Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Five Bicycle Hardware Tips for Older Riders

Two older bicyclsts on bicycle trail in Venice Florida
Older Bicyclists on Legacy Trail in Venice, Florida.
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
It’s not uncommon to see a 50- or 60- or even 70-year-old riders hunched over bicycles that look like they belong in the Tour de France. Those bikes are designed to reduce air resistance by bending the body into the shape of pretzel. I am sure it is thrilling to go fast on such bikes, but for the average older rider, it’s a very uncomfortable position. The back gets sore, the hands go numb and the knees complain. There is a better way.

Tips for younger bike riders are frequent in magazines and on websites. Advice for the older bicyclists is uncommon, despite the fact that some people ride well into their 70s and 80s. Even young riders eventually grow old facing problems such as sore backs and swollen knees. To continue enjoying riding what I call the "Happiness Machine," older riders need to forget advice geared towards younger enthusiasts and bicycle racing. To compensate for the stiffness and inevitable consequences of aging, older riders can make some sensible changes to both bikes and riding techniques.

Adjust the Old Bike or Buy a New One

Many older adults may dig out a bike hanging in their garage or basement and take it out for a spin. They then become discouraged because they are no longer young adults and the bike doesn't fit them. In this article, I focus on hardware changes that can allow older riders to continue to experience the joy of bicycling. With a few modifications, such older bikes can give a comfortable ride for older adults. An alternative to modifying older bikes is to purchase a new one. Today there are many inexpensive new bikes for sale that are designed for seniors.

The advice in this article goes against much of all the conventional wisdom dished by bicycle experts who emphasize fast riding, races and endurance events. The majority of older riders do not need a bicycle designed for such events. They need a bike that is calibrated for recreation or going to the corner store. With a few adjustments, it’s possible to ride enjoyably even into your 80s. Not explored here is that the departments of transportation also discourage older adults from cycling because most infrastructure provided for bicyclists is clearly biased towards younger riders. This will be addressed in another article.

Even if this advice does not work due to a particular disability, recumbents or 3 wheel bikes can keep older adults moving. Much of what is in this article is from my own experience of over 60 years of riding a bicycle, but I have also benefited from the book Just Ride by Grant Petersen (2012).

Raise the Handlebars above the Seat

I rode for several years with my handlebars below the seat on my LeMond Poprad cross bicycle. After riding my back would ache. I finally decided to raise the handlebars with a stem extender (figure 1). After installing this extender, my position on the bike is like sitting in a comfortable chair.

LeMond Bicycle against on deck with fence in background
Figure 1. 2008 LeMond Poprad with Raised Handlebars
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
Many new and older bikes have seats which are higher than the handlebars. This pitches one over into a low riding position that can cause older backs to protest and necks to ache. More expensive “elite” bikes tend to have worst features for older riders. Save some money, don’t buy such bikes. There are some ways to transform both old and new bikes into senior friendly bicycles. These changes help the back and neck, putting them in a more natural position.

To raise the handlebars above the seat it is necessary to understand that there are two types of headsets featured on most bicycles. The headset is the set of components at the front of the bicycle just below the handlebars that allow the bicycle front wheel to turn from side to side. The two types include threaded headsets found on most older bikes and threadless headsets that are standard on newer bicycles. New bikes with threadless headsets are harder to adjust than the older threaded headsets.

Threaded Headsets. Older and even some less expensive newer bikes have threaded headsets. Minor adjustments to the handlebar height on such bikes can be accomplished by loosening the stem and just pulling it out an inch or two (video for removal technique). However, due to safety concerns, stems on threaded headsets can only be pulled out so far.

It may be necessary to change the stem to one that is longer. This is illustrated by my old Raleigh bicycle that I now use for riding locally to stores and to the gym (figure 2). I have a new Nitto quill stem that is over 8 inches long compared to a normal stem that is generally 4 inches in length. The longer Nitto stem is a perfect height and results in a very comfortable riding position on the bike. This configuration raises the handlebars two inches above the seat. But be aware that switching to a longer stem may or may require changing the brake or derailleur cables.

Old Raleigh bicycle handlebars and 8" stem
Figure 2. 1971 Raleigh Record with 8 Inch Stem on Threaded Headset
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
Threadless Headset. The threadless headset is common on most modern bicycles. Making meaningful adjustments for handlebar height on a threadless headset is quite difficult. This is because threaded headsets have narrow spacers. Moving them around only impacts the handlebar height by fractions of an inch.

To really impact the height of a threadless headset it's necessary to install a stem extender, as illustrated on my Lemond Poprad (figure 3). The adapter sits over the steerer tube and allows an adjustment in handlebar height of 2-4 inches depending on the model. With the stem adapter in place, my back angle changed to a more comfortable 45 degrees. Installing the stem extender is not difficult for someone with knowledge of bike repair, but it can be complicated if the brake or gear cables can’t accommodate the higher height of the handlebars. In such a case it would be a good idea to have the stem extender mounted by a mechanic at a local bike shop.

