Save my vagina from the horrible maw of my bike seat.
May 24, 2012 10:24 PM   Subscribe

Love my women's-specific road bike, hate the numbness and pain its saddle causes in my women's-specific parts. Help me fix this?

A few weeks ago, I bought a road bike. (Yay!) I commute on it daily, about 5 miles, and I've also been taking it for longer rides in the hills, from 20-40 miles, a few times a week. I'm new to being more than an occasional rider. So far: I love the bike. I love biking. I do not love what the bike does to my lady bits. During the last few longer rides, I've had discomfort in my crotch while on the bike, and, much more worrisome to me, numbness and also burning pain in my vagina/labia/clit area after the rides, sometimes long after. (I'm 24 hours from my last ride and still feeling the burn.)

Obviously, I need a new bike seat. The people at the store where I bought my new ride told me it's a nice bike but the saddle sucks. (It's an Avenir saddle with no cutout.) My question is whether I should just buy a better quality road bike saddle, or go more extreme and get a noseless saddle like those shown here.

I've done a little reading on bike seats and E.D. in men (there seems to be less research on women, alas), and some of it is really scary. I'd like to keep riding and up my mileage, and I really don't want to come away with permanent nerve damage. On the other hand, I don't want to go overboard and get a crazy noseless design I don't need if a better regular saddle is going to do the trick.

FWIW, I'm on the thin side, kind of bony, sometimes I wonder whether this is making matters worse...maybe I just don't have as much natural padding as most. I haven't bought padded shorts yet, but I know I should and I intend to, no matter what saddle I end up with.

Has anybody had a similar problem and willing to offer advice? Any women had experience with noseless saddles?

I, and my junk, thank you.
posted by toomuchkatherine to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a cyclist and don't have an answer for you, but have you read this NYT blog post on Biking and sexual health in women? It might direct you towards some useful info.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:40 PM on May 24, 2012

Oh, wow. Before you get into playing around with saddles, do your ladyparts a favor and get yourself a chamois. I highly recommend the Pearl Izumi Sugar Short. If you want to wear normal clothes, you can also get underwear with an integrated chamois, which is surprisingly inconspicuous.

A chamois moves with you and will really, really help. I couldn't imagine cycling any distance without one.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:57 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you had your sit bones measured? I tried a super high end ergonomic titanium seat on my roadbike, and couldn't sit on it more than a few minutes without being in agonizing pain. I stick with Brooks women's saddles for all my bikes, as they tend to be wide enough to handle my hips and sit bones. There's definitely no pressure to my nether regions with them, whereas with narrower seats I'm essentially riding on my lady bits.

And, yeah, shorts for longer rides.
posted by loriginedumonde at 11:51 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two adjustments to the bike that have helped me: move the handle bars a little higher, and tilt the seat a little lower. You don't want to overdo either--really high handle bars, and you sit upright like on a hybrid; really tip the seat and you keep sliding forward while pedaling. But a little bit helps. Bring an allen wrench / appropriate tool with you on your next long ride so you can tinker with it as you ride.

And I agree about the padded shorts. If you've never worn them before, you may want to go to a store and try several on. The shape of the padding can vary a little and I find some of them give more of a wedgie feeling than others.
posted by pompelmo at 12:26 AM on May 25, 2012

I was comparing my bike (I'm female) with my husband's bike last weekend. They're basically the same (mine has a men's frame, they're the same size, same style, etc) but our seats are totally different. And neither of us have any of the pain or numbness you're talking about, so it seems to work. We both have fairly standard saddles with a bit cut out, mine is cut out at the back while his is in the middle. So mine is a kind of wedge shape, quite narrow at the front, with a big V missing up the middle starting at the back.

I had my bike professionally fitted when I bought it including choosing this particular seat, and it came from a really great bike shop with guys who ride a lot. They also based it on how I ride, since I tend to keep my weight forward rather than sit upright that changes what shape the seat should be. Position adjustments like pompelmo describes were part and parcel of the whole deal.

You should go somewhere similar and try out a few different saddles on their recommendation. Maybe you do need the fancy noseless whatever thingy, but it's quite likely that you don't and there's a more standard seat that will work for you. The best part is, a good shop like that will generally swap it out for something else if the first one isn't right after riding on it for a few days (my husband went through something like four pannier bags before he found ones he kept).
posted by shelleycat at 12:47 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi! I had exactly the same problem and I've finally found a saddle that works for me. Cutouts were the solution in my case, but it still took a couple of tries to get it right. I'm lucky to have a great bike shop which let me take several saddles out on long rides. You can't really know whether a saddle is the right shape for you until you've ridden at least 30km on it.

I started with the Selle Italia Diva Gel Flow. It was pretty comfortable, but the seams were hard and awkwardly placed. It was okay with a chamois (which I do recommend - if you're not down with the lycra look, try 'shy shorts', at least for long rides). But I also sometimes commute in street clothes, and I got pretty bad saddle sores from my second test ride in a skirt and tights. Like you, I mix long, fast road rides with everyday commuting, and my saddle needs to work for both.

I ended up taking it back and swapping it for a Selle SMP. I got the Hybrid model, but there's a big range. Basically anything towards 'pro' end of the range is lighter with less padding because it's expected your legs and arms will take a lot of of your weight. I think the Hybrid is somewhere below the middle, but it's seamless and the perfect shape for me. The shape encourages me to tip my pelvis forward - exactly what I'd been avoiding before, because hey, no-one wants to sit directly on their clit for hours on end. But the cutout takes care of that, so you end up being supported by both your sit bones and the bones along the sides of your lady bits. It's also helped straighten out my lower back - previously I'd been hunched up in an attempt to protect my junk, but now I can ride for miles with it completely flat. The slight vertical curve helps keep me from sliding off it, too. It sort of...cradles me in a comfortable position. And I'm no longer getting pain, numbness or UTIs after I ride.

