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The Comforts and Controversies of Ergonomic Bike Seats

The first time you cycle farther than the corner store, you learn how a comfortable seat makes the difference between an exhilarating and an excruciating journey. The seat has always been the first bike component I’ve modified, as I have less than fond memories of the hard plastic banana seat of my otherwise cool first bike.

Exactly what makes a seat “ergonomic” is a matter of debate. Does the comfort factor come from extra padding, suspension, a special shape, or the angle of the rider (upright, leaning forward, or recumbent)? To me, the only rule of bike-seat nirvana is that our very individuality of form and preference require you to test what’s available rather than relying solely on others’ advice and claims from manufacturers.

Some riders appreciate extra padding in the form of either a thicker seat or a gel cover. However, others find the padding as aggravating as too-soft couches that cause you to sink down into the seat, where you get overly familiar with the harder structural components. (Hence, some long-distance riders actually prefer a hard but anatomically correct seat.) Some seats feature central channels that purportedly take pressure off sensitive parts of the anatomy. Unfortunately, for some riders, these channels can trap soft tissue and decrease rather than increase ventilation. That’s why the relationship between the bumps and recesses of the seat and your individual shape is more important than whether or not the seat is padded or channeled. Is the seat wide enough to support your “sit bones”? Does any part pinch or squash a part of you? Does the seat force you to pedal like a cowboy to keep pressure off sensitive areas (risking injury to your knees)? Do the seams leave imprints on your tush? It may take a few miles of riding for these problems to appear, so don’t hesitate to take your potential new seat for a test ride.

Don’t overlook the possibility of the seat being set too low or high for you. I’ve encountered many a rider who could wear his/her knees as earrings because of a seat that’s too low. Have a friend hold your handlebars steady so you can put both feet on the pedals and spin backward. At the lowest point of the pedal’s arc, your knee should be just about straight, but not locked, without having to point your toe. Novice cyclists may set their seats too low because they want to stay seated when they come to a stop and are afraid of falling over. This is where practice, rather than a fancy new seat, comes in.

Adequate suspension is important for those who ride on rough roads, and not just gravel or dirt roads. Many paved roads have sketchy pavement on the shoulders, plus potholes and gravel and other debris. If your travels take you through a velo-minefield, consider a mountain bike or hybrid to give you some bounce as you navigate the craters.

Recumbent cycles have the ultimate in comfort: a chair-like seat that supports your back and puts you into a reclined position. Once you get used to the new demands on your leg muscles from this angle, you may never go back. Just make sure the seat is far enough forward or back for near-full leg extension and absence of torque on the knees (a potential problem with models where your buttocks is below your feet).

When it comes to being in the (bike) saddle, what’s beneath your posterior should not be beneath your notice!


The Pregnant Lady Express: The Final Frontier…Um, Trimester

The group of touring cyclists passes me at the bottom of my favorite three- mile hill. As the hill steepens, I expect to catch up, as I usually do, for I know this hill well. It’s tempting to put a sign on my back saying, “You’ve just been passed by the pregnant lady express,”  but such pride could invite disaster, such as getting passed en masse by rac- ers in gorilla suits.

The decision of whether or not to keep riding into late pregnancy is an individual one and should be made on the basis of how you feel and what your health-care provider recommends, neither of which a newspaper column can predict. In the third trimester, your passenger is more exposed to the world than ever, and that includes your handlebars, the road surface, and anything else you’d hit in case you had an accident. Risks you’re willing to take under other circumstances should be reevaluated in light of the safety of your offspring, which is why I wouldn’t be rid- ing at this time if I lived in a city and had to mingle with traffic.

Equipment makes a difference too. My folding bike gives me an upright seating position, like a cruiser, so my belly doesn’t get in the way of pedal- ing. This is even less of an issue on our recumbent tandem. Neither of these setups compromises my balance. If you want to keep riding but find yourself getting in your own way, consider switching to a steed with a more relaxed seating posture and that does not compromise your balance (definitely not a racing-style bike). With the added weight of your little one, what was once slight exertion can cause shortness of breath. I stick with the rule that if I can talk to my husband  and co-rider, I’m not working too hard. You might also notice practice (Braxton-Hicks) contractions while exercising (cycling or otherwise). For me, if they persist, I rest, drink water, and wait for them to subside.

