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Saddle Quest ~ In Search Of Enduring Comfort

 

In this post I share what I’ve learnt about saddle comfort.

I’ve been cycling since I was a kid as a way to stay fit or get about locally. It is only in the last year that I’ve been riding regularly for several hours at a time or even days on end. My biggest single challenge with any of this has been dealing with saddle discomfort.

The cycling industry doesn’t like to put newcomers off by dwelling on this but it can take months to fully acclimatise your sit bones to the demands of sitting upon a bike saddle for hours on end.

As a new cyclist you have to begin slowly in order to accustom your bum to the saddle experience; no matter what brand or design of saddle. Just complete very short rides on alternate days to begin with, there are no shortcuts, it simply takes time for your tissues to develop and adjust to this new demand.

A gradual process is fine for acclimatising your sit bones but if you’re also experiencing numbness and tingling in your soft tissues then something else needs to be done as you can never acclimatise to that. Such tingling or numbness can lead to longterm issues and needs to be taken seriously. (One long five day endurance trip I took lead to months of discomfort but fortunately no lasting issues.)

Some things I’ve learnt..
  • Tilting a saddle down to reduce perineal pressure tends to place more weight onto your hands as you stop yourself sliding forward. This can lead to nerve pressure resulting in numb fingers or cyclist’s palsy.
  • Saddle width needs to be matched to sit bone width. Wide (130mm+) sit bones on a narrow saddle particularly cause soft tissue pressure.
  • A professional bike fit is money very well spent. I had an in depth hour long fit and follow up fit with Kernow Physio that included video analysis and physiological measurements to get an optimum starting position. A follow up session some months later further refined this. The whole process gave me an understanding of the dynamics my bike position, ideas on how I can improve aspects of my strength and flexibility as well as insight into how I can make further micro adjustments if necessary. Get a professional bike fit, no online article or video is any kind of substitute. Scott at Kernow Physio say this about the importance of also combining physiotherapy assessment with a bike fit. “…Full Physiotherapy assessment: This is a key asset to Kernow Physio as one of the most important aspects of a bike fit is understanding how the client moves. And experienced Physiotherapy knowledge certainly helps this. Kernow Physio is one of the few bike fitting companies to be run by a fully chartered Physiotherapist. Key assessment areas include flexibility, true leg length discrepancy, restriction of hip, knee and ankle movement, and a footbed assessment if required.” It worked for me.
  • Even just a few millimetres of adjustment (of many different components) can make a significant difference.
  • What feels comfortable for 4 hours may not prove so comfortable on much longer rides.
  • Good core strength stabilises the pelvis and back which aids comfort. It’s necessary to cross train and combine other exercises beyond cycling to support longterm cycling comfort and endurance. With strong, flat abdominal muscles your pelvis tilts forward less and reduces perineal soft tissue pressure.
  • There is no one size fits all solution. Seek the best advice but also trust your judgement; only you really know what is right for you. Very few experts in bike fit or coaching actually have much experience with unsupported ultra distance cycling.
Saddles I’ve tried – in order

Selle SMP Extra

Used on my previous bike. I had high hopes for this but try as I may I couldn’t get a comfortable position with it.

 

 

 

 

 

Stock Genesis saddle

This came with my Datum bike but didn’t work well for me.

 

 

 

 

Brooks Cambium C15 Imperial

I so wanted this saddle to work for me. I love how it looks and initially it did seem very comfortable but after over 1000+km of testing I had to give up on it. It was Ok when riding up on the hoods but in the drops or on TT bars my nether regions went to sleep (I think the non cutout version maybe better as it should result in less sagging in the middle)

 

Ergon SRS-M

This at first seemed like the solution to my problems but again I couldn’t get a fit that allowed for comfort and blood flow in an aero position using the drops or TT bars without tilting the saddle nose down. Any nose down saddle position had me putting too much weight on my hands to stop me sliding forward. This then lead to nerve constriction and numbness and tingling in my fingers.

