The Ergonomics of Riding a Bike

Ergonomisches Fahrradfahren – stelle dein Fahrrad optimal ein_2
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From the ages of 14 to 25, I rode BMX. Don’t worry, this article is about all bikes. BMX biking involved doing a lot of things with my body that had athletic benefits, but at a price. The bikes are designed for maximum maneuverability, and many sacrifices were made in terms of ergonomics. My cycling position changed constantly throughout the course of a session, and I used a hard plastic seat with so little cushioning on it that a church pew looked like a La-Z-Boy.

It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a BMX bike, but my body doesn’t care. My spine aches from doing mundane things, and I lean forward a lot when sitting. I’ve since looked into how to make riding a bike much more ergonomic, and the following article goes through various aspects of what I’ve learned to help riders of all styles: from the recreationalist to the all-day athlete.

To ride a bike – back in the saddle again

The old adage goes that you want to invest heavily in everything that separates you from the ground. It’s not just for shoes, car tires, and beds, but also for your bike seat. Let’s start with the seat itself. Have you every ridden a bike with a hard, narrow seat that was built for speed? If so, you probably understand why a lot of people racing on road bikes hardly sit.

Those seats seem to mainly serve two functions: aerodynamics and overall weight reduction of the bike. However, these seats do not distribute your weight over a wide area, generally having a negative effect on ergonomics. One small part of your bottom is being asked to support your weight, creating a pressure point that can lead to future back problems as well as overall discomfort during the ride.

Now that you have the right seat, consider its ergonomic position. The right height for you can be determined easily. Simply have one crank arm at the six-o’clock position and put the ball of your foot on the pedal as though you were riding the bike (Use the other leg on the ground for stability or use a wall to assume a cycling position). If your leg has a slight bend, just a bit beyond standing erect, then the seat height is desirable.

The way of the handlebar

Regardless of what style of handlebar you use, you’re going to want to make sure you’re not stretching for the grips, nor do you want them too close. This is determined by the length of the frame. If you’re a recreationalist looking to be in a comfortable cycling position, you’re going to want to make sure that you get a frame that feels natural. If you’re a racer, then your cycling position is much more aggressive; finding the right frame is best determined by a professional at a bike shop. For the cyclist who races, handlebars are just as important as a seat because you’re depending on the handlebars to support your weight more so than other cyclists. For all cyclists, you want your seat to be slightly higher than your handlebars (3 to 4 inches).

The frame game

There are many unique frames these days that change the rules for ergonomics. Consider the cycling position taken on a recumbent cycle. Not only do these cycles hold some quick speed records, but they’re one of the most ergonomic options out there. The cyclist sits back in a position on par with a good theater seat. For the more traditional frame, everything to do with ergonomics is in the triangle formed by the three points of contact: handlebars, crank, and seat. Any bike shop worth its salt will allow a test ride to see if the bike feels right for the rider.

Honor thy crank

The crank of the bike can easily be overlooked, but when it comes to your cycling position, it’s just as important as everything else mentioned. Just to get this out of the way, beware the one-piece crank. One-piece cranks are common on bikes at supercenters and older bikes. They tend to not be as smooth or as strong as their three-piece counterparts.

So find a crank with arms that are helping you get the most efficiency out of your pedal while fostering your cycling position. You don’t want a crank that is so long it throws your knees into your stomach, but you also don’t want it so short that you’re not using your entire leg to pedal. For mountain bikers, ground clearance also needs to be taken into account.

If you’re a racing cyclist, then you’re probably looking for maximum efficiency. However, if you’re using a bike as a way to get around, consider sacrificing some efficiency for comfort.

Alpe-D'Huez,France- July 18, 2013: The Dutch cyclist Robert Gesink from Belkin Pro Cycling Team climbing the difficult road to Alpe-D'Huez, during the stage 18 of the edition 100 of Le Tour de France 2013.
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How you ride a bike

Cycling positions vary for different types of riders. Essentially it comes down to the aims of individual riders. Some are going for power and speed, while others aim for comfort. Consider the following:

  • Athletic Cycling Position: Your back should have a slight arch to it, but you’re mainly keeping parallel to the ground. Avoid hunching. Keep your shoulders pointed forward and your hips back.
  • Comfortable Cycling Position: You want to start out by making sure your butt is fully on the seat while your arms still have a slight bend. Never ride a bike with a straight back (it’s too hard on the spine).

Becoming a more ergonomic cyclist isn’t something that takes a lot of time, it’s something that gives time. Having a healthy back is just as important as your cardiovascular health; I’d argue the two go hand in hand. Once you get to a point where you’re riding a bike more ergonomically, consider making slight improvements to your pedals and grips by finding the most comfortable ones for you. The nice thing is, once you have everything adjusted properly with the right parts, ergonomic cycling will be completely natural. And remember to stay safe out there, and maintain visibility cycling on the road.

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