It’s really quite difficult to have a good conversation about saddle soreness while tiptoeing around some anatomical minefield. So I’m not going to tiptoe around, because I think female cyclists – hell, all cyclists – need to be able to have much more frank discussions about what goes on downstairs while you’re on a bike. Enough of the coyness.
I only took up road cycling this year and I did not know what saddle soreness meant.
A year ago, I was happily pottering about London on my single speed, never going further than ten miles at a gentle pace. I had a Selle Italia Gel Flow saddle on my bike which was perfectly comfortable for short distances (and that was wearing jeans, or dresses – not padded bib shorts.)
So, when I began feeling a bit sore on my road bike using the standard-issue saddle it came with, I immediately ordered another Selle Italia Gel Flow, which comes highly recommended by a lot of female cyclists. For rides to work, a distance of around 9 miles? All ok. Perfectly comfortable. I made the right choice! Or, so I thought.
A few weeks later, I went out on a 65 mile weekend ride.
Suddenly, that cushioning seemed less helpful. At the end of the ride, I was thoroughly sore: I had small lesions in my soft tissue, which were deeply uncomfortable.
Hmm, I thought. This is unexpected.
So, I read up online and it sounded as though chamois cream would be the answer to my prayers.
Boy, how people seem to love chamois cream! Apparently, no matter what you’re riding and in any old bib shorts, if you’ve embrocated thoroughly you’ll be assured of a comfortable ride.
For my first recreational, group ride I slathered on the chamois cream and thought, right! Here we go. The pinching and the bruising and the lesions will be gone with some lubrication. Well, 20 miles into the ride and there was nothing I could do to find comfort on my bike. By the end of the 38 miles, I could barely sit down. I was in so much pain. Chamois cream was not the answer to my prayers.
By this point I was pretty sure that I’d made the wrong decision with my saddle purchase. I read around the subject, not finding much guidance at all, and thought, ok – if the combination of padding and the cut out section is not working, perhaps something firmer and without a cut out would be a good move.
I attempted to book a bike fitting session at a local, well-known store in South West London. No response. So I went into the store, and had a conversation that went something like this:
“Hello. I’m struggling with my Selle Italia Gel Flow. It’s really uncomfortable – can you recommend an alternative?”
“Err. There are a few women’s saddles. You might want to try a different one.”
“Yes, I thought so too. I was hoping you might be able to advise me… I’ve been wondering if a bike fitting would be useful.”
“Err. Let me get the guy in charge of bike fittings. He might know more.”
(Enter new guy)
“Hi. I’m struggling with my Selle Italia Gel Flow. It’s really uncomfortable – can you recommend an alternative?”
“I sell loads of the Gel Flow. Every woman who’s bought it loves it. Your saddle is too high.”
“Errm – I don’t think it is….”
“It is. Everyone puts their saddle higher than they need it. That’s causing the pain. It’s a great saddle, you shouldn’t be having any problems with it.”
“Right. Well, let’s just say that I am. Could you recommend an alternative for me to try?”
“Well, I could, but there would be no point because what you need is a bike fitting.”
“Ok. In that case, may I book one?”
“We’re booked up until the end of August.”
“Ahh. That’s a shame. I actually emailed to try to get an appointment a couple of weeks ago but didn’t hear anything…”
“Really? Well, I never saw the email.”
“Ok…. So, you can’t fit me in for a bike fitting, and you won’t recommend an alternative saddle…”
“No, there’s no point because it won’t be right and you’ll just come back for another. You need a bike fitting.”
“Right, but you can’t give me one. I think we’re done here. “
I left the shop in a huff. Being unequivocally told that because this particular saddle suits some other women, it will be comfortable for me is utterly ridiculous advice. We’re all built differently. One woman’s sit bones are not the same as another’s.
Left to my own devices, I read up some more online, and saw that the Fabric Scoop is really popular with a lot of riders, male and female. A nifty little calculator on the Fabric site tells you which saddle you should go for based on your body type and riding position. Aha! I thought; perhaps this will do it!
