[This article was last updated on July 5, 2019]
No matter how short or how long your ride, you’ll enjoy it more if you’re comfortable, and the good news is that there’s plenty you can do to to improve the fit and feel of your bike.
Feeling comfortable as you ride won’t just make cycling a more pleasant experience, it could also benefit your performance. You’re unlikely to be able to cycle fast if your back and neck are aching because you’re using the wrong handlebars, for example.
Here are our tips for making your bike more comfortable.
Fit wider tyres
If you’re still running super-skinny tyres, swapping to wider rubber could improve your comfort.
With a larger chamber of air between you and the road, a wider tyre allows you to drop the pressure without running the risk of a pinch flat (where the inner tube gets punctured as a result of being sandwiched between the wheel rim and the ground). The lower pressure increases the amount of cushioning you get from the road.
If you’re worried that wider tyres will slow you down, don’t be. You could even ride faster with increased width. The majority of riders in the pro peloton are on 25mm tyres rather than 23s for most road stages these days.
If you’re riding a standard road bike, you might be able to fit 28mm tyres to increase comfort further – it depends how much clearance you have at the chainstays, seat tube and bottom bracket.
With most bikes the brakes are a limiting factor when it comes to tyre width, many disc brake-equipped bikes offer much more clearance. The Ribble CGR, for example, offers enough space for 35mm tyres with mudguards and even bigger without.
Check out our feature Why you need to switch to wider tyres.
Switch your saddle
If you’re not comfortable on the saddle that came fitted to your bike, change it.
People sometimes think that a large, squashy saddle will be the most comfortable, but that’s not always the case. The fit is more important and that’s a very individual matter. Some people like a cutaway centre to remove pressure in that area, some people don't. Just because your friend gets on well with a particular saddle, that doesn’t mean you will.
So how do you decide which one is best for you?
Many bike shops will be able to help you make your choice using a saddle finding system.
Selle Italia, for example, has its idmatch system. You give some basic information about yourself and the type of riding you do, then the bike shop assistant takes some measurements – all totally painless! – enters them into the computer and gets you some recommendations.
Other saddle manufacturers offer similar systems to help you find the most suitable saddle.
Change your bar tape or grips
If you ride with old or poor quality bar tape, every little bump in the road gets transferred directly to your hands and arms. The same is true if you’re using worn-out grips on a flat-bar bike.
Good bar tape can filter out road buzz that’s heading for your wrists, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
Fabric Hex bar tape (£13.99), for example, is soft, tacky silicone tape that's easy to look after.
Pro riders sometimes fit a double-layer of bar tape, especially for the cobbled classics like Paris-Roubaix, and you can do the same.
Another option is fitting shock-absorbing gel pads underneath your bar tape. Specialized’s Body Geometry Bar Phat tape (£17) comes with gel pads that you fit to both the top of your handlebar and the drops.
Similarly, if your handlebar grips aren’t comfortable, get some new ones. It's a relatively cheap way to make a big difference to the feel of your bike. These Ergon GP1 Biokork grips (£34.99) are designed to fill your palm in order to minimise pressure.
Swap your seatpost
Suspension seatposts exist mainly for mountain biking, but you can fit one to a road bike if you like.
USE’s Vybe suspension seatpost (£85), for example, provides 50mm of bump absorption.
If you don’t want to go that far in pursuit of comfort you can fit a seatpost that’s designed to flex more than usual.
Specialized’s CG-R carbon post (£145) has some built-in vertical flex thanks to its unusual head.
Change your handlebar
Drop handlebars come in different widths – 400mm, 420mm and 440mm being the most common. Bike manufacturers fit the width that’ll be right for most people who buy a particular sized frame, but the width won’t suit everyone.
The distance of the drop (the vertical distance from the point where the stem attaches to the ends of the bar) also varies between bars, as does the reach (the horizontal distance from the point where the stem attaches to the furthest point forward) and the shape of the drop section – some are round, others are more anatomically shaped.
If you feel like the drop is too deep or the reach is too far, you might be better off shifting to a compact handlebar like this FSA K-Force. Most pro riders use compact bars these days.
Flat bars also come in different widths and with different levels of rise, allowing you to finetune your riding position.
Switch your stem
Stems come in various different lengths and angles, giving you the opportunity to alter your ride position significantly.
If you feel like your handlebar is too far away, you can fit a shorter stem to reduce your reach.
If you feel like your handlebar is too low, you could add a spacer underneath the stem (if there’s room on the fork steerer), fit a stem with a higher rise, or perhaps just flip the stem you already have.
We’d suggest that you take advice from a bike shop before altering your ride position, and perhaps even have a full bike fit (see below).
Have a bike fit
If you’re struggling to get comfortable on your bike, a professional bike fit can be a really good investment.
Essentially, this means that a specialist bike fitter will get everything set up just right for you. Some shops offer a fit when you buy a new bike, but you can always go back and have another, or book an appointment with someone new.
There are many variables to get right – saddle height, fore/aft saddle position, reach to the handlebar, handlebar height, the shape of the handlebar, crank length…
A bike fitter might change components – the stem or seatpost, for example – or could just tweak your setup. Think of it as a long-term investment in your cycling future.
Get padded shorts and gloves
If changing your components doesn’t provide the comfort you’re after, try new clothing.
Well-fitting shorts with a cushioned seatpad will make a massive difference to your comfort. We have a feature that tells you everything you need to know about cycling shorts.
We also have loads of reviews of individual designs so it’s easy for you to find exactly what you’re after.
Use chamois cream
Slap on the chamois cream to reduce the chances of saddle soreness. It reduces friction as you pedal and it’s usually antibacterial.
There are loads of different brands out there. 2Toms Buttshield (£15) works well.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.