Saturday 19 May 2012

Saddles in the news

Several newspapers and websites seem to have all discovered "cycling may lead to loss of genital sensation in women" studies over the last week or so, with stories based around it for some reason for some reason appealing even to papers that usually show no interest in cycling in general and even less in women's cycling (ie, the vast majority of the media). (see 1, 2, 3)

Why this should be is a mystery: it's definitely something that everyone - especially female cyclists - should know about, but precisely why this story rather than the hundreds of others concerning female cyclists and women's cycling each and every week are so comprehensively ignore remains unexplained. There are those who will put it down simply to society's obsession with sex; there are others who will see hints of something more sinister, perhaps evidence that society still believes that "sex is what women are for" and that if a woman loses interest in it, she has no further value. I'm in the first camp. Doesn't matter - that's not what this article is about.

Relieving the numbness experienced by male cyclists is
simple - just cut out the central part of the saddle
PNS suddenly came to the fore in the late 1990s when male mountain bikers began complaining about it (road cyclists, far more masochistic than mountain bikers, had presumably always thought of it as just another sacrifice that had to be made to the wheel). It had been well-known for years that male riders can suffer genital numbness or penile numbness syndrome, and there had been studies claiming cycling may lead to male impotence for, well, about as long as there had been bicycles (there are just as many others that say it doesn't). That was a good thing, because somebody realised that if they could invent a saddle that prevented it, they were going to sell lots of them. So, a study was commissioned - and discovered that the problem was caused by pressure on the blood vessels in the perineum. That was a good thing too, because the answer seemed obvious - make saddles with a softer central section, or even eliminate the central section entire. So they did, and they worked, and now almost all "serious" saddles (as opposed to those fitted to cheap bike-shaped objects which will never be ridden more than a kilometre or two anyway) are made that way.

So if you want to do the same for women, you just cut out
the central section of a women-specific saddle, right? Er,
no - this may come as a surprise, but men and women are
not physically identical.
If one listened carefully, in among the moans of hundreds of thousands of men complaining about their numb willies could be heard the dulcet tones of the far smaller number of female cyclists pointing out that they too found their saddles less than ideal and that they too were experiencing numbness. The even smaller number of bike companies and saddle manufacturers that had realised that some people who enjoyed riding bikes happened to be women took notice and cut out the middle sections on their women's saddle designs. Unfortunately, because women's cycling was and remains a far smaller market than men's cycling, those that understood that women and men are not constructed identically couldn't afford to commission a proper study this time. As a result, women's cut-out saddles didn't work quite so satisfactorily as men's.

"Noseless" saddles are of little use to competitive and
serious cyclists as they severely curtail bike control
For the same reason, further research has only recently been conducted - fifteen years after the men's anti-PNS saddle became popular. The new study, conducted by Yale, took a detailed look at the effect saddles have on the female anatomy, rather than simply using data obtained from studies conducted on males. It recommends that female riders position their saddles lower than their handlebars to relieve pressure (the opposite is true for men), which is all well and good for women who use bikes for short, low-speed journeys. It's completely useless for women who race, because if they set up their bikes like that they'll be sitting bolt-upright and get completely thrashed by opponents in the traditional, steamlined position. Another option is to use a "noseless" saddle, one that supports only the "seat bones" of the pelvis - which is once again useless for women who ride competitively because "noseless" saddles cannot be used to control the bike as can standard designs.

What it all boils down to is that female cyclist's health has suffered because, until recently, nobody had really looked at what was causing the problem they were experiencing. Now we know. What remains to be seen is whether a saddle manufacturer will take those findings and use them to develop a saddle that doesn't cause the problem, will permit women to ride in the standard streamlined racing stance and doesn't limit bike control. What do you reckon? Another fifteen years? Possibly, if manufacturers decide that such a saddle wouldn't sell in sufficient numbers to justify the cost of developing it. Possibly less, if enough of us talk about it and let manufacturers know that such a saddle would sell (I'll have to leave that part up to you female cyclists, since I'm merely support crew rather than on your team). Despite the sport's financial problems and neglect at the hands of the UCI, there are more female racing cyclists around nowadays than ever before - let the manufacturers known that it's in their interests to provide a women-specific anti-numbness saddle that actually does what it promises.

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