Something I wrote in yesterday’s blog about women’s cycling appears to have touched a nerve (almost literally) with some readers. Specifically, the bit about issues faced by women getting comfortable on a drop-bar road bike. It’s a delicate subject, and one that the mainstream cycling press has no interest in addressing (totalwomenscycling.com being the exception).
Normally this blog is about cycling media, but I’m making an exception and writing about something a couple of readers have asked me about…helping their female partners get comfortable on a bike. If you’re of a delicate disposition, you might want to look away now.
I wrote an article about this a while back, but couldn’t get any of the cycling mags to publish it. And I’m afraid I don’t propose to publish it here, because as a freelance journalist I need to make money from my writing and this is too good a piece to just give away. However, what follows are a few extracts that I hope will give the gist of it, and provide some useful advice to any female readers struggling to get comfortable on their bike.
A lot has been written about cycling and erectile dysfunction in men. A study was conducted back in the 1990s which seemed to link cycling and Mr Floppy, and since then the saddle manufacturers have been busy making saddles to address this “problem”. Perineal pressure was thought to be to blame, constricting the blood supply to the penis, and so we began to see saddles with cut-outs to relieve that pressure. Subsequent studies have shown that male cyclists are fairly unlikely to experience erectile dysfunction as a result of their saddle, but the issue is out there in the public domain and is freely discussed.
But it’s different for girls…it’s worse. Seriously, it is. Much worse. And it’s something that no one seems keen to address, or even talk about. Even the women’s cycling websites seem surprisingly coy on the subject. You see, blokes can tuck it up front, out of the way. There may be a bit of side-to-side swing, but mostly the meat-and-two-veg stays out of harm’s way. But for girls, things are very different. They can’t tuck it out of the way…they have to sit on it. And that can cause pain, numbness and sometimes permanent damage.
I had never really thought about this. My wife isn’t really a cyclist, and on the rare occasions she rides a bike she finds it pretty uncomfortable “down there” after a while. I had dismissed this as her being unused to cycling, and assumed she meant her bum hurt. It was only when I did a 100-mile charity ride with my friend Tess that I came to realise that for women, riding a drop-bar bike for any length of time or distance can be seriously painful. After 70 miles Tess was suffering, and after 100 miles she was visibly distressed. It wasn’t her bum that hurt, she explained, it was her “lady parts”.
“When I got home I inspected the damage,” said Tess. “It was horrific. Swollen, chafed and raw. I really don’t know how female professional cyclists maintain any kind of love-life. The pain lasted for days, and the thought of getting back on the saddle filled me with dread.”
On a Dutch-style bike with an upright riding position the sit-bones (ischial tuberosities) and glutes take most of the rider’s weight, and that’s generally fairly comfortable. But on a race bike the rider leans much further forward, the pelvis is tilted forwards, the sit-bones take less weight, and more weight is placed on the soft tissue further forwards…on the vulva.
When a woman sits on a racing bike saddle, her vulva (something that wasn’t designed to be weight-bearing) is required to take up to 40% of her body weight. For hours at a time. Part of the problem is that in order to adopt an efficient riding position, a woman needs to be in the worst possible position for her lady-parts. This, it seems to me, is a serious problem.
Dr Marsha Guess, of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine, published a paper in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2006 entitled “Genital Sensation and Sexual Function in Women Bicyclists and Runners”. She compared competitive female cyclists and runners using quantative sensory testing, and found that the cyclists who cycled for more than 100 miles a week experienced significant reduction in genital sensation and a significant increase in pain and numbness, leading some to experience incidences of female sexual dysfunction and scoring highly on the Female Sexual Distress Scale.
More specifically, nearly two-thirds of the cyclists reported genital pain and numbness and 10 percent reported actual genital injury — compression of the pudendal nerve, and neurological damage to soft tissue and lymphatic vessels. British Cycling carried out a survey of pro women cyclists concerning saddle issues, and almost all reported problems. Some had suffered such serious labial swelling that they had to undergo surgery, says Phil Burt, head of physio at BC, who believes too many women riders are embarrassed to seek help for the problem. “If you have seriously swollen labia, it’s quite personal to talk about, but it really needs addressing as soon as possible,” he says.
Obviously pro cyclists spend way more time in the saddle than recreational cyclists, but the problem exists for some women even after relatively short rides. And they’re all different, so it’s hard to generalise about what helps and what doesn’t. However, a few things are worth thinking about.
The most significant issue is with riding position — the more aero and stretched out, the more weight is placed on the vulva. The easiest solution is not to ride a race bike but to ride something like a hybrid or MTB, with a relatively upright riding position. This will put more weight on the glutes and sit-bones, and less on delicate soft tissue. More flexible riders are able to adopt an aero position without tilting the pelvis too far forward, but you have to be very bendy to be able to do this.
This is such a personal issue that giving advice is almost pointless. Trial and error is really the only solution to finding the perfect saddle. While researching this article I found myself in the strange position of talking to random strangers in the street about their saddle and lady-parts, and amazingly not ending up in jail (or punched in the face). The consensus was that saddles with cut-outs were better than those without, wide and squishy saddles were a no-no, and things like the Adamo were pretty good (although not perfect). Go to a bike shop that offers saddle trials, and try a few out. Tipping the nose down by a degree or two (no more than that) may help alleviate pressure, and riding out of the saddle every 10 minutes or so can also help alleviate pressure.
If you really want to ride a drop-bar bike, go to a reputable bike fitter and get a bike fit. And explain to him/her any issues involving labial pain. Yes, it may be embarrassing, but this is your health at stake. Appraised of all the facts, a skilled bike-fitter should be able to set you up in a position that is an acceptable compromise between aero-efficiency and personal comfort.
If there’s one thing I would recommend spending serious money on, it’s a decent pair of bib-shorts. And if I was a woman I would not be stinting in this area. Yes, £130 is a lot of money for a pair of shorts, but you may find it’s the best £130 you ever spent. I’ve got a pair of Assos bibs that are six years old, covered something in the region of 7000 miles, and are still going strong. So far they’ve cost me £21 per year. Not a lot, really.
There’s a lot more to be written about this, but as I mentioned earlier I haven’t entirely given up hope of getting this published at some point so I’m not going to put it all on here (sorry). Hopefully the above may be of use, and below there are some links to useful websites.
Some useful resources:
Saddle Sore (very good ebook) by Molly Hurford: http://saddlesorewomen.com/