Are Road Bikes Bad for Your Back?
Are road bikes bad for your back? The answer is no, but only if you make sure your bike is correctly fitted and suits the way you ride. A poorly fitted bike is the fastest way to get back pain and more serious consequences for your long-term health.
Let us start at your saddle. All road bikes used to come with a saddle that was set flat. The reason for this was that the UCI (the guys in charge of racing) had a rule saying saddles must be level with the ground. Think about that for a minute.
One of your most important contact points on a bike must be set in correlation to something that is not specific to you? Does that make sense? No, it doesn’t. Your saddle must be placed in relation to your body shape. That is something you would think would be obvious.
This rule has now thankfully changed. You’ll still see people subscribe to the belief that a saddle should always be flat, you will find them on Instagram being snobby. The only way your saddle should not be facing is upward. If you need your saddle facing upwards, you have bought the wrong size bike.
You should sell that bike before you do long-term damage to your body. For the majority of people, having a saddle pointed a degree or two down is precisely what they need. Indeed, studies have shown that this decreases or eliminates lower back pain in cyclists.
Remember though, moderation is key. If you have it pointing down at a severe angle you may have problems.
That first tip can be a godsend. I like to make this change in line with retaining the bars back about a degree or two. Rotating your hoods into a comfier position supports your wrists nicely. Technically doing this will make you slower, something most roadies are against doing.
The reality, though, is you’ll be more comfortable. Being comfier on your bike will allow you to ride faster and longer. With discomfort not getting in the way of your ride, you won’t be feeling the urge to go home early. Setting out a fast tempo on the pedals will feel a lot more natural and definitely more comfortable.
The best thing about these tips is they cost you nothing. Try them out and see how you get on. If you still feel some discomfort, it may be worth having a full bike fit or trying out a new bike that may suit you a little better.
Road bikes used to be designed around pros. They used to have a long top tube and a short head tube. That style of geometry is excellent if you want to be aerodynamic and cut through the wind. That being said, it’s also great for the Chiropractor business. It’s not a position you want to put yourself in.
At some point, bike companies realized this was a bad idea. That point was the start of this century, and we started to see the birth of sportive bikes. The lineage of sportive bikes can also be traced into the newer genre of gravel bikes.
Both sportive and gravel bikes are designed to be comfortable road bikes. They have done this in a few simple ways, but the ones your back will love are the shortened top tube and fitted taller head tubes.
Stack ‘Em High
When you look at road bike sizing, you will see people talk about stack and reach. Your stack has been increased by fitting a taller headtube. Your reach has been shortened by installing a shorter top tube. With these changes, you will no longer be stretched out and low. You will be sitting slightly more upright.
Being upright means you will be less aerodynamic. Remember though, the aim should be comfort rather than speed. And being comfortable will eventually increase your speed through efficiency in the long-run.
The Robin Hood Analogy
On a road bike, you are stretched out and under load as if you are going to fire an arrow. Your whole body is taught and ready to explode. This is your racing position. On the sportive bike, you are like the bow, but no one has pulled you, ready to fire an arrow. The good news if you need to shoot an arrow you can quickly pull yourself into that shape.
The point here is that the sportive bike keeps you more relaxed. You are not continually straining your back for a 100 miles. You can strain yourself to sprint for signs, coffee shops, or just for a laugh.
The relaxed sportive position puts less weight on your back than a standard racing bike. It evenly distributes the weight between your wrists and your buttocks. Your body will enjoy this more than if you decide to buy a full-on long and low race bike.
A great final tip to remember that when you are riding a road bike, you do not need to be in the drops the whole time. In fact, you will hardly be in the drops on most rides. Getting into the lower part of your bars can be painful to your back. Even pros don’t spend all their time in the drops. Watch a peloton go by, and most of the riders will have their hands on the top part of their bars.
You only need to get into the drops when you are sprinting, trying to put a massive effort out, or trying to maximize your speed going downhill. If you only use your drops, then you will be saving your back and protecting yourself from future chiropractor bills.
Road bikes do not need to hurt your back. You just need to buy a bike that fits you and drop your saddle’s nose, and you will never have to experience the lower back pain that came with cycling in the 1990s. Do not be swayed by deals and fancy colors. Buy a sportive-style road bike and make sure you never have acute back pain.