The Subjective and Ever-Changing Nature of Comfort

Bryant at Sunset

Over the years I’ve gone through what seems like an endless array of different bike set-ups, from fully laid-back recumbent “high racers”, to compact drop bar racing bikes, bolt upright British roadsters, and flat bar city bikes. Despite the extreme differences in how they were set-up, during the periods when I rode those bikes I always had at least a brief time when they felt perfectly comfortable.

Humans are amazingly adaptable, and I chalk up the ability to be comfortable on such as wide variety of bikes more to that than anything. Some of the more aggressive bikes from the collection were ridden when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, which may also have a lot to do with it. There’s no doubt that youth—and the flexibility and resistance to injury that come with it—play a major role in which bikes we can and can’t ride.

As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be 50 this year), my tolerance for extreme bike set-ups has diminished.

As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be 50 this year), my tolerance for extreme bike set-ups has diminished. Racing bikes with deep drops wreak havoc on my neck, while roadsters that place me in a bolt-upright position cause problems in, ahem, “other” areas (at least on long rides). I suspect this intolerance to riding positions on the edges of the spectrum will only increase in the future. This may have something to do with the fact that a high percentage of recumbent riders are middle-aged or beyond (recumbents are known for being remarkably comfortable).

What works best for me now is a handlebar set at roughly the same height as the saddle, a medium width saddle, and a handlebar that provides multiple hand positions. For me, at this particular time, this set-up offers the best compromise and overall comfort for the variety of conditions in which I ride. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes over the coming years, and if so, in what way. The fact that I’ve gone through so many changes up to this point leads me to believe there’s likely to be many more on the horizon.

8 Responses to “The Subjective and Ever-Changing Nature of Comfort”

  • John Ferguson says:

    I’m with you, Alan. I’m about to start my 44th rotation around the sun and although my bike setups have not changed dramatically in the last 20 years I’ve noticed that I like to move around on the bike now more than I used to. I change hand positions, stand up more and move around on the saddle more than I ever have before especially on longer rides. I also take more breaks than I used to, to stretch out and loosen up my back, neck and legs. Now, if I could just afford to employ that full time masseuse I’ve been dreaming about..

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    In July I’ll be a year shy of 40 but my lower back feels much older. My bike is set up almost exactly the same as yours, though I’m always debating whether swept bars might be more comfortable than my drops for such a short commute.

    My father rides a ‘bent so perhaps I can view my future today :)

  • Brian says:

    What saddles do you use? I have a cross check set up with bars about an inch over the seat and I cannot find a comfy ride. Can you recommend any seats?

  • Doug P says:

    Call me a contrarian. I will start receiving Social Security this fall. I took out the head tube spacers on my fastest bike and lowered the bars. I also moved the saddle forward. In contrast, my ‘cross bike has the bars well above the seat, the same as my mountain bikes, as this helps keep the back wheel down on really steep singletrack. Don’t be afraid to move your bars up. You can use the drops! Try counting the riders you see riding on the drops. It is practically no one! I use the drops frequently, and it feels great.
    Bike fitting is more than a science, it is an art! Correct fitting on a bike is like musical chords, the harmony achieved is a melody where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A good fit takes into account the riding style of the rider, the bike geometry, the usual ride as to duration and terrain, and personal preference. Where one sits in relation to the BB, the chainstay length, the body proportions of the rider, and the desired riding style all must be considered in bike fitting. As Alan so correctly states, humans are adaptable and can tolerate a bad fit. That doesn’t mean we should.
    One more thing…helmets and glasses should not force the rider to raise the head too much to see forward when one is in the riding position, as that is a guarantee of neck pain.

  • Tom Thel says:

    Over the past two decades, the drops on my Novarra Randonne have migrated from two inches below the seat to two inches above. The swept-back bars that I see on many of your bikes are becoming increasingly tempting but for one issue: I am constantly moving my hands about on the drops, sometimes for comfort, sometimes for better purchase. I have been doing this since buying a Schwinn Varsity 8 in 1960. So I spend more time than I should wondering if the perceived comfort of, say Northroad bars, would be obviated for me by a limited ability to move my hands.

  • Jon Grinder says:

    Fifteen years ago, the bars on my mountain bike were 4 inches lower than the Selle Italia Flite I sat on. My road bike was about the same drop to the hoods, with the same seat.

    Now, at 50, I ride mustache bars and such, at about seat level to my Brooks B-17 (or similar) saddles on all my bikes, on road or off.

    Oddly enough, my speed hasn’t changed a lot, with the change in position, bu the comfort level and endurance have both gone up.

  • dominic furfaro says:

    Hey, glad to see another conversation about comfort and performance. A handlebar installed on three of my daily riders this past year has seen me through 4 seasons since development in 2010. Now in a patent pending phase the Rev 2 modification continues as a prototype. Alan, has posted pictures, but for those of you who want to see it for the first time go to see DIY page

    The Rev 2 has a “palm rest” top position and a “power grip” posture. One test of comfort was an uneven road every ten feet. Where holding a grip would punish the wrist, control was accomplished with a light touch of only the finger tips. Performance is always awesome and at my age 56, it feels like a whole new ballgame.

  • Alan says:


    “What saddles do you use?”

    Saddle selection is very personal, but if you have an opportunity, you should definitely try out a Selle An-Atomica Titanico. Not cheap, but by far my favorite.


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