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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9 replies
  1. PaucH says:

    Hi ive been Experiencing the same problem. I ride my DH bike (Orange 223) for trails and xc stuff also (cant afford another bike… Just use wide gearing 36T crank with 11-34T Cassette) and just wondering if moving the seat backwards would also help or it Would just mess up pedaling?

  2. leelikesbikes says:

    Your Orange will take a long post. Can you get a dropper? Or how about a $30 cheapo regular post? With a quick release you can charge the climbs and pin the descents.

    If you leave the seat low but push it back, it will get you a bit more leg extension, which might help, but I think it’s best to either raise your seat or learn to climb out of the saddle (or hike).

    RIP IT!

  3. JoeG says:

    What timing of this post. I spent the weekend looking at 120 mm forks to change my Yeti ASRSL from a 100 mm fork xc bike into a 120 mm fork trail geo bike. I already have a 60 mm stem.

    Any other suggestions to achieve this?

  4. Grego says:

    Say what about pedaling? “Learn to pedal” is not a reasonable response… Also, what about climbing, especially on the steeps? How can you do well at that when you have no forward positioning on your bike?

  5. leelikesbikes says:

    JoeG, that sounds like a fun setup. Remember to bring your bars up as you bring them closer.

    When I get this fit book done, it’ll have clear measurement guidelines you can follow based on the style of ride you want (XC, trail, all mountain, DH).

  6. Grego says:

    Lee, I wasn’t trying to sting you so much as to prod you into telling me more about making pedaling work from a more upright stance. Thanks for sharing that link. It’s way important to remember to keep the elbow bent, and I should do it more often.

    I’m still wondering how to tackle the slow, very steep climbs once the bar is moved back and up. How do you weight the front wheel enough to hold a line up the slope? Rear suspension helps in that you can unweight the saddle and move forward on the bike, without losing traction, more than with a hardtail, but I still climb the super steep stuff much better with my classic hardtail XC bike, with narrow bar and bar ends, than on my Mojo SL, even with TALAS to drop the front end on the Mojo.

  7. leelikesbikes says:

    If it’s super steep, you have to get out of the saddle and balance on your feet — and NOT collapse onto your bars.

    Check out the cover of Pump Up the Base:

    In that shot I’m having trouble getting far enough forward. My Enduro has wide riser bars and a 50mm stem. A longer/lower setup would theoretically help me get farther forward, but I don’t see myself climbing anything steeper than this — not outside Moab, anyway.


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