Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Quest for the Perfect Glove

Hand issues - Ugh.  I can't say this is entirely new, but it's moved from a minor annoyance into constant discomfort.  When I began to ride seriously a couple of years ago, my knees were the big problem.  I was told that biking was good for your knees, but that wasn't what my knees were saying.  I saw the doc, did the PT, upped my walking to strengthen the associated muscles and started out riding short distances slowly.  Eventually someone enlightened me about a bike fit.  Wow.  Eureka! What a difference.  A couple of months after a good, professional bike fit with Matt Tinkey I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath (Pittsburgh to Washington DC) with no knee pain. It was all good.

At the time of the bike fit I hadn't been riding really long rides because of the knees, but my hands had also been bothering me.  Matt adjusted the handlebars.  I added handlebar extensions to give me more hand positions, and I bought the gloves Matt recommended.  I did very well for about the next year and a half, as long as I remembered to keep changing up my hand position as I rode.  Last fall things started going downhill.  Although my hands had begun to bother me earlier in the year, it was when the weather turned cold and I switched to unpadded winter gloves that the real trouble started.  I hadn't seen winter bike gloves with good padding so I was riding with ski gloves.  Silly me.  After just a short time my hands were expressing their disgust at my decision.  Still unable to find a pair of bike gloves with both the padding and warmth that I wanted, I tried wearing ski gloves over top my fingerless bike gloves.  That kind of sort of worked.  For a few rides anyway.  What I didn't realize was that even though my bike gloves still looked OK, the gel padding had broken down and was no longer doing it's job.  As winter progressed and we kept up our usual riding, the hand pain steadily increased.  By the end of January they were no longer feeling better after I stopped riding, so it was time to give them a rest.  After taking almost two weeks off they still hadn't recovered completely, but I couldn't stand to pass up a day of decent weather in February, so I rode anyway.  Mistake.  That measly 21 mile ride seemed to be the proverbial straw that broke something.  After taking the next several weeks off from doing anything that might aggravate whatever I'd done to myself I finally gave in and took my BFF's advice to see an orthopedic hand specialist.

The good news is that after multiple X-rays and a CT scan I didn't need surgery.  The bad news was that my hands still hurt and the best advice they had was to try aero bars.  I initially considered it, but for the amount of time that I'd be able to realistically use the aero bars I didn't see much advantage.  You can't safely use them on a crowded trail, uneven pavement, or twists and turns.  Steering is twitchy and I saw real potential for those bars to be more trouble than they'd be worth for me.  I'm not into randonneuring where they really can be an advantage.  I needed to start looking for other ways to help myself relieve the pressure on my hands.

First step was to find new gloves.  I took four different pair of gloves to get the doctor's opinion on.  These were the options I presented him with:
Top left going clockwise: Pearl Izumi Select, Specialized BG Gel, Specialized BG Comp, and QWI Nerve Protection.
I had heard from some cyclists that too much padding was bad - but for my situation I didn't think that could be the case.  The doctor agreed with me because he immediately picked out the two with the thickest padding, well distributed over the tender areas of my hands.  First choice were the Specialized BG Gel gloves and second choice were the Pearl Izumi Select.

You can see that the BG Gel gloves had lots of nice, thick padding.

These Pearl Izumi Selects also had pretty thick pads where I needed them.

The Specialized BG Comps had well distributed pads, but not nearly as thick.

The QWI gloves were the least padded.  What they had was thin and narrow, with nothing along the heel of the hand.  When I ordered these I paid close attention to the instructions on their website for taking measurements and selecting the proper size.  The gloves do fit my hands fairly well, however they're a bear to pull on and they feel much too tight at my wrists.

So far I've only tried the BG Gel gloves.  I started to slowly resume riding again with the new gloves while still searching for better options.  My first ride after almost two months off the bike was on a borrowed comfort bike.  I thought that perhaps the more upright position would take some pressure off my hands.  I  think it might have helped a bit, but it was hard to tell.  There were too many other things that were uncomfortable with the bike to try it long enough to really evaluate it.  What I did discover though, was that I liked the paddle shifters.  My bike has twist shifters and the paddles felt better to me.  This bike also had the ergonomic grips, and I liked the feel of those.  We kept that ride short and mostly level, sticking to the trails around the city that day.

Second day back on the bike and I wanted to try my own bike again.  I made it another short trip, but this one was all hills.  It's the nature of my neighborhood - there're no flat sections around here.  I tried to pay close attention to my hand positions and made an extra effort to watch how much pressure I was putting on them as I went up and down the hills.  I thought I was finding a way to manage the pain since it didn't seem likely that it was going to go away anytime soon.  After two more rides though, my idea of managing it seemed to be causing more issues.  As I tried to compensate for my hands I did things that caused tendonitis in my elbows.  Back to the drawing board.

Time to consult my bike fit guru again.  When I saw Matt his first suggestion was to change out the shifters.  I have to admit that I really loved hearing him say something that I'd already thought of. That warm fuzzy reinforced my instincts.  His next recommendation was different handlebars.  Also something I thought about, but I really didn't know how to choose which bars from all the options out there.  Matt initially showed me the Jones H Bar on line.  Then he said that the Surly open bar with 40mm rise might work just as well or even better.

When I went to have the parts ordered the mechanic took the bike back to look it over and make sure they weren't going to need to order any other parts.  A little while later I heard "We need to talk".  I said "Aw, Oh - you're breaking up with me.  Either that or this is going to be really expensive."  So... yeah - really expensive. We talked about it and I decided to put the transformation on hold while I considered my options.  The money isn't a big deal, but relative to the original cost of this particular bike (or the cost of a new bike) it's out of proportion.  It makes more sense to look at new bikes where I can test ride them to actually see if they're going to feel better to me.  I could sink all of that money into my current ride and then find out it isn't really an improvement.

In the meantime, I'm limiting my rides to shorter lengths with plenty of rest time.  I'm using the new gloves with the thickest padding and they seem to be helping.

Lesson 1: Riding shouldn't hurt.  If something does hurt it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.  Later makes it worse and takes longer to fix.

Lesson 2: While some advice on the street/trails (including blogs like this) might be good, it's no substitute for an actual expert.  A good orthopedic doctor and a good bike fit guru will give you advice that's specific to you.  It's so worth it.

Lesson 3: Patience, Grasshopper.  Some things require time to get better.  It also requires time to search out a new bike.  Over the next several weeks I'm going to be looking at options and trying very hard to not buy the first thing that looks good with a water bottle.