Posted by: audaxing | June 24, 2012

Hand Numbness and Long Distance Riding

Usual disclaimers on this article, I am not an expert: this is simply one persons experience

After I’d done a seasons audax riding in 2005 columinating in the London-Edinburgh-London 1400km I discovered that I often got numb fingers after riding a long way.

This wasn’t actively painful, just causing a lack of mobility in fingers. As I work in IT, the only work related effect was that I typed a bit slower. It took weeks for the problem to wear off.

I was determined to avoid it, so I looked into what people said it was and how to avoid it

Most people said it was due to pressure on a nerve in the hand
Weight on the hand and possibly vibration damaged the nerve. The reason it took weeks to recover was that the nerve regrow at a very slow rate. But not everyone on these long rides suffered from it. So there must be a way to avoid it

The following suggestions were made for avoiding finger numbness

1) pad the bars
2) wear gloves with lots of padding
3) use a bike that is inherently comfortable
4) use a bike that fits
5) have bars that allow many hand positions
6) improve core fitness to make the rider fit the bike better

1) pad the bars
There are several systems for padding bars. There is Specialized bar Phat tape. Fizik do gel inserts. Or there is cheap pipe lagging from a builders merchants. I’ve tried all of the above. The Specialized and the Fizik seem similar, although the Fizik sticks on better. The pipe lagging is not quite dense enough and it is a little too bulky

2) wear gloves with lots of padding
Again, I tried several different types of gloves. The Specialized gloves seemed to suit my hands best

3) use a bike that is inherently comfortable
bikes made of stiff aluminium with thin high pressure tyres are of their nature less comfortable than bikes made from steel with larger tyres at a lower pressure. Part of this comfort factor is the transmission of road noise to the hands

4) use a bike that fits
A bike that fits is a slightly different concept to an “inherently comfortable” bike. A stiff bike with narrow tyres could be designed with comfort in mind to fit a particular individual, An ill fitting steel bike with wide tyres could cause discomfort. In fact, that’s what I had as my first long distance bike. It was steel with wide tyres and didn’t fit me.

5) bars that allow many hand positions
Having many different hand positions allows the rider to move their weight around onto different parts of the hand. So if the problem is caused by the weight pressing continuously in the same place, this might help.

6) improve core fitness
the idea behind this is that a flexible person with strong core muscles can effectively “move” their weight into a better position. This will take their weight off the hands and onto the backside and pedals

To cut a long story short I did all the above recomendations. For PBP 2011

1) I had Specialized bar Phat tape fitted ( it came with the bike)
2) I got some gloves with effective padding
3) I got a Specialized Roubaix that had many different comfort features. For PBP I specially fitted 28mm tyres
4) Although the bike wasn’t custom, the sizing of it was good. I put on a better fitting stem
5) I always use drops, this isn’t a change
6) After several years of riding, doing core exercises, taking a yoga class and reading extensively on core work, unsurprisingly I believe that this factor was better than in 2005

I had no hand numbness in the qualifiers or at PBP. What was the magic factor from all these that worked? I don’t know. If I was to pick one factor I’d say a bike that fits. If I was to ignore one, I’d say gloves.

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Responses

  1. It’s a problem I’ve encountered for sure, the worst occasion left me with a complete loss of dexterity, but on my left hand only! This really makes you think not only about handlebar comfort but how one half of the body can be dominant over the other while cycling.

    As you indicate there’s a lot of variables surrounding this issue, but I still remain to be convinced over the use of drops for distance riding, whilst they do provide multiple positions to vary the pressure on the hands, you are bound to change positions to maintain comfort. In contrast I have found that “comfort” riser bars, despite only having one position, are really effective over any distance or terrain.

  2. I have the same issue, but only if I ride gloveless. I started yesterday’s Dartmoor Classic with long gloves on, but removed them after a succession of punctures (plus the sun came out!). Now I have pins and needles in the right-most two fingers of my right hand, and I don’t expect that it’ll go away for a couple of days.

  3. One possible explanation is Vibration White Finger.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibration_white_finger

    Although it’s normally an industrially related affliction, hours of road ‘buzz’ could result in the same complaint.

  4. All good stuff. I’d suggest compliant titanium over aluminium or carbon for the frame. Tri-bars can totally relieve hand and wrist stress, while taking weight off the saddle and onto elbows supported by tri-bars. Also gives relief to other body muscles as alternative position. Just get the neck muscles used to tri-bars first.

    • I’ve used both Titanium and Carbon frames. The carbon frame ( a Specialized Roubaix ) was better at absorbing bigger bumps than the titanium one. But the titanium one seemed to soak up “high frequency” road noise from smooth roads better. So I would guess that the Roubaix would be better on the hands if riding on rougher roads.
      Unfortunately, tribars are not allowed on PBP (or any other French mass start event) but I agree they are an excellent idea provided you have time to get used to them

      • BTW the French ban on tri-bars stems from the American who was first to finish some 3 times in a row using tri-bars. When the French TV tried to interview the first finisher, he spoke no French. So by banning tri-bars they ensured he finished in a bunch, so they could get an interview in French! The ban, they claimed, with no evidence, was based on safety issues coming from their government. Yet that same government were happy to detonate thermonuclear explosions in the Pacific, saying it was safe! So tri-bars were thought by the French to be more dangerous than a thermonuclear explosion!


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