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Three Steps to Saddle Comfort
By Tom Demerly

 



Saddle discomfort is the most common complaint of all cyclists.


Numb genitals, burning pain in your crotch, bruised buttocks, saddle sores and raw, inflamed skin are some of the common problems cyclists have with their saddles. The problems often get so bad they keep you off the bike- especially for new cyclists. Add to these very real problems a storm of sensation surrounding frightening claims of erectile dysfunction and impotence. No single issue attracts the amount of concern that saddle (dis)comfort does, and no topic seems more immersed in cycling lore and marketing misinformation.


The best solution to saddle comfort is saddle time.
Every cyclist experiences some degree of saddle discomfort. It is an inescapable feature of the sport. Truth be told, the bicycle seat as we know is a bit of a bad idea: It puts weight on parts of the body never intended by nature to support weight. Since the first rider came home with a sore crotch from straddling a saddle there have been ideas for improvement, but few saddle comfort quick fixes yield results.

Especially for new cyclists there are a few key, proven rules to follow on the way to tolerable saddle comfort. In general terms, they can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Allow adequate time for adaptation to the saddle.
  2. Wear good quality bike shorts, and wear them correctly including chamois cream.
  3. Be certain your bike fits you correctly and your posture is good.

More than anything else, those three steps will help you cope with saddle pain. Saddle pain is created by a conspiracy of three factors:

  1. Heat from trapped air and from friction between skin, shorts and saddle.
  2. Pressure from the weight of the body on the saddle and from road shock.
  3. Moisture from perspiration, even on cool days and especially warm days.


You have to work proactively to get comfortable on a bike seat. There is no short cut.

If you can manage those three factors you will be able to spend more time in the saddle more comfortably. Let’s take a detailed look at each of the three factors that can help you be more comfortable in the saddle:

1. Allow adequate time for adaptation to the saddle.

This is the primary problem for new cyclists. They simply are not used to sitting on a bike seat. The crotch and inner buttocks are not acclimated to supporting a significant amount of your body weight. These tissues are generally soft and sensitive. In Europe, the vernacular used to describe the process of acclimation a cyclist goes through is called “getting your seat”. This means allowing adequate time for the density and sensitivity of the tissues that contact the saddle to gradually adapt to the load. It does not happen overnight. Cyclists usually start to adapt to sitting on a bike seat between 400 and 600 miles of riding over a period of moderate, consistent rides that may take months. It is always better to do a series of shorter rides than a limited number of long rides. For very new cyclists rides should be under an hour in duration and include all the good habits of saddle comfort such as excellent quality shorts, no underwear and use of chamois lubricant/anti-bacterial cream. There are no short cuts to adaptation or “getting your seat”. It simply takes time, and it is usually uncomfortable time at first accompanied by some degree of numbness and pain. Overweight cyclists are particularly susceptible to saddle issues during adaptation and must progress more slowly when adding time and distance to their rides. It simply takes time to get used to sitting on a bike seat.


These shorts are shown worn inside out to show the padding in the front. Consider how you sit on the saddle when buying shorts.

Saddle adaptation can be accelerated with good hygiene habits specific to cycling. Never wear cycling shorts except on the bike. Do not drive to and from events wearing cycling shorts. If you are off the bike, get your shorts off. Wearing shorts for an extended time under street clothes and while driving produces a clammy, moist environment on the skin making it more delicate and susceptible to irritation. Put your shorts on right before you ride and get them off right after- don’t stand around in bike shorts before or after your ride.
The use of drying, medicated powder such as St. Luke’s Prickly Heat Powder or Gold Bond Medicated Powder inside your underwear while you are off the bike helps adaptation by keeping the skin dry and providing an antiseptic, absorbent environment. Using alcohol wipes or even baby wipes after a ride also helps sooth skin and removes bacteria and moisture through evaporation. St. Luke’s Prickly Heat Powder is the best powder I have used but is hard to find in stores. Do a Google search to find on-line drugstores that may stock it. 


Good saddle comfort habits off the bike like using powder to keep skin dry and tough increase saddle comfort.

As a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs our coaches asked us to sleep with no underwear and a loose T-shirt. This allowed the skin in our crotch to dry out at night. Keeping your saddle area dry and clean off the bike cuts your saddle adaptation time in half and prevents problems.

2. Wear good quality bike shorts, and wear them correctly including chamois cream.


Inexpensive shorts can't match the comfort and features of high quality pro level shorts- especially for beginners.

You rarely see new cyclists with good enough quality shorts. New cyclists need them the most. Many cyclists with saddle discomfort will spend over $100 on a novelty “men’s” or “women’s” comfort saddle, but won’t spend more than $60 on high quality bike shorts. In general, more expensive shorts from $90-239 do feature tangible features and benefits that make them more comfortable. These features usually work better than changing saddles. High quality shorts use more precisely cut patterns for better fit. High end shorts have sophisticated seamless, anti-bacterial moisture wicking pads that help reduce friction but are highly breathable. Many of the new designs fit more precisely since the pad itself is molded from stretch fabrics that fit tightly against the skin and transport moisture effectively away from tender, inflamed tissues. These stretch pad designs move with the cyclist as long as they worn correctly and reduce friction. Once you’ve used high quality shorts you will understand the benefits- until you do its difficult to appreciate why $150 bike shorts are a good value and mandatory equipment.
Consider the use of bib shorts for long rides. Bib shorts feature a suspender that goes over the shoulders holding the shorts up and keeping the pad in contact with the crotch. It is less convenient to use the bathroom with bib shorts since you wear the bib section under your cycling top but it is well worth the minor inconvenience. Every rider in the Tour de France is wearing bib shorts and many high end cycling shorts are only available as bibs.