 

 

Selle SLR 

This is the saddle endurance cycling supremo Kristof Allegaert uses and having watched him cross Australia on one during the IPWR I thought it was worth a try. Once again I had the same issue of needing excessive downward saddle tilt to maintain blood flow in more aggressive riding positions which lead to excess hand pressure.

 

Infinity Seat N series

Aside from perineal pressure there is also the issue of saddle sores where your sit bones make contact. I haven’t suffered particularly badly with this but it’s something I’d idealy avoid. I read many glowing reviews about the comfort of this saddle and it’s design intrigued me. Sadly, my sit bone width at circa 130mm resulted in my sit bones resting, very uncomfortably, exactly on the edges of the cutout rather than within it. I could also tell that even if this wasn’t the case that I was still going to have perineal pressure issues. Another one for eBay and a real shame that  http://infinitybikeseat.com don’t provide better pre-purchase sizing guidance.

 

ISM PN 1.1

Success! This is the saddle I rode the 2017 TAW race on with virtually no blood flow or nerve issues and only mild saddle sores. I find I can move around a lot on this, but still stay comfortable, depending on whether I’m on the hoods, drops or TT bars. The pressure on my pubic rami bones took a few weeks to get used to but then I was set. It’s not quite perfect but certainly the best I’d found until I upgraded to the new PN 3.0.

 

ISM PN 3.0

This is a seriously good saddle for my needs. Virtually zero blood flow issues riding in any position. Compared with the PN 1.1, the wider back offers more pelvic support and allows me to sit back onto my sit bones if I want. The slightly different to curve to the top of the saddle fits my anatomy better. Small changes compared with the PN 1.1 have resulted in even better comfort. There maybe more comfortable saddles to be had but I’m content with this and no longer looking elsewhere. My focus now is on managing friction and eliminating saddle sores. Check out ISM’s design theory here.

 

Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve found this useful and wish you happy, comfy riding.

eTappery & Post TAWR 2017 Upgrades

Sram eTap and gear ratios

Riding in the Transatlantic Way Race highlighted one particular issue with my bike that could be improved; gear shifting. I bought it as a stock 2016 Genesis Datum 10 equipped with Shimano Tiagra 10 speed gearing. This mostly worked well but I had occasional issues with the left shifter intermittently refusing to engage and change from small to large chainring. It would begin working again after much random flicking of the lever but the reason for this problem never became apparent . This was not confidence inspiring at all and as the inner workings of the shifters aren’t readily serviceable I wanted to change this set up to something more reliable.

In my earlier post about the upgrades I’ve already made to this bike you’ll see that I opted for old fashioned bar end shifters and I’ve been riding very happily with these up until the race. I chose them because:

  • They force frequent hand movements which reduces sustained pressure on your nerves which lessens numb hand/finger issues. (Something that had been a problem for me already)
  • Simple, reliable, serviceable, repairable.
  • You can tell more or less exactly what gears you are using, day or night, just by the feel of the shifter position.
  • You can jump as many gears as you like up or down very quickly.
  • There’s an enjoyable tactile quality to shifting.

So all good then! Well, almost… During the race proper I was riding well over 15 hours daily, day after day, in highly undulating terrain and that makes for a  huge number of gear changes. Consider that I rode 242km last Sunday in similar terrain and made 1,537 gear changes (81 front and 1456 rear: data thanks to eTap and Wahoo Elemnt ) it is easy to see how these endurance events change so much of what we may be used to on a bike.

Using this rate against my average 322km a day on the TAWR suggests around 2000+ gear changes a day. It is hardly surprising that by day six I was getting a sore right hand and a blister on my little finger. What is the easiest way to make 2000+ gear changes daily over multiple days? Push button electronic shifting of course.

A second, and much bigger issue, became apparent one night when I was slowly climbing a narrow, windy, undulating pass. I couldn’t see beyond the limit of the beam from my light and this made it very hard to see the gradient ahead and anticipate my gear changes correctly. Added to that, not being able to shift from the hoods or brake levers made things even more difficult. This was true on some daytime climbs as well so I resolved to look into electronic alternatives once the race was done as I find that for ultra cycling anything I can do to make life on the bike easier helps. What might be just a minor niggle or annoyance on a weekend century ride can become a real problem over long multiple day rides.

