Handlebar Palsy

Hello,
Been zwifting since April.
Now that I’m getting much fitter, my zwift rides are getting longer. Started recently the Everst Challance so have been doing the Tour of Fire and Ice with 1161m climb and Ven-Top with 1534m climb.
These rides for me are around 2 hours long, but I usually ride one day and rest the next day.

Recently I’ve noticed some numbness in my left pinky and ring finger and also weakness in the hand generally in the same area, from some research it’s a common issue among cyclists, known as Handlebar Palsy.

Originally the bike store did my fit for my new bike, Cannondale Synapse, which is an endurance bike and I also use padded gloves that have the fingertips exposed.

Any ideas or suggestions on how to resolve this issue and how to prevent it going forward?

Thank you.

Hi @Guy_Fisher

I’d strongly recommend you make an appointment with a good bike fitter in your area.

Despite 30 years of cycling, I hadn’t had a professional fit me until this year, and learned that my saddle position was way off. This in turn put a lot of unnecessary strain on my neck and shoulders. My fitter measured my shoulders and had me try 44cm bars vs my usual 42 cm bars,. While subtle, the wider bars opened up my chest, and put my wrists in a more comfortable position.

Having an expert eyeball your position and make adjustments (fairly large adjustments in my case) can reduce pain, and improve performance. In my case, my calves no longer cramp up around mile 40-50 because they’re working more efficiently.

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I second the recommendation for a professional bike fit. It’s the best bike-related investment that you can make.

I purchased the bike at the peak of the COVID panic, so the store would only fit me using an iPad app due to the social distancing.
Now that the rules are a little more relaxed, maybe I’ll go do a proper physical fit.

Thank you,.

I concur with the bike fit recommendation. In the meantime, though. be sure to change your hand position regularly to avoid too long of pressure in one area. (Same for getting out of the saddle regularly.) Because the bike is in a more fixed position on the trainer than it would be IRL there can be a tendency to stay in the same position for too long a time, causing numbness in all manner of places you might not normally feel it when riding outdoors.

Would a pivoting front wheel (steerable) block help?

Thank you for the suggestions.
I’ll definitely book a fitting with my local bike store.

I would recommend doing a bit more of a search for a fitter. I personally would be looking for a professionally registered fitter (retul etc) rather than just the LBS.

In the meantime, try engaging your core to see if that helps take some pressure off the hands.

I couldn’t agree more.

New to road biking, can you perhaps elaborate? What is retul? what is LBS?
Are there online tools to find fitters like this?

Thank you.

retul = https://www.retul.com/bike-fit

LBS = Local Bike Shop

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To bad there are no Retuls in my province, New Brunswick.

Getting a bike fit is a good idea. Start there. That said, it IS a common and fairly well-documented problem among cyclists and is sometimes too easily dismissed as just a bad bike fit or, worse, lack of core strength. (“Do your core training!” almost as in “It’s your own fault!”)

But in some cases it’s just a matter of a vulnerable and sensitive ulnar nerve. Some people get it, some don’t. Some people get back problems on a bike, some don’t no matter how aggressive their rider position, because their back isn’t so sensitive. Some office workers get severe problems with the median nerve, another of the three main nerves that go through the wrist, elbow and shoulder, and so they get carpal tunnel syndrome, while others work for years with bad ergonomics and are totally fine.

You can get surgery for ulnar problems but the success/improvement rate doesn’t seem to be that great and you can even go from bad to worse (I know of people who did).

Adjustments to seating position (angles of wrists and elbows), stem length, handlebar width as suggested above, can help. But more than anything it comes down to saddle-to-bar drop. Too aggressive a position and weight gets shifted forward, no matter how strong your core is, and that will make the problems worse. So an endurance frame is a good choice since they tend to have a higher stack-to-reach in the frame geometry. But apparently that isn’t enough in your case, at least not indoors which is always a bit rougher in some ways because you are more static, the road doesn’t bump you around and you pedal all the time.

With adjustments and with more training over time, seeing as you recently got started (don’t strain yourself too hard though, increase ride length gradually) things may get better. But chances are still that your ulnar nerve will always be a weak spot in you. It is for me. I had zero hand problems as a teenage rider. Returning to the bike many years later and I am suddenly sensitive. Gradual adaptation has made it better but put me on an unusually long ride with a headwind forcing me to stay in the drops and it’s there.

Try things out, but as a worst case scenario:
Not sure, but I’m guessing these kind of hand problems are less common among X-country MTB riders (they get other hand problems instead) because of their more upright position. A very aggressive road racer position isn’t better from a power output perspective, it’s just more aerodynamic and hence faster. So if you don’t care too much about outdoors or if you want both but can afford a Zwift bike for the trainer, get something considerably more upright. Or do the full switch to MTB instead. That will make a difference for sure.

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It doesn’t look (from the “tree house” photos in the cooling fan thread lol) that Guy has an aggressive position on the bike at all. That said, Guy, if you want to experiment with the concept, you could stack something under your front wheel block to raise the front of the bike another inch or so and relieve a bit more pressure from your hands (it’ll likely mean adjusting the seat angle a little). It’s a cost-free adjustment.

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That’s an excellent and detailed reply.
I used to do a lot of mountain biking until about 10 years ago but my recent job made it impossible for me to ride my bicycle in the summer.
My recent new job has permitted me to do indoor training that’s when I got the endurance bike, since my MTB bike hasn’t got lockout on both suspensions.

I’ll try to book a proper bike fit and go from there as you suggested.

Thank you very much.

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Good idea also.
I thought maybe also for the short interim, to use plumbing pipe insulation foam on the handlebar, to help cushion the handlebar and prevent the chronic problem from getting worse.

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When I was new to road cycling I used to struggle with my wrists, a friend suggested angling my bars up a touch. Made a massive difference and again takes a few seconds and easy to revert if of no help.

I was wondering, Guy, where you generally keep your hands when training? Tops? Hoods? Drops? Move around?

I was actually thinking of doing that, this just confirms my gut feeling. I’ll that too. thank you.