No Stupid Questions: How Can I Avoid Neck, Shoulder & Wrist Pain On Long Gravel Rides?

A reader writes:

My biggest question/concern about my upcoming ride of the Carretera Austral (south to north, beginning in El Chaltén in 2.5 weeks) is: how do I deal with the jarring feeling of riding on packed gravel with my Surly LHT? In other words, without front suspension, what’s the best way to cushion my hands/wrists/arms/shoulders/neck from this chronic shaking/rattling/jostling?

Thanks for such a timely question! Seriously – how to avoid wrist, arm and neck pain when cycle touring, particularly on gravel roads, has been a hot topic for me recently.

Last summer – in an episode unrelated to cycle touring – I suffered a herniated cervical disc, resulting in a pinched nerve in my neck which disabled my right arm from the elbow downwards. For weeks I lived in a kind of sleepless, bed-ridden agony I’d never felt before. Only after months of scans and consultations, threats of spinal surgery, physical therapy, and the eventual healing of the condition did I feel confident enough to get back in the saddle for my spring 2023 cycle tour in New South Wales.

As you might imagine, in the time leading up to that bike trip, I expended great energies looking into ways to protect my neck, shoulders and wrists from further trauma when cycle touring – particularly on the hard-packed gravel roads I planned on riding. 

And since the rigid steel frameset of my custom-built expedition bike isn’t a million miles away from that of your Long Haul Trucker, I hope you’ll find some or all of the following ideas relevant. 

(I’ll include in this post the solutions I found but didn’t implement – as well as why I didn’t implement them – for the sake of completeness.)

It sounds like you’re making last-minute tweaks before setting out for the start of your cycle tour, so I’m aware time is short. 

Given that, one of the quickest and easiest to implement strategies for avoiding or reducing wrist, shoulder and neck pain on the rough roads of the Carretera Austral would be to fit the largest-volume tyres you can, and/or prepare to run your tyres at relatively low pressures.

Doing this won’t just bring maximum rubber into contact with the ground, improving traction on loose surfaces. Lowering your tyre pressure will increase the cushioning properties of that pressurised air, improving overall comfort too (at the slight cost of rolling resistance). And the higher the tyre volume, the more such cushioning you can bring into play.

You didn’t mention the manufacturing year of your frameset, but – unless I’m mistaken – later versions of the LHT differed very slightly to earlier ones in terms of frame geometry and tyre clearance. In any case, a look at Surly’s legacy bike archive should tell you the maximum tyre volume the frame and fork were designed to take. Full specifications and frame geometry for two previous versions of the LHT were listed at the time of writing, including tyre clearances for both 26-inch and 700C wheel size-compatible frames.

As for exactly what reduced pressure you should be running the tyres at, it depends on the tyre, the combined load of rider and luggage, and how the bike responds when you ride it. One starting rule of thumb is to take your preferred pressure for regular touring and halve it, as long as that doesn’t bring it below the tyre’s rated minimum (find this figure embossed on the sidewall). 

Go too low and you’ll risk pinch flats (aka: snakebites) in the short term and other potential complications later. Heavier loads will call for higher lower pressures, if you see what I mean. It might take a little time to get the balance right, and you might end up with different figures front and rear – this is not a problem. Needless to say, if you feel the rims slamming into the ground every time you hit a bump or sharp edge, add more air!

Letting down the tyres for every stretch of gravel, and then pumping them back up for asphalt, does mean lots of deflating and re-inflating tyres to fairly precise pressure figures.

You’ll already have a tyre pump in your toolkit, but I’d suggest making sure it’s efficient and durable enough for regular use, and has a pressure gauge so you can be more precise about lowering and raising tyre pressures once you’ve figured out what’s optimal.

In terms of compact tyre pumps for cycle touring, I’ve long used and recommended Topeak’s Road Morph G, as mentioned in my ultimate guide to assembling a fix-anything cycle touring or bikepacking toolkit.

While soft fatties will take the edge off the bumps and improve the overall ride, there are also some cockpit tweaks you might make specifically to combat the neck, wrist and shoulder pain associated with prolonged vibrations and similar repetitive micro-trauma while cycle touring or bikepacking.

