Customize your bike – think outside the same old frame

I love bikes and I want everyone to experience the joy, freedom as well as ecological and health benefits of bicycles. Over the years, I’ve realized that the standard bicycle designs aren’t comfortable for me — they make biking harder than it has to be and sometimes they’ve caused me pain. So I’ve gradually customized, rebuilt and re-designed my bike to overcome these problems. Through this 15 year process, I’ve finally come up with what (at least for me) is the “perfect bicycle.” It isn’t an expensive bike — you can do this stuff with cheap or old bikes. Last summer I biked 4,000 miles across the USA on this bike — I was comfortable the whole way and finished the trip fast, in only 50 days. Of course, everyone is different so all of these suggestions might not work for you. But if you’re riding a bike that you haven’t customized, if you’re experiencing pain while biking, or if biking seems hard to you, you may want to try some of these suggestions and see if they help.

1. Raise your handle bars

Most of the bikes sold in stores are designed for racing even though most people use their bikes for pleasure riding or just getting around town. That means that the handle bars on most bikes are so low that the rider is crouched over when touching the handle bars. This is supposedly good because the rider has less wind-resistance this way. The problem is, this posture is ridiculously uncomfortable and unnatural if you’re just trying to get around on your bike. When you’re bent over like this, your head is looking at the ground unless you twist your neck backwards to look ahead. Your lungs are crunched up so they can’t expand fully so you can’t breathe easily. A lot of weight rests on your wrists and arms and hands which can cause strain. Your back is bent funny which can hurt your back.

So you see a lot of riders with low handles bars trying to avoid these problems by sitting straight up and either not touching the handle bars at all or just touching them lightly with one finger. I wondered what would happen if I just put tall handle bars on the bike so I could easily hold onto the handle bars while at the same time sitting up straight.

My first bike tour with tall handlebars — 700 miles from Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco — was in 1995. Since then I’ve happily biked with tall handlebars almost every day, including many thousands of miles touring and around town biking. I’ve never felt like I wanted to be more aerodynamic — after all, you can always crouch down if you need to once you have tall handlebars. What you find out is that you never feel the need to do so.

It is easy to make this transition. You can buy tall handlebars at most bike stores. If they don’t have any, ask them to order them — my favorite brand for steel bars is Wald. Sometimes they’re called “ape hangers” — they look like bars for a chopper motorcycle. You want the bars to be tall enough so that you can sit straight up in the seat — that means about 6-10 inches on most bikes. You can achieve some rise by installing a really tall stem on your bike, but it is easier and cheaper to just buy funny bars.

Once you put on the new bars, you’ll have to lengthen the brake and gear cables that were attached to your older handle bars, and you may have to buy new brake levers and shifters if you had “drop” handlebars. Many bike stores sell used brake levers and shifters for $5-$10. I usually save the longer cables from the back brake and derailer and use them for the front brake and derailer — that means you have to buy two new cables and maybe 10 feet of brake and derailer housing. The whole transition takes about an hour and will cost $30 or so if you do the work yourself.

2. Get a noseless seat

The problem with regular bicycle seats — even fancy ones with holes cut out of them — is that much of your body’s weight rests on a part of the body that doesn’t carry weight in any other human activity, and is thus not evolved to carry weight. This area between your genitals and your anus is called the perineum. In theory, when you ride you’re supposed to put your weight on your “sit-bones” and avoid putting pressure on this area. In reality, it is hard to avoid putting any pressure on the perineum — if you don’t pay attention, you quickly slide on the seat and put pressure there.

For years, I would get sore and sometimes numb in my genitals if I biked a lot. I tried lots of different seats to try to make this better — I figured some discomfort was normal and just a necessary part of biking as much as I do. But getting a sore butt doesn’t have to be part of biking if you get a noseless seat. The one I rode on my 4,000 miles cross-USA trip was a $30 Easyseat from Hobson seats. Not only didn’t I have even the slightest bit of pain on that long bike ride, but I was able to bike without thinking about my ass at all.

It turns out that humans have a major blood vessel and nerves that run along the perineum. That there is some evidence that when regular bike seats compress this area, men can experience loss of erectile function. This area is also sensitive for women. Some bicyclists deny that bike seats can cause sexual dysfunction and claim that people who have problems are just sitting wrong or that the benefits of exercises and increased heart health cancel out any problems caused by damage to the perineum.

By using a nose-less seat, you don’t have to choose — you can keep the heart health, avoid numbness and (possible) damage, and in any case avoid pain. I can’t say for certain that I lost sexual function because of injuries caused by regular bike seats. I can say that for whatever reason, I noticed an improvement in function after I switched to the Easyseat. And in any case, avoiding pain and numbness are rewards enough.

