by Fred Matheny
PROBLEM: Endurance on the bike is limited by your crotch, not your legs. Your expensive saddle is comfortable in the first hour of a ride, but at 2 hours it’s painful and at 3 hours it feels like a medieval torture instrument. What’s worse, you sometimes experience numbness in your nether regions.
The human body is supported on the bike by only 3 contact points—hands, feet and crotch. Of the 3, pain from the saddle is often the most debilitating. Along with excessive pressure and abrasion, cyclists can suffer genital numbness and, in rare cases among men, erectile dysfunction.
But there’s no reason for cycling to be a pain in the butt. It won’t be with good bike fit, an appropriate saddle and correct riding techniques.
Bike Saddle Solutions
Find a saddle that’s compatible with your anatomy. This is highly individual, of course. Some riders swear by narrow, lightly padded seats and can ride centuries on them without flinching. Other riders wouldn’t make it around the block. Because of this, specific brand/model saddle recommendations are all but useless. Despite how comfortable a saddle might look or how highly praised it might be by a riding buddy, there’s no guarantee that it will suit you. You need to ride it to tell for sure. First, narrow the field with these guidelines.
Width. Squat and sit on a low stool or curb. What you feel supporting your weight is your ischial tuberosities, the points of the pelvis that are commonly called the “sit bones.” These are what should support your weight on a saddle, too. However, the lower your handlebars in relation to your saddle, the more you’ll tend to sit rotated forward on your pubic arch rather than the sit bones. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you have the right saddle for you and you practice good riding habits.
A seat that’s too narrow will place your weight on the soft tissue between your sit bones—for men, on the perineum where the penile nerves and blood vessels are located. Women also need to put a high priority on width because, on average, they have wider sit bones than men. Anatomically designed women’s saddles are a bit wider in the main sitting area.
Curvature. Looked at from the rear at eye level, a seat should be flat or only slightly domed. A significant curve causes your sit bones to be lower than the saddle’s center, contributing to crotch pressure.
Dip. Looked at from the side at eye level, a seat should be nearly flat from nose to tail. A slight dip (say 6 degrees or less) is helpful to give you a feeling for the saddle’s center while riding. More dip creates positioning problems. That is, when the nose is set level, the tail sticks up and may be uncomfortable to sit on; when the tail is set level, the nose goes up and exerts pressure right where you don’t want it.
Padding. Some is good, more is not better. You want enough foam or gel to cushion your sit bones for comfort. But thick padding can actually increase crotch pressure. As your sit bones sink in, this has the effect of making the center press upward.
Special sections. These are what set the new generation of saddles apart. These sections range from gel-padded areas, to wedge-shaped cutouts, to holes through the top. Rider reactions to these innovations are all over the board. Do they lessen contact or pressure? No doubt. Do they absolutely, positively prevent numbness or worse problems? No saddle can guarantee that. Are they comfortable? It depends on whom you ask.
The innovative saddle that one rider swears by will be the same saddle the next rider swears at. Again, there’s simply no way of knowing until you ride on a given design. Some bike shops have a test ride program or will allow you to return a saddle that you simply can’t stand.
Saddle position. Even your “perfect saddle” will be uncomfortable if it isn’t positioned correctly or if your riding position is out of bounds. Riding position, as we’ve seen, starts with correct saddle height. If your seat is too high, you’ll rock your hips as you ride, sawing your tender tissue across its nose. If the seat is too far to the rear, you’ll tend to sit on the narrow nose.
Same goes if the handlebar is too low or too far away. So, once saddle height is established, you need to deal with tilt and fore/aft location. There’s no secret about the best way to get these things right in the context of an overall sound riding position—have a professional bike fit. But for you do-it-yourselfers, here are the rules of thumb:
Tilt: The saddle should be level, which you can check by laying a yardstick along its length and comparing it to something horizontal like a tabletop or windowsill. A slight downward tilt may be more comfortable, but be careful. More than a degree or so could cause you to continually slide forward, put- ting pressure on your arms and hands.
