We start riding for different reasons, but all of us have fallen in love.
I remember fondly my first days on the bike... I rode up Mont Ventoux, with the sun shining and the scent of wildflowers hanging in the air. My hair fanned out behind me and I think I even started to sing. Funny enough, it wasn't the views that sold me on the sport. I mean sure, cycling through the South of France with a bird sitting on my shoulder is alright, but wow... this saddle feels like heaven on my soft tissue!
Ok so that was a bad joke. That has literally never and will never happen. Least of all because I've never been to France.
In reality, though we might glorify our suffering through dazzling Instagram shots, there is often little romance in the moment. Let's replace that pink and floral tampon ad above with me, sweating sunscreen in to my eyes, choking on my hair, paperboying up a climb that others seem to fly over and silently crying because there is a sore on the softest, most vulnerable part of my entire body that started as light chafing but has blossomed into a raw, red wound which is torn apart with every pedal stroke. OK - the singing part was true, but its terrible and mostly just to remind myself I can still breathe.
This is no honorable battle from which I will return with flags waving. It's a battle alright, but one which many of us enter silently and can lead even the best of us to look at our bikes some mornings with disdain or fear or some combination, and leave them there to mock us even as we sleep.
How we feel about it may range from mild discomfort to outright resentment, but I can guarantee the feelings are there. For us though, it's a bitter pill to swallow for which the rewards are sufficiently sweet that we forget. Or if we can't forget, we just keep riding, seething and planning the slow murder of whoever designed the damn thing.
Maybe I'm being dramatic, here, but I don't think so. Anyone who has dealt with this issue knows exactly what I'm talking about. And if you don't you can skip back to never never land with a bird singing on your shoulder.
We’re here to tell you ladies, saddles do not have to suck. Mildly annoying? Maybe. But painful? Absolutely not.
I believe one of the opportunities most ignored by female cyclists is a proper fit. It’s a pretty big investment, and one easily put off for another day because after all, you’re getting along just fine as you are right? The bike looks like it fits, how bad could it be? Bad. Anyone who has experienced some sort of discomfort while riding knows how aggravating it can be, especially when it’s the one thing holding you back from doing what you love. Whether it’s crotch pain, numbness, saddle sores, chafing, or worse, it can sometimes be bad enough that we don’t want to (or can’t) get out on the bike.
Mild crotch discomfort is something widely known about cycling by all riders. So it can be confusing for women new to the sport to gauge; what is normal discomfort? Which pain should I push through, and how much is too much? Lisa Wooden, a friend of ours and massage therapist based in Santa Monica, admits to waiting about a year too long to get her fit. She recalls the somewhat ridiculous experience of buying a bike in a bike shop, where a an employee commands, “Sit on it. It fits? OK, good.” And out the door she went.
This is basically a joke of a bike fit, but one which is all too common when you’re new to the game. At this point an image floats through my mind of myself, eighteen or so, buying a used commuter hybrid from a shop in Brooklyn where a grizzly neighborhood man merely grunted when I asked if the bike I was looking to buy was my size, and sent me on my way sans receipt. At least Lisa had the wherewithal to visit a reputable dealer. Unfortunately, even in these circumstances, a new rider can often walk away with an improper fit. A detailed fitting session doesn’t come standard with your bike purchase, and might seem like an unjustified expense to new cyclists.
So off Lisa rode with her brand new Specialized beauty, and went on to suffer for two years before committing to a fit. She had chalked up her lady-parts pain to just part of riding, but it took gradually worsening knee and lower back issues to finally get her into Bike Effect for a professional fitting from owner Steven Carre. What she learned was that all of these pains (saddle discomfort included) were fixed by one simple remedy: a proper fitting by a knowledgable specialist.
She had always complained, “somewhat silently, somewhat (definitely not) silently that [her] vagina was going numb all the time.” The main problem is that “when you’re new to riding you’re like maybe this is what everyone’s talking about. No wonder people want cushion… I’ll get used to it over time. No. It’s a real issue. It does not get used to it. No.”
