Monday, June 29, 2009

(dis)Comfort Bike Blues

Only two weeks left until I return to the US, where the Co-Habitant, our two kitties, and our small flock of bicycles await me expectantly!

That is the good news. The bad news, is that I will not be cycling for the remainder of my stay in Austria. Apparently, I have managed to mildly injure myself by cycling too fast and too much (60-80 km rides) on a bicycle that was not designed for it. I was warned that this could happen, but my enthusiasm for the trails got the best of me and I did not heed the warnings. Now I need to take a break and heal completely, if I want to be able to cycle for the rest of the summer. Grrr.

So I guess this is Good-bye to the rental comfort bike I have been riding here for the past 2 months. We've had some good times together, but she just was not made to cope with my demands.

It's not that comfort bikes are categorically "bad" bicycles. Short trips feel marvelous, and they can handle a wide range of town and country terrain. But the longer the trip and the faster you attempt to ride, the more you begin to feel the limitations of their anatomy. Whereas the road bike is built for speed, the mountain bike for off-road use, and the Dutch-style bike for utility, the comfort bike manages to combine components of all three in a way that provides the full benefits of neither.

Clever Cycles has an excellent article that compares the anatomies of different types of bicycles and explains why comfort bikes can feel the opposite of what their name suggests:
Ergonomically, I think comfort bikes ...are sort of a disaster. They have the steep-ish seat tube angle of a mountain bike, and simply bring the bars much closer and higher... This results in a very shallow torso angle so the buttocks can’t help much with pedaling. You see riders of these bikes bobbing their torsos forward with each pedal stroke trying vainly to enlist more muscles to the aid of their smoking quadriceps. The saddles are appropriately broad to support the upright rotation of the pelvis, but all that broad tragic squishiness leads to chafing because the seat tube angle puts the pedals too nearly below the hips. A common compensation is to set the saddle too low, which only makes the other problems worse.
This describes exactly the problems I was having with the rental hybrid. At first it feels quite comfortable, as it does give you a fairly upright posture. But the longer you cycle, the more you feel that the seating tube angle, the handlebars, the space between the different parts of the bike, etc., all sort of work against you rather than for you as you attempt to go long distance, climb a hill, or pick up speed. And, if like me, you keep at it despite feeling the bike's limitations, the inevitable results are pain and possible injury.

If you are shopping for a bicycle, be aware that what are called "comfort bikes" do not have the same construction as traditional relaxed frame bicycles such as the old English 3-speeds and the Dutch-style bicycles.

It will be difficult not riding a bike for 2 whole weeks now that I've gotten so used to it! But no doubt this period of velo-abstinence will make me appreciate the bicycles waiting for me at home all the more.

15 comments:

  1. In a couple of weeks when sitting aboard your Pashley I am sure you will be feeling much better.

    I have really only ridden 2 bikes a roadster and then for 20 years a touring bike. Both were comfortable and allowed me to ride thousands of miles. I am now back with a Pashley roadster and love the ride! It seems ridiculous that bike manufactures are producing bikes with such an inadequate design as the comfort bike.

    Another major factor for me has been the Brooks B17, I have used one most of my riding life. I firmly belive that it has helped me ride great distances without discomfort. I have put in 150 mile days on it without an issue. I will not be doing those kind of distances on the Pashley but I hope the Brooks B66 I have on it (I switched out the B33) will serve me just as well.

    Get well soon!

    Best
    Nipper

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  2. Oh dear, that doesn't sound good. I'm not a fan of comfort and trekking bikes myself, and haven't used them extensively. Well, at least you have lovely bikes waiting for you in Boston. That should compensate for the inconvenience.

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  3. Having only begun cycling this April after a 12-year hiatus, I was fairly new to all of the distinctions between different types of frame construction, etc., when I began riding the rental hybrid. But I am learning -- and there's nothing quite as good for learning as (bad) personal experience! Now I take things like appropriate geometry, frame size, and saddle/handlebar adjustment seriously.

    Nipper, what kind of bike was your touring bike?

    I love the feel of B66, but I am afraid to go for the unsprung B17. When I have my mixte, I am thinking to put the Flyer on it.

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  4. My bicycle for more than 20 years has been a Dawes Super Galaxy. It features a 531ST steel frame, made in England with the original Galaxy frame geometry. Nothing like today's Galaxies. It came with Shimano kit and was rebuilt a couple of times using similar parts. I replaced the saddle with a B17 which was perfect for the relaxed sporting frame using randonneur drop handle bars. I love my B17 it fits like an old pair of shoes and I rode long rides, 900miles in 8 days that kind of thing. I was never a fast rider I just liked riding for a very long way. I always wore a vintage wool jersey and lycra shorts. In the last 10 years I have used it mostly for commuting to and from work, always in normal clothes. In that time I have become a professional musician and writer alongside my teaching and so have not had time for the long rides. My happy relationship with beer has also increased my personal luggage a little... sorry I'm rambling, just been playing ukulele with 40 people at my local pub... anyway...

    I think the B17 is wonderfully comfortable for touring with drop handlebars. If you have northroad bars (upright position) I would consider a sprung saddle, as sprung saddles better suit the upright position. The lack of springs on a B17 does not mean less comfort. Anyway, using a steel frame bike along with a good riding style are more important for long distance comfort. If you cycle over 50 miles a day, wear padded cycling underwear, I know this is not very cycle chic but long distance riding is a lot less painful that way.

