the outers and run through the gears, making sure all housing ends are correctly seated in guides. Repeat for the front in the high gear (big ring). With Campag and SRAM, a trick for those with shorter fingers is to pull the shift lever only towards the bar with the tip of your index and middle finger and activate it from this closer position. You'll find downshifts on the right and upshifts on the left much less strain.

6] Short & shallow bar

Short & shallow bar: short & shallow bar

The bar pictured is the perfect solution to reach problems for those of you with smaller hands. It doesn't project as far forward fr'om the flats as a standard bar, and doesn't drop as low, making it easier to grab the controls/levers from the drops.

It also keeps you more upright. This modification is a little involved, as it requires the removal and re-installation of the levers. The lever clamp bolt is found underneath the rubber hood at a slight angle, on the outside of the lever body on Shimano, on top about halfway under the hood on Campag and on top nearly at the bar with SRAM.

Remove the tape holding the cables, clamp the bar correctly and reposition the levers accordingly, making sure they are high enough on the bend. Tighten firmly and then re-tape. You'll have all the advantages of a multi-hand-position drop bar without the pain.

7] Suspension seatpost

Suspension seatpost: suspension seatpost

Current Far Eastern suspension seatposts are well made, not too heavy and come in several diameters, with 27.2mm being the most common.

If your bike's seat tube diameter is an unusual size, you may have to resort to the pricier – and generally better – USE brand, which offers a full choice of shims around its 25.0 or 27.2mm seatpost diameters.

Clean out the seat tube by partially jamming down a cloth with some WD-40 and a blunt screwdriver. Grab the exposed bit and twist several times while removing.

On steel or aluminium frames, use a piece of fine sandpaper to smooth off any sharp edges around the clamp slot inside the seat tube. Clean and grease the clamp bolt, then use assembly paste for carbon or grease for metal-to-metal while installing the seatpost.

8] Comfier saddle

Wider,comfier saddle: wider,comfier saddle

An obvious port of call for increased comfort. Don't go too wide though, because if the back of the saddle gets in the way of your legs it will wreak havoc with any notions of smooth pedalling.

Clean the clamp pieces and bolts before reassembling. Apply grease to all contact points (including rails), and in particular the bolt threads and head. Set the saddle level or ever so slightly nose down, and a bit forward of the halfway point, the goal being a more upright position with less pressure from the nose of the saddle.

As a starting point, adjust the height until your heel can't quite touch the pedal in the fully extended position (pedal at 6 o'clock). When you place the ball of your foot slightly forward of the pedal axle, you should have a slight bend in the knee.

9] Bigger tyres

Bigger tyres: bigger tyres

Moving up to bigger tyres can soften the ride considerably without adding significant rolling resistance. There's usually enough room to accommodate a 28mm width in place of a 23, but if in doubt, fit a 25.

Measure the gap between the brake callipers – in particular the fork crown – because this is where a wider tyre is most likely to cause a problem. You should be able to spot whether you've got the extra 2-5mm required for clearance. 

Your old inner tubes should still work fine in a larger tyre unless you're making a huge leap from an 18 or 21 to a 28, in which case you might consider getting matching tubes. Make sure you seat the bead correctly at the valve before inflating, and check for tyre rub against the frame, fork and brakes.

10] Rear view mirror

Rear view mirror: rear view mirror

Ever tried to ride a racing bike in traffic after waking up in the morning with a stiff neck? Not easy, as those of you with chronic back or neck problems from previous injuries or other causes will attest.

Not only will this addition make life easier on the road, it'll make it safer. Remove the old bar plug and install the mirror in the end of the handlebar while paying attention to knee clearances. Although mirrors are designed to fit most internal diameters, you might have to file a bit of material away around the plastic wedge.

Adjust to catch a view of just the back of your rear tyre in the left edge of the mirror. Having a mirror on your bars may not add the most sophisticated touch to your bike's looks, but if your neck or body is suffering from having to twist around in traffic, you'll soon appreciate it.

Before: standard racy mode – hard and fast: before: standard racy mode – hard and fastBefore: Standard racy mode – hard and fast

After: comfy contact points give a softer, easier ride: after: comfy contact points give a softer, easier rideAfter: Comfy contact points give a softer, easier ride

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