When cycling is a pain in the bum
May 3, 2012
Chasing comfort ... a correct cycling position is crucial for saddle comfort.
I first realised I was developing a problem when I was driving home from a ride, and put an ice-cold energy drink bottle between my legs.
After years riding a hybrid bike, I'd just bought my first racer, and had been out riding on rough, potholed rural roads around Camden, in south-west Sydney.
I knew I'd taken a bit of a pounding from the saddle, but I was still surprised at the soothing effect of an ice-cold container on my groin – even through padded cycling shorts. Until then, I'd only half-noticed that I'd often experience a tingling discomfort after long rides.
Suddenly, the fear that no man likes to mention began to percolate. I'd taken up cycling as a way of having a healthy, active life, with all the benefits that implies. Was cycling putting me on the road to erectile dysfunction?
If you ask Dr Google, as I did that evening, you can find a lot of conflicting information on the issue, from those who are convinced that cycling could cruel your love life, to others who say that the theory is unproved, and any possible problems can be averted with the right equipment and posture.
Blair Martin, a Sydney physiotherapist whose practice, The Body Mechanic, specialises in fitting people on bicycles, says cycling's possible relationship with sexual health problems is difficult to quantify, and much research appears to be anecdotal. “It's not the kind of thing where three longitudinal studies of large sample sizes, including control groups, have shown that this is the case,” he says.
In the weeks after my Camden ride, I found a shop that would lend me saddles for test rides. I tried wider saddles, soft ones, saddles with cut-outs – nothing made much difference.
Finally I consulted Steve Hogg of Cyclefitcentre.com. He recommended a Selle SMP, a distinctively weird saddle with an epic centre cut-out and a beak for a nose. “I already tried an SMP Strike, didn't work,” I told him glumly.
“A big bruiser like you needs the wider style,” he told me. “This is the Pro model. Try it for a week.”
Five days later I called him to say I'd pay him any money - there was no way he was getting the saddle back off me. In the six years since, I've ridden on rough roads and smooth, sometimes doing a hundred kilometres every day for a week at a time, with no deleterious effects (thank you for asking).
The issue lies with the perineum, the area between the genitals and the anus that is a mass of soft tissue, nerves and blood vessels. The perineum can make contact with the saddle, but weight needs to be borne by the bones of the pelvis.
Problems can manifest in many ways – men speak of numbness in the genitals and urinary discomfort, but Hogg says some women have worse issues.
“Women tend to get pain during urination and sex, or burning when they shower - their anatomy is more delicate and located differently,” he told me recently. “I reckon this is a major reason why there are fewer women cycling than men.”
But is saddle choice the magic bullet? Hogg and Martin both say it's only part of the equation, and that a bad position is always going to be a problem.
“I'm a huge fan of seats with a perineal cut-out; but with most of them, the cut-out is a token effort,” Hogg says.
As for fitting, Hogg says: “The majority of people sit too high, which exaggerates the problem. You're not bearing your weight on bone, you're rolling forward towards each pedal, which means you're pivoting on soft tissue.”
Martin agrees: “My first approach is to get you to effectively distribute your weight across five contact areas [hands, feet and seat]. If the issue persists following that, it's likely to be a saddle issue.”
Some cycling shops offer a saddle-fitting system that measures the width between your "sit bones" to help you optimise your saddle choice.
Of course, comfort is only a problem for some. Most people quickly find an agreeable set-up – and often, problems only develop when people move from commuting to training, when distances increase, or performance equipment is chosen, such racing bicycles or triathlon bars.
But many cyclists believe that discomfort is part of the deal. It shouldn't have to be. There has been an explosion of saddle innovation in the past decade, with something for everyone, and there are increasing numbers of experts who can help with riding position. It can be a vexing and drawn-out process for some, but the results are worth it.
As for the chance of the unkindest injury of all? Well, it's worth noting that major proven causes of erectile dysfunction include depression, stress, smoking, being overweight and not exercising.
And cycling can help with all of those.
Have you ever had saddle problems, and how did you beat them?