    As a boy I would ride up to 50 miles a day on a 3 speed roadster in normal clothes. It had a brooks sprung saddle, but I don't know the number. I am back to that again and soon I will take the Pashley on some extended tours. In time I will also rebuild the Galaxy as it is in bits at the moment.

    I hope all that made sense I have had quite a few pints of Cotleigh Monument.

    Best
    Nipper

    Oh BTW I have a friend who is the world's best ukulele singer songwriter, he lives in Somerville and plays shows under the title 'Ukulele Noir'. His name is Craig Robertson. His website is here
    http://www.robertsonstudio.com/
    You should check him out!

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  5. I've had the Flyer for a DAY so far and am nowhere near a point where it's broken in enough to be able to judge it fairly. However, I can already say that it's a very stiff suspended seat and works perfectly with drop bars. It doesn't rob you of power, yet takes the edge off unpleasant road bumps. I think the Flyer is worth it over the B17 unless you're trying to either save weight or are going for a certain look (think Guv'nor).

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  6. Sorry to read that you can't ride for a couple of weeks but it will be worth it when you get home. I tend to agree with you on the comfort bike thing. I love my Specialized hybrid but I realize it's limitations. It does not compare with my touring bike for long distances. It's great for a 10 mile or less ride in traffic and/or wet weather but I wouldn't want to ride on it all day. (Also I've made several adjustments to it to make it work for me.)

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  7. Thank you everyone for the sympathy : )

    MDI, I will be going for the touring look on the mixte, so a sprung saddle would not be out of place. I am 95% decided on the Flyer at this point, but your experience with it will factor into the decision as well.

    Nipper, I like Dawes and have been admiring Charlotte's (Chic Cyclist) bike. But from what I can tell, Dawes never produced a proper "mixte", where the top tubes extend past the seating tube. Am I wrong about that? (Regarding Ukulele Noir: Wow...)

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  8. I am sure you will go through riding withdrawal these next two weeks-- but, yes, imagine how wonderful it will be when you get your lovely Pashley. Get healed quickly.

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  9. I'm impressed with all the really lovely bikes you come upon. It is rare that I see really beautiful bikes. Most here are flashy, mountain bikes, covered with mud and grime. Very little grace. I hope you'll be back in the saddle soon.

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  10. Sorry to hear it. I'm sure your Pashley will be much more comfortable than any so-called "comfort bike." My least-favorite comfort bike feature is the highly-padded bike seat - nothing could be less comfortable during a long ride. Give me a Brooks any day!

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  11. Oh, please do not even mention the words "padded saddle"!... The hybrid had a heavily padded vinyl saddle with springs. After 2 hours on the bike, my derriere would sink so low into the padding, that I could feel those springs, and not in a good way. Here's to Brooks!

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  12. I'm not a technocrat - I just like riding my bicycles. But I do pay attention to important technical information. I do agree that a hybrid is bad for the bod. Many years ago I wanted one because those men's mountain bikes were the only thing out there and they didn't work for me. My man, who is a technocrat - wouldn't allow me to get a hybrid (the other option at the time) - I need to thank him for that. His arguments against these bicycles were exactly what you are having issues with - sadly you have just validated his argument :p. I really do have him to thank though because at heart, he had my comfort and long term health in mind.

    Though as you know my Pash is great, it too is built for a certain purpose. We are still getting to know each other, but I know what my body tells me. I love, love, love, my fast lovin' lycra Trek WSD for my really long hauls and going fast - I had it fit to my body and it is the absolute best bicycle I have ever had, but one really does not wear normal clothes on it or leave it at a bicycle rack - that's just silliness. For tooling around the hood in my everyday attire, the Pash is perfect. Circumstance does not allow me to find the perfect seat this year, and I'm new to the Brooks world, so it will take time to get to know my seat. I simply find that after biking sportier bicycles for most of my adult life, the Pash is of course different - aka not the same. And that takes some time to sort out mentally and physically. Not bad or good, just a change.

    Bicycles are as individual as we all are - so we will each find what works for us.

    Enjoy your remaining time in Europe!

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  13. Thanks for this comment Sigrid. I was pretty naive about all of these things when I started cycling (only 3 months ago!), and the comfort bikes feel so deceptively good for the first few minutes you are on them. I also had not anticipated that I would love fast cycling -- that I would even be physically able to go on these half-day rides. So it just did not occur to me that speed and distance would become an issue.

    I got the Pashley for urban transportation and for slow country rides. At the time, I did not think that I could ever want or need anything else. Having discovered this unexpected love for the sporty side of cycling is what led me to get the Motobecane, and to leave the original drop bars and clips unaltered. Will test it out in less than a week!

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  14. Filigree~ Thanks for pointing to this entry:) I do love the hybrid i have now but because it doesn't have a step through frame its not as uncomfortable as the Trek or Giant "women" bikes where I felt so squished.

    I am trying to patiently wait for the Pashleys to arrive here so I can test ride one:) But then again we also found our dream sofa last night so I will regardless have to wait on the bike until Spring:) Will just give me something to look forward to over the winter though

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  15. Wow! You just answered my big question about my bike problems. I thought, since I was bored and it's too cold to bike, I would read some back articles.

    All this time I had been blaming the discomfort of my bike on post pregnancy changes in my hips. But after following your link, it makes more sense that this is the problem. After the baby was born our circumstances changed and I needed to bike more than I had previously. I would bet the problem is my frame geometry, since the linked article pretty much exactly describes my problem, and my bike.

    Darn. Now what am I going to do?

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