By Stan Purdum
You may one day head out for a ride only to discover that the bicycle fit that was ideal for you for years may not be so ideal now.
This realization may come on suddenly or gradually, but it’s a fact of cycling life.
And aging is not the only reason. Writing recently in Adventure Cyclist, Nick Legan, that publication’s technical editor, said, “With increased fitness, a bike that was once comfortable can start to feel cramped. Likewise, with more miles under your belt, the more ‘seasoned’ your seated area will be. This may affect your saddle choice.”
But, of course, increased fitness doesn’t negate changes that injury, weight fluctuations, diminished flexibility and aging can bring, all of which can affect bike fit. Legan added “Bicycle fit, like many things in life, evolves; it’s not a fixed set of measurements.” (italics added)1
I’m Not the Man I Used to Be
I canaffirm that statement from recent personal experience, but it took me by surprise. Though now that I think about it, it shouldn’t have. I’m 71 and have noted bodily changes throughout my life to this point. I currently weigh about 15 pounds more than I did at age 21, and in between then and now I have sometimes weighed more than that.
I’m an inch shorter than I was then, and over my adult years my feet have grown a full shoe size. (I sometimes wonder if that inch in height I lost somehow slipped around my ankles and added itself to my foot length!) And, I’m somewhat less physically flexible than I use to be.
This year, after several months of frustrating experimentation necessitated by pain I’d not had before in the seat area of my anatomy, I finally figured out that I now need to set my saddle height three-quarters of an inch lower, a half-inch more forward, and rotated a few degrees right of center.
And all of this on the same bicycle I had been riding comfortably for 10 years.
Surgery Was Probably a Factor
The probable precipitating factor was that last June, it became necessary for me to have prostate surgery, a situation caused neither by illness nor, as far as I know, cycling, but simply because of being an older man. And, by all the usual measures, the procedure was successful. I emerged from it with full functions, and I can pee like a 30-year-old again.
The surgeon advised me to wait two months before returning to cycling, which I did. But when I started riding again, I had enough discomfort in the saddle that I kept cutting my rides short. I had no discomfort at all when not on the bike.
My saddle is a classic Brooks B-17, which is a leather saddle I’ve been using for years. Unlike many saddles, it has no perineal cutout down its center line, and it eventually occurred to me that, with the prostate gland being located where it is on the anatomy, such a slot might be beneficial. So, using a utility knife, I cut a slot in the Brooks, and the relief that provided on subsequent rides was significant.
So adding the slot was the right thing to do, but once freed from the pain directly beneath the prostate, I became aware that I had unrelenting discomfort in the left groin as well, which seemed unlikely to be related to the surgery.
Our Bodies, They Are A-Changin’
Long story short: Though that pain felt like it was caused by contact between my body and the saddle, I finally concluded, after long test rides using three other saddles and many different combinations of saddle height, setback, tilt and rotation, that the problem was a complaining muscle in that region of my body and not a fault of the saddle itself.
I’m now back on the Brooks, using the new settings I mentioned above. I’m not quite as comfortable on the saddle as I used to be, but close enough that I can now ride again without thinking about the seat.
I have no complete explanation for what happened. Normally, saddle rotation, which is something I needed to add to my setup, is done to compensate for one of a rider’s legs being longer than the other, and I’m pretty sure the prostrate procedure didn’t change the length of either of my legs. Aside from adding the cutout, lowering the seatpost brought the most relief, but why? Have I lost more height? And if so, was it just coincidental with the surgery?
The moral of my story, I think, is that our bodies do change, and sometimes enough that the changes affect bicycle fit. Though I have known that, I resisted lowering my seatpost through most of the other experimentation I did. Somehow, I couldn’t quite conceive of saddle height suddenly being a problem after years of the old height being right. But when I finally tried it, the relief was instantaneous.
So yeah, Legan has it right: “Bicycle fit, like many things in life, evolves; it’s not a fixed set of measurements.”
1 Nick Legan, “Touring Bike Buyer’s Guide,” Adventure Cyclist, April 2017, 14.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.