Humans weren’t designed to ride bikes; for starters we were created to have our feet on the ground. Cycling completely changes the weight distribution through your muscles and spine, but also bends the back and neck into an unnatural position.
The neck in particular must compensate so that you can see where you are going. In a poor riding position this can be quite extreme; like standing and staring up into space for hours on end; it’s no wonder neck muscles can get tired and irritated.
If you are experiencing a few niggles and aches on long rides, chances are they can easily be resolved with position adjustments, long before they become a runaway problem.
Look on the bright side — it’s unlikely your case is as bad as that of Michael Shermer. While tackling the arduous 3,000 mile, Race Across America, Shermer’s neck muscles became so fatigued they simply failed and he was no longer able to hold his head up at all. His team had to construct a makeshift brace from bungee cords to restrain his head in a position that enabled him to see where he was going, to enable him to carry on to the finish.
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An extreme example indeed, to the extent that ‘Shermer’s Neck’ is now an officially recognised term used to describe this ailment.
Prevention: your position
Thankfully the human body is extremely versatile and with some consideration for position, through correct bike sizing and set-up, cycling should be a comfortable and pain-free experience. Let’s not forget that cycling is one of the most ‘body friendly’ forms of physical exercise.
The video above shows some exercises that can help treat and prevent neck pain, off the bike. But it’s fairly clear cut that your riding position directly affects the alignment of your neck and spine, in particular, your handlebar position and set-up is crucial.
Making changes to your handlebar position to prevent or correct problems is really simple as alterations in this area of the bike are easily achieved without needing lots of mechanical know-how. Changes can be made to the bike quickly and relatively cheaply with an almost immediate remedial effect.
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A primary concern is excessive reach to the bars, causing the neck to be permanently ‘craned’ or hyper-extended. This can be a combination of not just how far the handlebars are from the saddle, but also how low down they are.
Altering handlebar position
You might only need to make one of these adjustments to have the desired effect, but it’s more likely that a combination of several will achieve a better result.
Increasing handlebar height
Stem spacers: modern threadless stems limit how much up and down movement is available, as they clamp directly to the fork steerer. To achieve the maximum height, all the spacers can be put them all beneath the stem, positioning it at its highest point on the steerer.
*Mechanic’s note: don’t go too far. The top of the stem should only be a maximum of a couple of millimetres above the top of the steerer tube for your safety.
Stem angle: if you cannot gain sufficient height with spacers then a positive rise stem, one that points upwards, is an alternative or additional method. The angle at which the stem rises can be varied as several are available to give more or less rise. Some stems allow you to actually adjust the angle of rise yourself to find an optimum position.
Adaptors: if neither of these methods provides sufficient change, then specific stem designs and/or adaptors are available to extend the height much further, but when these are necessary it is questionable whether the bike is suitable for your needs in the first instance.
Stem length: reducing the length of the stem will bring the bars closer to the saddle, shortening the reach of the bike accordingly. As with the angle, several sizes are available, so there should be no real difficulty in getting the bars where you want them with the correct combination of length and angle.
Mechanic’s note: before you make a drastic change, that is a big step from what you are currently using, check with your local shop that what you’re intending to do will not have any adverse effect on the way the bike will ride and handle. Certain extreme adjustments could make the bike less stable to ride.
Lever position: even with your handlebars in the right position there is still the question of where to position the levers. Within reason, positioning the brake lever hoods slightly higher will encourage a more upright riding position, as you will spend a considerable amount of time riding with your hands here.
Mechanic’s note: don’t go too high as you may struggle to reach the brake levers from the lower part of the bars.
‘Compact-drop’ handlebars. Compact-drop bars reduce the distance from the upper part of the bar to the lower portion, and for that reason are also sometimes called ‘shallow drop’ bars. What it means is that the change in position from one to the other is less pronounced, enabling the rider to use more of the different hand positions offered without causing discomfort.
Frequently the lowest part of the bar is only reserved for short, sprint-style efforts, but with a compact bar riders may find they can ride in this position, in comfort, for sustained periods.
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