The truth about Saddlesore!
Want to know what's really behind saddlesore? Well, it’s probably a clit or labia thing, but no one seems comfortable saying it out loud. Emily Chappell isn’t afraid…
I’m going to start with a content warning,” announces Isla Rowntree at the beginning of her ‘Science of Saddlesore’ workshop in Oxford. “This is going to be quite explicit and graphic, and if anyone has a problem with that, they might want to leave the room now.”
Fifty bottoms stay firmly parked on fifty chairs, their owners intrigued – and, in some cases, desperate – to find out how they might sit comfortably in their saddles.
A study carried out by British Cycling after the London Olympics found that 100 per cent of the female athletes they interviewed had ongoing problems with saddlesore, but felt too embarrassed to mention it to their male doctors, coaches and physiotherapists.
That’s probably not surprising. Where most other experts only go so far as to mutter something vague about “soft tissue,” Isla’s workshop is one of the few discussions of women’s saddlesore that dares to point out that modern bicycle geometry puts an uncomfortable amount of pressure on the clitoris and labia.
“Imagine a bicycle design where the main point of contact was the end of a man’s penis!” Her audience roars with laughter, but they see her point. Women’s anatomy does seem ill-suited to many of the saddles currently on the market.
The design challenge is mind-boggling. Not only does each woman have a unique arrangement of sit bones, hip sockets, inner and outer labia, clitoris, body fat and muscle, there’s also the seemingly insurmountable challenge of deriving some sort of rational measurement from all this.
Are you an innie?
Cyclists can now visit a Specialized Concept Store and sit on a special pad to measure the width of their sit bones. (This, apparently, has no correlation with the overall width of the pelvis, so an extremely petite woman will sometimes end up on the widest saddle available.) But, as far as we can tell, no one’s come up with a system for measuring the size, prominence and position of women’s labia.
Perhaps the person who’s come the closest is saddle designer John Cobb, who confronted the issue of women’s saddle comfort back in 1995, beginning with his wife Ginger, and extending the study to his female customers. He quickly discovered that – surprise surprise – this was more complicated than he’d thought. Cobb eventually came up with the question: “Are you an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’?”
As he explains, women who are considered “outie” have much more pronounced and exposed labia, and often a more prominent clitoris, meaning there is far more delicate flesh exposed to the front of the saddle. This can often lead to the dreaded “flap mash.” Innies have far less exposed soft tissue and, Cobb found, tend to prefer a saddle with a narrower nose.
Jasmijn Muller used a Cobb saddle when she broke the Zwift Distance Record, but still ended up giving in to saddlesore after 1,828km. “One large saddlesore in my groin had become badly infected and swollen,” she recalls. “It went 10cm into my upper leg and was red, oozing and painful.”
Jasmijn is looking into a number of strategies to avoid similar issues when she attempts to set a new Land’s End to John O’Groats record in September 2017, and is currently experimenting with an Infinity saddle, a startlingly unique design from Dr Vince Marcel.
With the biggest cut-out I’ve ever seen the Infinity looks like a clever solution to flap mash.
Dr Vince – a chiropractor by background – tells me that the respite comes from the Infinity reducing pressure by spreading the rider’s weight over a larger area, plus the framework of the saddle flexing with the movement of the rider to reduce chafing.
Kajsa Tylen, who holds the Guinness World Record for furthest distance cycled by a woman in a year, confides that using an Infinity saddle helped rid her of the painful boils that plagued her for months of her attempt.
Release the pressure
Of course, your style of riding plays just as crucial a part in your comfort as the shape and angle of your saddle. Those who ride in a more aggressive position, like time triallers, road racers and track cyclists, tend to set their bars lower in relation to their saddle, meaning they’re more likely to put undue pressure on their labia and clitoris. Tourers, commuters and endurance riders might favour a more upright position on the bike, yet they’re more prone to developing pressure sores on their lower buttocks, where the sit bones make contact with the saddle.
We’re all different, with different bodies, bikes and styles of riding, and that’s what makes it tricky to pair each woman with her ideal saddle. It’s not so much about knowing what works, it’s knowing why it works.
Maria Olsson, a designer for Rapha, tells me that the company actually uses the same size pad in all of their women’s shorts, from XXS to XL. What is more crucial, she reveals, is the fit of the shorts and the precise placement of the pad.
Women often buy shorts a size too big, which means the chamois can move as they ride, causing irritation and soreness. Because of this, the design team has put a lot of work into ensuring the pad sits in exactly the same place across their entire range of shorts, no matter what size or style. Rapha’s shorts are wear tested for up to two years before they’re made available to the public, and appear to prove that where the chamois is concerned, size is less important than shape and fit.
A good bike fit can work wonders for your comfort in the saddle, and Isla Rowntree’s workshop offers a lot of advice on seatpost angle, crank length and saddle angle.
Molly Hurford, author of Saddle, Sore, believes that what many bikefitters would diagnose as a “leg length discrepancy” may be more about labia asymmetry, with the larger lip being constantly pinched or chafed by the saddle. Journalist and cyclo-cross racer Molly spoke to everyone from gynaecologists to nutritionists when researching her book, which she ended up writing in response to countless women who approached her online, in person, and even during races, to seek her advice on their saddle issues. “No joke, I’ve had multiple women pull down their pants, and be like: ‘Is this a saddlesore?’”
British Cycling, never a stranger to controversy, recommends its athletes leave their pubic hair exactly as it is, citing research that shows hair can help reduce friction and wick sweat away from the body. But, according to a gynaecologist Molly consulted, what you do with your hair is far less important than keeping your genital area clean, changing out of your shorts the moment you get off the bike and avoiding chamois cream if you do keep your hair.
Speaking to Molly, listening to Isla and watching Dr Vince’s demonstration of how his saddles correspond to the bones in the human pelvis, I feel both enlightened and bewildered. There’s far more to learn about saddlesore than I ever thought possible, but there’s also a veritable arms race among clothing companies, all eager to offer us the very sleekest, softest, comfiest chamois.
And who knows, in a few years’ time the Saturday boy in your local bike shop might be able to help you with your flap mash. Now, there’s a thought.