Cycling as Self Care

I’ve been a cyclist off and on since I was twelve. Sometimes I’ve been deeply into cycling, and others times years have passed without riding a mile. Yet no matter how long I’m away, my love of riding brings me back to a bicycle. It’s been my recurring exercise of choice time and again. Right now I’m back again after taking an enforced break because of a surgery last year. I sorely missed riding during my recovery as cycling one of forms of self care. It supports my mental health. I find it a grounding escape, which I could have really used in those long days of recovery from surgery.

When my childhood trauma started to come up again as an adult, I found solace in cycling. It turns out riding fast on a twisty forested trail forces everything else out of mind. The only focus is the next bump, the next turn, staying upright and alive. There’s actually research which shows exercise is good for PTSD. Cycling is a mindful activity for me and so I feel better mentally and physically during and after a ride.

Little did I realize I couldn’t just hop on a bike and get back to one of my best methods of self care.

Self care should feel good…

In returning to cycling I found my old favorite road steed was no longer quite the all-day-comfort mount I recall. The bike felt suddenly ungainly and uncomfortable. By the end of a short ride my back, neck and shoulders ached. I hoped things would get better with more saddle time. Alas that has not been the case. Even my mountain bike which had been even more comfortable suffered from the same problem. I was going to have to do some work on my bikes to make cycling enjoyable again. I needed to ride to feel better, and discomfort when cycling was not helping my mental (or physical) health at all!

First, I need to admit something — I prefer older bicycles. There’s nothing wrong with new bikes; they are sleek, fast, and light. There’s just something that draws me to the bikes I knew growing up. Old steel and aluminum bikes from the 80’s hold a special place in my heart. Plus, I have a difficult time parting ways with the outrageously high sums new high quality bicycles seem to command today.

When I returned to cycling after a long break in my late 20s and early 30s (kids will do that for you) I discovered the uber-cool bikes I wanted as a tween and teen had became affordable on the used market after 20 years. So I finally got to own that Specialized Rockhopper Comp and Nishiki Modulus I wished for so much back in high school.

Unfortunately, neither of them seems to fit my aging body anymore. So I actually decided to do something I’ve never done before – get a real bike fitting. I had been fit to my first real bike by standover height and a quick test ride. I’m only an inch taller now than I was when I started high school, so the bike I fit then should still be about perfect. I mean right?


Turns out I wasn’t fit well to my bike back then, and I’ve been setup wrong for decades. A few minutes with a measuring tape and the Competitive Cyclist Fit Calculator opened my eyes to truths about my body which I’ve always know but never actually thought to apply to how my bike fits.

Women’s bikes should fit differently!?

It turns out my body is similar to many women. I have a short torso and long legs for my height compared to a man. My bikes had always been fit by standover height, which for most women results in a frame that has too long of a reach. This means there is too much distance between the saddle and the handlebars. My arms are a bit on the long side, but not enough to make up all of that difference. It turns out for decades I have been riding stretched out too far. My body had simply absorbed the inaccurate fit with youthful elasticity. Until, well… it couldn’t anymore.

I had never thought much of it because I felt fine. Besides, all the other women cyclists I knew had a similar stretched out posture on their bikes. Now armed with actual factual information, I knew I had to shorten the reach of my bikes if I hoped to be comfortable again. A shorter stem (which connects the fork to the handlebars) seemed the right move. My mountain bike has been my go-to all weather cycling machine, so it was up first. A short, adjustable height stem and new handlebar made things immediately better by bringing the handlebars closer to the saddle and moving me more upright.

The seat of the matter

My back end however was still uncomfortable. So I turned to the saddle, which turned out to be the other half of the fix my body needed. I had lucked out early on in my cycling career by getting a Vetta women’s saddle on my second mountain bike. That Mongoose with 24″ wheels was probably the only bike I ever owned which actually fit me correctly until now. In fact, I suspect it was about the only well fitting women’s mountain bike available in the 80’s. It was an impulse gift from my father when in San Rafael, CA on our big Alaska trip, but that’s another, longer story. I loved that bike, but even more I loved that saddle. It out lived the Mongoose by many, many years until it too was no longer ridable. A later version of of that saddle is perched on my tandem to this day. Vetta sadly seems to have long gone out of business, and since then, I’ve been unable to find a well fitting saddle. I have had to make do with various less well conforming variations. No more. I hurt now, so it was time to fix this too.

I went on a quest for the right saddle and after much reading decided to try one that looked a lot like that old Vetta, but with a center cutout – the Terry Butterfly. In the height of the pandemic, there wasn’t a chance to test one out at a local bike shop, so in blind faith I ordered one online. Coupled with the stem/bar change, I’d found magic once again for my vintage 1989 Rockhopper Comp with the Terry. My mountian bike has become as comfortable (perhaps more) than it ever had been. I feel like I can ride this bike all day and then some. I dream of taking it on a long touring trip someday.

One down, one to go

My road bike, a beloved Nishiki Modulus (like this one – but updated) was another story. After getting my ideal frame measurements and comparing this to the Modulus, it turned out to be oversized for me. Not only is the 54cm frame a bit too big, it has a longer than average reach. It was built in the days when bike manufacturers were selling a lot of racing bikes, and it shows in the geometry and that long top tube. It’s completely wrong for me. I love the bike, but the only possibility to make it work is a French Fit. That however is not something I wanted to try to figure out now. I needed something I could ride without experimenting too much. The Nishiki was moved to the back of the storage room as possible a future project.

Fortunately I happened to have another, smaller framed bicycle I’d built up about 7 years ago. After a bike trail opened near to the university I work at, I’d decided to keep a bicycle in my office. The combination of a nearby path and the campus recreation center (showers!) across the street made morning, or even lunchtime rides possible. I quickly discovered carting a bike back and forth to work was a pain. If only I had another bike I could leave at work…

After a bit of searching, I found an early 90s Cannondale frame in 50cm for sale. It was cheap and I’d always wanted a Cannondale, so I took the plunge. I guess even then I somehow knew my Nishiki was too big when I chose that smaller frame. It was built it up with spare components from my first road bike I had gathering dust in the garage. It never saw anything except twice a week lunchtime rides for a handful of years. Later I’d brought the bike home after moving offices and it had been gathering cobwebs.

In my desperation to get a comfortable road bike, I took it out a few weekends ago. It rode like a dream, With my new Terry saddle atop the seat post it even fit comfortably. I’d forgotten how much I loved riding this old bike. After my usual 20 mile ride on a local greenway, I felt good. The frame was just under my ideal fit, but that made the reach to the handle bars slightly more comfortable. I knew I could make it fit perfectly with a few adjustments. I was happy, the world was great, rainbows and unicorns everywhere! My problem was solved! Then the front tire blew out. The old wheels which had been cutting edge new decades ago were not up to the task after untold miles. It was time to update so I could trust this steed again on longer rides.

I spent a happy couple of weeks replacing some parts of the bike — tires, wheels, chain, etc. I now have a bike that rivals anything I could hope to afford of the current generation. It’s a lightweight handcrafted classic, a new bike with an old soul, and that’s something I can’t buy in modern carbon fiber at any price.

Now you will find me on nice weekend afternoons and the occasional weekday evening out on the local bike trails eating up miles, soaking up nature and taking care of myself.

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