by Kurt the Mechanic
Whether you purchased your bike from a shop or from an individual, odds are you accepted how the handlebars are mounted and didn't put much thought into them. A bike’s handlebars and stem have a huge impact on the overall comfort and performance of your bicycle. Handlebar comfort cannot be achieved until you are on the correct size frame. Luckily, the stem allows for a little wiggle room with frame sizing, but it is not a substitute for riding the correct size bike. If you are not confident that you are riding the correct size, then saddle up and ride to your favorite shop. Ask your favorite shop employee if they have time to help you with your bike fit. It can be a lengthy interaction, so set up a good time to come back in case they are busy at the moment.
Once you are on the optimal size bike start pedaling. While you pedal, put some thought into the comfort from the waist up. Try to identify things that are uncomfortable and what might make the discomfort better or worse. The adjustment and fit of your handlebar and stem can be the cause of discomfort with your back, shoulders, neck, arms, and hands. If you notice discomfort in any of these areas, try to determine if anything makes it better or worse, such as switching hand positions, standing to pedal, or sliding forward or back on your saddle. If, after many rides, the discomfort is still apparent, it is time to pedal back to the shop with your findings and get adjusted.
Often your shop can help you dial in that comfort by changing stem length or angle, adjusting the tilt of your bars, or suggesting a different style or size of handlebar. Switching these parts requires knowing how to properly adjust a headset and torque down a stem faceplate. If this is out of your wheelhouse, pay a pro to do it for you.
Occasionally your bike might be the wrong style and the shop can show you potential options that would better suit your riding style. Sometimes there are things you might be able to try yourself, like replacing your grips or bar tape. All too often the discomfort goes away just by spending more time riding your bike.
Now here’s the best advice I can ever give you. Stop obsessing over your bike and start obsessing about the ride. My fondest memories on a bike were from when I knew very little about bicycles and just enjoyed the feeling of turning the pedals and feeling the wind go by. Focus on the fun and you will have smiles for miles.