On Saddles

On Saddles

There are two sorts of cyclists, those that are impotent and those that are going to be. Well, that is what I was told when seven years ago I decided to buy a bicycle and commented on the medieval instrument of torture that is the modern racing saddle.

I persevered through the pain and discomfort for a stupidly long time. I endured a total numbness that was terrifying and always threatened permanence. Mechanically I remember being in proud working order, but neurologically… no feeling, no sensation whatsoever sometimes for a week at a time after a longer ride. So ‘relations’ were functional but not pleasurable. Endurance increased to infinity or mutual boredom, whichever came first. Deeply unsatisfactory. Luckily given appropriate respite from the Judas Cradle (google it) nervous feeling returned and my hope to be fully active into later life appeared more realistic. But I started to worry about when to conduct my long rides. Marital opportunity drove my training plan and the importance of recovery took on a whole new meaning.

Now, I’m male and not a gynecologist. My experience of the undercarriage of the fairer sex is properly limited by a wonderfully happy, long, monogamous marriage. And my memory of anything that might have counted as broader experience before these 25 years of Nirvana is extremely limited and probably based more on wishful thinking and fantasy than fact. Indeed my reportable memory of anything libidinous is most likely highly fictional as, like most young men, I thought that I drove cars faster and better than anyone else ever did and that I was so good in bed that even professionals would have paid me to play. I suspect that I only remember the feasting, not the long famines or blight. But my lack of real knowledge does not stop me making assumptions. And the key assumption is that all women and men are all different. There are those with more external soft tissue and those with less. Innies and outies. Some of us sit up on our sit bones and some slump. Wide sit bones and narrow. Flexible lower backs and hamstrings. Different hip structures. Stiff backs and weak cores. There are those with a ‘thigh gap’ (apparently highly fashionable at the moment) and those whose legs rub together from the knees upwards. And boys can reorganize the soft bits manually on a long ride, and girls most likely cannot.

Occasionally you can see that someone is differently built. On the cycle track you will see knee action that extends wider than the bars, and then someone whose knees almost knock the top tube with every rotation. Of course this is not necessarily an indicator of the seat/body relationship; just as often it will be biomechanical. You will see some riders practically lying along their bikes, stretched out on badly fitted aerobars. Male or female, that is going to alter the pressure points. There are those whose hips rock as they balance on a saddle jacked up three centimeters too high. (Not tonight, Josephine). But mostly our differences are hidden, and more subtle. The bottom line: Boys have a ‘root’ through, round and over which all the nerves pass – numbness seems to be mainly a ‘boy’ issue – and girls have bits that get sore and bruised.

For some I am a Priest or Doctor figure with whom they are happy to talk stuff that normally doesn’t make it onto Facebook. Because I ride, a lot. And would never talk about it. Nether regions. Crotch tenderness. Saddle sores. Fleshy bits and hairiness. Lubrication. Pimples in hard to see places. Irony.

For amusement, next time you have a sore spot caused by the saddle, just see how much you have to contort yourself in the bathroom to catch sight of the problem area. Naked Twister anyone? This stuff is so private that nature has made it almost impossible for us to see for ourselves. And why is the pain almost always way out of kilter with the reality of the tiny blemish that we finally discover, bent double with a shaving mirror on the bathroom floor? And you will certainly gain a bruise or two in the Hunt for Red October. Bathrooms are so full of hard edges.

So when I am asked, which is often, what saddle do I recommend, I tend to flannel a bit. Then I switch on my experiential advisory head and ignoring the obvious social red flag I opine to the best of my ability. I compose myself, clear my throat (making time to compose myself a little more) and discuss.

There is no perfect saddle for everyone. If there was, all saddles would look and feel the same. And your LBS wouldn’t have a whole wall of them. But there are some key points (and I’ve checked these with Caroline, my wife and a cyclist, to make sure that I’m not talking complete rot on the female side)… Padding is rarely the answer. It all comes down to soft tissue or the root. Try different saddles, lots of different saddles. Adjust the aggression of your bike setup (the drop from saddle to handlebars, and perhaps the length of reach too) with an experienced bike fitter (another priest who won’t blab) especially if you suspect that you are an ‘outie’ with more soft tissue to get bruised. Use chamois cream so that everything slides happily around rather than chafing; but, if you are a girl, not the medicated stuff as it can irritate. And unless you have intimate knowledge of someone else’s anatomy and know it to be exactly the same as yours, don’t recommend your saddle to them. It’s a flawed approach.