In about 64 days, Mr. Grumby and I are going to start a 2,800-mile bike ride called Undaunted Porridge. You may ask yourself, “How on Earth can you be comfortable sitting on a bicycle for thousands of miles?” As you might imagine, the saddle is a non-negotiable component in the anatomy of a comfy bike. There are also a few other key ingredients that I’ve discovered over the years.
Personal History of Bike Comfort
The first time I remember riding my bike more than 30 miles was the 1997 Bridge Pedal. When I realized how much of the city I could cover in a one-day ride, I was hooked. I bought a light and fast aluminum road bike with fancy clipless pedals and became a dedicated bicycle commuter. I also joined a club and loved the 30-50 mile weekend rides.
Because I was in my late 20’s and in great shape, I was able to ignore the subtle aches and pains in my knees, wrists, and sensitive soft tissues (eek!). Now that I’m in my late 40’s, I cannot tolerate such nonsense. The anatomy of my current bicycle, the Surly Long Haul Trucker, reflects what I learned from my younger self and a bike that wasn’t a good fit.
It’s All About the Saddle
The only part of my first road bike that I still have is the saddle, an Avocet O2 Air 40W. I went through a few before I landed on this one, and I would love for it to last forever. It is about 175 mm wide at the rear (about 6.75 inches) and is the perfect width to fully support my sit bones with no pressure on the soft tissues. And the saddle’s quick transition to a long narrow nose at the front means no chafing during long rides.
Unfortunately Avocet no longer makes this perfect saddle and I hope that I’ll be able to find something similar when I replace it!
Handlebar Position and Frame Geometry
Saddle comfort is about more than just the saddle itself. It’s about being able to sit in a position that does not put pressure on sensitive soft tissues. For me, this means sitting in a relatively upright position. Leaning too far forward puts pressure in the wrong places, if you know what I mean.
The shorter top tube of the Surly LHT frame was a great start for achieving this position. I also had a steerer tube extender installed to slightly adjust the handlebars upward and toward the seat. This allows me to relax when I’m sitting, with the weight resting comfortably in my sit bones on the wide saddle. And when I reach for the handlebars, they’re close enough that my shoulders and elbows stay relaxed and there isn’t too much pressure on my hands.
As for the handlebars themselves, I have the Salsa Short & Shallow drops with added cheater brake levers. Having the dual brake levers is very helpful in preventing hand fatigue and pain while descending long hills. The cheaters are also useful for a simple slowdown during casual city rides.
When I bought the aluminum frame road bike, I was so excited about how lightweight it was. What I did not realize is that this stiff metal did little to protect my body from the shock of every little bump in the road. Now that I’m older and more persnickety, I appreciate any help my bike can give to provide a comfortable ride. The Surly’s steel frame fits the bill. If I were to compare it to car comfort I’d say riding on a steel frame is like taking a nice drive in a Lincoln Continental. And the sporty aluminum frame absorbs a rough road about as well as a Jeep Wrangler.
The Surlys that Mr. G and I ride are so comfortable, in fact, that we had no qualms about including a 21-mile gravel road on our 10-day bike trip last summer.
The other reason why that 21-mile gravel road was an enjoyable ride was that we have 2.1-inch Schwalbe Big Ben tires. They can be run from 35-55 psi, and at lower inflation act as additional shock absorbers on bumpy roads. When they’re fully inflated and on the road, they roll every bit as well as any skinnier tires that we’ve had.
I used to the use Speedplay Frog clipless pedals on both my road and mountain bikes. The sales people at the bike shop told me that they were the best pedals for those with knee problems, but I never quite loved them.
What I’ve discovered is that my knees, feet, and ankles are happiest with simple Wellgo platform pedals. The traction pins keep my feet in place just fine, and if I need to adjust my foot position to relieve fatigue or discomfort in my feet, ankles, or knees … no problem! I just shift or rotate one foot or the other and usually get instant relief.
OK. Here’s where I reveal my total lack of technical expertise. All I can tell you is that I have the stock components – a triple chainring front set and a 9-speed rear cassette. It’s perfect for climbing long and/or steep hills with a fully-loaded bike without my knees disintegrating. And I never feel like I’m over-revving when I’m in the highest gear while riding a long downhill stretch.
Mr. Grumby’s Comfy Bike
Mr. Grumby rides a larger version of the steel frame Surly Long Haul Trucker. And here are his choices for a comfy ride:
- Saddle: An awesome Brooks B17 leather saddle
- Handlebars: Velo Orange Butterfly bars, which offer great hand position options and enough real estate to bolt anything he wants to them. They are topped off with cork hand grips.
- Pedals: also the Wellgo platform pedals, but with toe cages
Comfort: It’s Personal
There are many who would read this and say that clipless pedals or toe cages are the only way to achieve maximum pedal stroke efficiency. Or that making a conscious decision to ride a heavy bike with wide tires is a ridiculous commitment to unnecessary effort. They may also scoff at the Grumbys’ saddle choices.
And that’s OK.
Comfort is a personal thing, whether you’re on a bike, walking, sitting in a chair, or standing on your head. The important things are that:
- you’re not injuring yourself
- you feel comfortable enough to smile
- and that you’re having fun!
If you have a bike, what makes it comfortable? Or what might you need to change so that you can smile while you’re riding?