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The Inside Story on Saddle Comfort.

"This saddle is killing me".

We hear those five words several times every day. Saddle discomfort is the most common cycling complaint.

In the last five years there has been a lot of attention focused on saddle discomfort, including media directed at supposed "permanent injuries" that can result from riding a bicycle. In response to this attention many manufacturers have introduced new saddles that are designed to address saddle discomfort issues. These saddles include such designs as slots, holes, gel padding, etc.

The sensational nature of this media attention, combined with consumer’s desire to find a "quick fix" for saddle discomfort have caused a lot of misinformation with regard to saddle discomfort. The following recommendations are techniques used for several decades by top professional bicycle racers, top triathletes and experienced tourists. These techniques work.

There is no such thing as a "comfortable" saddle.

At best, a saddle will be tolerable and not exert substantial pain on the rider.

Which saddle is best for you? Individual recommendations about specific saddles are usually not of much value. The best way to determine which saddle is appropriate for you is to try it for at least 3-4 weeks. Once you find an acceptable saddle, stick with it.

Wear padded shorts.

Nothing helps eliminate saddle discomfort more than good quality, correctly fitted, padded cycling shorts. Shorts need to fit snug in order to press the padding firmly against the skin without moving. Movement of fabric on skin causes friction. Friction causes heat. Heat causes discomfort. Be sure to buy your shorts tight enough.

Cycling shorts are always worn with no underwear. Underwear, even synthetic wicking underwear, creates seams and a vapor barrier that traps heat, bacteria and perspiration against the skin. Natural fiber underwear is a Petri dish for bacteria and friction to form. Cycling shorts are designed to be worn without any underwear, whether you are male or female.

The crotch pad, or "chamois" (so named because they were once made of deer leather) in the shorts can be gender specific. Special women’s shorts have a different orientation of seams and a different overall cut. Women’s shorts may not work well for all women, however, especially very thin females.

For men, "bib" style shorts usually work very well. Almost all professional bicycle racers prefer bibs. The built in suspenders of bib shorts hold the crotch of the shorts firmly against the body, preventing your anatomy from shifting frequently during a ride. The suspender section of the bib shorts is designed to be worn under your jersey (which is why you never noticed the guys in the Tour de France wearing them, even though they all are).

Always keep your shorts clean. Never wear dirty shorts. Do not put padded cycling shorts on until you are ready to ride. It is a bad idea to put on padded cycling shorts and drive to a cycling event. It is better to get dressed at the event or ride. As soon as you are off the bike, get your shorts off and let your crotch air out by wearing loose fitting undergarments like boxer shorts. When I lived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, athletes were asked to sleep in a T-shirt with no underwear to air their crotch out at night.

Use Chamois Cream.

Almost unheard of in the United States, chamois cream is the savior of most European long distance cyclists. Several manufacturers make specific chamois cream products. If you read the ingredients they are a lot like A&D Ointment used to treat diaper rash. Since chamois cream is largely unavailable in the US, A&D Ointment makes a great alternative. Chamois cream is an anti-bacterial lubricant that reduces friction between your skin and the chamois pad of your shorts. It also helps inhibit the growth of bacteria and helps sooth a raw crotch. Put liberal amounts of Chamois cream on your crotch before you put your shorts on. If you put it on your shorts first, it will smear on your legs when you pull the shorts on. Chamois cream helps a great deal.

Ride Frequently.

Short, frequent rides will help you "get your seat" as the Europeans say. This is the uncomfortable period during which your body needs to get accustomed to sitting on a bike seat. In general, it will get worse before it gets better. Saddle discomfort can reach a point of being intolerable. At this point, it is best to take a day off, letting your crotch air out while wearing loose fitting clothes and sleeping without underwear. During this phase you may actually feel bruised or numb. Although this is very unpleasant, it is not abnormal and almost never lasts. In 20 years of endurance cycling I have never met a person who had a permanent problem from riding bike.

Keep your saddle level.

If your saddle is angled substantially up or down there is something else wrong with your position (most likely your saddle is too high or too low). Your

saddle should be ridden within 4 degrees of being level. It is acceptable to angle the saddle very slightly, and also to rotate it very slightly to improve comfort. All saddle designers make saddles with the intention of having them in the level riding position.

Be sure your bike fits.

Nothing affects saddle comfort more than bike fit. Chances are, if you are having chronic saddle discomfort for more than 8 weeks, your bike doesn’t fit.

Have your riding position checked by a person qualified to do so. Check out their qualifications and experience before you take their recommendations.

Stick with it.

All fancy language aside, sometimes riding sucks. Your crotch is completely numb or worse, very painful. You are convinced your anatomy is bruised (almost impossible) and you’ll never have sex, go to the bathroom or ride a bike again. Don’t panic. It will improve. If you are extremely dedicated, you can try to ride through it. No advice here: it will just really hurt. At some point it makes sense to just stay off the bike. Sean Kelly once abandoned the Tour of Spain while he was leading the race due to a saddle sore. Greg Welch was forced out of the Ironman one year after hemorrhoid surgery. Sometimes you have to gut it out. Sometimes you have to bag it.

 

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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