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Despite changing hand positions often and switching to more "cushiony" gel gloves, I'm still experiencing intermittent numbness when I ride (sometimes I get tingling and sometimes not).

Are certain types of handlebar tape likely to help? The tape on my bike is several years old. I see gel and cork tapes (and those that claim to be both gel and cork), neither of which I have tried.

I realize that I don't actually know what the real purpose of handlebar tape is (perhaps that's another question). It might be that it is only for helping you keep a grip on the bars when they get sweaty.

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I wonder if I should edit some and retitle to something like "How can I reduce numbness in my fingers?". The answers below are great and make me think that the problem is not likely solved by new tape. –  kmm Sep 1 '11 at 14:20
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Mod hat off here, but I think this is a good question that illustrates what bar tape can and can't do, and shows how you learned that. Mod hat back on - Changing this question would make Angelo's answer a little less relevant if you do. But if you decide to do so, we can make it work. –  Neil Fein Sep 1 '11 at 16:06
    
I once had some "Sorbothane" bike gloves that were fantastic in terms of eliminating hand numbness. They contained ribbed rubber inserts, and it was the ribbing that I believe was the secret. But, alas, they are no longer sold. –  Daniel R Hicks May 23 '12 at 1:51
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7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Hand numbness or tingling can happen for a variety of reasons. It could be a matter of fit, or simply tape or the handlebars themselves.

Bike fit:

How's your riding posture? If you're putting too much weight on your hands, it could be because you need to raise you saddle to allow you to put some of your weight on your legs. It's also possible you just need to tilt it a litte. For example, I know that I put a little weight on my butt, even though I try to put most of it on my legs. My hands are happiest when I tilt my saddle so I'm almost sliding forward, but not quite. The point here isn't that you should do this; everybody's bike and body are different. (Well, some people have the same bike as others.) But minute changes can have a huge effect.

Saddle height can also be a matter of trial and error. This answer gives the skinny on saddle height, although experimentation is always helpful. This question talks about bar height relative to saddle height.

Is your bike sized correctly? If the distance from the saddle to the bars is too great (or too small), that could cause other problems (namely, making it difficult to get a good fit in the first place). You can get a rough idea of this by checking that your standover height is correct, although this is a very rough test.

Bars, hands, gloves, and tape:

Angelo's answer gives a good overview of bar tape, and cork-vs-gel tape. In addition, I've heard that gel tape tends to wear out quickly, as the gel slowly migrates away from where you rest your hands. (Gel saddles have similar problems.)

Another option is double-wrapping the bars; some people swear by it.

You can also get padding for your bars that you stick to the bars before wrapping. I tried it and while I personally didn't feel any difference, some people love the stuff.

Are your bars an appropriate width? A good rule of thumb is that they should be as wide as your shoulders, although this can translate into some very wide bars, particularly with stocky men. (Ahem.)

Lastly, don't forget that padded gloves can help. Sometimes, when your hands start to hurt a bit, it just means that it's time for some new gloves.

In conclusion:

Hand pain is, unfortunately, a problem that many cyclists fight for years; others lick it immediately or never encounter it. Don't be afraid to experiment with the goal of making yourself as comfortable as you can on the bike.

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Bar height is a definite issue. Most bikes are shipped with the bars set too low for most riders, and not adjustable upward very much without a hardware change. A low bar looks sexy in the showroom, but loses its charm on the road, unless you're really a gonzo rider. –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 1 '11 at 4:44
    
True, that. I keep bars low-ish on my mountain bike, even with the bars on another, above the bars on all others. I didn't cover bar height mich here because I don't know much about how it impacts hand pain. (I generally just ratchet 'em up before it can become a problem, trying to get to a comfortable "float" position with my arms.) –  Neil Fein Sep 1 '11 at 4:47
    
Re padding, I ran the numbers once with regard to pressure on the hands and the amount of padding that would be needed to prevent cutting off blood flow. It turns out you'd need several inches of padding in order to sufficiently spread out the pressure. Adding lesser amounts of padding can actually make matters worse by enlarging the area that has decreased blood flow. (Of course, this only applies to problems due to reduced blood flow, not compressed nerves or simple pain from pressure.) –  Daniel R Hicks May 23 '12 at 2:52
    
I didn't know this, but I'm not surprised. I'm glad I do everything I can to keep weight off my hands and on my legs. –  Neil Fein May 23 '12 at 2:56
    
(When I ran the numbers, it turned out that probably the most significant factor was the upper body mass of the rider -- more upper body mass, more pressure. Losing weight is probably the best way to reduce numbness problems -- if only we could do that.) –  Daniel R Hicks May 23 '12 at 3:48
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Someone commented about sorbothane gloves. I suspect this would be possibly ideal material for this purpose (vibration damping). Personally I'm looking for bicycle sorbothane gloves or handle bars and possibly also sorbothane saddle/seat. Of course a seat should be customized to rider weight, and the sorbothane should be contained as in my experience it can turn into sticky goo in temperatures found in hot climates. I also haven't tested how it works in winter weather - but if it's in isolated strips inside gloves that could well avoid any winter related issues with it.