The saddle duly arrived, and it looked so smart, and I put it on my bike, and I rode to work. Not bad. Not amazing, but no worse than the Selle Italia, that’s for sure. It was a little bit hard, but nothing was pinching or chafing, and that was a definite improvement. So – foolishly!– after a day of commuting on it, I decided that this was what I would use to ride the Prudential 100.
(I know, I know. But I was stuck between a rock and a hard place at this point, with only 48 hours to go until the event).
The day of the Prudential arrives. I lube up with my trusty chamois cream and pull on my most comfortable bib shorts.
By mile 40, I’m wincing.
60 miles in, I feel like I’ve been kicked, hard, in the crotch.
80 miles in, I fear I may never sit down again.
100 miles, holy cow, my entire undercarriage is in agony. Bruised and aching and just wretchedly sore. (However, still no lesions!)
So, what now?
Well, as luck would have it (though, if luck really had it, I would’ve found all this out a month before the Pru…) a fantastic article appeared on The Guardian’s bike blog by Helen Pidd, recommending the saddle mapping sessions on offer at Cyclefit. The author had been encountering similar difficulties with the Selle Italia Gel Flow and had been given a new lease of cycling life at Cyclefit – which gave me hope.
Cyclefit has centres in Manchester and London so I immediately went online and booked a session at the London centre, near Holborn.
A Cyclefit session ain’t cheap: the two-hour saddle mapping costs £150. But before we go any further, believe me when I say that this is money well spent.
My session was with Jimmy. He popped my bike on a turbo trainer and placed a saddle pressure mapping cover on my existing saddle (the Fabric Scoop) which sent images of the pressure distribution to a computer screen. He set me to work pedaling steadily so that he could see where the pressure was causing a problem.
It was immediately apparent that the saddle was so completely wrong for me that there could be no hope for it. No amount of angling would make it comfortable.
The image on the left shows the pressure on the existing saddle: my sit bones, which should be bearing the brunt of it, were barely making contact. Meanwhile, my soft tissue was taking all the weight: no wonder I was in so much pain.
I then sat on a strange little clear plastic cushion filled with a substance resembling mayonnaise. This gauged the width of my sit bones. (If I’m honest, I couldn’t actually have told you where my sit bones were before, never mind how wide they might be).
Jimmy fetched a saddle corresponding to that width, set it up on my bike with painstaking precision, and set me pedaling again. There was a big improvement: less movement in my pelvis, less pressure on the soft tissue, and more contact with my sit bones.
He fetched the next size up, and suddenly, we were there. Stable pelvis, no contact with soft tissue, and both sit bones in full contact, taking the pressure that bones can withstand so much more effectively than flesh.
Finally, he switched my handlebar stem for one 1cm shorter to reduce my reach.
I found myself in some sort of cycling nirvana.
Finally, I was sitting in comfort, feeling supported, stable, and not constantly shifting to find a (marginally) better position.
The following weekend I tested it for real on a two-hour ride, and it was a revelation. No chamois cream required, no shuffling after ten minutes in the saddle; it was just comfortable.
Interestingly, Jimmy made similar observations about the Selle Italia Gel Flow saddle to Helen Pidd’s technician: the amount of padding is problematic because it doesn’t support, it caves to the pressure. After about six weeks of use, the creases in my Gel Flow saddle already demonstrated the absence of support. It just goes to show that popular opinion is not important where saddles are concerned.
I’m now sitting pretty on a Bontrager Ajna 154mm saddle. It comes in three sizes, and this one is the most appropriate for my sit bones. It might look like a torture implement, but its flat profile and minimal padding serve to reduce pressure on sensitive soft tissue. It’s a winner.
So, if you are struggling to get comfortable in the saddle, do yourself a favour and book a session at Cyclefit. You won’t regret spending the money when you can sit comfortably, I promise.