Gravel riding is now a bonafide industry market segment in the cycling world. The mainstream momentum for gravel riding has been building for several years. During a recent discussion with my editor Zapata Espinoza about preparing the Dirty Kanza (a 200-mile gravel ride), he asks the question – why I am getting lower back pain during gravel rides so much more often than when I ride on the road? Back pain is no joke and there are 100 reasons for back pain while riding a bicycle. It might be an overuse injury, poor bike setup, or even a herniated disc.
There and Back Again
Before delving into why our backs hurt, its useful to understand cycling’s origins. Many believe gravel riding novel concept, but it is quite the contrary. In the early days riding bicycles, roads were not paved, we were riding primarily on unpaved/dirt/gravel roads. With road infrastructure improving with time, road bike racing and riding is done almost entirely on paved roads. Gravel riding events are more popular than ever. The Dirty Kanza in Kansas, USA, is a 200 mile (320 km) gravel grinder and they even announced a 350-mile option for 2019. The Gravel Bike National Championship have popped up (non-USA Cycling event). In the UK, the Dirty Reiver is a 200 km off-road cycling challenge that takes place in Hexham, Northumberland.
100-mile Gravel Grinder “Ain’t” a 100-mile Gran Fondo
The key differences between gravel and road riding are that riding off-road creates more friction, higher constant torque while pedaling, more line changes, more walking, hiking, dismounts, etc. Fat squishy tires add resistance comparted to the skinny high PSI road tires on a paved surface. The number and size of trail obstacles can vary wildly, and generally come in the form of grass, rocks, roots and sand. Steep climbs and washboards also take more energy to ride. Trail obstacles slow riders down and increase the amount of physical effort required.
Is it the Knees or the Lower Back?
Whether it appears on the road or gravel, the causes are usually common. It’s natural to assume that when an overuse injury strikes, it’s your knees that will be most vulnerable. Surprisingly however, the research says otherwise. It seems the biggest culprit is not knee pain in cyclists – it’s lower back pain. When Norwegian scientists interviewed 100’s of professional road cyclists and looked at the types of overuse injuries, some startling facts emerged: over half of the cyclists had experienced back pain in the previous year. This seems counterintuitive since cycling is a low-impact sport and is often recommended for back pain sufferers.
Don’t Blame Your Bike
We have all been there – you have pain on the bicycle, it must be from improper bike set up. Certainly, correct bike set-up is crucial for back health (and we’ll come to that later), but in the study on elite cyclists above, they were supervised by experienced coaches with access to advanced facilities, so incorrect bike geometry wasn’t likely to have been a factor. The scientists concluded that rather than poor bike set-up, it was the cyclists’ impaired muscle control patterns in the lower back that led to poor movement patterns, specifically excessive flexion, resulting in lower back pain. The notion of impaired spinal-movement patterns as a major cause of lower-back pain in cyclists is also supported by Belgian research, which found that cyclists who were chronic lower-back pain sufferers, tended to ride with more flexion in the lower lumbar spine. They also tended to experience a steady increase in pain over a two-hour period compared to healthy cyclists.