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This question was about handlebar tape. A follow up about sorbothane would be better placed in the comments below the original mention rather than a new answer. –  jimirings Oct 2 '12 at 14:19
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For numbness, the first thing to check is whether you are putting weight on the bars at all. You should position yourself so that your weight is over your pedals and you're comfortable hovering your hands over the bars for some time. Since that's how I tend to ride, I'm skeptical that tape makes much difference unless you're on technical terrain or someone like a tandem-stoker who can't see bumps coming easily.

Fixing posture got rid of most of my hand numbness but even after that I still had hand numbness that was making long mountain descents kind of hairy because my hands would get too numb for me to finely control the brake levers.

I got Campy Record Carbon brake levers and that really helped. Carbon doesn't conduct as much heat, so they don't get cold, so I can park my hands over the brakes without them getting numb while still wearing half-gloves that don't make me sweat and fumble with the breaks in the valleys. A buddy of mine had the same reaction:

But as I used them over the next 5 years, their value really grew on me (and it's not because of the weight). First of all, they never get cold. Carbon fiber is an insulator, not a conductor, so on cold mornings where metal brake levers would have frozen my fingers to the lever, they remain finger-temperature and keep my fingers happy. Cold hands are one of the most miserable things to experience, and during my 2005 tour of the alps, there were a few days where I wish I had them on my touring bike.

Secondly, these levers have a quick-release built into the lever. Together with Shimano long reach brake calipers, you end up with sufficient throw in both quick releases to clear 700x32mm tires! This is excellent.

Finally, the last 5 years have proven that they are sturdy enough for touring and heavy-duty use. Any levers that have to frequently stop a tandem on major mountain descents are definitely strong enough for any kind of use on a single bike, be it loaded touring, commuting, or just day riding.

I like these levers so much that I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I'm retiring my metal brake levers on my touring bike and replacing them with these. Highly recommended!

They're expensive though, so I would experiment with other things first.

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In addition to the other excellent answers, you should also determine where you get pain or numbness in your hands. Typically your riding position is leading to excessive pressure on the Ulnar and/or Median nerves. See the diagrams here: http://www.hughston.com/hha/a_15_3_2.htm

By identifying which nerve you are likely irritating, you can better determine a solution to the problem.


My own personal experience:

I had a lot of numbness on the outside (pinky-finger side) pad of my palm, and found that getting some gloves that were extra padded over the Unlar nerve helped me tremendously when riding on flat bars with bar ends (I was letting that outside of my palm rest against the bare metal clamp of the bar ends, and not even thinking about it). I had previously used Garneau brand 'gel' gloves that had padding over the whole lower palm toward the wrist, but it wasn't really helping. I ended up going to a local bike shop and trying on every pair of gloves, and putting pressure on the Ulnar nerve to see which dampened the effect the most.

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Generally, the problem is due to riding/hand position and the resulting pressure on the hands. You don't say what kind of bar you have, but a traditional "drop" bar is better than a straight bar (absent extensions) for giving you different positions, and within each bar category there are many variations (though finding different bars can be a challenge at best).

If your bike is too large for you (or the "reach" of the bike is too great, for any reason), then you will have more trouble. And, oddly, the more casually you ride the less the torque of your feet on the pedals relieves hand pressure, and the more you will have trouble. And, of course, your overall muscle strength will affect this and also how much your back helps relieve the pressure. (I'd also add that your upper torso weight is a major factor. There are many of us that could stand to lose a few kilos, and reduced hand pain would be one of several benefits.)

Tape can help to a degree. The tape is there primarily to provide a good grip, but it also provides a modicum of padding and the thickness of the tape increases the effective diameter of the bar, spreading the weight somewhat.

However, spreading the weight over a larger area causes contradictory effects. It does reduce the maximum pressure exerted to a degree, but it also increases substantially the size of the area where pressure is preventing any blood flow. This lack of blood flow is ultimately what causes pain and numbness over the long term.

I once had a pair of gloves that contained ribbed Sorbothane inserts, and they totally eliminated my hand pain. The ribs meant that the areas of no blood circulation were only millimeters wide, so the cells didn't "starve" and pain/numbness were absent. The gloves eventually wore out, however, and I've not found replacements. I did experiment with adding ribs to my handlebars (using lines of silicone caulk), but although this worked well it was not very durable.

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The problem of finger numbness comes from the wrists. When your fingers get tingly, it normally helps to move your hands to a different place on the handlebars. If yours are still getting numb, try (A) reducing the weight on your hands, and (B) doing wrist stretches before AND after you ride.

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Also on this point, try to ensure that your wrists aren't bent. They should be straight. I've seen people riding with wrists bent back at 90 degrees, which over a long distance would cause quite a bit of strain on the wrist. Straightening the wrist should increase blood flow. –  Kibbee Sep 7 '11 at 1:25
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There certainly are tapes and gloves that help decrease road shock transmitted to the hands. The traditional cinelli cork tape is a bit too hard if you're sensitive to that. Bontrager makes a nice gel tape. I use it, but honestly I don't think it makes a whole lot of difference.

IMHO, the core issue might not be one of sufficient padding at all. It could be your position on the bike, bike geometry, your back muscles and ultimately how much weight you're putting on the hands.

Certainly give some new tape a try. If that does not work, I'd recommend having a fitting session with a professional so you can find your optimal position and bike-geometry.

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