My first thought was Shimano Di2 as it’s a well proven system chosen by many top ultra cyclists. Di2 however involves a lot of wires, connections and a single central power source. None of which should be a problem when regularly well maintained but contacts, wires and connections can very quickly wear or corrode unseen during extreme conditions.

I love the purity, style and history of Campagnolo as a brand and really wanted to delight in their offerings but I just couldn’t. I quickly eliminated their EPS system because it seemed far less likely that it could be safely made handle the large 36T rear sprocket option that I want to be able to run as well issues with battery placement and ease of charging whilst on the road etc.

To my mind, when compared with Sram’s eTap wireless system, Di2 and EPS seem needlessly complex and dated. I’m convinced that all manufacturers systems will become wireless over the next few years.

Sram’s eTap system requires 4 batteries (2 rechargeable in the changers and two CR2032 penny batteries in the shifters) which may initially seem complex but as it is highly unlikely that all 4 batteries will fail at once I see this as an advantage. The batteries are light, the charger is tiny and can be powered from a USB power bank or dynamo hub. There is no junction box, no cabling, no remote battery to be hidden, just a very tidy self contained system.

Added to that the eTap shifting system really appeals to me. Press the left lever and the chain climbs up a sprocket, press the right lever and the chain drops down a sprocket. Press and hold left or right lever and the gear change continues up or down as far as you want. Press and hold both together to shift the front chainrings up or down. It’s superbly simple and intuitive, and leaves the brake levers left solely for braking. I instantly settled into using the system and virtually never miss shift whereas with STI shifters I’d get it wrong surprisingly frequently (I know blame me not the system…but..). A further advantage of electronic shifting is being able to set up satellite shifters to change gears at the push of a button from on the aero bars or the drops etc. I have Sram eTap Clics neatly installed in the bar ends and I find this really let’s me “settle in” better on the rolling roads I tend to ride. The brakes have sockets that allow for up to two satellite shifter systems to be added so for the ultimate in flexibility you could have Clics in the TT/aero bar ends and Blips on the drops or bar tops.

Batteries and tiny charger. Protective battery cover with charge status indicator is a nice touch

Apart from the obvious high cost the only downside is having to charge/change batteries to keep everything working and this is what put me off going electronic initially. eTap batteries are small and light so carrying charged spares plus the tiny usb charger that can run from a power pack or from my hub dynamo is no big issue. A full system failure is extremely unlikely and at worst I might be stuck with either using a single front chainring with a  working rear derailleur or with shortening chain and cobbling together a single speed set up which maybe no worse than a failure with a mechanical system. The long term reviews I’ve read suggest excellent reliability so I hope it never comes to that!

There is definitely a tactile delight to full mechanical systems but I don’t think they are the optimum choice for ultra endurance racing because with ultra distances anything that makes time on the bike easier and more comfortable is an advantage. Of course, having said that, it maybe that if you are heading somewhere truly remote that a fully serviceable mechanical system maybe a safer/wiser option.

I’ve found that the slick ease of eTap makes everything I’ve used previously seem like an antique and as the vast majority of my riding distance is in the UK with fairly ready access to spares etc. I’m very happy to enjoy this luxury.


Gear Ratios

I’ve been running a Sram PG1170 11-36 cassette with a Shimano Ultegra medium cage rear derailleur up until now and with no issues. Web searching showed that many people had run 11-36t cassettes with the Sram Wifli eTap system even though Sram advise on a 32t maximum and, happily, I’ve had no issues either with my 11-36t or my Ultegra chainrings for that matter.