They can appear from exertion or dehydration (to which mothers-to-be are susceptible), as well as from the uterus’ efforts to stay toned before birth, but you don’t want them to develop into early labor. Again, please talk with your healthcare provider about your unique circumstances; mine go away after a short rest, but yours could behave differently. It’s essential to stay aware of what your body’s doing so you know when to take a break. If you’ve been active before pregnancy, you probably have a good idea of your limits, but you’ll need to adjust your expectations to your changing state, with your provider as guide and sounding board. If you and your provider decide you should put your bike away for now, don’t worry: walking is a superb form of exercise you can continue until you’re ready to give birth, as long as your provider agrees that this is safe.

Staying active (even if you can’t do it throughout the pregnancy) has been demonstrated to lead to shorter labor times, reduced discomfort in labor, and fewer interventions—as well as babies who are more easily soothed and more interested in their environment (and hence learn more readily). When you’re ready to return to physical activity after the birth, you may end up becoming fitter than you were before pregnancy—hauling that extra weight can turn you into IronMom, and folks trying to pass you on a three-mile hill had better beware.


An Ode to Alder

An Ode to Alder

It has been brought to my attention that there was recently a massive alder kill near Naselle, caused by the application of herbicide to eradicate knotweed near the banks of a stream. To add insult to injury, evidently tansy ragwort, another so-called noxious weed, replaced the some of the knotweed killed in the attack. And most of the knotweed survived.

Now some of you are probably saying “good riddance” to the alders that were sacrificed in the name of invasive species destruction. Alders are considered noxious weeds themselves by many in the area, though they are not on any official lists that would doom them to oblivion. They certainly have some of the characteristics of invasive species, such as the ability to take over a field or garden, but they are native to the Pacific Northwest, so they can’t be invasive, by definition.

My son brought home a red alder (Alnus rubra) sapling 6 years ago that he got at school from Weyerhaeuser. I planted it in our backyard, which I was converting from a lawn with a treed border to a (mostly) native forest. This 10-inch twig is now a 30-foot (give or take a few) tree, dwarfing most of the other trees in the yard.

Not only did this tree grow amazingly fast, but it seems to have spawned a small forest of alders. Now it could be that the younger alders now growing in my yard came from neighboring properties, or just from birds, but I think our original alder is probably the proud mama and papa. So I can vouch for the alder’s ability to grow and spread quickly.

But I don’t have a plan for eradication of my alders.

In fact, I love alders. They seem to me the perfect deciduous tree for the garden. They require almost no care, grow quickly, have beautiful leaves and structure, and most importantly, fix nitrogen in the soil, supplying fertilizer not only to themselves, but to neighboring plants.

A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for alders gave me more reasons to love them. The catkins (fruit) of some alder species are edible (though bitter), and rich in protein. The wood of certain alder species is often used to smoke various food items, especially salmon and other seafood (I still fondly remember eating my son’s catch from a fishing trip some years back after it was prepared by a neighbor and cooked over alder planks).

It turns out most of the pilings that form the foundation of Venice were made from alder trees.

Alder bark contains the anti-inflammatory salicin, which is metabolized into salicylic acid in the body. Native Americans accordingly used red alder bark to treat poison oak, insect bites, and skin irritations. Blackfeet Indians used an infusion made from the bark of red alder to treat lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis. Recent clinical studies have verified that red alder contains betulin and lupeol, compounds shown to be effective against a variety of tumors.

(I particularly like this one.) Electric guitars, most notably the Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster, have been built with alder bodies since the 1950s.

And of course, alder is used in making furniture and cabinets and other woodworking products.

Red alder is harvested in Oregon as a commercial hardwood, and according to the OSU Wood Innovation Center, is about 60% of the hardwood inventory in the state. So others see the value of this amazing tree too.

On my weekday walks to and from work, I get to first pass a lot down the street that is being colonized by alder (with some Scotch broom), and then the woods that line Irving Avenue on the east side of town. These woods seem to be predominantly alder, after logging in the 90s and the recent Great Gale of 2007. You can see conifers growing up in between the alders, biding their time until the fast-growing deciduous trees die off and allow them to dominate once again (if we let them). It’s a beautiful place, born of the landslides of the 1950s, and I hope we have the foresight to let it evolve in peace.

Well, our amazing Indian summer is bound to come to a close sometime soon, and I promised my wife that I will prune the alders in our back yard when their leaves are gone. I won’t have anything big enough for a Stratocaster or a chair, but maybe I can use some of the wood to smoke some salmon. Alder – the gift that keeps on giving!