Why are road bikes a problem?
With cycling being said to be “the new golf” on account of so much British Olympic and Tour de France success, many people are treating themselves to a new road bike to replace the heavy and rusty mountain bike that has occupied their garage for years.
However, road bikes are low, long and racy and require you to crouch low, reach ahead and look up. Compared to the upright riding position of a mountain bike, road bikes require some degree of contortion and with that can come a new joy – neck pain.
Causes of neck pain
Mountain and utility bikes tend to have their handlebars at the same height as the saddle, or even a little higher, so that your riding position is relatively upright. This keeps the upper part of the spine fairly straight as you don’t need to crane your head up to see where you’re heading. The upright position and shorter reach to the handlebars also means your bottom carries more of your weight.
Road bikes, with their much lower bars and longer reach, cause you to bend much more at the hips, so that you really have to crane your neck to see ahead. Much more of your weight is also transferred to the arms, putting tension on the shoulders and upper back. Excessive reach and weak muscles are the causes of this type of neck pain.
When I started cycling a bit more seriously, an author of a training book described cyclists as resembling “walking question marks” on account of their terrible postures.
Of course, as a teenager, I took little notice of this but 25 years later I’ve had to take steps to resolve the neck pain triggered by longer bike rides, long drives and long periods at a keyboard, all of which tend to induce a slumped position. The spine as a whole is designed to take a nice S-curve, not resemble a question mark and poor posture at any point can cause pain elsewhere, since the whole structure is designed to work as one.
So aside from taking the steps that follow to ensure your bike set-up is correct, please be sure to apply the same discipline to your working life by reading this blog: Don’t let work be a pain in the back.
These steps are generalised and may not be perfect for everyone but are good rules of thumb. If they adversely affect the handling of your bike or your neck pain isn’t helped, it might be worth visiting a bike shop for a measured ‘bike fit’ (around £100) or seeing a physiotherapist with an expertise in cycling such as the people at Fit for Purpose in Skipton, who set me on the right track. If you don’t live nearby, somewhere offering similar services will be closer to home.
Reach to the handlebars depends partly upon the drop in height in relation to the saddle, partly upon the size of frame your bike has, and partly upon the length of the stem that holds them.
This should be in the range of 6-8cm below the saddle, the variance depending upon your height and the flexibility of your hamstrings, pelvis and lower back. This latter point can be determined by checking whether you can touch your toes with your fingertips, knuckles or palms – or not at all, of course.
Let’s get saddle height set correctly. Sitting on your bike, wearing socks, with your heels on the pedals and using a wall to steady yourself, your leg should be straight when the pedals are at their lowest point. If you need to tip your body or pelvis to the side to reach the pedal, the saddle is too high. Make sure your saddle is as near to horizontal as possible too, as, if it’s tilted forward, it’ll tip your weight forward onto your arms, creating tension.
Now you can measure the height of the saddle from the floor. To achieve the 6-8cm drop in height from the top of the handlebars, you may need to have the stem flipped over or buy one with a different angle. Ask a bike shop to do this for you if you’re not sure how, or how tight the bolts need to be.
In short, if you’re looking at a bike where the saddle needs to be set at its lowest in order for you to climb aboard, it’s far too big for you. This means that the top tube will be too long as well, lengthening your reach. This is the key measurement. Seek the advice of your bike shop, but a rough guide to frame size would be –
If you’re around 5’5″ to 5’7″, choose a 50-52cm top tube length.
If you’re around 5’7″ to 5’9″, choose a 52-54cm top tube length.
If you’re around 5’9″ to 5’11”, choose a 54-56cm top tube length.
Handlebar stems used by professional cyclists tend to be longer than regular riders but don’t try to copy them unless you’re naturally flexible, as they have access to daily physiotherapy. Assuming the correct top tube length, a stem of 8-10cm will be about right for most recreational cyclists on a road bike.
Exercises to warm up the muscles of the neck before heading out on your ride can help prevent neck pain, whereas stretches afterwards can help release tension that has built up.
- Dropping your chin very slightly from looking straight ahead, rotate your head slowly so that you’re looking over your right shoulder and down at the floor at a point about 2m away. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the left side. Do this 3 times.
- Roll your shoulders backwards for 30 seconds.
- Whilst standing and looking straight ahead, jut your head back slightly and push your tongue into the roof of your mouth. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat twice more.
Post ride exercises
- Whilst standing, look down 45 degrees and turn your head halfway to one side. Place your hand on that side onto the top of your head and allow the weight of your arm to pull your head a little further whilst dropping the opposite shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do this twice more.
- Use your knuckles to massage any tight areas of the neck whilst in the shower. Let the shower pour onto the muscles of the neck, preferably using the ‘massage setting’ on the shower head if you have one.
Neck pain remedies
Once out of the warm shower, apply some Atrogel, massaging firmly with the finger tips for 30 seconds and you should find your neck pain greatly eased. Eat well, sleep with a single pillow to keep the spine at a natural angle and look forward to the next day exploring the countryside!
If you are experiencing lower back pain whilst cycling please see my blog – Lower back pain when cycling.