Gearing, bike fit, and injury

Before I get to my question, a little background might be helpful. Feel free to skip to the end if you’re feeling impatient.

Growing up, I always rode mountain bikes, partly because that’s what everyone else rode and partly because I thought road bikes looked uncomfortable. Most of the epic rides I’ve done in Taiwan (around the whole island, up to Wuling, etc.) have been on a mountain bike. Until last year, that is, when I started having pain in areas I’d rather not talk about.

Eventually I figured out that my seat was too high, but even after I fixed that, I still felt like I was riding the wrong bike. (I used to have a 22" Fuji, but I replaced it with a 21" Giant after the Fuji got stolen in 2008.) So I did some research, talked to some knowledgeable people, and ended up buying a Specialized Tricross. It has an XL frame, 700x32 tires, a 52-42-30 triple crank in front, and an eight-speed 12-26 cassette. My pedals are dual-sided, but I almost always use the clipless (not the flat) side with my SPD-cleated mountain bike shoes. I love the versatility of the Tricross: it’s faster than a mountain bike while still tough enough for rough roads, aerodynamic like a road bike (with drop bars) but more comfortable to ride, and it’s got eyelets for front and rear racks that come in handy when I want to carry a lot of stuff.

Going from a mountain bike with 26" wheels and low gearing to a cyclocross bike with larger wheels and much higher gearing took some getting used to. At first I struggled to climb steep hills, but now I can handle just about any sane gradient as long as I’m not carrying a heavy load. I regularly carry books, clothes, and other things in my front-roller panniers without any problems. And I never had any significant pain until an ill-advised ride I did in June. On day two of a three-day tour, I rode 110 km uphill from Yilan to Lishan with 15 kg of stuff loaded into front and rear panniers. Normally I don’t use the granny gear, but that day I spent hours in it, wishing I could downshift even more. I survived the climb, but the next day I had severe pain in both my knees, particularly the left: on the first 10-15 km of the climb to Dayuling, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it. Eventually the pain subsided, only to return again on the flats from Taroko Gorge to Hualien.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had knee problems from cycling. A few years back, the same thing happened to me on my mountain bike, and I dealt with it by simply taking a few weeks off and then slowly building up distance. This time around, I’ve done the same thing. I haven’t had any major pain since the Taroko Gorge day, but lately both my knees have been feeling rather gravelly and achy. I’m worried that I might damage my knees if I keep up my regimen of 600-700 km a month, but I really don’t want to cut back. Cycling is not only part of my routine, it’s part of who I am. It clears my head and keeps me sane. Other forms of exercise just don’t measure up: swimming is monotonous and the stupid cap you have to wear here makes my head hurt, it’s way too hot to run, and the gym bores me to tears.

Right now my strategy is to stretch thoroughly before every ride, keep my cadence up as high as I can, avoid unduly steep hills, and pray that the cycling gods will smile upon me. What I’m wondering, though, is whether it would help to see a professional bike fitter. I keep reading on forums that small adjustments to the height and positioning of your saddle or the angle of your cleats can go a long way toward preventing injury. Problem is, I don’t know where to go for that. This sort of thing is big business in America, but the shops here don’t seem to take bike fit very seriously. I know there’s lots of information online, but I only started learning about bike fit last year, and I’ve never been much good at DIY.

I’m also wondering if it would help to see a physical therapist about what exercises and stretches I can to to strengthen my knees. Does anyone know anyone like that with experience working with cyclists?

Even if you don’t know of any bike fitters or physical therapists, I’d like to hear your experiences dealing with (or preventing) injury. Reading through other threads here earlier tonight, I got the impression that injury seems like a pretty common thing for cyclists on Forumosa. I hope we can all stay healthy enough to enjoy all the incredible roads this place has to offer!

So you cycle too much, too far, and with too much stuff. You get pain that goes away if you don’t ride. It comes back if you ride too far. Extra weight and more challenging routes hurt more. And you are addicted to cycling.

You wouldn’t be the first addict to be in this position.

Welcome to the club.

There’s nor reason for you to have chronic knee pain from cycling even as much as you do, unless you have torn ligaments, cartilage or damaged muscles.

When you struggle up hills, your cadence falls and you end up putting too much effort in pushing your pedals, especially if you don’thave the option of lower gears. As your cadence drops and you struggle to get up the hill, you lose some concentration and your knee alignment shifts from where it should be–over the top of the pedals–to the outside and your knee takes most of the punishment.

One option is to get larger sprockets in the rear cluster. You could also go back to a large mountain bike triple. Also try trimming the extra weight you carry in your bike bags.

Most importantly, pay attention to your cadence and knee position. Keep your cadence to a minimum of 55, and stand on the pedals if you need to drop any lower. As you ride, try to keep your knee in a stable position over the top of the pedals, and focus on putting effort into the complete pedal stroke; pulling back on the pedals at the bottom of the stroke, lifting the pedals and pushing forward just at the top of the stroke as well as puching down from a bit past top dead center. Take some time off, ride long flatter routes for a while till your knees recover.

I’ve had a bit of this in the past after riding a really long and difficult route after a long layoff in much too difficult gearing.
You may have known all of this already. In any case, good luck with your rehab.

I don’t normally struggle with climbing hills, it was just that one ride. The climb from Yilan to Lishan is really, really hard, especially with a load.

Right now the plan is to keep on riding (as soon as this typhoon passes!) and hope nothing bad happens. I can deal with mild pain now and then. 600 km a month is really not that much for a 30-year-old who exercises regularly. I just want to make sure I’m not doing any long-term damage. Yesterday I bought a new odometer that measures cadence as well as speed; hopefully that will help keep me in line.

There are worse things to be addicted to than cycling, right? :slight_smile:

Hi there. I agree that getting an 11-30 or 11-32 8-speed cassette would be a good idea and fairly inexpensive, keep spinning at 55RPM or better, another good idea. Finally, alternating between standing and seated pedaling will use different muscles and keep your legs fresher. If you suffer severe knee pain, it’s best to back off as you did. However sometimes the nagging aches and pains from long rides in the saddle can be overcome by just sticking to it and riding the bike frequently. Your tendons and muscles will strengthen themselves. Gotta be careful with overdoing this to avoid injury, but it’s the unspoken truth among roadies. You sound pretty tall, as I am. Going with 180mm cranks or better if you can find them is a good idea if you’re riding a 22" frame.