Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sore Hands

Ever since I started riding bicycles with drop bars, I've had a very particular issue with my hands. I turned to drop bars in the first place because straight bars -- even with Ergon grips -- made my wrists hurt. I thought it made sense to place my hands in front of me at a natural, neutral angle and drop bars seemed to offer the best opportunity to do that. I fit my brake levers so that they "toe in", which helps even further.

All well and good. Except that every pair of gloves and mitts (fingerless gloves) that I've tried have seams placed right across the part of the hand in contact with the bars, especially in my favoured position over the hoods.

On short rides, this is not a problem. On longer rides, however, those seams begin to press and chafe and then hurt in such a way that sometimes I cycle for miles at a time with my attention reduced down to a small focal point fixated on the pain in my hands.

And then when the gloves come off, I find this --

If it's any "consolation" (which it's not), I do develop thick scaly calluses right where those red patches are, but it takes nearly the whole summer for them to develop, which means a summer of painful hands and then with a cessation of long (50+ mile) rides over the winter, the callus disappear and Spring sees the whole cycle repeat itself. 

I've tried a wide range of gloves in my quest for a style that does not have seams across the web of my hand between thumb and forefinger. In my personal collection are several from Specialized (mostly from their Body Geometry range, both mens and womens, as the fit and gel pad placement otherwise suit me very well), Gore, Pearl Izumi and Altura. Most have gel pads as I prefer these to foam or imitation leather pads. If it were not for this particular seam placement complaint, I'd be very happy with Specialized, with Gore an acceptable runner up. 

Specialized BG Gel Mitt (Womens)

Specialized BG Gel Mitt (Womens)

Specialized BG Gel Mitt (Womens):
view down onto the gusset between thumb and forefinger --
with seams running right across the webbing of the hand. 

Gore:  panels of a very different shape but again with seams across the web. 

a Pearl Izumi model:  same problem

a Pearl Izumi model:  same problem

a different Pearl Izumi model: well broken in and soft but again,
where are those bl**dy seams?

Ah yes.... right THERE!

I know I'm not the only one who has experienced this:  on several night rides, we women have gathered in the toilets, gloves off, comparing (competing?!) our degrees of swelling and redness and despairing over how needlessly painful this problem is and how preventable it should be.

Lara, the editor of Womens Cycling magazine, posted a call-out on Twitter a few weeks ago for lists of items that readers would like reviews and recommendations on. I pitched in immediately with "gloves please!" and watched in some amazement as many other women chimed in with the same request. I don't know if they all have the same problem as I do, but I'd hazard a guess that it's a more common problem than manufacturers and designers have been willing to acknowledge to date.

In any case, Lara replied to me with a strong recommendation that I look into Prendas' range, in particular their "Summer Track Mitt". I studied the information on the website and, after getting confirmation from Prendas that the padding is made of gel not foam, I ordered a pair.  Here they are.

The big advantage to these over every pair of mitts I've worn is that they are indeed designed for road cyclists who spend a lot of time with their hands on the hoods. The areas shown here with white honey-combed mesh are all well padded. 

But... those padded areas are not any wider than on any other gloves, so the seams at their edges are... guess where? You got it:  right across the web of the hand. 

And, the fabric lining the interior of the glove is a kind of mesh, the texture of which I can feel imprinting itself -- I'll even say embedding itself -- in the entire palm of my hand as I cycle. Further, the whiter mesh panels between the fingers also have "large pores" that feel thick between the fingers. Not as painful as the seams at the edges of the padded areas, but it's distracting. 

I have yet to wear these gloves for more than 20 miles and don't think I'll be attempting to. The padding may be nice but the seams will, once again, be a nightmare. 

I am really at my wit's end over this. I am astounded that no cycling apparel brand seems to have spotted what I feel to be a glaringly problematic design flaw and come up with a solution. I've mentioned it to a few of the women designers with start-up apparel brands, notably Anna Glowinski of Ana Nichoola, but nothing has come of that yet. 

I'll just mention, I've seen one pair of mitts from Santini that appears to keep all of its seams well away from the tender webbing of the hand, but they were Mens and by far the ugliest mitts I've ever seen: shiny "sticky" fabric with huge seam allowances that surely must irritate somewhere even if not in the webbing. And the sizing proportions were all wrong for women:  very broad palms even in size small. Those were never going to be a "runner" for me. 

So -- I put the call out there -- does anyone know of any gloves that do fit comfortably for hours at a time with all the panels designed intelligently enough to not place uncomfortable seams right where they shouldn't be? With less than two months to go before setting off for Scotland, I am really feeling a bit desperate. 

Update - 1 May 2014

Thank you to everyone who has been in touch here or via Twitter about this subject.

I can reassure you all that bike fit is not the problem -- just click on "bike fitting" and "custom" in the Content Cloud to the left to see what my journey has been thus far! I am 100% comfortable on my new custom road bike. The weight distribution between hands, feet and seat is perfect. The optimal design for a road bike has to take into consideration not just your fit but how your weight distribution affects the bike's handling. Yes, I ride with my hands on the brake hoods more often than not but for good reasons: this position puts your "front end" nearly over the front wheel axle, which is the best neutral position for good handling. Yes, I could stop riding with my hands on the hoods but that's not the best for my body position or for bike handling. And it's a red herring anyway:  the problem is chafing from seams, not weight on my hands. 

I've had a couple of interesting suggestions as to glove options. I particularly liked the lateral thinking from @ClodhopperRides in Iowa:  high dexterity construction gloves! Unfortunately, being water/chemical proof, they aren't breathable. Nor is the fabric stretchy or fitted enough to be comfortable while cycling. And... I really need fingerless mitts for summer cycling, as that's the season when I get the opportunity to do longer rides and cycle touring, which is when the problem arises.

Also, there is a question of fit. Men's and women's hands are proportioned differently. Go on -- grab the hand of someone of the opposite sex (who won't slap you for your impertinence) and check out how the thumb joins up to the palm. Also men's palms are wider, in proportion to finger length. Interesting stuff. This is why many bicycle clothing brands make gloves in both men's fit and women's fit. It's not just marketing cr*p. 

What next? I could of course ride barehanded. I could also "man up" and wear painful gloves - and display my calluses with pride! I may be forced to go down that road, but for now I'm not prepared to resign myself to that. I was a hand model in my youth and am proud to have reached middle-age with soft, supple smooth skin and would prefer to keep it as long as I can. (I don't have calluses even on the soles of my feet. Just sayin'.)

I really believe that someone out there somewhere makes gloves that are more thoughtfully designed than most. Surely some designer somewhere does not want customers to meekly accept badly-placed seams that press into and rub tender skin. 

So please keep the suggestions coming! It would be most helpful to hear from someone who has experienced the problem personally and has found a glove that does not cause it. Women's fit would be ideal! Gel padding in the palm would be icing on the cake but I'm open to compromise on that.  

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