A noseless seat takes getting used to and doesn’t seem to work well if you’re crouched over because you have low handlebars. So if you want to try an Easyseat, you have to raise your handlebars first. When you put on the noseless seat, you’ll feel a bit less stable for the first 2-4 weeks — sort of a sensation of always sliding forward off the seat — and then suddenly you’ll feel just fine and notice no loss of stability or control. With an Easyseat, you’re holding more of your weight on your legs — which eventually feels very natural since you’re used to holding up your weight on your legs when you’re walking. For stability, you balance with your hands. At first I was worried I would strain my wrists because of this feeling, but since you’re using your hands for balance, not to support your weight, it doesn’t seem to be a problem after you get used to it.

When you first install the seat, you have to experiment with how far it is tilted forward — too much and you slide off, too little and the backs of your legs hit the seat when you peddle. But when you get it right, it is an amazing feeling of freedom and comfort. It makes you wonder what the world would look like if kids started out riding on a noseless seat — they would get used to it when they learned to ride a bike so it would never feel strange. It is unfortunate that you can’t currently buy a bike with an Easyseat pre-installed.

3. Adjust your seat height

The main thing to look out for is whether your seat height is correct — your knee should be just slightly bent on the down stroke. Riding with the seat too low means you lose power and you’ll hurt your knee. Even though this is an easy thing to get right — for many bikes you don’t even need a tool to adjust your seat height — this is the most common problem I see when I’m out biking around. I want to tackle people I see riding by with absurdly low seats and adjust it correctly.

4. Get some gears & learn to use ‘em

If you were driving a car, would you start out from a stop sign in fifth gear? Would you try to go down the freeway in first gear? Would you buy a car that only had one gear? Would you treat your only set of knees worse than you treat a disposable car?

Gears for bikes make biking easier — you can go up hills without working too hard or go fast on a flat stretch of road. You don’t need fancy gears although it is great to have a “granny” gear — a very small third chain ring on the front derailer that can make going up even the steepest hill easy. The goal with gears is to keep the number of times you turn over the peddles per minute — your cadence — about even at all times. That means you start in a low gear and shift up as you speed up. If you hit a hill, you shift down.

I mention this not just because people don’t use gears they have, but because fixed gear bikes are getting so popular. If riding a fixie is fun for you, then go for it. But for the average cyclist, for moving groceries and riding over a lifetime protecting your knees, gears are pretty reasonable.

5. Put on a bike rack and take off your backpack

Bikes are ideal to carry around loads — from groceries to books to kids. Let the bike — not your spine — carry the load. You can cheaply install a bike rack and use removable panniers (cloth bike bags) or you can install a basket or a milk crate and put your backpack in there. Carrying a backpack on your back while you’re biking, rather than putting the bag on the bike makes biking harder and can hurt you. When you carry a backpack, the weight is carried on your spine, your ass, your legs and arms, straining all of them. Your skin under the backpack can’t breathe and gets sweaty. Yuck. The bike doesn’t notice when you put weight on it, so let it carry that stuff for you.

In my next article for “advanced” bike maniacs, I’ll discuss bike trailers for hauling cement, lumber, manure, sound systems, etc.

6. Pump up your tires!

Riding on under-inflated tires increases friction, making biking slower and more difficult, and means you’ll get more flat tires. It is so easy to properly inflate your tires and it makes a massive difference.

7. Decorate & add noise makers

Okay, this won’t make it physically easier to bike, but it will make it feel easier because you’ll be surrounded by a joyful, great looking ride. A bell or horn isn’t just for using when a driver cuts you off — its primary use is for spontaneous ringing because you feel fantastic. You can also greet other cyclists this way and spread the joy. They’ll wonder “do I know her . . .?” You can decorate your bike with stickers, paint, fake fur, flags, plastic or real flowers, shiny stuff, toys, stuffed animals, lights, etc. etc.

Let a thousand bicycles bloom!

In my experiments of trying different bike designs, bike stores have been pretty unhelpful and dismissive, telling me things I was trying wouldn’t work or would be uncomfortable — when they had never actually tried them. Experimenting with different bike designs like a mad scientist is a great metaphor for playing with different ways to live our lives in general. Not everyone needs a racing bike or a mountain bike — and not everyone needs to live in the suburbs or to be a train hopping punk kid, either. We shouldn’t have to conform our lives to the few sizes and shapes manufactured in a factory — we can build own lives — and our own bikes — to fit our own unique shape, size and uses.