I’m pursuing optimum with this bike and to that end I have modified my cassette by mixing the sprockets from my existing 11-36t with those from an 11-25t PG1170 cassette that I found heavily discounted online. The standard PG1170 11-36t and 11-25t gear spacings run as follows:

11,12,13,15,17,19,22,25,28,32,36

11,12,13,14,15,16,17,19,21,23,25

The three largest 28,32,36 or 21,23,25 sprockets are joined together and cannot be split but the other individual sprockets can be swapped about so long as you start with the 11t so I’ve combined the two to create an alternate 11-36t cassette as follows:

11,13,15,17,19,21,23,25,28,32,36

This gives a more even gear spread through the middle of the cassette (as illustrated below) which makes for more economical riding with fewer changes in cadence. That’s the theory at least and it’s working very well around my hilly Cornish terrain and on recent rides my most used gears have been the new 50 x 21 & 50 x 23 ratios.

It’s now pretty much the perfect bike for my needs.

 

 

WGC Day 2 – The silly one

Day #2
Distance 160.1 Mi, Moving Time 15:03:55, Climbing 8,061 ft, Ave Temp 6c 43F

Day 2 dawned and I awoke happily warm and, remarkably, somewhat drier than when I’d wriggled into my little bivi cocoon 5 hours or so earlier.

My weather check the day before had suggested that sunshine and unfavourable northeasterly winds were to be the order of the day. Right now though it was bitterly cold and anything but sunny.

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Managing Weight Loss

My typical breakfast. 3-4 eggs plus blanched fresh green veggies and mushrooms with oil and butter.

Nutrition and diet is a massive subject with any number of highly qualified experts offering equal and opposite opinions as what we should eat and particularly what we should eat for athletic performance.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert but I am able to report on what is working for me. A few years ago I became increasingly aware that I was slowly gaining weight to spite eating an apparently healthy, clean, mostly vegetarian diet with very little processed food and few bad habits. Was I just getting old? Was this inevitable? Yes I’m getting older for sure but surely that does not have to mean getting fat and slow.

Extra weight is no help for my preferred sport of windsurfing and is certainly no help for cycling either. Something had to be done!

It so happened that around this time I’d been noticing many positive mentions of Wheat Belly on Facebook and decided to look a little deeper.

Wheat Belly‘s Dr Davis (A cardiologist) states that:

“Over 80% of the people I meet today are pre-diabetic or diabetic. In an effort to reduce blood sugar, I asked patients to remove all wheat products from their diet based on the simple fact that, with few exceptions, foods made of wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods. Yes, that’s true for even whole grains. More than table sugar, more than a Snickers bar. Organic, multigrain, sprouted–it makes no difference.”

That’s quite a thought and if you study “Wheat Belly” it you’ll find that Dr Davis offers some very convincing reason to seriously question eating wheat. However being a little distrustful of American “fad diets” and authors becoming rich and famous on the back of them I read a little further into the subject of grains and hit upon the Paleo Diet.

“The Paleo Diet is based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors.”

The idea being that humans have evolved over many hundreds of thousands of years to eat and digest “pre-agricultural” foods and that these foods still represent our optimum nutrition. You hear of very few people who are meat or vegetable intolerant but many have real problems with wheat and dairy.

Eating predominately nutrient dense single ingredient foods simply makes good intuitive sense to me as does the idea of avoiding refined and processed foods where possible.

If you dig further into the why’s and wherefore’s of these diets you can get embroiled into all manner of plausible arguments for and against and backed up by scientific studies either way. I find all that somewhat exhausting, much like researching the existence of UFO’s or covert illuminati governments and other conspiracy theories. The only certainty is that we cannot depend upon “Government guidelines” to accurately guide us in any area of our lives!

I prefer to make an informed choice, trust my instincts, try things out and gauge the results. I don’t have any health issues or obvious food intolerances that I need to consider.

To this end in September 2013 I drastically reduced my bread, pasta and fruit consumption and increased my fish, meat, fat and vegetable consumption. I quickly lost weight and felt far more energised. I went from 89kg down to 83kg by Christmas that year.

It was a fairly effortless process as I simply felt less hungry on this diet and quickly stopped craving bread and toast, though I did not stop eating bread and grains altogether. The hard part was, and still is, dealing with the convenience of just grabbing a sandwich or a slice of toast etc. particularly when away from home.

