Sunday, January 3, 2010

Looking After Your Privates

Looking After Your Privates

From time to time I get questions about bicycle fit or components. This one deals with a well known problem for men and women, namely: “other than chamois butter, expensive Pearl Izumi shorts and adjusting the seat angle, are there any other secrets for keeping your undercarriage and family jewels from burning/hurting on long rides?” Notwithstanding the obvious anatomical difference between the family jewels of men and women, for the most part the solutions are similar. I am fortunate, my rear end is most forgiving and I have even ridden the notorious Brooks B17 for years with no problem. However, this issue is one of the top reasons that beginners get out of cycling before they have really started.

If you do suffer on rides, the saddle itself is the first thing to think about. Identifying the most comfortable model is always a challenge and many bike shops are reluctant to let you try out a saddle for a hundred miles and then return it “as new”. Even so, it is well worth trying to sweet-talk your preferred shop proprietor into doing just that (well, maybe not a hundred miles). If you are a good customer, he or she should work with you. Hopefully, most shops will at least have a demo bike on a trainer so you can spin on various models before you buy.

There is no right saddle for everybody but it is worthwhile remembering that broader is not necessarily better (though many women do prefer a wider seat) and more padding is unlikely to be the solution and in fact might make matters worse. The important thing to remember is that it is the "sit bones" (ischial tuberosities) that are supported by the saddle. Women's ITs are further apart than men's as a rule and thus they usually require broader saddles. With heavily padded saddles, sit bones will sink into the padding which can result in the soft part of the saddle actually compressing your soft parts leading to reduced blood flow and numbness. Ultimately the comfort really depends on the particular shape and how it matches your anatomy; some of the most uncomfortable looking all-carbon beasts can actually be ridden for mile after mile with no pain (about $300 and only 70 grams or so but note that some all carbon saddles have a rider weight limit of 165 pounds …… sigh!).

It’s thus rather risky to recommend particular brands or models but the Avocet O2 and most of the Terry saddles do seem to have a enthusiastic following. I now use a pretty minimalist Selle Italia SLR and it feels pretty good most of the time, though not quite as comfortable as my previous Terry. When you finally find the saddle that works for you, look for a winter blowout for duplicates since many go out of production and you don’t want to go through this process more than you absolutely have to. I think some folks overlook worn saddles as well; do not wait too long to replace an old friend (the all-leather Brooks type are the exception; they get better with age).

The next things to consider are shorts. If you are having problems, do not count pennies too aggressively as the more expensive brands (Pearl Izumi, Hincapie, Descente etc.) might offer more relief over bottom-end mail order stuff. Always have a good quality chamois, synthetic or otherwise, next to your skin and clean up as soon as you can after your ride. For men, gravity is still working under your shorts, pulling your jewels down between a very mean rock and a hard spot. Some male riders prefer bibs because they can “keep all your parts up and out of the way". I guess you get the message.

Lotions are controversial; it all depends on what works for you. Some riders use chamois butter or similar all year round. Others use Bag Balm (lanolin with 8-hydroquinoline, an antibiotic) which is less expensive or Assos Crème. However, other riders claim that all this goop really clogs up the skin pores and creates an environment conducive to the formation of bad saddle sores.

Next in line is bike fit and set up. It really is essential to have your bike properly fitted by a truly knowledgeable bike shop. Easy to say and often very hard to find. Having your seat too high is sometimes a common problem, as is having the saddle tilted too far forward or too far back. If your hips rock when you pedal, the fit is incorrect and chafing or worse will result. Stem/bar height also comes into the equation since the more leaned-over you are, the more pressure there is on the genital area. This often results from the handlebar being too low or the reach being too long. Don’t be tempted to emulate the 20-year-old hot shots and have your saddle way higher than your bars. Looking cool or being aerodynamically perfect does not compensate for agonizing rides.

Few people have legs that are of equal length and if there's enough discrepancy (somewhere around one half an inch) the legs will have to rock back and forth to make up the difference when pushing the pedals. Thus a sore area on the left or right side of the saddle can result. The solution is to use extra sole inserts or leather shims on the shorter leg.

Of course physical fitness, weight and riding style come into play. The stronger your legs get and the more weight you lose, the less saddle discomfort you will probably have. Remembering to stand and stretch frequently to relieve the pressure is good. Ideally, the hands, feet and butt should share the load of one's body weight. A disproportionate amount of weight on any one of those three points of contact for long periods of time is going to lead to problems.

If NONE of this works, then yes, I’m afraid it’s the Pogo Stick for you.

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