Bike setup: “My lower back hurts when I ride”

A whole lot of us have said that, haven’t we?

Lower-back pain has many causes including serious injury, poor technique, limited mobility, inadequate strength and — of course — bike setup.

Check this out:

Warning: This is not a diagnosis. If you have pain, see a qualified health care professional — and pay attention to all aspects of your alignment, mobility, strength, technique and setup. This post concerns only setup:

Tim VanGilder
Art director for crankbrothers
Team director for crankbrothers Race Club
Team captain for Troupe Racing Company

Tim is a fit, experienced rider. He can pin it just fine, but his low-mid back starts to hurt (see the white arrow in the image) after a few hours.

I’m working on a book about bike fit for real Riding, but back pain is such a common complaint I feel like I should share this now.

Traditional XC setup. Bars are well below seat and pretty far forward. See the yellow lines in the illustration.

This classic XC setup favors seated pedaling over bike handling. AND: It requires the rider to rotate the hips forward a lot in order to keep the hips and spine aligned. Few riders can (or will) rotate their hips far enough over an entire ride.

Do you see the bend in Tim’s lower back (white arrow)?

That bend increases muscle strain. You might be strong enough to ride like this for two hours, but three? Four? That’s Tim’s issue. After a couple hours, the setup starts to tax his body too much, and it hurts.

Possible solutions
Imagine switching Tim to a modern trail-riding position (red lines) or an all-mountain position (blue lines).

You can see the reduced angles — and presumably the reduced strain — in his lower back. Not to mention improved handling.

But what about pedaling? Stop freaking out. He can learn to pedal just fine.

Bikes are cool. Especially when they’re set up for your body and riding style!

— Lee

I help the crankbrothers Race Club with skills coaching. Last weekend Judy Freeman won the Vail Mountain Games snow crit and XC race. Go Judy!

Know more. Have more fun!

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