Stem Extender on bicycle
Figure 3. Stem Extender on Threadless Headset on 2008 LeMond Poprad
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
Cruiser Bikes. Some older adults are drawn towards cruiser bicycles. For cruiser bicycles, the hand position is quite high. The sitting position is very upright on such bicycles and this gives relief to the back. Unfortunately, this position inevitably puts weight on your backside. Cruisers are quite comfortable to ride over short distances, but for longer rides, one’s weight needs to be distributed more evenly on hands and seat.

To conclude, a comfortable riding position for older riders is fairly unique for each individual. However, for most older adults, as a good rule of thumb, the handlebars should be between 1 and 4 inches above the seat in order to attain a comfortable position. For those looking for a totally upright position and don’t plan on riding long distances, then the cruiser bicycle is a good choice.

Install Wide Tires, Not Narrow Ones

I have ridden narrow high-pressure road bike tires for years, but now much of my riding is on the C&O Canal which is packed dirt. As a consequence, I installed tires which are 38mm on my 700cc wheels (Figure 4). This tire has a pressure rating range from 36 to 87 PSI. These are the largest tires that will fit on my Lemond Poprad, and they have made a huge difference in ride comfort. The change from the original 28mm tires may not seem like much, but the performance on gravel and dirt roads was dramatic.

Michelin Bicycle tires with PSI and Size Lettering
Figure 4. Wider Tires and Lower Pressure Increase Bicycle Comfort
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
Wider tires generally have a fairly wide range of tire pressure ratings. The possibility of riding on lower or higher air pressure gives the flexibility to make air pressure adjustments according to the style of ride. If I am riding on a packed dirt or gravel path, then I set the tire pressure at about between 40 and 50 PSI. The lower pressure provides a softer ride because there is more air between the rim and the ground. I really appreciate the smoother ride and don’t mind that the bike is slightly more difficult to pedal. When I am riding on the road I set the pressure to 60 or 70 PSI or even higher. This higher pressure makes the bicycle easier to pedal on smoother surfaces. One reason people like mountain bikes is that they generally come with wider tires that have lower pressure ratings and give a more comfortable ride.

Use Platform Pedals, Not Clip Ons

A while ago I was riding my old road bike. At the time the bike still had pedals with old school straps and clips. As I was approaching Georgetown in Washington, DC, I decided to stop and take in the view of the famous Watergate Hotel. Instead of putting my foot our for a graceful stop, my landing foot was stuck in the pedal and I crashed to the pavement with a loud clatter. Suffering only minor cuts and bruises, I luckily hurt nothing more than my pride.

Due to this experience and others like it, platform pedals are a good choice for older riders. There is no more helpless feeling than coming to a stop and not being able to get your foot off the peddle. In the past, I have used pedals with straps and I got very proficient at getting in and out of them. Also, I have tried clip on pedals and they were fine. However, for older riders it takes just one fall cause serious damage. Platform pedals are a safer choice.

Platform pedals were developed for trail and BMX bikes so that riders could quickly exit and mount the bike without difficulty. Clip on pedals involve a system in which a special shoe actually clips into the pedal. Most accomplished riders learn to clip their feet into and out of the pedals easily, but in rare instances, the clip on systems can malfunction. Also, the fixed clip on the shoe of the pedal system does not allow riders to move their feet around if any soreness or numbing occurs. Older riders also may have bunions and they may have difficulty finding shoes with the right fit. This whole shoe-pedal clip on setup is also much more expensive than platform pedals. Basic platform pedals are very reasonably priced at about 20 dollars a pair.

Platform pedals come in two main versions. One version has small screws or pins coming out of the pedal and they really grip the rubber soles of athletic shoes (figure 5). There is a danger that the pins which are fairly sharp can cut your legs if you get off your bike awkwardly. However, I really like these pedals and use them almost every day.

Two pictures of platform bicycle pedals
Figure 5 Platform Pedals with and without Pins.
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
The second version platform pedals are flat without any pins. They don’t grip the shoe as well, but they also will not cause injury if you leg scrapes against them. There is an in-between model as well with rubber pins to add for extra grip.

I learned a useful lesson from toppling over without any cause except my pedals. I now stick with platform pedals and I recommend them for older adults who generally are less athletic than in younger riders.

Find a seat that fits just right

Seats are very personal. Unfortunately, sometimes you may have to purchase several seats before you settle on the right one. There are some rules of thumb for older riders. Stay away from the extremely narrow expensive seats that are found on the high-end racing bicycles. Also, don’t be fooled by the maxim that wider is better. Wider seats cause chafing between the legs. Seat sizes of 6-8 inches wide are generally a better choice (figure 6). Some seats also are made specifically for women who obviously have a different anatomy from men.

Three bicycle seats side by side on wood background
Figure 6.  Bicycle Seats Come in All Shapes and Sizes.
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
A more upright position may be advisable if you have shoulder, elbow or severe back issues. Bicycles with a more upright position often come with seats that have springs. If done right, the springs are a welcome addition because this upright position puts more pressure on your backside. Again, overly wide seats are fine for short distances but can lead to chafing on long rides. Don’t fall for the cushy-looking gel bicycle seats or covers. The gel gets squeezed up into areas where it should not go (Petersen 2012).