Worn inside out, these Louis Garneau shorts feature a molded pad with vents to provide cooling and evaporation. The new generation of pads offer incredible comfort.

Never wear any underwear with bike shorts. They are designed to be worn against the skin for men and women. Underwear traps heat and moisture and adds friction from chafing.

Be certain your bike shorts fit snugly enough. Moisture wicking fabrics and stretch pads are design to be skin tight. Wearing shorts that have a poor cut or are too large creates wrinkles. This creates places for moisture to collect and for friction and chafing to begin. Don’t worry about modesty with bike shorts- they need to fit tight. Baggy shorts never work as well as from fitting, stretch fabric shorts.


Cycling shorts used on a bike with aerobars should use a pad that comes up higher in the front. These shorts are shown inside out.

Always use a chamois lubricant with padded bike shorts. Chamois cream is a lotion or cream that is applied either to the pad of the shorts or directly to the skin. This topical treatment reduces friction through lubrication, provides an anti-bacterial environment for the skin and reduces the accumulation of perspiration. Assos Chamois Cream contains witch hazel that helps dry the skin and speed adaptation. It also has an uncanny ability to last for even the longest rides. Assos Cream is used by Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, an especially strong testimonial considering his long hours in the saddle and his complications from surgery for testicular cancer. Chamois Butter brand chamois cream is a less expensive alternative that has no drying agent but is reasonably persistent and provides good lubrication. For triathletes who need a stickier, tenacious lubricant that won’t rinse off in the swim Body Glide is a roll-on lubricant that is thick and provides good lubrication for the minimal padding in triathlon race shorts also intended for running. Even a moderate application of chamois cream greatly improves saddle comfort.


Apply chamois cream directly to the shorts and/or your skin.


Our favorite chamois cream is Assos with witch hazel, but there are many brands and all provide relief from firction and heat.

Be certain your bike fits you correctly and your posture is good.

Bad bike fit and posture are two of the reasons cyclists think they need a new saddle. The truth is, most cyclists would be better served to use the money on a good bike fitting and high quality shorts than a special saddle. In some cases “comfort” oriented saddles can help bridge the gap to more traditional saddle designs for beginning cyclists but good shorts and accurate bike fit and positioning will yield more permanent results. A saddle that is too high or too low or angled incorrectly will contribute to saddle discomfort almost instantly.


Triathletes with aerobars sit differently than road bike riders: They are rotated farther forward on the nose of the saddle.


These draft-legal road style triathletes in an ITU race sit more upright and farther back, changing the dynamics of saddle comfort for them.

Treating the problem with a novelty saddle that has holes in it, “relief” slots and thick gel padding is treating the problem symptomatically. These are temporary fixes that could be better addressed with good shorts, good habits and proper bike fit. Look at the saddles used by racing cyclists and top triathletes: There are no novelty saddles with holes, cut-outs or gel padding. These cyclists have long hours in the saddle, use chamois cream and practice good saddle area hygiene off the bike. They also have good bike fit and position. Cyclists, especially triathletes, often treat saddle discomfort symptomatically by angling the nose of their seat downward. Saddle designers will tell you it is fine to angle a saddle slightly, but much more than a three degree change in saddle angle replaces one problem with another, causing the rider’s weight to shift and move placing on the handlebars and/or pedals more than it should be.

Saddle comfort can be moderated with handlebar position. Handlebars that are too far forward or too high can distribute the rider’s weight too heavily on the saddle increasing the chances for saddle discomfort. Sometimes the best treatment for saddle discomfort is adjustments elsewhere on the bike. A good bike fitter can get your saddle orientation correct for optimal comfort.


Bike positioning is critical to good saddle comfort.


Unusual saddle designs can be a good tool for getting accustomed to riding or for special problems but aren't the final word in saddle comfort.

Saddle selection is an important factor in saddle comfort. There are very few saddles that work well for large numbers of people and saddle selection is a matter of personal preference. You really have to try a saddle for enough time to tell if will work for you in the long run. This can be an expensive process if you buy several saddles to find one that works for you by trial and error. While saddle choice may seem like the most obvious answer to saddle comfort it is sometimes the least effective. Once you find a saddle that works for you stick with it.

Saddle comfort is like any other fitness activity. You have to work proactively to achieve it. If you manage saddle discomfort correctly you’ll be able to spend long hours in the saddle comfortably enough to really enjoy the ride.

Checklist of Good Saddle Habits.

  • Get used to sitting on a bike seat with consistent, short rides over a period of weeks.
  • Always wear form fitting bike shorts, the best you can afford.
  • Be sure your shorts are tight enough with no wrinkles.
  • Never wear any kind of underwear with bike shorts.
  • Try bib style bike shorts for better fit, especially for long rides.
  • Always wash cycling shorts between wearing.
  • Put your shorts on right before you ride and take them off right after. Don’t stand around or drive to events in bike shorts.
  • Always use a chamois lubricant cream to increase comfort.
  • Use powder inside your underwear in the saddle area when wearing street clothes to keep your crotch dry and speed acclimation.
  • Be certain your bicycle fit, position and posture are correct.
  • Focus on the fundamentals of saddle comfort instead of giving in to to marketing claims of gimmicky saddles.

 

 

 

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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