Bob Forgrave, Flatbike
Hang around the bike business long enough, and you get very familiar with the concerns that we heard from potential cycling customers just this week:
- “My lower back hates me!”
- “These bones don’t handle frame vibration the way they used to…”
- “What do I need to do to make riding comfortable?”
These are familiar concerns because seller focus is often elsewhere; many places that sell bikes want to do just that–sell more bikes. That is quite different from selling an awesome riding experience, which puts the rider in the center and adapts the bike as needed.
After all, recreational cycling is way different from professional cycling.
In professional cycling, riders frequently stampede toward the latest light and aero technologies, while they’re still expensive, in search of that elusive competitive edge over other fast riders. If a component or whole bike turns out to be uncomfortable or too maintenance-heavy, just replace it next racing season—or earlier if a new sponsor comes through in time.
With recreational cycling, you’re in it for the long haul. You want choices that make riding easier, more comfortable, and simply more enjoyable, so you get out more often on your bike. Explore more, commute more, and stay in shape. You’re looking for a bike that you’ll enjoy for a while, and components that are proven to enhance the riding experience–not too expensive, but also not so cheap that they’re high maintenance.
Here are 7 ways to make your recreational biking rides more enjoyable:
1. Know where you’ll be riding.
Starting here makes it simple. It’s all about tires, friction, gearing, and what happens when you hit things.
If your expected rides are mostly on road, you can have a lighter, faster bike by going with narrower, smooth tires–dispensing with heavy wheels and friction-heavy knobby tires that add resistance with each revolution. You can also have efficient high gearing that goes faster on flat surfaces with less pedaling.
Or, if your excitement is about going off the beaten path, maybe even onto gnarly, untamed paths that beat you up a bit, you’ll want shocks that absorb impacts, wide tires that absorb impacts, and lots of friction-heavy knobs to grip the dirt and mud for control on technical single-track. All that adds weight, and you’re going to be in hilly areas for the most fun, so you want a bike that gears way down for easier uphills. Road speed isn’t relevant.
In between, there’s less shock absorption needed–maybe just rough pavement, the occasional mega-pothole, and the inherent bounciness of unimproved gravel roads. In this case, medium-width all-terrain tires with smooth tread, combined with road gearing, offer the best of both worlds.
2. Know what riding makes you comfortable.
Even if you’ve been off a bike for decades, deep down you know what you like as a rider.
Are you a relaxed rider who goes out for a toodle on sunny days?
An aggressive, into-the-wind rider who lives for high-intensity training and personal bests?
Perhaps somewhere in between?
All of these are “right” for someone, and there’s a bike type for every style. Much of this is about bike configuration and components.
- If you’re a more upright rider, you’ll want straight handlebars or maybe even a bit of a back sweep, combined with a wider seat as your center of balance shifts backwards.
- If you’re more of a lean-into-it rider, you’ll be more comfortable on a low flat bar (for mountain or hybrid riders) or a curved drop bar (for road bike or gravel bike riders). Your seat can be less substantial because much of your weight is on your arms.
You may have realized by now that this section is mostly about supporting your head and neck, with some implications for your lower back.
Assuming you have the right size bike for your body–a point we’ll touch on next–you can fine-tune your forward lean (called Reach) in two general ways:
- Raise or lower your bars.
- Lowering an inch or so is the easiest; move the spacer rings from below your bike stem to above it, bringing your bars down with no extra parts needed.
- To raise your bars 1-2 inches, you can add a different stem, such as a horizontally folding THINstem (which also allows you to store your bike in narrow spaces) or a vertically folding stem, called an adjustable stem (which can get you 2+ inches of extra height, even for an MTB).
- To raise your bars more than 3 inches, you will need a “stem riser” (sometimes also called a “stem extender”) under your stem. This is less abuse-proof than a pure stem solution, but can be perfect for fully upright riders. Be aware, this level of change will likely require extending your brake and shifter cables.
- Shorten or lengthen the distance between seat and bars, requiring less (or more) reach.
- The seat on a good bike moves forward or backwards about 3 inches on rails, so that’s an easy first adjustment.
- The distance to the bars can also be adjusted at the handlebar end, with a shorter or longer stem.
- As a last resort, you can also swap all of your handlebar attachments to a bar with more of a sweep back.
3. Get a bike that fits you.
Logically, you’d think we’d introduce this before the fine-tuning above, but really—we’re not just fitting any bike. Before you try to fit a bike to your size and shape, you need to resolve what kind of bike you’re looking for, which is why we started with tires and rider style. Now it’s time to match that to a bike size.
