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When cycling is a pain in the bum


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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Chasing comfort ... the correct cycling position is crucial.

Chasing comfort ... the correct cycling position is crucial. Photo: Quinn Rooney

I first realised I was developing a problem when I was driving home from a ride, and put an ice-cold energy drink bottle between my legs.

After years riding a hybrid bike, I'd just bought my first racer, and had been out riding on rough, potholed rural roads around Camden, in south-west Sydney.

I knew I'd taken a bit of a pounding from the saddle, but I was still surprised at the soothing effect of an ice-cold container on my groin – even through padded cycling shorts. Until then, I'd only half-noticed that I'd often experience a tingling discomfort after long rides.

Suddenly, the fear that no man likes to mention began to percolate. I'd taken up cycling as a way of having a healthy, active life, with all the benefits that implies. Was cycling putting me on the road to erectile dysfunction?

If you ask Dr Google, as I did that evening, you can find a lot of conflicting information on the issue, from those who are convinced that cycling could cruel your love life, to others who say that the theory is unproved, and any possible problems can be averted with the right equipment and posture.

Blair Martin, a Sydney physiotherapist whose practice, The Body Mechanic, specialises in fitting people on bicycles, says cycling's possible relationship with sexual health problems is difficult to quantify, and much research appears to be anecdotal. “It's not the kind of thing where three longitudinal studies of large sample sizes, including control groups, have shown that this is the case,” he says.

In the weeks after my Camden ride, I found a shop that would lend me saddles for test rides. I tried wider saddles, soft ones, saddles with cut-outs – nothing made much difference.

Finally I consulted Steve Hogg of He recommended a Selle SMP, a distinctively weird saddle with an epic centre cut-out and a beak for a nose. “I already tried an SMP Strike, didn't work,” I told him glumly.

“A big bruiser like you needs the wider style,” he told me. “This is the Pro model. Try it for a week.”

Five days later I called him to say I'd pay him any money - there was no way he was getting the saddle back off me. In the six years since, I've ridden on rough roads and smooth, sometimes doing a hundred kilometres every day for a week at a time, with no deleterious effects (thank you for asking).

The issue lies with the perineum, the area between the genitals and the anus that is a mass of soft tissue, nerves and blood vessels. The perineum can make contact with the saddle, but weight needs to be borne by the bones of the pelvis.

Problems can manifest in many ways – men speak of numbness in the genitals and urinary discomfort, but Hogg says some women have worse issues.

“Women tend to get pain during urination and sex, or burning when they shower - their anatomy is more delicate and located differently,” he told me recently. “I reckon this is a major reason why there are fewer women cycling than men.”

But is saddle choice the magic bullet? Hogg and Martin both say it's only part of the equation, and that a bad position is always going to be a problem.

“I'm a huge fan of seats with a perineal cut-out; but with most of them, the cut-out is a token effort,” Hogg says.

As for fitting, Hogg says: “The majority of people sit too high, which exaggerates the problem. You're not bearing your weight on bone, you're rolling forward towards each pedal, which means you're pivoting on soft tissue.”

Martin agrees: “My first approach is to get you to effectively distribute your weight across five contact areas [hands, feet and seat]. If the issue persists following that, it's likely to be a saddle issue.”

Some cycling shops offer a saddle-fitting system that measures the width between your "sit bones" to help you optimise your saddle choice.

Of course, comfort is only a problem for some. Most people quickly find an agreeable set-up – and often, problems only develop when people move from commuting to training, when distances increase, or performance equipment is chosen, such racing bicycles or triathlon bars.

But many cyclists believe that discomfort is part of the deal. It shouldn't have to be. There has been an explosion of saddle innovation in the past decade, with something for everyone, and there are increasing numbers of experts who can help with riding position. It can be a vexing and drawn-out process for some, but the results are worth it.

As for the chance of the unkindest injury of all? Well, it's worth noting that major proven causes of erectile dysfunction include depression, stress, smoking, being overweight and not exercising.

And cycling can help with all of those.

Have you ever had saddle problems, and how did you beat them?

twitter Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter



  • "driving home from a ride" - classic "executive style".

    Mt Macedon
    Date and time
    May 03, 2012, 1:29PM
    • Well, it was in a 15-year-old car, but anyways ...

      Michael O'Reilly, On Your Bike
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 1:56PM
    • To be fair to Michael, if he lives in the Inner West, you need to head out of the city to ride with any degree of speed and safety, and even if you're fit enough to add the extra 40km return journey onto your ride, there are a lot of roads where you'd be taking your life in your hands …

      And yes. The tricky question of saddles … I recently returned to riding after a long layoff due to serious injury and had a moment of WTF before I realised that my new old-school leather saddle was very different to my old cut-out mountain bike saddle. Sorted now!

      Ms D Writes
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 2:50PM
    • rubbish, you should ride not drive from the inner west like i do.

      it's a good start to ride out to hornsby for the gorges or old road and back, or mona vale road for west head / akuna. you need to warm up before you hit the really solid hills.

      driving to a ride ? that would be like the rest of the winners that think hot laps of centennial is the real deal...

      inner west
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 4:43PM
    • Easy to say when you are riding a high horse instead of a bicycle.

      Get off.
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 5:38PM
    • @Cyclist - seriously dude, there could be a thousand reasons fro riding home from a ride... and if the 'winners' dig their 'hot laps' of centennial, more power too them. You really, really, REALLY need to chill!

      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 6:14PM
    • @cyclist, I can't drive, so I take the train or train/ferry depending on where I plan to ride. I refuse to ride through the city these days because I've been hit there by light-running numpties three times and I don't have it in me to spend another 6 months in plaster.

      Though I do ride my bike over to Centennial Park, where I pick up a horse …

      Down Camden way, which is what Michael was discussing, isn't all about the hill climbs, there are some great road rides and some nice cruisy bush rides that are just a fun day out. You certainly don't need a 25km warm-up for them! Not everyone's a lycra hero, and not every day's about acting like you're in a Nike commercial.

      I feel certain you must have calves of steel, well done, but the rest of us don't have an obligation to be you, sunshine.

      Ms D Writes
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 12:40AM
    • Great call, Klaus - 'driving home from a ride' indeed.
      From the responses it seems you've touched a raw nerve in somebody's perineum!

      out bush
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 10:11AM
    • Saddle issues have been well studied for years, the best thing to do is find a saddle that has a firm, flat seating area across the back that supports the bodyweight on the sitbones instead of a domed saddle that supports weight on (and punishes) the perineum. Hit up a Specialized shop that has the assometer to measure your sitbones & try a test saddle in the recommend width and model (they carry diff widths and shapes). Trying is free, so no loss if it doesnt work for you - and dont complain unless you've tried it, there's a lot of medical studies & data to back it up. Also, they do demo days around Australia - Facebook "Test the best australia" to see where & when you can try them out. -Gabe

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 12:28PM
    • Well, I drove home from Torquay to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne after the 145km Otway Classic. I wouldn't mind betting some 3 Peaks riders drove from Halls Gap to Melbourne too. Hands up who's ridden that far after the ride? I think you have the saddle a bit high on your high horse, Klaus. Bike snobs... can't stand 'em.

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 7:59PM

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