Reducing stress and discomfort on cycling "touch points" will make you to go farther faster
Road cycling is synonymous with suffering. We relish the pain. It's one of life's great dichotomies, where something that hurts so bad can feel so good. But through all the suffering on century rides and beyond-category climbs, we also want to be as comfortable as possible. Which is to say that despite the burning in our legs and lungs, there's no reason our hands, feet, and butt should be tortured. Saddle sores, foot cramps, and numbness are not what we signed up for. That's a different type of pain. It's real pain, the stuff we avoid or else take drugs to mitigate. Pain and suffering are two different things in the world of cycling.
So I set out to find all of the ways to optimize these touch points and maximize comfort. From saddles and socks to bibs and bars, here are nine of them:
1. Selle SMP Lite 209 Carbon Saddle
I made the switch to Selle SMP two years ago, and it was like going from a 1979 Pinto to a 2015 Lexus. I immediately outfitted each of my bikes accordingly -- both road and mountain -- because there's no going back. The unique SMP design provides a cradle of comfort and performance, eliminating numbness while offering ideal riding positions for steep climbs, flat-out time trials, and everything else in-between. I prefer the mid-wide Lite 209, which is generously padded, but there's a model to suit any body type or riding style.
2. Vision Metron 4D Handlebar
Going from a standard bar to the Metron is like going from straight to parabolic skis. It feels right. It feels like it was designed with the specific demands of road cycling in mind, such that it elevates both performance and comfort. I initially sought a bar with a flat platform on top to spread out the pressure on my hands. This is a key feature of the Metron, for sure, but the top bar also has a slight rise, which relieves lower-back stress on long stretches, and a 10-degree forward bend, which is a more ergonomic hand position. Finally, there is a flat section behind the brake hoods that provides a more cradled hand position.
3. Lizard Skins DSP Bar Tape
The bar tape on any new bike is selected by the product manager for how much it costs as opposed to comfort or performance factors. It's not a big selling point. So this is your first upgrade and the best $40 investment you'll make. The DSP line from Lizard Skins is offered in three thicknesses -- 1.8mm, 2.5mm, and 3.2mm -- along with a rainbow of different colors. Each provides unmatched padding and grip, as if you just added suspension.
4. Castelli Free Aero Race Bib Shorts
The key to any pair of cycling shorts is the seatpad, and this pair of race bibs from Castelli absolutely shines. The pad's foam density and thickness are just right in all the right areas. As a high-performance short, these also feature compression leg bands that provide superb muscle support. Finally, the side fabric is dimpled for golf-ball-like aerodynamics, which can save 10 watts of output at 50 km/h, according to the company.
5. Shimano SH-R171 Shoes
Feet take a beating. Ailments can range from numbness and cramping to losing toe nails. The challenge is to balance the competing interests of performance and comfort. A shoe needs to be stiff and tight for efficient power transfer. Yet supple to promote circulation. The R171 is Shimano's penultimate road shoe. With two Velcro closures on the lower foot and an upper ratchet closure, you can precisely dial the fit and then easily adjust on the fly. I particularly like the generous toe box, which offers enough wiggle room (quite literally) to keep the feet fresh.
6. Giro Supernatural Footbed Kit
These customizable footbeds are a worthy upgrade for any cycling shoe. First, the anti-microbial surface layer reduces odor and provides just enough padding. But the key feature is the interchangeable arch support. You can swap out low, medium, or high arches depending on the type of support you need. I found it was necessary to test at least two of them to find the right one. Not only does this promote comfort but also pedaling efficiency.
7. Shimano Ultegra Pedals
You won't notice a huge performance difference from one high-end road pedal to another. What I like most about Shimano pedals is the surface area of the pedaling platform, which distributes the pressure more evenly on the foot. In addition, Shimano cleats are among the most friendly for walking.
8. Giro LX Gloves
Whether mountain biking, commuting, or road cycling, I must wear riding gloves. Part of it is the confidence of knowing there's leather between my skin and the pavement in the event of a crash. But it's more about comfort. A thin layer of gel padding, strategically placed as it is with the Giro LX, will absorb road vibrations that would otherwise transfer into the wrists and arms. What's more, the low-key LX design is a notch above most in terms of style.
9. Sugoi RS Crew Socks
The recent trend in cycling socks is left-right construction. The socks are being anatomically designed to support each foot, specifically in the critical arch area. The RS Crew is also reinforced in the toe and heel area, where cycling socks receive the most wear and tear.