Monday, February 2, 2009

Sometimes biking is a pain in the...

Riding my bike makes me feel simultaneously 4 years and 40 years old. Not that there is anything wrong with either age...but I am neither.

Does anyone out there have an issue with intense back pain after riding with a messenger bag? Even with the smallest Timbuk2 bag, after a short ride I feel as though someone has their knee firmly placed mid back. I thought that perhaps the larger bag would better distribute the weight so I changed. No such luck...same thing. I suspect that my large Trek U-lock has something to do with it, but even without the lock, it hurts some. My goal this week is to make a lock holster that I can wear with a skirt lacking belt loops (that was actually my goal last weekend...), so I am hopeful that will help. A friend of mine swears by 2 strap commuter bags, and perhaps that is what I need to do. Unfortunately, I currently have 2 messenger style bags and no budget to acquire another bag. I may pull out the old LLBean bag this week and see if it helps.

I also know that riding in bike unfriendly areas factor into my pain. When riding on a small, poorly lit road with cars zooming past, I tend to get a tension headache throughout my back and neck. This is not going to go away soon, so I need to find a way to work around it and despite it.

The subject of weight training does intrigue me. I don't ride for sport much, mainly just to get from point A to point B. I am sure that I would benefit from some specialized strength training, and am open to any suggestions you all may have. Riding is an amazing workout for my body, but I know that some muscles are not targeted. Which ones are these, and what can I do to help?

Please note that these must be able to be done in my home with free weights and/or household props. I will NOT set foot in a gym!

I am also thinking of seeing how my yoga practice helps. I used to regularly do hot yoga, but have a current mental block against it. Perhaps a combination will be just the ticket.

Anyone have any advice? Can you relate?

Side Note: This weekend was amazing for riding. This photo is of a ride I was about to take to Urban Standard for coffee. I ended up staying through lunch! I took the long route home for a few more minutes in the sun and on the saddle. (ignore the bad hair was windy and I was lazy!)


  1. i have experienced back pain with a mess bag. try raising your handle bars. i was experiencing some back pain on a new frame i just set up, i raised the handlebars and feel much better. I also try to avoid carrying a bag if i can. i leave a bunch of work cloths at the office so i can change when i get there and not have to bring my work cloths with me.

  2. Judging from the picture above (which you look great in) I don't think it matters what bag configuration you use. You're still going to have pain. The problem looks to me to be with your riding position.

    You're too stretched out. Your saddle is considerably higher than your bars. Notice how stretched your arms are in a standing position. Once you push off to ride, you are going to instinctively push you butt further back on the saddle stretching yourself out even further which places all the strain on your lower back instead of your butt.

    Try raising your bars. Or better yet, ditch the drop bars and go with a bar that is more swept back and allows you to ride in more upright position. I'm positive this change will solve your back problem and you'll gain a whole new prospective during your rides.


    I've been having some back pain just riding my bike by itself. That link will help give an idea of what may need to be changed on the bike.

    As far as baggage goes why not try hooking your bike up with a basket or Pannier or something along those lines. Might be able to carry more around then as well if needed. Though seeing as you cant afford another bag right now..something to think about.

  4. With respect to Bike Jax, I don't think swapping bars is necessary. You'd need to swap out the STI brifters for a thumb shifter/brake combo, which wouldn't be at all cheap. Basically if you can't find a comfortable position on drop bars then there's something seriously wrong with either the overall fit of the bike, your technique, or (hopefully not) your back.

    First thing I'd do is check that your saddle height is correct. Most people say that you should have a slight bend in your knee when the pedal is at its furthest point and your foot is placed on the pedal correctly (front half of foot near the ball of the foot, not the arch). For a more accurate fit, measure your leg from the heel to the crotch and add an inch (things compress a bit when you sit!) and then measure from the pedal spindle to the center of your saddle. If the second measurement is longer than the first (plus that extra inch), your saddle is too high and that'll be hurting your lower back and hips over time.

    Once that's sorted, if symptoms persist see if your bike store can replace your existing stem with a shorter one that has a greater angle (so that it lifts the bars up while not pushing them out so far in front of you).

    You could also rotate the bars upward a little more so that the hoods come back toward you a little bit.

