There are things us cyclists can't stop talking about, our bikes, our rides, our newest purchase, our latest diet and a world beating training program. We try not to make friends on airplanes, but the moment we ride next to a stranger in lycra, we are sharing life stories. There appears to be nothing sacred, but there is, chaffing and saddle sores. The silent suffering.
A sore backside is all part of the challenge that is cycling, but chaffing and saddle soreness is more than that and certainly not a friend of the cyclist. The good news, if there is any, is that you are certainly not alone, and with care and prevention, it can be managed. Virtually all cyclists experience saddle soreness at some stage, then out of necessity adjust and take precautions that control or eliminate it from their riding. Staying healthy and injury free is critical in any sport or physical activity. Make no mistake, saddle soreness is an injury. Taking care of the tender regions is as important as any of the number of things you do to care for your health and wellbeing.
So, what types of chaffing and discomfort are there and what causes them? And what can you do about it?
The two most common types of down under discomfort are traditional chaffing of the skin, until the skin is irritated or broken, and the infamous saddle sore. Chaffing is most common and a sign of problems ahead as you increase your mileage, good practices now will save you from many hours of discomfort. A saddle sore is a bacteria filled pore, that rises up in the most inconvenient of places, and can feel like sitting on a red hot spike. Neither chaffing or saddle sores are pleasant, and both end rides early and cancel tomorrows.
You will be surprised how many small contributors can combine to give you one big problem. Road surface, bike type, short and pad insert quality, saddle height, hot days, cold and wet days, ride type and duration, saddle selection and riding style. By taking a few simple precautions, that in many cases are part of your overall cycling journey, will enable you to enjoy your cycling without compromise.
Many factors can lead to increased vibration, frame material, design and stiffness, road or trail surface. Aluminium has a reputation for a harsher ride over carbon, and a racing designed frame will be more upright in seat and head tube angles, attracting more vibration. Speed and performance always comes at the price of comfort, so when selecting your bike be sure to let the local bike shop advise you on what’s best for your riding. Hands and back sides take the brunt of vibration, and combined with other contributors, can expose the rider to soreness and injury.
How you sit on your bike can also determine your level of comfort over longer periods. Sitting too high can result in unnecessary hip movement and pressure points in the saddle area. The distance between your saddle and bars is key too, an extended or low reach can result in you moving forward on your saddle where it is not designed for extended periods of riding. Tri athletes have the challenge of riding extended periods in a aero dynamic position, good bike position is key for comfort and speed. If unsure consider a professional bike fit or talk to an experienced rider on your group.
There are two types of cyclists and a thousand types of saddles. The first gets on a saddle and just makes it happen, the second will change their saddle a hundred times to find the one perfect for them, and still not be happy! It is easier and cheaper to be the first, so buy a saddle that you have been measured for at the local bike shop, because they can get you close enough to perfect, and just get on with it. If you want the ultimate comfort stay on the couch, all bike seats have their “moments”. Note, quality seats are not unisex.
Money saved on bike shorts is paid for elsewhere, it’s up to you where you chose to spend it. An investment in quality shorts will be long forgotten three hours from home on a hot, sweaty day. Firstly, shorts are not unisex, avoid brands that tell you so. Pick a chamois pad that suits your riding, thicker for endurance and training, thinner and lighter for racing, extra padding towards the front for triathlon / time trialling. A quality pad will be gentle directly against your skin (yes that’s a big no to wearing underwear riding), and absorbent of moisture. The stitching will be high quality and not be raised leaving you susceptible to abrasion. The shape will be anatomic, in that they are designed for the riding position, not for looking good standing up.
Once you have dealt as best as you can with the contributors then prevention is the next strategy. Nothing beats chamois cream to provide a buffer and lubricant for down below. As a rule, if in doubt, then put some on, and for hot, wet or longer days in the saddle it is a must. There are two types of chamois cream, a lighter based cream, great for lubricating pads and stitching of shorts, and petroleum based, for long rides or ultimate protection. In many cases, it comes down to rider preference. Choose chamois creams with quality ingredients that promote skin health and fight against infection and bacteria.
Being slightly old school, I shake my head at the number of people walking around in cycling shorts hours after an event. Once the ride is over then get the chamois away from the skin, and keep the area clean. For events and times, you cannot access cleaning facilities, use a dry wash with quality ingredients that again promote skin health and antiseptic benefits.
So, with some common sense, care, and appropriate investment, you can get out and enjoy the days in the saddle. Enjoy your riding.