Fore/Aft: Sit comfortably in the center of the saddle, click into the pedals, and set the crankarms horizontal. Hold a weighted string to the front of your forward kneecap. For most of us, the string should touch the end of the crankarm. This is known as the neutral position. Loosen the seatpost clamp so you can slide the saddle to get it right. Seated climbers, time trialists, and some road racers may like the line to fall 1-2 centimeters behind the end of the crankarm to increase pedaling leverage.
On the other hand, track and criterium racers may like a more forward position that breeds leg speed. Remember, if your reach to the handlebar is wrong, use stem length to correct it, not fore/aft saddle position. Of course, don’t stop at the saddle. Go though all of the fit steps to get an overall well- balanced riding position. If your saddle position is right but your handlebar position isn’t, you still might run into problems. In general, most road riders do well with a handlebar no more than 1-2 inches below the top of the saddle.
Tip! For some guys, a saddle that’s slightly off center (compared to the top tube) feels more comfortable. If the nose keeps pressing you in the wrong spot, try a bit of left or right angle. Always remember Andy Pruitt’s advice: “Make the bike fit your body. Don’t make your body fit the bike.”
The rule is simple: Don’t sit statically in one place for more than a few minutes. When you keep moving on the saddle, as well as on and off the saddle, you avoid constant pressure and compression. Blood keeps circulating, nerve transmissions keep flowing, and the risk of sore spots or numbness is greatly reduced.
Moving is pretty easy to do off-road, where terrain changes and body English keep your crotch from locking into a set position. It’s harder on a road bike unless you cultivate some good habits. For example, get out of the saddle for at least part of every hill. Stand when exiting every turn or any other time you need to accelerate. Even just a few seconds is helpful when repeated often.
On a ride in flat terrain, shift to a higher gear so you can stand and pedal out of the saddle for at least 30 seconds every 15 minutes. When sitting, keep your butt far enough back for your sit bones to be supported by the seat’s wide rear section. Beware of the tendency to creep forward onto the nose and dwell there, especially when pushing hard or riding in a low position.
Other Saddle Pointers
- If you use aero bars, you’ll tend to lock into a low, forward position for minutes on end. It’s a nuisance, and it takes effort, to break this position to stand. But it’s risky if you don’t. Also, try to stay back on the wide area of the saddle. Tilting the nose down 1 or 2 degrees can reduce crotch pressure, but more will tend to make you slide forward onto the skinny nose.
- Ride like a jockey when you come to anything rough. By leveling the pedals, flexing your knees and holding your butt an inch above the saddle, you’ll avoid impacts that can cause bruising and pain. A shock-absorbing seatpost is another way to reduce the risk, but don’t let it lull you into remaining seated all the time.
- Carry stuff on your bike, not on your body. This isn’t always possible, but realize that when you ride with a backpack, fanny pack or back-mounted hydration system, you are adding weight to your seat. This makes a wide, supportive saddle even more important. The same goes if you’re overweight.
- Be smart when riding indoors. With no terrain changes or other natural opportunities to move your butt, you need to invent some. Pedal out of the saddle for 1 minute in every 5. Consciously move to a different sitting area every couple of minutes. Keep sessions short and varied rather than long and steady. Using bigger gears lightens saddle pressure because your feet must push harder, levitating your butt a bit.
- Consider an all-leather saddle. These are relatively heavy and won’t win you many style points, but saddles such as the venerable Brooks B17 from England are a favorite among tourists and other long-distance riders. The B17 is wide in the rear (17 cm) for ample sit-bone support. It and other Brooks leather saddles break in to adapt to your unique shape, with slight depressions for your sit bones. This lets the saddle fit your butt like your old ball glove fits your hand. It does take a few hundred miles for this to happen, though, so initial rides aren’t likely to be nearly as comfortable as later ones. Stick with it.
- Wear high-quality, lightly padded cycling shorts. These, plus a skin/shorts lubricant such as Chamois BUTT’r, Bag Balm, Assos and others, increase comfort and reduce the risk of developing raw or tender spots. These can stop you from shifting position to all parts of your crotch and the saddle.
- Consult your doctor, or even a urologist or gynecologist who has an understanding of cycling, if these ideas don’t help enough. Never ignore genital problems that seem to be saddle related.