However in the years since then my weight gradually climbed back to over 88kg by August 2016 as old bread and pasta habits crept back in.

It was in July of 2016 that I began riding my bike more and thinking increasingly about improved fitness and weight loss again. This slowly progressed to me going full on into signing up for TheTransatlanticWay race.

Getting trim is a bit different this time round as I am now expending 30,000.00+ calories a month training. However I am now back down to a lean 83kg and targeting 80kg or lower as my race weight.

To achieve this I’ve applied principles that make rational sense to me but don’t demand rigid weighing out of my food or calorie counting and the like. I simply eat combinations of nutrient dense single ingredient whole foods with few grains and fairly low carbs.

Post ride I quaff a whey protein drink or some roast chicken plus some fruit but otherwise I’m still on a low-ish carb paleo-ish diet of wholesome simple and mainly organic foods. No sports drinks, gels, bars and other sports nutrition industry paraphernalia. I feel great and am losing weight and gaining strength month by month without cravings, harsh hunger ignoring self-discipline or others challenges.

As of writing this the race proper is about 13 weeks away and I am now researching and planning more refined nutrition strategies for that because I am acutely aware that fuelling adequately for multiple long, long days in the saddle is very different to my current day to day needs and training rides.

A lower carb diet allows your body to adapt to using fat for fuel rather than carbs. I want to optimise my fat for fuel metabolism in a balanced and sustained manner that let’s me enjoy the ride and does not require me to be chowing down handfuls of Haribo, Mars bars, doughnuts and other high calorie low nutrition junk.

I’m undertaking a very long 4 day “rehearsal” ride in a couple of weeks and shall report back on progress after that.

 

 

 

An introduction…

Greetings!

My name is Chris Jackson and I’ve entered my first ever cycle race at age 57.

Not your average event however, it’s-

The TransAtlanticWay race is a 2500 km, one stage, self-supported road bike race between Dublin and Cork via The Wild Atlantic Way.”

I made this decision and signed up on the 29th September 2016 and then marked the occasion by riding my longest ever ride of 170km with 2100+m of climbing the following day.

Why you may wonder? Well, I’ve had a lot of challenges and uncertainty with my business over the last couple of years and really felt the need for a change, for a totally different kind of adventure and focus.

This style of solo self supported cycle racing really inspires me, aside from the weather and the vagaries of whatever may happen on the road I’ll be solely reliant on my wits and preparation to succeed; there’ll be nobody else to fault or rely on. It’s a truly personal challenge.

I’m writing this blog as part of promoting the fundraising side of my entry but also to encourage anybody else who might be considering a similar adventure particularly if they’re at the point where age 40 or 50 is starting to feel quite some while ago.

I’ll be posting regular updates about my training, nutrition, equipment and general tales from the scenic roads here in Cornwall as well as anything else that inspires or seems relevant.

Why Age UK?

 

This challenge of mine is supposed to be enjoyable rather than easy, in part it’s about pushing my limits and stepping out of my comfort zone.

It would be a lot easier to just ride the event quietly and see how it goes. Adding a charity fundraising aspect to things increases my motivation to do well plus the thought that my effort is having a direct benefit to others is also rather exciting.

The choice to support Age UK came to me quite easily.

Age UK’s vision is for a world where everyone can love later life

Loving later life seems like a fine plan to me.

It saddens me to think that many of our elderly population maybe struggling alone with the challenges and obstacles that later life can bring and it feels good to be doing something to help. I’ve long held a special regard for the elderly, possibly triggered by the happy times I had as a youngster listening to the stories my very elderly next door neighbours would recount to me over the garden fence. Some things always stay with you…

Between 2015 and 2020, over a period when the general population is expected to rise 3%, the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12% (1.1 million); the numbers aged over 85 by 18% (300,000); and the number of centenarians by 40% (7,000).

With these increasing numbers the needs and issues of the elderly are only going to become greater and more apparent in our society so do please donate as generously as you feel can.

Thanks!