Sunday, September 2, 2012

Riding Comfortably for 200 Kilometers

Both the 200 km brevet I rode in May and the longer training rides leading up to it involved a fair amount of discomfort. To help control that, I took ibuprofen during these rides, but to my mind that is a stop-gap, not a solution. Some of that discomfort was muscle pain in my legs which hopefully will be improved by more training. However, much of the pain was not in my legs, but in my neck, arms, shoulders, and hands. And then there were the saddle sores. Since my brevet, I have been experimenting to see what I can do to make my bicycle more comfortable for long rides.  In this post, I will describe the experiments I am performing to learn what I can do to make my bicycle more comfortable for long distance rides.

After the brevet, I tried to maintain my conditioning by continuing my 90 mile training rides. As I have previously discussed, this did not work as a training strategy, but I was able to use the two rides I completed to do some important experiments. The first ride I completed on my Surly as ridden the the brevet. The second ride I completed on my Bianchi Specialissima. There were a number of differences between these two bikes:
1) The Surly had 18 speeds and index shifting using shifters on the brake levers. The Bianchi had 10 speeds and friction shifters on the down tube.
2) The handlebars on the two bikes were a bit different; those on the Surly seem wider and have some unusual bends in them.
3) The Surly had the plastic saddle it came with. The Bianchi had a well broken-in Brooks B17 saddle.
4) The Surly had 28 mm tires inflated to 90 PSI. The Bianchi had 23 mm tires inflated to 120 PSI.

Point 1, the difference between index and friction shifters, matters remarkably little to me. When I switch from one bike to the other, my reflexes take a few miles to adjust and on the Bianchi, I tend to shift less often. However, I have not noticed much difference in performance, comfort, or utility. On my brevet, the index shifters on the Surly came out of adjustment, so I had to stop and figure out how to adjust them. This would not have happened on my Bianchi. It is sort of like the difference between a guitar and a violin. If your guitar ("index shifters") gets out of tune, you have no choice but to stop playing and tune it. On a violin ("friction shifters"), you simply adjust your finger position. I think if I were to build another brevet bicycle, I would build it with friction shifters simply to get the better reliability (and lower cost). That said, this has little impact on long term comfort.

Point 2, the difference in handlebar shape, is a good example of the difference between long term and short term comfort. In the short term, I definitely prefer the shape of the handlebars on my Bianchi, and as a result am looking for different handlebars for my Surly. However, I can't say that I notice any difference in my long term comfort due to the shape of the handlebars.

Point 3, the difference in saddles, is an even better example of the difference between long term and short term comfort. When I first purchased my Surly, I fully intended to put my Brooks saddle on it. However, once I rode on the plastic saddle it came with, I found I liked it very much and kept it. Besides being comfortable, I liked that I didn't have to worry about it getting wet in the rain. When I switched back and forth between my Surly and my Bianchi, I found the Brooks somewhat squishy and odd feeling; if anything, I preferred the Surly's plastic saddle. The first evidence that the Brooks might have advantages came from the brevet itself. After the brevet, for the first time in my life, I developed saddle sores. They did not bother me on the ride and they never got very bad, but I had read enough about them to know to be exceedingly careful. In the weeks after the brevet, I found that almost every time I rode, they would flare up. However, I started noticing that the Surly's plastic saddle seemed to cause the flareups whereas the Brooks did not. I have just put the broken-in Brooks from my Bianchi on my Surly, and am eagerly waiting to see if this prevents saddle sores in the future. (By the way, this means my Bianchi now has a brand new, hard as a rock Brooks B17 saddle. 34 miles down, 466 miles to go before it is broken in.) There are many saddles on the market, including some specifically designed for randonneurs. Clearly this is a very personal decision and in my reading I came across many different recommendations for saddles which were good, and saddles which were bad. I decided to try a B17 because it probably received more favorable recommendations than any other single saddle, because I knew I found it comfortable to at least some degree, and because I had one in hand, all broken in, to try. If it doesn't work as well as I hope, I will try others.

Plastic Saddle that came with my Surly Crosscheck.  This saddle retails for about $50 and gets fairly favorable reviews.

Brooks B17 currently on my Surly Crosscheck.  This saddle retails for about $100 and is probably the single most recommended saddle by randonneurs.

Point 4, the difference between the tires, was, to me, a very interesting confirmation of what I had been reading. My Surly came with 32 mm tires inflated to 75 PSI. Even before I swapped them for 28 mm/90 PI tires, and even before I replace the very skinny, very hard tubular ("sew-up") tires in my Bianchi with clinchers, I was surprised at how little difference there was in the speed of the two bikes. Although subjectively, the Bianchi seems a bit "peppier", the speeds I find myself riding on the two bikes continue to be very similar. For short rides, I do not notice that much difference in ride quality either, and have been known to take the Bianchi onto dirt roads. However, when I did a 90 mile training ride on the Bianchi, by the end of the ride I was finding the rough ride of its hard tires very unpleasant. This experiment has definitely made me a believer in fatter, softer tires for brevet riding.

One thing that is the same for the two bikes is that on long training rides, my neck, arms, shoulders and hands become very sore. This is probably as limiting a factor to how long I can ride as the exhaustion of my legs. Because the two bikes are the same in this regard, I have to look elsewhere for hints as to how to solve this problem. From my reading, I learned that pain in the neck, arms, and shoulders is a sign that one's handlebars are too low, and that as one ages, one becomes less flexible and needs the handlebars raised higher. At first, I thought I might be out of luck raising the handlebars on the Surly because it used a threadless headset; the handlebars could only be as high as the fork stem. However, while bicycling in Maine, two of the riders that brought their own bikes (a Bianchi Volpe and a Surly Crosscheck) both had extenders on their threadless headsets to raise their handlebars beyond what the fork allowed. Thus, for about $25 I purchased an extender for my Surly and am testing higher handlebars. This job is not complete because I found I will need to extend the brake cables to make this work, but without yet having accomplished that, I have already gotten some height increase on the bars. One other benefit I hope to get from this change is access to more hand positions, which might help with hand pain and might provide some more efficient riding options. With the handlebars at the height they came, I found the dropped position on the handlebars unusable. I hope that, by raising the bars, I will be able to use the drops, giving me options for both efficiency and for comfort.

The handle bar extender is the slightly shinier black piece with two screws right below the stem.  It can add over 3 inches to the handlebar height.  If you look closely at the front brake cable as it approaches the brakes you can see that it is strained.  For that reason, the stem (and thus handlebars) are not as high as they can go; there are still two spacers above the stem.

This picture shows the current height of the handlebars on my Surly.  They are now just a bit higher than the saddle.

One assumption implicit in the above is that the Surly is my long distance bike rather than my Bianchi. The reasons this is so (at least for the moment) are as follows:
1) My Bianchi is an heirloom and I do not want to risk ruining it, so am reluctant to take it out too much or under harsh conditions.
2) As noted above, the tires on the Bianchi are too hard.  It might be possible to put wider, softer tires on the Bianchi, but I haven't tested that yet.
3) the Surly currently has lower gears than the Bianchi and it is not clear that the Bianchi can accept lower gears.  Even if it could, adding them would be taking it even further away from its pristine heirloomishness.
4) The Surly is generally easier to have repaired and maintained.

As I continue to experiment with the Surly in attempt to make it more comfortable on long rides, I will report my experiences on this blog.

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