by Carol Torgan, Ph.D.
Warning: This column contains sexual content and may not be suitable for viewing by small children or bashful adults.
Rest your crotch for hours at a time on a piece of leather only a
few inches wide, and you're bound to have some problems. Repeatedly
pump your thighs up and down against the leather while wearing tight
Lycra shorts, and the complications multiply. Bounce delicate body parts
against the leather as you transverse rough roads, and it's time to
seriously reconsider the meaning of life.
Cycling can induce a plethora of nether-region injuries that
range from annoying to devastating. The crotch itself doesn't normally
bear weight; it's the job of the ischial tuberosities, or sit bones.
Ideally this part of your anatomy should contact the saddle. However,
with poor bike fit or in an effort to achieve an aerodynamic position,
part of your body weight can rest on soft tissues with painful
Improving your riding position can rectify many problems. Saddle
height is crucial. To check the approximate height, sit on your bike and
pedal backward with your heels on the pedals. Your legs should be fully
extended at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If your hips rock, the
saddle is too high and may be placing extra pressure on your privates.
If your knees bend at the bottom of the stroke the seat is too low. This
can lead to knee problems.
The saddle should be level. An upward tilt puts pressure on the
crotch, while a downward tilt may cause you to slide forward, stressing
the arms and shoulders. Also check the saddle's alignment. Many riders
prefer to align it with the top tube. Others find it more comfortable to
rotate the saddle a few degrees to the left or right.
You don't have to use the saddle that came with your bike. Many
types are available to suit a range of riding styles. The best saddle is
the one that's the most comfortable for you. Visit a bike shop that
offers loaner saddles and test ride a variety until you discover a
favorite. Features to consider include: length, width and contour; seam
placement; cutouts or wedges to reduce pressure and increase
ventilation; padding (foam, gel); fabric (leather, vinyl); and shock
absorption. Men's and women's saddles differ in length, width and hole
placement. Keep an open mind when testing as some men find women's
saddles more suitable, and visa versa. It may take a number of weeks of
riding for a new saddle to start feeling comfortable.
Wear padded cycling shorts. Shorts should fit snugly to avoid fabric
movement that causes friction, and hence heat and chafing. If you're
self conscious about parading around in skin tight Lycra, try shorts
that offer a liner with a baggie shell or skorts (combination
skirt/shorts). Quality cycling shorts usually blend Lycra with materials
such as DryLine or CoolMax that wick moisture away from the skin. The
padding (chamois) may be contoured, seamless, contain anti-microbial
fabric, and have polyfoam or gel layers. Regular underwear should not be
worn as this adds unnecessary seams and can trap heat, bacteria and
sweat against the skin. Men may prefer bib shorts, which are popular
among the pros. The suspenders help keep the padding (and the underlying
body parts) in place. Once you find shorts that are comfortable, buy
several. Change out of your shorts immediately after riding or you'll be
a walking, talking petri dish of microbes and could wind up with nasty
boils and/or yeast infections. Lose fitting clothes are a good choice to
let your crotch air out and keep the skin dry. It is crucial to wash
your shorts after every ride.
Frequently shift your position while riding. When going over
rough terrain stand to let your legs absorb the shock, rather than your
crotch. Standing also lessens compression of the nerves and blood
vessels. Periodically slide forward and backward on the saddle to
relieve pressure. Don't spend extended periods of time on aero bars,
which encourages riding on the nose of the saddle. Stop and walk around
One of the most common cycling complaints is skin irritation.
Chafing can cause rashes and boils, especially in the crease between the
crotch and the thigh. Boils are red, swollen bumps under the skin, and
are often caused by an infected hair follicle. The bacteria form a
pocket of pus that can become large and painful. Wash with antibacterial
soap. Boils that won't heal or are very tender may require a trip to
the doctor for evaluation and a prescription for antibiotics.
In men, pressure on the perineum where blood vessels and nerves pass
may result in a number of complications. There can be damage to the
urinary tract and urethral bleeding. Compression or damage to the
arteries that supply blood to the penis can lead to an inability to
achieve or sustain an erection. Nerve damage can result in numbness and
problems with ejaculating. The causes may be acute (a sudden, painful
rendezvous between the crotch and top tube) or chronic (repeated rubbing
of the artery walls which builds up scar tissue that can clog
arteries). Cycling-induced erectile dysfunction is not always reversible
and may require treatment, so contact a doctor if you are having
problems. It's also important to let your physician know you spend time
straddling a saddle as cycling may elevate prostate-specific antigen
(PSA) levels which are used to screen for prostate cancer.
Women can experience chafing and irritation to the soft tissue folds
of the vulva. If nerves are compressed, there may be some numbness and
diminished sexual sensation. The combination of snug bike shorts and
exercise creates a warm, moist environment that can exacerbate yeast
infections. To help prevent infections change into dry clothes
immediately after riding. The "yeast" is actually the fungus Candida.
Infections can be treated with anti-fungal products available without a
Hints not from Heloise
Many club members, as well as other experts, graciously offered
advice on managing crotch-related maladies. Some of this wisdom was
incorporated above, and some has been pooled with information from other
sources to provide the following tips.
- Lubricating the crotch area is one of the best ways to prevent
chafing. Either the skin or shorts can be smeared. The top lube choice
(by far) is petroleum jelly. Other options include A+D Ointment, Bag
Balm, Chamois Butt'r, Desitin, K-Y Jelly, Udder Cream, and Vagisil.
- Wearing two pairs of cycling shorts or a pair of cycling
underwear plus a pair of cycling shorts is an option. This provides more
cushioning, and can reduce chafing as the layers of fabric rub against
each other. (Although layering is apparently a common practice among
men, women who heard about it were skeptical at best.)
- Using a saddle cover can be helpful. Lycra covers may reduce
friction and chafing, and sheepskin and gel padded covers offer extra
cushioning (don't forget to lower your seat height to compensate for the
- Using antiseptic cream at night and sleeping in the buff can be beneficial.
- Bringing a product such as Metamucil along on a bike tour may be helpful as constipation can make riding uncomfortable.
- Utilizing birth control pills to adjust the menstrual cycle
so a period doesn't occur during a multi-day tour may be an option for
- Bringing your own saddle may be a wise decision if you're renting a bike for a tour.
- Boxers are better than briefs.
Carol Torgan is an exercise physiologist and Fellow of the American
College of Sports Medicine. You can reach her at ceetee01 at yahoo.com
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