    The only other thing that I can think of is that the bag is sitting right in the small of your back and you'r bending your back to accommodate it. Try adjusting the strap length to move it further up or down.

  5. i know nothing about riding, bags, etc. but i think stronger core helps decrease back pain in general. and yoga helps with the tension thing & back pain as well. just add in a few classes each week in your free time. :) i recommend there is a monthly fee of $9.99 (i think) for unlimited yoga & pilates classes online. there's a wide variety to choose from. it's the only way i've been able to do y & p from home with some regularity. haven't tried to do any strength training at home. i like going to the gym.

  6. Thanks everyone, for all of your help.
    Matt-I probably need to start leaving more stuff at work. With heels and things, it is a bit hard to leave a bunch of stuff. But I do carry more than I need to. and a saddle bag for my pump and spare tube may be a good idea.
    Simon, I did the measurements you said and the second was much shorter (maybe too short?), so that doesn't seem to be the issue. I really appreciate knowing how to measure that though. It will certainly come in handy!
    I am hoping not to have to replace my stem, so I think I will borrow a friend's rack for a little while to see if that helps. I actually have a pannier so all i need is the rack. Krista, that trunk is awesome and I may need to put that into my bike budget soon! wow.
    Charlotte-I may try that yoga program, it does sound really good and I could do it at home. I have some sort of strange block against going back to hot yoga, even though I know i will feel great if I just do it...

  7. i have been riding cycles for over 55 years.. (road bikes like yours, mtn. bikes and beach cruisers) yep that could make me old.. but im not.. or not at least in my head.. but it also gives me a few miles on a saddle.. now dont shoot me.. just an idea.. get rid of mick and get a bike with rack and basket (like an amserdam style, see electra bikes).. then have it re-geared.. most normal 3-spd bikes either amsterdam type or fat tire, have a 44 tooth front chainring.. i have changed most of the 9 fat tire cruisers we have to 36 tooth.. (fun not pain) i live in the great north"wet", portland/vancouver and we have hills also.. or "you" could change your bars (something more up-right).. add fenders (for wet weather) we have rain.. anyway, all great comments above.. and no easy answer.. you have a fun site.. i just started mine.. so more to come.. enjoy the ride

  8. I refuse to step into a gym, too! I was going to suggest yoga. I do bikram and it's a perfect compliment to cycling, especially for my poor, overworked thighs and it helps with the tension. I never use messenger bags, always put my stuff on my rear rack or front basket and my u-lock in a holster attached to my bike.

    Cute skirt!


  9. I've been a 100% bike commuter for over a decade now. The BEST decision I ever made was to stop carrying my load on my back.

    Get a rack/bag set up of some sort. Just do it. Messenger bags make sense for bike messengers that have to access their bags dozens and dozens of times a day but for people that ride point-a-to-point-b (maybe a C and D thrown in there) don't need to swing their bag around in an instant to fetch a package or a manifest should have some other type of luggage.

    Check out panniers made by/available from from these manufacturers/suppliers; Ortlieb, Carradice, Queen Bee Creations, Rivendell, etc...

    Check out racks made by/available from these manufacturers/suppliers; Tubus, Rivendell, Surly, Velo-Orange, Zefal, Jannd, Blackburn, etc...

    Rear racks, front racks, whatever, just get something.

  10. Getting an xtracycle with a more upright riding position should be helpful. It will improve your range and utility of the bike while taking any weight off your back.

    I do not know how a more upright riding position affects riding in hilly experience there.

  11. No advice on riding technique (I think I learned something reading these comments!) but yoga is a great compliment to cycling. I need to get back to it myself as my legs and back could use a stretch after all this riding!


  12. I'm with Nathan. I've doing it for 15 years and the first thing I bought was a rack. It's unfashionable, but really worth it.

  13. I fasten my u-lock through my saddle rails when I ride. There is room, and it keeps it secure and out of the way. I ride a road bike and carry a messenger bag; I don't have any advice about back pain. Sorry...

  14. I highly recommend a backpack with the strap that goes around your hips. I used one on a two-day, 110 mile trip and I had very little discomfort. I find that distributing most of the weight onto my hips and secondarily both shoulders reduces my muscle fatigue a lot.

