Customise your bike
It only takes a few small adjustments to increase your comfort and improve your bike’s performance, explains Rowan Lamont.
You and your whizz-bang off-the-shelf bicycle have already shared a few adventures: bonding as you rode into that killer head wind, agonising over the first scratch from leaning your bike against a wall, and sharing a spill negotiating wet tram tracks.
It is around this time when many bike riders find their relationship with their bike starts to shift. You may have noticed how ‘familiar’ you are riding your bike, pressing the shift lever in a certain way for the derailleur to do its thing. Your friends have been talking about flash new parts and thoughts of making a few changes start to creep in. Customising your bike can be a slippery slope to spending lots of money and your evenings ogling over shiny pieces of aluminium.
There are two approaches to customising your bicycle that need not be expensive and can have a dramatic effect. The first is changing the way you and your bike fit together, and secondly changing the parts on your bicycle.
Get the basics right
Before picking up the tools or diving into a bike shop, there are some straightforward ways to customise your bicycle. Let’s start small and work up. First, give your bike some love with a good clean, degrease and lube. Not only will it look good, but it gives you a chance to check to see what is worn, stretched or in need of replacement. It also makes it easier to use a set of tools to make changes to your handlebars, stem, or saddle to tweak the riding position.
Simple maintenance such as new gear cables, brake cables and grips can be done yourself, or take it to a good mechanic to get it rolling smoothly. This alone can give your bike a new lease of life.
Bars and stem
Your body’s position on the bicycle affects how you ride, how efficiently you can pedal, and how comfortable you are. A personal bike fitting will find the optimum position on your bicycle but may be overkill if you are doing short commutes or using your bicycle for weekend rides with friends and family.
Handlebars should be a similar width to your shoulders. Narrower might be preferred if you squeeze through traffic, or a little wider helps if you are crushing a climb on your singlespeed. If they are cut too narrow the bicycle will handle like a mouse in a room full of cats; too wide and it will feel like a drunken walrus bumping into things.
Handlebars are connected to a bicycle via a stem. The height of your handlebars can be controlled by altering the spacers under the stem, or swapping the stem for one with a different angle. Lifting the height of the handlebars may help to take pressure off your lower back and wrists. It will improve your vision on the bicycle, but could make the steering less nimble. Bear in mind that lifting the handlebars will tilt your hips and affect where you feel pressure on your saddle. Dropping the height of your handle bars will put you in a more aggressive position, providing better power and steering control, but may not be comfortable for people who are less flexible.
Changing the stem for one that is longer will help stretch a rider out and put more weight towards the front wheel. A shorter stem will help a rider un-weight the front wheel, and place them in a more upright position.
Brakes and bums
Your brakes can also be tweaked to perform better. Changing the type of brake blocks or the compound of the disk brake pads to suit the type of riding you do can reduce the effort required to bring you to a stop. Some brake levers come with a set of shims that allow you to adjust the distance your fingers have to reach to the levers, which is great if you have smaller hands. Hybrids and mountain bikes have brakes that often allow the reach to be adjusted via a simple screw that moves the lever towards or away from the bars.
Nothing will improve how comfortable your bottom is like a saddle that fits! Strangely a saddle with lots of padding doesn’t always mean it will be comfortable; the most important thing to look for is one that is wide enough to support your sit-bones (the boney bits you can feel in your buttocks). Too narrow and it will crush sensitive areas and too wide it will inhibit leg movements and cause chafing.
Start with your saddle position horizontal to the ground. Some riders prefer theirs to point slightly up or down, but if it is on too much of an angle, then it is probably the wrong shaped saddle to begin with. Sliding it forward or backwards will also change where pressure is felt on your bottom and how far your body and arms need to bend in order to reach the handlebars. As a guide to saddle height, place the heel of your foot on the pedal with your leg extended. At this height, pushing with the ball of your foot, there is a slight bend in your knee when the pedal is closest to the ground. Many mountain bike riders are now using remotely adjustable seat posts that allow them to quickly drop their seat to get their body position low when riding down technical trails and then pop it back up when pedalling normally again.
Pedals and tyres
Pedals can be customised to suit your colour scheme, riding style, or efficiency. There are lots of affordable plastic pedals which look great. If you are becoming more serious, think about clipless pedals as a way of increasing comfort and efficiency.
Tyres have a huge impact on how your bicycle performs. Keeping them running at the recommended pressure will reduce rolling resistance on the road. Try lowering the pressure when the road is wet or gravelly. This is especially useful if you are riding off-road when rolling resistance doesn’t count for much and harder tyres will rattle you. A lower air pressure will provide much better grip and control. When it is time to replace worn tyres there are puncture resistant, reflective, and even colour options, as well as tread patterns to suit the type of terrain you like to ride on.
Easy does it
When making adjustments to the way your bicycle fits, keep in mind small changes make a big difference. Make incremental changes. Extend your stem by 10mm at a time or your seat by 5mm and gradually find out what works for you. It is not possible to make one change without it affecting your position in other areas. Enthusiastic riders will notice the difference when changing to a new pair of cycling shoes as thicker soles will mean they alter the saddle height, which will affect the handlebar height and fine changes will knock on through the set-up.
As you come to replace parts on your bicycle it is important to be honest about the kind of riding you are actually doing. There is no point buying super lightweight tyres just because you saw a world champion using them, if all you are really doing is cruising to work and back, nor is there any point changing your position to be comfy and upright with great views if you are training for the Scody 3 Peaks Challenge. Choose upgrades that suit you, the conditions you ride in and what you use your bike for.
Simple and low-cost changes to customise your bicycle make your bicycle unique, allow you to go further in more comfort and should ultimately make riding it even more fun.
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