Low-quality bikes tend to be built in one or two sizes–efficient to sell in volume at low cost, but not so easy for the rider to make comfortable and efficient. Higher-quality bikes tend to have three or more sizes, requiring less tweaking to match your body.
When bikes are listed by size, such as 19″ or 520mm, those measurements are referring to the seat tube–the distance from the center of the crank where the pedals are to the top of the frame under the seat. This is strange, because the overall height to your seat is perhaps the most adaptable place on the bike–just raise and lower your seat. (And it’s also strange that road bikes are usually in millimeters and mountain bikes in inches!)
Bike sellers (including us) use seat tube length as a proxy for person height, despite the fact that people’s legs and torsos are often different proportions. That’s a good starting point, but at Flatbike we don’t stop there. All of our full-size folding bikes, for example, also list rider inseam, so you don’t ever order a bike with a top tube that’s too high for you.
Generally, for back and neck reasons, we suggest getting the largest frame where you won’t have a “bad day”–coming down on the top tube before the ground. Especially for back and neck reasons, there’s less fine-tuning needed. But occasionally, a boat or plane owner will want fold a mountain bike into a smaller space, requiring a smaller frame. That’s OK too . . . as long as you know how to fine-tune for comfort.
4. Support your hips.
We could just talk about bike seats here, but it’s more than that. For example, imagine walking around with your legs half-bent, unable to fully extend all day. Ouch. Don’t do that on a bike. Unless you’re about to careen down a mountain, put your seat high enough that it’s optimized for riding, and only the the balls of your feet touch the ground when you’re stopped.
And what’s under your seat? There’s a whole market of different suspension posts, from $15 to over $300, designed for the sole purpose of reducing riding impact and vibrations to your bottom and lower back. We often include them on our bikes, by request.
Finally…the seat itself. Comfort isn’t about heaping maximum layers of gel padding, springs, and lamb’s wool onto an increasingly unwieldly sproing tower. It’s about choosing the right size and shape seat for your riding style—wider for upright riding and narrower for lean-forward riding—and making that work for you for the terrain you ride on.
You can also save yourself a lot of pain with proper seat adjustment. If you’re having knee pain in the front, raise your seat higher; if knee or hamstring pain in the back, lower your seat. Also pay attention to the seat angle. Too much forward tilt, and you’ll feel it in your wrists, elbows and neck. Too much backward tilt, and you’ll arch your lower back and that will hurt.
5. Relax your legs.
Relax your legs on a bike ride? Absolutely. Your cadence (how fast you pedal) and your power (how hard you pedal) determine how exhausted your legs feel after a ride. Both of these are influenced in part by your gearing.
If you’ve got low MTB gearing but you’re on the open road, you’ll be spinning your pedals at an absurdly high cadence and wishing you had a higher gear.
On the other hand, if you’ve got high gearing but you’re going up a mountain of a hill, you’ll be standing on the pedals all the way and wishing you had a granny gear.
So when you’re deciding where you want to ride, keep in mind that your gearing should match your intent.
Bottom line… have enough gears and the range of gearing for your intended use, and know when to shift for comfort. With today’s index shifting, it’s easier than ever.
6. Look for adventure.
So now you’ve got a well-chosen, perfectly fitting, comfortable bike for amazing riding. Where will you go?
That depends upon how convenient your bike is to take places. If you need a specific bike car to transport your bike, or need to get a car rack out and assemble it—cinching it tight while staying clear of car sensors—then every excursion will be like a big production. You’ll have fewer of them, and less adventure with your bike.
A full-size folding bike, on the other hand, just goes in your trunk. We even know folks who keep an MTB in their car trunk, for spontaneous, pop-up adventures whenever the world outside gets interesting and inviting.
7. Walk your bike less.
If you’ve ever had a bike flat, you know exactly what we mean. And if you’ve had a flat during a remote adventure, you’re probably already looking for ways to make it never happen again.
One solution is to carry a patch kit and pump everywhere, to fix every flat. Another solution is to go tubeless; have some self-sealing goo inside your tire (like Slime or Stan’s NoTubes), carry CO2 cartridges for re-compression, and then change out the goo periodically to keep it liquid and effective.
A third approach, and one we favor for the folding MTBs we sell, is to simply insert a thick yet lightweight protective layer between your tube and tire. Tannus Armour has proven just effective with goathead thorns in the rural southwest as with broken glass in the city.
So there you have it–the keys to a comfortable, well-fitting bike that’s fun to ride, convenient to take places, and outfitted for enjoyment. What’s your next adventure?