For example, before my tour in Australia earlier this year, I swapped out my expedition bike’s generic riser handlebars for a set of butterfly bars, also known as trekking bars (in Europe at least). 

Some people love them, and some people hate them, often for the same reason: their hooped design means that – especially towards the unsupported ends – they tend to flex a lot more than other styles of handlebar. 

Riders of technical trails who like the precision handling of stiff aluminium flats or risers can find it hard to understand why anyone would choose such a sloppy means of controlling your steering. Riders who suffer wrist, shoulder or neck pain (or herniated cervical discs), on the other hand, understand very well!

Touring bikes are not exactly the most agile machines at the best of times, and I would argue that comfort over time is worth more than pinpoint accuracy on rooty singletrack. I wrote in more detail earlier this year about this handlebar swap, as well as other experimental upgrades to my expedition touring bike.

A technical aside: if you bought the LHT as a complete bike, it probably came with dropped handlebars. If that’s the case, it’ll be a little more involved to move over to butterfly bars (or other variations on flat bars), because you’ll also need to replace your brake levers, taking care to match the new levers to the cable pull of the existing calipers (road and mountain-bike components tend to differ in this way). If you have bar-end shifters, you might find bar mounts that’ll allow you to continue using them, but you’ll still have to work a little harder to pull off the conversion than if your bike already has flat bars and bar-mounted controls.

People who are deeper into the bikepacking gear scene than I am will doubtless have more suggestions in the handlebar department, but I will put in a special mention for Passchier, a small, New Zealand-based manufacturer of bamboo handlebars designed with your very concern in mind. 

In their own words: ‘we’ve engineered the natural flex of bamboo to create unsurpassed vibration reduction, ridding your muscles of that stiff and sore tingling that ruins a good ride and protecting your wrists for a long career behind your bars.’

Unfortunately I received my bars around the same time as my neck injury occurred, so I don’t yet have much in the way of long-term feedback, as the only long ride I’ve been on since I recovered was on another bike! My shorter test-rides suggest they’ll be far more pliable (in a good way) than the extruded aluminium bars they replaced. I can see them working very well for future dirt road rides, and will report back when I put that theory to the test.

You can get yet more comfort out of the front end of the cockpit as soon as you realise that not all grips are created equal.

A few years ago I (badly) re-wrapped the drops of my Kona Sutra with a new type of gel-backed bar tape called Fat Wrap (now known as Tasis Tape), and then embarked on an extremely mountainous ride across the Lesser Caucasus. 

Though I did an awful job of wrapping the bars, I instantly fell in love with the new tape. I’m still using it on the bike today, and it really hasn’t worn in any discernable way. 

I’m not the only fan: other rider reviews on the product webpage mention the tape’s vibration damping qualities and the consequent reduction in wrist pain and discomfort on long rides.

When, as mentioned above, I fitted the butterfly bars to my Oxford Bike Works Expedition, all I could get my hands on at short notice was some cheap Deda cork tape off eBay – and I spent the entire cycle tour in Australia wishing I’d ordered a couple more rolls of Tasis Tape in advance. It’s made a disproportionate difference for me in terms of wrist pain avoidance, and I’ll be re-wrapping the butterfly bars of the expedition tourer as soon as I get some more. 

(I happen to have an exclusive 10% discount on Tasis Tape to share with you; just use the code Tom10 on checkout here.)

Tasis Bikes, by the way, is a one-person business founded by fellow long haul cyclist Kent MacWilliam, who developed the tape after his own first long bike tour, having noticed a lack of bar tape offerings for cycle tourers looking primarily for comfort on long rides.

For bikes with flat bars or some variant thereof, you may have noticed the growing ubiquity of so-called ergonomic grips, the most oft-cited of which are sold under the Ergon brand. 

Rather than vibration damping or cushioning, such grips offer increased wrist support compared to regular, cylindrical grips, essentially giving you a platform to rest your palms on, and are available in various materials, lengths, and other options (they even have a Rohloff shifter-specific pair). Bar-ends can be integrated or added afterwards, giving you a variety of hand positions to choose from, which in turn can help relieve wrist and arm discomfort.

