Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Bicycle ergonomics

I've been getting back on my bike lately, after a long absence that I'd like to say was enforced through some sort of heroic injury, but it's really just down to laziness. Anyway, it's been getting me thinking about the ergonomics of my bike, and bicycles in general. Apart from the obvious pain in the bummular region when you've been out of the saddle for a while, there are other physical and cognitive ergonomics issues on your bike that can impact on safety, efficiency, and satisfaction.

First up, let's look at the handlebars – a company called Ergon position themselves as specialising in bike ergonomics, with their flagship product being a range of ergonomic bar grips. The "anatomically optimised grip shape" is designed to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerves in the wrist, reducing pain and numbness by, it seems, supporting the heel of the hand. In my experience, and I'll agree that this is an unscientific sample size of one, I've never found this to be an issue. Possibly a cheaper and simpler alternative, as recommended to me by a keen cycling colleague I used to share an office with, is to adjust the standard setup of the brake levers that bikes are often sold with. Rather than having them at the horizontal (i.e., parallel to the ground), just droop them a bit for a more neutral hand position, eliminating the unnatural dorsiflexion which the standard setup enforces. I don't want to take too much away from Ergon's bar grips - I'd like to be clear that I haven't reviewed the evidence myself, and although I have a bugbear about claims of 'ergonomically designed' products, these guys seem to have a bit more credence than most.

On the cognitive side, I recently read Richard Guise's enjoyable and laid back novel, 'From the Mull to the Cape', charting his bicycle travelogue up the West Coast of Scotland. I was enthused to find that he'd picked up on an ergonomic issue with the gear levers on the handlebars – an issue I wholeheartedly agree with, having experienced it on my own Shimano set. There is inconsistency between the switches for the front and rear mech, which are controlled by levers on the left and right handlebar respectively. On the left, a flick of the thumb lever will take you up a gear, while the opposing lever takes you down; on the right, this arrangement is reversed. It sounds trivial, and if I understood the mechanics I'm sure there'd be a very good technical reason for it being this way. But from the user's perspective, it does make you think harder than you probably need to – and, even after much experience on the bike, this still confuses me from time to time (I even had to check my bike to make sure I had it the right way around before posting this).

Next up is the LightLane virtual bike lane, an innovative laser light mounted on your bicycle, which projects your own personal bike lane around you while you ride. It looks good, but I think the jury's out on its effectiveness. Potential ergonomic issues include drivers' perceptions as they approach you – this being quite an unusual product at present, and so they might not know what they're dealing with. Perhaps more insidiously, I've read comments on biking forums that cycle lanes actually serve to marginalise cyclists as 'non-traffic', creating a false sense of security and almost ratifying some drivers' attitudes of only giving cyclists the room they've been allocated (which is often less than they might otherwise allow if they were sharing the same tarmac).

Finally, something of a plea for my own personal ergonomics, now that I am back on my bike. Until our British weather finally sorts itself out – if anyone can recommend me a decent, windproof, breathable and high-visibility soft shell (most of my commuting is on-road), I'd be a much safer, more comfortable, and, I'm sure, efficient rider. As for the pain in the rear, I'll just ride it out thanks.