Why Recommendations Based on Bike Cops Are Flawed
The most controversial presentation at the SICI conference was given by Steve Schrader, Ph.D., from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In his talk titled “Sex and Saddles — What’s the Problem and the Fix?” Schrader reviewed the literature on cycling and sexual dysfunction and then discussed a NIOSH study showing a high rate of erectile trouble in bicycle police officers.
On the basis of that study, Schrader, who admitted that he isn’t a cyclist, proposed that riding a noseless saddle is the cure to erectile dysfunction among bike riders.
Let’s look at the studies that Schrader cited, including that 6-month study of bicycle police, and then examine some concerns about his conclusion that were expressed in the Q&A session at the end of his presentation.
Schrader went to some lengths to prove that erectile dysfunction among cyclists is a real problem. He claimed that more than 40 papers, some studying bicycle police who typically spend 6 hours a day on their bikes, showed a relationship between cycling and sexual dysfunction. In one study, 94% of officers said they experienced numbness.
He discussed a study that used a device (called, interestingly, a Rigiscan) to measure the number and length of erections during sleep, a good marker of sexual health in men. Riders and non-riders had the same number of erections, but riders’ erections lasted less time.
Another paper claimed that the impotence rate for males who make their living riding a bike (in this case, police officers) may be as high as 28-30%.
The problem is not limited to men. In one study of 60 Belgian women competitive cyclists, 70% had crotch (perineal) complaints while another study of the same population found that 40% reported clitoral numbness. A different study of Belgian women racers found 1 out of 6 women experienced various crotch problems.
In another study of 180 female cyclists, the majority had perineal symptoms. Fifty-two women with marked indictors were chosen for a follow-up study. In it, 81% reported burning or pain, 70% referred to numbness and 13.5% described “pins and needles.”
Ubiquitous women’s saddles with grooves or cutouts in the center don’t work, Schrader stated. Because the nerves and blood vessels run on each side of the body’s center line, the edges of the cutouts compress them. In fact, he said a Belgian study showed increased pressure on the vulva with a cut-out design. Because a male’s blood supply and nerves are in the same location, those saddles don’t work for men either.
Finally, NIOSH studied women cyclists and runners, checking for numbness. Cyclists had significantly less sensitivity in various crotch areas than runners.
However — and this is important — a follow-up questionnaire asked both runners and cyclists if they had problems in their sex life. There was no difference in the responses between groups.
Support for No-Nose Saddles
On the basis of these and other studies, Schrader asserted that there is indeed a problem of sexual dysfunction among cyclists, both male and female. And he proposed a solution based on a NIOSH study of bike-riding police officers: the noseless saddle.
In the NIOSH research involving 91 bike cops for 6 months, blood flow to the penis decreased from 20 to 6 (measured in appropriate units) among riders using conventional saddles. Use of a noseless saddle restored blood flow to almost normal levels. During the study only 3 officers returned to their conventional saddles. More than 80% said they no longer felt numbness after riding on a no-nose saddle for 6 months.
However — and again this is important — there was no change in the number or duration of nocturnal erections between the two groups: officers using traditional saddles and those using a noseless saddle for 6 months.
What’s the Truth?
Obviously, Schrader’s talk raised eyebrows among the cyclists in attendance. Let’s examine the concerns these riders expressed and look at possible flaws in the studies.
First, even though questionnaires detected some improvement in sensation after switching to noseless saddles, direct measurements showed no change in duration of erections. Perhaps a placebo effect made the officers feel that no-nose saddles were helpful when in fact there was no improvement.
Also, bicycle police don’t represent the typical recreational rider. The average officer in the study weighed 220 pounds including gear. He rode about 6 hours a day at a slow speed in an upright position. (Most recreational riders average 5-10 hours per week.) Six hours of daily saddle time put extraordinary pressure on the perineal area. Slow speeds do as well. When you ride fast (pushing harder on the pedals) you tend to have less body weight on the saddle, reducing pressure. Finally, the cops’ upright riding position tends to put more pressure on the crotch because less weight is supported by the arms.
The upright riding position probably affected the result of another part of the study. Because one complaint about noseless saddles is the tendency to slide forward toward the handlebar, NIOSH studied blood flow in the hands. It found no significant difference between traditional and no-nose saddles. However, the upright position probably affected this finding because of the point just made — an upright position tends to reduce pressure on the hands.
Also, the study didn’t examine riding style. There’s a lot of difference between sitting upright on the saddle for 6 hours a day compared to riding athletically and pedaling out of the saddle frequently. The latter tends to relieve pressure on blood vessels and nerves. Riding like a bike cop, especially when you weigh 220 pounds, can compress crotch tissue in an alarming way.
I asked Schrader why riding technique wasn’t studied since it was such an important variable. He agreed that standing frequently helped blood flow but it was hard to control in a study.
Finally, there is the issue of controlling a bike. Noseless saddles raise concerns. A saddle nose between the thighs helps riders steer. By exerting pressure against the nose, we keep the bike from slipping out from under us in corners or tight maneuvers. Without the nose, this control is compromised. Officers were usually cruising at low speeds, but when pursuing suspects or hurrying to the scene of an accident, staying on the bike became a larger concern. It reportedly took officers some time to accustom themselves to the reduced control.
The, ahem, Bottom Line
Should you ride a noseless saddle? The NIOSH study’s conclusions should be viewed warily for the reasons I’ve mentioned. The police officers used as the subject population didn’t resemble the average recreational rider in terms of weight, hours ridden and riding technique. Furthermore the results didn’t find a difference in the number or duration of nocturnal erections even after 6 months of riding a no-nose saddle. Most riders who try that type of saddle report a tendency to slide forward and difficulty controlling the bike, sometimes with crashes being the result. Apparently 6 months of practice with this design in an upright riding position improves control, but this wasn’t addressed directly in the study.
So Schrader’s recommendation that all riders should use a noseless saddle, at least for training (as opposed to competition), needs to be evaluated with appropriate skepticism.
One thing we do know based on studies as well as years of clinical experience: The keys to good reproductive health among bike riders, male or female, haven’t changed.
- Be sure your bike fits properly. A good fit by an experienced professional can be considered an investment in sexual health.
- Keep your weight at a healthy level. Excess body weight bears down on the perineal area and increases pressure. So does weight from fanny packs and back-mounted hydration systems. If you have more than 3 or 4 pounds to carry, use an appropriate bag on your bike.
- Choose a saddle that fits your anatomy. The right choice may not be a seat with a center groove or cutout, according to some blood flow studies. Be willing to try different saddles until you find a model that is comfortable and prevents numbness. Consider trading saddles with friends or finding a shop with a loaner program. This way you can try different styles. In almost no other aspect of road bike riding is there a more pronounced “experiment of one” aspect than in saddle choice; one man’s (or woman’s) ideal saddle is a piece of junk to another rider. Find what works for you. Check out the Bisaddle noseless saddle or read our review.
- Ride athletically. Get out of the saddle often on hills, when getting back up to speed after corners and for about 30 seconds every 5 minutes no matter what the circumstances. Also, move on the saddle. Slide to the front when you’re pedaling hard on the flat, slide to the rear as you climb, and do some hard seated pedaling to help you “levitate” from the saddle.
- Don’t accept numbness. Lack of genital sensation or tingling are not acceptable. They aren’t a normal part of riding a bike. If you experience any of these sensations, re-check the above parameters.
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Most comfortable bicycle saddles, as recommended by RBR readers and contributors.