When I purchased my first real road bike, I was soon caught between feeling exhilaration and pain. I was okay on the first few short rides, but after I rode my bike for longer distances, I began to feel very uncomfortable on my road bike. I wanted to ride a lot more, so I began researching to find out why road bikes are so uncomfortable.
Road bikes are uncomfortable when they don’t fit correctly. This happens when the seat is in the wrong position, the handlebars are too low, or the difference between the seat and handlebars is just too aggressive. Most of these issues are easily fixable with the right adjustments.
It’s true, road bikes can be uncomfortable. But there are definitely some things you can do to make your cycling experience more fun and comfortable. So, let’s dig into road bike comfort in more detail to get you the answers you need. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Do Road Bikes Hurt Your Back?
Road bikes can sometimes cause back pain, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Cycling Weekly examined a Norwegian study of 116 road cyclists. They found that 58% of the cyclists studied had experienced low back pain while cycling over the past 12 months. Some of the causes involved bike fit issues, muscle fatigue, and posture and spinal problems.
Sometimes, road bikes have high seats and low handlebars. This puts the rider in a very aggressive and aerodynamic riding position that is built for speed. But if you aren’t very flexible or you aren’t used to this position while riding, it can cause some back pain.
Bike fit is a key component to avoiding pain on the bike. If your reach is too long, it can cause pain in your low back, as well. There are a number of ways you can adjust your road bike to make it feel more comfortable.
It’s helpful to also acknowledge that your bike pain might actually be coming from your body, rather than the bike.
For example, maybe your back pain is being caused by tight hamstrings. You could feel this pain up into your lower back. Your fatigued hamstrings could also cause you to have impaired mobility while riding, which puts stress on your low back muscles.
If you are experiencing this type of pain, you might need to do some stretches, yoga, or strengthening exercises to get your hamstrings in better condition. If it seems serious, it might also be wise to consult a doctor.
Another cause of back pain while cycling is a lack of core strength. You need a good strong core to hold your body in the correct riding position. If your core strength is lacking, you might be compensating for this by using your back muscles, instead. This will cause strain, fatigue, and pain in your back when riding. If this is you, you may need to put some time in the gym to toughen up those abs.
How to Make Your Road Bike Comfortable?
You can make your road bike more comfortable with a few adjustments. The first thing to do is examine your bike fit.
Get the Fit Right
A professional bike fitting is ideal, especially if you have leg length discrepancies or spinal issues, but you can also make these adjustments yourself using the below information or with the help of an experienced friend.
Here’s a video that provides a 3-minute overview of the bike fitting process:
Improper saddle height is a common cause of discomfort on your road bike. When you are sitting on the seat, your knee should have a slight bend in the bottom of your pedal stroke. If your knee bends too much, you need to raise your seat. On the other hand, if you have to point your toes down and rock your hips in order to reach the bottom of your pedal stroke, then your seat is too high. Adjusting your seat to the proper height can make your road bike much more comfortable.
In addition, if the reach on your bike is too long, you might feel discomfort on your road bike. Reach on a bike is like the horizontal distance that your body has to stretch from sitting on the saddle to reaching the handlebars.
If the reach is too long, you could have lower back pain. If the reach is too short, you could feel all crunched up on your bike, which is also uncomfortable. If your bike is the right size for you, you should be able to easily change your reach to be more comfortable by putting a shorter or longer stem on the bike.
Additional Tips to Increase Comfort
In addition to getting the right fit, there are other ways to make your road bike more comfortable. Here are a few notable ones:
- Change your bar tape. Thicker bar tape and padded gloves can help if your hands are sore from gripping too tightly.
- Try different tires. Wider tires or tires with lower air pressure can absorb some of the vibrations you may feel from the road surface.
- Adjust your saddle. If your tush is tired and sore, you might need to change the type of saddle. Some are wide, some are thin, some have a channel cut down the middle. You might need to try out a few to find just the right one.
- Invest in some quality bike shorts. If you aren’t wearing padded bike shorts, now might be the time to try them. The chamois in the shorts will help you feel more comfortable in the saddle for longer.
- Use chamois cream. If you are uncomfortable due to chafing, you might need to apply a cream before riding to reduce the friction.
And sometimes, discomfort on the bike is simply due to being a new (or rusty) rider. If you aren’t used to riding long distances, or are just starting out with cycling, you might feel muscle fatigue, soreness, and even pain where you sit. This should naturally diminish over time. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to consider some of the previously mentioned methods of making your road bike more comfortable.
Now let’s compare the comfort level of a couple of different types of bikes.
Are Road Bikes More Comfortable than Hybrid Bikes?
Road bikes are not as comfortable as hybrid bikes. Road bikes are built for speed, which puts the rider in an aerodynamic, aggressive position. This requires more flexibility and core strength to handle the bike.
Hybrid bikes, on the other hand, have a more relaxed geometry. This means a more upright riding position and a higher, more relaxed grip on the handlebars. While you will sacrifice some speed on a hybrid, you will gain comfort, especially if you struggle with poor posture and weak core muscles.
Many hybrid bikes come equipped with a front suspension, which absorbs the bumps and vibrations you might find on the road. They also come with larger, wider tires, which mean a cushier ride, more grip on the road surface, and easier handling.
Trek’s FX 1 Stagger is also an interesting example. It’s a hybrid bike with a step-through geometry. Step-through geometry means the top tube is extremely slanted, making it possible for you to ‘step-through’ the bike frame rather than throw your leg over top.
Are Road Bikes More Comfortable than Mountain Bikes?
Road bikes are not nearly as comfortable as mountain bikes. Mountain bikes put the rider in a more upright position, causing less stress on the low back compared to road bikes. In addition, mountain bikes typically have wider tires, wider handlebars, and more suspension, which can all contribute to comfort.
To illustrate this further, many mountain bikes have both front and rear suspension to absorb the shock of the road and the trail. Mountain bikes also have much heavier, wider tires compared to road bikes, which makes the ride feel a bit more cushy. And wider handlebars mean easier steering.
On the other hand, the wide tires, heavier construction, and suspension found on mountain bikes create greater rolling resistance when riding on the road or trail. Simply put, they absorb some of the power that the rider puts out when riding. This can slow you down and cause fatigue more quickly than you might find on a road bike.
The upright position of mountain bikes means your torso takes the blunt of the air hitting your body. On a cool or windy day, this can make you feel cold and uncomfortable if you aren’t dressed for the weather. And of course, the decreased aerodynamics will make you slower on a mountain bike.
Are Carbon Road Bikes More Comfortable?
Carbon road bikes feel more comfortable than aluminum or steel. This is because carbon fiber is manufactured in a way that layers the fibers to be stiff in some directions and flexible in others. This is usually described as being “laterally stiff and vertically compliant.”
This gives you the lively handling you need at high speeds, but allows the bike to absorb, rather than conduct, the vibrations of typical road surfaces.
Aluminum, on the other hand, has a reputation for being stiff and harsh. The natural properties of aluminum conduct vibration better than carbon. You can hear the difference by tapping on your bike frame – a carbon frame will make more of a thud, while an aluminum frame will have more of a ringing sound.
It just naturally conducts more vibrations from the road to the rider. However, modern manufacturing processes are improving, allowing aluminum manufacturers to make their frames more comfortable than ever.
And if you’re leaning towards an aluminum bike, then there are other things that you can do to increase the comfort of the bike, like using wider tires, lowering air pressure, and getting cushier handlebar tape. It’s also common for bikes to be sold with just a few carbon components (i.e. the fork, seatpost, etc.) rather than an entirely carbon bike.