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Cycling Down Under
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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 consequences.

Saddling up

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.

Short story

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 occasionally.

Skin deep

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.

For him

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.

For her

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 prescription.

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 extra thickness).
  • 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 some women.
  • Bringing your own saddle may be a wise decision if you're renting a bike for a tour.
  • Boxers are better than briefs.

Recommended Resources

  • http://www.healthfinder.gov/
    This consumer health information guide lists web sites, support groups, health information, publications, and health care professionals.
  • http://www.impotence.org
    This site offers information, resources and discussions of erectile dysfunction.
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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