The Importance of Proper Weight Distribution in Road Cycling
This overlooked aspect of cycling has an effect on comfort, freedom from pain and fatigue, and your ability to go fast…
It would appear to be very simple. Your body weight on a bicycle is supported by any combination of three things; the saddle, the handlebars, and the pedals. But how that weight is actually distributed; and in which cycling discipline and under what conditions; can make a considerable difference in your efficiency and enjoyment of the sport.
Before any in-depth analysis of your weight distribution, it’s important for you to have a professional fit you to your road bike. Most reputable shops have a maven who has been trained in fitting riders properly. If your stem is too long, you probably place too much weight on your bars, for example. After you correct your position (and remove that variable), you can proceed to dynamically load and unload certain parts of your body on the bicycle.
Saddle, Handlebars, Pedals
These are your support points. They vary as far as how much weight they support based on what you’re doing. Obviously, the saddle is supporting no weight when you’re climbing out of the saddle or sprinting. But for a long, steady climb, you should feel your body weight sinking into your saddle, with a light grip on the bars, and no weight on the non-power portion of the pedal stroke. Hills are hard enough; don’t make them harder.
One indication you’re applying too much weight on your pedals is the feeling of cramped toes or your feet tingling or falling asleep. (Also make sure your shoes aren’t too tight.) If you put too much weight on your pedals, you tend to trust your feet forward and smash your toes into your shoes, reducing circulation and causing pain. Ideally, you should feel your feet floating in your shoes on the non-power part of the stroke. Be “light on your feet.” You’ve all heard that the correct pedal stroke involves spinning your pedals in circles, but during moderate to hard efforts, your stroke should be more of a smoothed-out “stomp-release-stomp-release,” constantly loading and unloading your legs on the power and non-power parts of your pedal stroke. Many riders tend to simultaneously put weight on both pedals, and the result is they’re opposing the power stroke with excess weight put on the non-power stroke. Your pedal stroke can be improved greatly by doing some conscious practicing on the road.
Pain in the Neck
Those of you who experience shoulder, neck, or hand discomfort very likely are putting too much weight on your handlebars and/or gripping the bars too tightly. This is a bad habit I’ve developed since my lower back issues started years ago. Riders with too much weight on their bars tend to have short, jerky handlebar motions, which can cause stability problems at high speed. Once you are fit properly to your bike, with the right bars and stem at the right height, your saddle at the proper height and angle (flat), it’s up to you to remember to put your weight on the saddle and not to lean on your bars. Too much weight on the bars causes you to balance the bike with your hands and arms, which isn’t good. A skilled rider guides the bicycle with a light grip on the bars but actually balances the bicycle with the hips and body weight on the saddle. And sit back on the saddle where it’s most comfortable. The exception to this is triathletes with aerobars who sit on the nose of the saddle, almost in a running position, with more weight on the aero bars. I’m not especially a fan of this technique, but it has worked for triathletes, and most notably for national record holder Kent Bostick. Kent, on a fast course in Moriarty, AZ, rode a 45+ national record 49:58 40k TT, averaging 29.8 mph, using a very revolutionary forward position with most of his weight on his aero bars. (My best 45+ 40k time was *only* a 56:21, averaging a *lethargic* 26.5 mph. Downright embarrassing butt-kicking.) So, for Bostick, the leaning-forward-weight-on-the-bars technique works. But for conventional road riding with drop bars, I don’t recommend it.
Weight Distribution While Descending
Descending and sprinting are quite different as far as weight distribution is concerned. As mentioned in my last article on the high-speed wobble, descending at high speed requires shifting your weight more to your pedals, to keep a lower center of gravity and to enhance stability. At times, you may want to lift yourself off the saddle entirely, with weight on your pedals at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position. For an even lower center of gravity, you can put most of your weight on one pedal at the 6 o’clock position. On a steeper descent, you’ll have more weight on your bars than on the flats just because of the incline, so try to sit back a bit, like a mountain biker. And avoid The Death Grip on your handlebars at high speed. That can induce the dreaded wobble.
Out-of-the-saddle sprinting, with your body weight violently slamming down from pedal to pedal, requires practice. Good sprinters will “oppose” their lower body power by pulling on the handlebars, using them for added leverage, at least in the first part of a sprint. Sprinting and climbing are two disciplines where you really use your body weight to augment leg power. This is why climbing and sprinting are so difficult on recumbent bicycles. You can’t use your body weight; just legs.
During periods of moderately-high intensity, some cyclists have an anxious tendency to lean forward and shift too much weight onto the bars, while lifting their weight off the saddle. Try to concentrate on your form and keep your weight back on the saddle, unloading your weight from the bars and the non-drive pedal stroke. If you are able to ride with no hands while sitting straight up, you know that the bike is steered with your hips and you cannot be tense. You should be able to ride with your hands off the bars for at least a few hundred yards. Practice this, too. Riding no hands forces you to put your weight on the saddle.
In general; and this should be your takeaway from this article; sitting back with most of your weight on the saddle seems to yield the most comfort, stability, and power. Your feet, hands, neck, and shoulders should stay relaxed. Being aware of optimum weight distribution will simply make you a better all-around rider.
Written by Paul Scarpelli