Bags should go on Racks, not on Backs

Backpacks raise the center of mass on the bike and lead to a less stable ride at slow speeds, not to mention more stress on the back. Don’t be fooled or feel inferior due to putting a rack on the back of any bike. Today we are blessed with a wide variety of rear and front bicycle racks along with seat, frame and handlebar bags. Even the front basket is better than the backpack, but make sure to have a bungee cord available. You don’t want your precious goods flying out of the basket after riding over a bump.

Better yet, consider having two bikes. I have one bike I ride for exercise and recreation and it does not have a rack. I have another bike for riding to the store or to the gym and it has both a rack and the possibility of mounting one or two panniers (figure 7).

Slow moving vehicle sign on picycle pannier
Figure 7. Rear Rack and Pannier on Commuting and Around Town Bike
(Photo: Doug Barnes)

Ride Comfortably, Not Competitively

For most older riders the goal is to get either from point a to point b or just to get some exercise. High stress, fast riding can actually be bad for the health of older riders. Nothing is wrong with stressful workouts, but with age, the competitive desires of youth fade and you are content with a slower, more beneficial pace. Trying to mimic youthful rides may mean ending up with unnecessary aches and pains and even injuries. The goal is to strike a balance between too much or too little stress in your life.

Of course, there are other things older riders should do besides having the right bicycle. These include staying hydrated, practicing going around curves, feeling comfortable with potholes maneuvers and sticking to low volume streets or dedicated paths.

Step through frames can help riders with hip or other problems who can’t lift their legs over the crossbar. Due to modern engineering, these bikes are just as strong and light as the bicycles with the diamond style frame. If you have to purchase a new bike because you need a step-through frame, then consider purchasing a one that has the other features that will help you ride in the mature years. Finally, be aware that step-through frame bicycles require a crossbar adaptor for putting the bike on a rear car rack. They are not expensive.

The above five tips are rules of thumb. So, feel free to mix and match any, all or none of them according to your riding ability and how long you have been bicycling. Or you may be inclined just to buy a new bike with higher handlebars, comfortable seats and flat, double-sided pedals. We all eventually have to bow to the reality of aging, and small adjustments can keep you healthy on the road or bicycle path.

Sitting is now being documented as being unhealthy for all kinds of reasons, including back problems and raising blood pressure. Riding a bicycle has the opposite impact. The right bicycle has the potential to bring happiness and health. It reduces stress and improves physical, mental and emotional health. With the proper bike, older riders can start with short distances and build up slowly. Longer rides will come naturally. Find the right bike, make the necessary adjustments, and just ride.


Petersen, Grant. 2012. Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bicycle. New York: Workman Publishing.


  1. Great article Doug! Will post on our Friends of the Legacy Trail social media! Lots of great advice here to get people who have been off bikes since they turned into adults back on bikes again!

  2. Doug. I'm 57 and I just had a hard fall on my road bike going about 17 mph that resulted in lots of road rash, bruised hip, 3 fractured ribs and a cracked helmet that prevented me from getting a concussion. After the crash, my bike wheels were true and only a few scratches on the brake handles, so I was able to finish the last 5 miles home. My wife's not happy and wants me to quit riding so I'm trying to remake my bike so it's safer for someone older, like myself. I like your idea of wider tires, and I was thinking of going with straight handles bars, replacing my drop downs. Do you think I would have greater control with straight handle bars? Thank you, Steve.

    1. Before doing that which involves quite a few changes (new brakes, new handlebar, may new cables, etc.), I would raise the handlebars with the stem extender (if you have threadless headset). Also, you might think of putting some cross (in line) brake levers (link below). They keep you from bending over to grab the brakes. I have this setup on my bike and it works fine. I use the cross in line brakes 90 percent of the time.

      I have 38 mm wide tires on my bike, but you may want to have a bike shop check it out to see if you have room for the wider tire.

      Please don't quit riding. I am 15 years older than you!


  3. Came back from my 1st ride in 5 years and Googled "adult bike settings for older men" (I'm 70+) and amazingly brought up your post - PERFECTLY on target! I will try your advice...and thanks a LOT!

    1. I am in the same age bracket and still riding. Good luck with your bike adjustments.

  4. Fully in agreement with the spirit of the article. I bought a gravel bike which meets many of the criteria you mention.

    You mention that you had in mind another article. It sounds interesting:

    "Not explored here is that the departments of transportation also discourage older adults from cycling because most infrastructure provided for bicyclists is clearly biased towards younger riders. This will be addressed in another article."
    - Bart

    1. Okay. I will work on a posting. In the meantime, you can see where I will be going by looking at my article on gender.


    2. Thanks Douglas! Read it, very helpful. My city is updating its bike and pedestrain plan, so I'm boning up on these ideas. -Bart