Numbness, sores, cysts, and sharp pains are all signs you may need a new saddle. These symptoms are not normal pain you should toughen up and endure. While simply replacing this piece of the puzzle might do the trick, we recommend getting a full fit because of how interdependent and reliant on one another all of your body parts are. Make one change, and you might need to make many other adjustments as well. Further, buying a new saddle without arming yourself with the proper information is, for lack of a better word, a crapshoot.
Lisa’s fit started from the bottom. Your feet, she describes, are “the basement of your house.” If the fit is not correct in your shoes and pedals and cleat placement, then everything else is going to be off kilter. And if you don’t realize this, you could end up over-compensating in your body placement or in your cockpit which could lead to new problems in the future. Lisa had several adjustments made to her shoes, hood and bar placement, and stem length, among other things.
What made a “mind-blowing” difference to her, though, was her saddle.
Primarily, some important measurements are taken. Steven checked Lisa’s seat bone placement, and she learned she has “average to slightly wide” seat bones, which means a narrow saddle won’t help her at all. You may very well have narrow seat bones, though. It’s not necessarily true that all women have wide seat bones and require a wide saddle; it's important to know what your unique body is like. Next, Steven attached a heat map to Lisa’s current saddle and she assumed the position.
The diagnosis? Lisa’s soft tissue lit up with angry pressure lines, showing that almost all of the pressure from the weight of her entire body was resting on her vaginal tissue. Further, she learned that her left seat bone was not even resting on her saddle at all! Her current set up was too narrow for her hips, so her body had attempted to compensate by resting just the right side on the saddle, leaving her left seat bone (designed to bear the brunt of weight and pressure equally) out in the breeze and her soft tissue to take up the slack. This not only caused the pain and numbness Lisa had noticed and tried to ignore, but it also accounted for her shoulder pain, as her body had been twisting as a result of her uneven hips. Lisa laughs, “Now I know how seat bones feel on a saddle.”
It's not all about seat bone/saddle contact, though. Lisa showed up to her fit in a pair of bib shorts she had ridden in for a few months and felt pretty comfortable. When Steven pointed out where Lisa's seat bones had been resting, he also noticed that they were not being protected by her chamois, which was too narrow and positioned too far forward. This is another possible reason for Lisa's twisting and misalignment; she may have unconsciously been trying to shift her seat bones out of the way from contact with the saddle, and favoring her soft tissue areas because they were at least covered by the chamois. Steven handed her another short to continue with the fit.
Lisa and I both agreed that this revelation, that your chamois might not be doing its job, was pretty shocking. "I mean who would have thought," she muses. "It's back there, right? It must be doing its job!" Apparently not. With a new position on the bike and shorts with a chamois that properly covered her seat bones, Lisa's heat map image shows a drastic change. In the "After" image, you can see how weight distribution should look when you are riding with a proper fit and you are aligned correctly on your saddle. Lisa's weight is now evenly resting on both seat bones, protected by her chamois, and thus protecting her soft tissue from damage and pain.
“I’m happy… Cloud nine.” Lisa seems truly amazed at her newly discovered aches and pains. These aches are muscle aches – the fire in our legs we all love and hate – which is not to be confused with real pressure pain. Pain that does not belong in your soft tissue at all, but in your glutes, calves, even your shoulders. Before her fit, Lisa was “so tired of getting out of the saddle… not to sprint but just to get some blood flow!” Standing should be a choice, not a necessity.
After her fit Lisa noticed a change immediately. The very next day she headed up Mandeville, a familiar local climb, and at the top noticed she hadn't even shifted to her small ring. So aligning your body properly might not just ease your crotch pain, but it can redistribute how you use your muscles so your riding will inevitably improve, possibly overnight.
Moral of the story? Go get fit.
Author's note: Lisa is not only fearless when it comes to taking control of her bike fit. She's also unafraid of picking up giant spiders.
GebioMized Pressure Map imagery courtesy of Steven Carre and Bike Effect