March 29, 2013
Whether you're riding on gravel roads, or simply a rough stretch of pavement, road vibrations can take a heavy toll on your lower back, shoulders, and overall mood. Your body absorbs any vibrations that your bike puts out through the three contact points you have with your bike. These contact points are your hands, feet, and derriere. To help smooth things out, here are a couple tweaks and upgrades you can make on your bike.
An inexpensive fix is to simply give your bar tape some additional padding. There are a few products out there, such as the Aztec Vibewrap, which work really well, and hit the key pressure points on your bars. You can also double wrap your bars with two sets of bar tape. If you're going to do this, use your older tape underneath, and try to concentrate the additional padding in areas where you grip the bars most often. Wearing padded gloves can further dampen vibrations, and improve grip on the bars.
Another quick fix with the handlebars is to simply raise them up a few centimeters. It can give you a more stable handling position, which allows your upper arms, shoulders, and back to absorb the bumps more efficiently.
Spending a lot of time on bumpy roads can do a number on your feet. If I'm going to head out on a gravel road ride, I always grab the mountain bikes shoes, which have more flexible soles than my road shoes. To improve comfort even further, the first thing I do whenever I get new mountain bike shoes is to toss the stock insoles, and replace them with a thicker insole. For nearly the past decade, I've been a huge fan of Superfeet insoles.
If there's one part of the body cyclists complain about the most in terms of comfort, this is it. Padded cycling shorts and a good saddle are a great start, but in my experience, I've found that a good bike fit trumps all. If position on the bike is way off, you're sit bones aren't going to be hitting your saddle properly, and you could be putting too much pressure on your seat. If you're experiencing a lot of discomfort, it's worth checking in with your bike shop to see if they do bike fits.
Your tires are your bike's contact point to the road surface, so there's a lot you can do there to help smooth the road out. As far as the tires are concerned, wider tires will spread out the contact surface, which will absorb more vibration. Lower tire pressure will also help, but unless you're riding tubular tires, or a tubeless setup, you want to be cautious of pinch flats. As far as the wheels are concerned, wider rims can help spread the footprint of your tire out a bit, but more importantly, you want to find something with a two or three cross spoke pattern. By lacing the spokes in a crossed pattern, you allow them to flex a little more, providing a softer ride.
TOURING GEAR & TIPS is written by Joshua Tack of Adventure Cycling's member services department. It appears weekly, highlighting technical aspects of bicycle touring and advice to help better prepare you for the journey ahead. Look for Josh's "Fine Tuned" column in Adventure Cyclist magazine as well.