    If you don't want to buy a new backpack, I'm sure you could sew/pin some strips of fabric to the old LL Bean and tie them around your waist. Dare I say, duct tape might even work?

    Your dedication to riding your bikes and still looking cute is inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to following your blog!

  15. I'll vote with the folks who thought your bike needs tweaking. Looks like your bars may be too low.

    I was amazed at how much better my new bike felt when I had a professional fitting.


    I was going to loan out my old Trek 1220 this weekend and decided to take it on a test ride to see what it felt like with all the racks and stuff stripped off it.

    I couldn't believe that I had thousands of miles on that bike. After riding my Surly Long Haul Trucker that had been sized for me, I realized how much too big my old bike had been. I was WAY too stretched out on it.

    You are young enough and flexible enough to compensate for a bike that's not quite the right size. That's not so easy when you get older.

  16. You look very fashionable on that bike, I must say.

    I echo the yoga suggestion. I took up bikram a few months ago and all is better. Also, I don't go anywhere without my rack. Even a small bag makes my back hurt, and I ride upright!

  17. I carry a Chrome bag when I'm not on an Xtracycle, and I carry a Fuggedaboutit which weighs about 675lbs. Or a little less, but it's heavy. After a while, I get really sore in the lower back from having it there. Not saying that it's not your stem or bars or anything else, but what I did about the bag and lock was to get a piece of 1" high density foam and slip it between the outer shell and the bag liner, and that helped a lot. It also makes life easier on a laptop if you happen to be carrying one of those.

    I also made a belt holster from some webbing and a SpeedyStitcher, all of which I got from here. They have clips too, it'd be easy to extend the holster out to a full belt with the stuff they have. That helps a lot, actually, sometimes I'll use it with the bag and having the weight down on the hips does relieve pressure on the back.

    But, as others have noted above, if you can get a rack (or an Xtra, heh), getting stuff off your back is pretty awesome.


  18. Get a lock to leave at work. Then you don't have to carry one back and forth.

    Ditto the shoes.

    Ditto getting the weight off your back.

    Congrats on bike commuting.

  19. My 2 cents - You don't look too stretched out to me in the photo, but as far as fit goes, definitely find a bike shop you trust and have them help you with fit. There may be something going on there. Tell them what your issue is, watch what they're doing, and if it's not right when they're done at least you know some of the possible adjustments.

    Second, try some sort of pannier/bike rack approach. In my short search I haven't yet found a pannier that works for me (my size 11s hit some as I pedal, and I want one with a shoulder strap that looks good being carried - not all loaded with gizmos and "decorations").

    But I know that losing the messenger bag felt great. And just having a bag on one side works fine - I didn't even notice the uneven load. I may try something like that Nashbar Trunk - just need to be able to fit a laptop in it...

  20. Wow! I just found your blog and LOVE it! I was going to offer advice, but everyone else has said what I was going to.
    1. get a good bike fit
    2. don't carry the weight on your back, use panniers or a similar system
    3. a strong core will help a ton.

  21. A raising of the bars may help, getting the weight off of you and on to the bike is the key IHMO. I have been riding for over 40 years and a backpack/messenger bag is the worst way to carry anything but a small load for a short distance. There are lots of rack and bags out there. For commuting/grocery getting I ride an upright bike with panniers or baskets.

    Awesome blog and good luck on advancing the cycle culture in B'Ham. Haven't been there in quite a few years.


  22. On the fitness side: I have no idea if this is what you're looking for but Allen and I have been going through this site (I'm actually on my first week). They also have a related site called "two hundred sit-ups." So far I like both the programs. (My pasty faced programmer man is getting some guns :D )

  23. After years of experimenting, I have come to the conclusion that a backpack is inherently better for carrying weight on your back on a bike than a messenger bag. I used a variety of mess-bags for many years, mostly because messengers use them and, hey, they must know what they are doing, right? But I realized they take the bag off and on a million times a day making deliveries, which is where the design rules. Get a smallish (20L) dayhike or cycling-specific backpack, with a waistbelt, and your back will thank you.

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  25. How are you going to sift through all of this advise?

    I'll be brief: Get rid of the back pack, however you want to do that. Get a more upright bike. Yoga, Yoga, Yoga.

    The pink skirt looks great and may help those trucks avoid you.


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