I count myself as a convert. I originally had a pair of Ergon GP1 BioKork grips fitted to my expedition bike, then moved the same pair over to my vintage bikepacking rig when I built it up for a long off-road ride in 2019. (Mine are the cork variety – I do prefer the feel, but they’ve proved more susceptible to damage over time than rubber.)

The downside is that they aren’t exactly cheap – at least the genuine ones aren’t at 40–90 Euros a pair, depending on options – although their popularity in spite of the price says a lot in the not-very-spendy world of cycle touring.

A final idea that I’ve never personally tried, but have heard from many people who have, is to install a suspension seatpost.

I’ll admit that I used to think suspension seatposts were basically a weird way of compensating for riding the wrong bike. But I’ve since heard from enough proponents to accept that there might be legitimate benefits to fitting a suspension seatpost to a touring bike. It’s one more thing to go wrong, which in traditional schools of thought is a red flag, and there are certainly plenty of cheap, wobbly and ineffective products around. However, certain models – the Cane Creek Thudbuster comes to mind – have been around for long enough and have gathered enough fans to have proven their pedigree.

The reason I haven’t tried one myself? Partly because of the cost, and partly because my sprung saddle – a 16-year-old Brooks Flyer – does a reasonably good job of busting thuds already. I doubt it’s quite as effective as the seatpost would be, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the springs do obstruct me from using a seatpost pack in conjunction with the saddle, and the same may be true for some suspension seatpost and seatpost pack combinations, so do check before going down this route.

Before wrapping up my answer, I think it’s worth taking a look how your question has been formed. It sounds like you see potential riding discomfort largely as a function of your bike and how it’s set up – an equipment problem, in other words.

While bike design and setup is certainly a major factor, I’d suggest there are other angles from which you might look at the subject. For example, because neck, shoulder and wrist pain are common complaints among cyclists in general, you’ll find doctors, coaches, sports therapists, yoga influencers, etc, advising a variety of physical exercises. This can both help alleviate post-riding pain and discomfort in the wrists, shoulders, neck, and elsewhere, and help strengthen specific muscle groups to be more resilient to such issues.

My personal experience is also in line with this. One of the most useful insights from my neck rehabilitation process last year was my physiotherapist’s observation that while cyclists, runners and walkers tend to have good cardiovascular fitness and lower body strength, they also tend to be disproportionately weak in the upper body, and particularly from the neck upwards. Strength training is therefore the counterbalance.

Obviously I’m not a qualified healthcare professional, and I mention this purely as an anecdote, but I can feel the difference the neck-focused routine – just a handful of free-weight exercises done three times a week – has made to my overall fitness and confidence while out riding. 

All in all, your underlying concern seems to be that the specifics of your bike might lead to suffering down the road. And some might argue convincingly that there are more appropriate, more comfortable bikes on which to tackle the Carretera Austral than an ageing Long Haul Trucker.

In my view at least, however, the spirit of adventure isn’t about optimising everything to have the smoothest and most pleasant experience possible. It’s about working with what you have, accepting that the perfect circumstances don’t exist, and doing it anyway, taking the rough with the smooth – as I’m sure you already know.

Hope this helps!

Comments (skip to respond)

7 responses to “No Stupid Questions: How Can I Avoid Neck, Shoulder & Wrist Pain On Long Gravel Rides?”

  1. Hi Tom
    Have you had an opportunity to test the tbamboo bars yet?

  2. J Ian Tait avatar

    Great article. Thanks.

  3. Well done Tom, an excellent article. Most especially for us somewhat more vintage riders.

    One simple suggestion; Try to avoid death-gripping the bars. Loosen your grip and let the bars float and breathe under cupped hands. Couple this with some fingerless padded gloves and your body will sigh with relief.

    1. Thanks Richard, that’s a very good tip – and one that works even better in conjunction with ergonomic grips, in my experience!

  4. Ferruccio avatar

    hi Tom, I have used ergonomic grips for more than 10 years, I use cheap versions, they come at around 20 euros or less but they do their job very well.
    they have been a game changer as far as comfort is concerned.

    1. Good to know – thank you! Feel free to share the brand/retailer of the grips you use (I have no affiliation with Ergon).

Something to add?