When you’re paying a premium for performance, the last thing that you need after a ride is a numb butt, aching palms, and the feeling that someone twisted your back in a vise. What happened to you becoming “one” with your bike? Where is the magic between man and machine that race announcers speak of? Truthfully, although the frame itself seems to receive most of the accolades for creating this seamless connection, it’s actually the touchpoints that are most responsible. These are the points where you control your bike, sit on your bike, and transfer power to your bike. And more often than not, the touchpoints on a new bike aren’t tailored to you. But, not to fear, they’re all completely interchangeable.
Handlebars used to come in one shape, which is now called a “classic bend.” Nowadays, bars are designated by their width, reach, drop, and even by the cross-sectional shape of the bar itself. The most important measurement is width. The “standard” way to measure is to take the width of your shoulder blades and use a bar of the same dimensions. In this way, when you extend your arms forward, they rest naturally on the bars. However, if you take a close look at the peloton, there are actually two differing schools of thought: a wider bar may give you more control and leverage, and it also opens up your chest to aid breathing (Chris Horner, I’m looking at you). Conversely, narrower bars close the gap between your arms and chest, which creates a more efficient airflow around you. Regardless of the differing schools of thought, though, most riders will benefit the most from a bar that matches their body type.
Reach is the distance from the center of the bar to the outermost point on the curve of the drop. Ideally, you want your hips and legs properly aligned before you measure for reach. Having too long of a reach will pull you forward off of the saddle, while also placing excess pressure on your wrists and hands. The result of this position is numbness—not fun. Reach is combined with drop in order to dictate the bar that is correct for you. Drop is the distance from the top of the bar to the bottom of the curve. You want to be able to grip the bars securely without banging your forearms or torqueing your wrists. One of the more popular shapes has become the shallow drop bar. This allows you adequate interface with the bars, without having to lift your head too high in order to see where you’re going. Combined with a reach that balances your weight on your sit bones, proper drop leads to hours of comfort on the bike.
Finally, take a look at the shape of the bar from the top. The shape will dictate where you’re able to place your hoods. Some bars feature a slight rise so that the hoods may be placed higher, while the curve of others allow for a flat, hood-to-bar transition. This is a personal preference, however.
In addition to the physical shape of the bars, bar tape helps to fine-tune the interface between the rider and the bike. Many riders complain of numb hands after riding, even if their cockpit is customized. Padded gloves sometimes exacerbate the issue, because the padding can push on the nerves in the hand. Wrapping your bars in a tape that is both padded and grippy helps to alleviate pressure issues. Additionally, you might wish to double wrap points on your bars, such as the tops, where your hands rest most frequently. You’ll see this technique used extensively at Paris-Roubaix.
Your saddle is perhaps the most important of the touchpoints. All of your weight is situated on this small triangular object. Support your ischial tuberosity (sit bones) with a saddle that’s wide enough that the paddle sits directly under them. In general, women require a slightly wider saddle than men, although every rider is unique. Continue here to read more about selecting a women’s saddle.
It’s also important to dispel the belief that a saddle with more padding is more comfortable. In fact, a saddle that’s too padded will lead to saddle sores. It’s like hiking in shoes that are too big—blisters develop from the added friction between the shoe and the foot. The same occurs when your saddle is too soft. The softer the saddle, the more soft tissue touches it. This is why you need a saddle that features firm padding at the back, while progressively getting softer towards the nose. An alternative is a cut-away, or channel, in the saddle that decreases pressure and therefore friction.
Pedals are not often mentioned as touchpoints when talking about bike fit. Think about it, though. Sure, you sit on a saddle and control the bike via the handlebars, but neither of the other two are necessary if the bike doesn’t move. Your pedals are where power is transferred directly to the bike from your legs, so they’re probably the most important touchpoint of them all. Generally, you want a pedal that’s lightweight and stiff, but also one that features a wide platform and a generous interface with your shoe. This wider platform helps to minimize the amount of power lost in each pedal stroke.
Of course, this is simply a guide to comfort, but nothing will replace getting professionally fitted for your bike. However, if you’re starting from scratch, checkout our Fit Guide to dial-in your frame size.