So, I guess my advice is that no, you don't need to go noseless just yet. I've solved all my lady bits concerns with a good cutout saddle. Go to the best bike shop you can find and ask if they'll let you take some test rides. Keep trying saddles until you find one that works. Also, get the staff's advice about positioning your saddle - if you find yourself sliding off it, for example, they can bring it forward or tilt in a direction that stops that happening. Good luck!
posted by embrangled at 1:02 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do not get a noseless saddle. Those are not useful for actually riding your bike. The nose of the saddle is what you contact with your thighs when you are standing up, am drasticly improves your control.

Saddles are a hit or miss situation. You really have to just try a bunch of them. A lot of bike stores offer free exchanges on saddles for this reason. If you have an REI nearby, they have a great return policy too.

Terry makes a lot of good saddles, and a lot of female cyclists I know swear by the butterfly. Others use the liberator.
posted by rockindata at 4:25 AM on May 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another vote against noseless saddles because of control issues and another vote for raising the handlebars a bit. I actually raised mine quite a bit at one point, and the numbness went away. Then I started lowering them bit by bit to find the sweet spot.
posted by BlooPen at 6:24 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you haven't done many adjustments to your bike, know that tiny adjustments can have an impact. The problem I ran into was that once my bars were high enough to keep numbness away from lady bits, that put more weight farther back on my sit bones, and I had pain there. Lower handlebars meant more pressure on my hands (which would also go numb). A few adjustments later, and my hands were ok, but then my feet fell asleep. Many, many miles and many, many tiny adjustments later, and I finally switched to one of these and have had almost no problems since.
posted by BlooPen at 6:29 AM on May 25, 2012

I will echo all above that you should really get a chamois. Anything 10 miles and up, you definitely need padding. If your bike shop is good, get a fitting. Now that you have confidence on your bike, it's a great time to make adjustments. Next time you ride, pay attention to every spot you touch your bike and every joint. Think about how you feel. How's your neck? It'll help you talk with them about how you ride. Lastly, being able to exchange a seat would be great but hopefully a shop will have a few you can try in the fitting. Anything with a cutout will be better than what you have. But it may take many miles before you know whether you need something more "extreme" on the seat front.
posted by amanda at 6:39 AM on May 25, 2012

Chamois (you don't wear underwear with bike shorts, by the way, and for super long rides (50mi+) consider chamois cream to prevent saddle sores), new saddle with cutout, and you'll be good to go. Don't do noseless.

I have a Terry Liberator for my touring bike, on which I do centuries and stuff, and have no saddle issues.

Stock saddles are notoriously bad on all bikes. I'm currently in the hunt for a new saddle for my around-town bike even though I rarely go more than 20mi on it.
posted by misskaz at 7:51 AM on May 25, 2012

Get a professional fitting, from a really good quality bike shop! Try different saddles too, personally I ride a Brooks, but they take a while to break in. A professional fitting is a really, really good idea for the kind of distances you're riding. Not only for your ladyparts but for your knees and hands, too. Keep in mind that a quality saddle that's uncomfortable when on a badly-set up bike might be really comfortable once you get your handlebars and seat height/angle in the right place. My saddle used to give me problems, but it was fixed by getting a fitting. They had to change the stem length, because it turns out the handlebars were too far away and so I was sliding forward on my saddle, and that was causing the problems.

Noseless saddles are a gimmick, I would stay away.
posted by 100kb at 8:03 AM on May 25, 2012

Great advice so far in this thread.

I'd definitely start using bike shorts, no question. I love the ones from Craft.

Getting a fit would also be a great idea. Some places will charge you tons for a professional fit, some will give you free advice.

Without seeing you on the bike, it's hard to say, but it sounds to me like you have too much weight on the nose of your saddle. I always start conversations about fit with the seat height.

I'd start by reading Sheldon Brown's take on it. Now, given that we suspect that you have too much weight on the nose of the saddle, I'd start with a lowered saddle and work your way up. Unlike Sheldon, most of the people I help set seat height have their seats too high.

After the seat height is set, consider if your reach is too long. Try some longer ride where you spend time on the tops of the bars near the stem. If this fixes everything, you can try one of two things, buying a shorter stem or moving the seat forward. On women's specific bikes, they often come with tiny stems, so moving the seat forward may be your only choice. If this is the case, and you still want to try a slightly more forward position, you may want to consider a zero setback seat post. I love my Thompson Elite.
posted by advicepig at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2012

You might also want to look at Adamo saddles. They have a nose, but it doesn't meet in the middle. You get the support and control of a normal saddle without the bits that press uncomfortably.

I switched to an Adamo after getting increasing pain while putting in long hours on the bike and will never ride in a different saddle again. Its so good its almost pornographic.
posted by the_shrike at 9:05 AM on May 25, 2012

Get bike shorts.

Even nice bikes often skimp a little on the pedals and saddles because they are personal (for different reasons) and are very often replaced right away.
posted by bongo_x at 10:00 AM on May 25, 2012

Nthing the recommendations against a noseless saddle. Proper position plus a chamois (with chamois cream if you want to go all the way) will go a long way toward comfort down there.

My first road bike had a crazy long reach, due to the shop's just saying, yeah, that looks about right. Again, a proper fitting. Not just some dude eyeballing you.

I use a Selle San Marco Aspide women's saddle.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:09 AM on May 25, 2012

I have a Terry Butterfly saddle and love it. Once you find the right seat height, mark it on your seatpost with a Sharpie so you can find it again if someone messes with it.

I have never liked bike shorts but have one cheap pair that I only wear the first couple weeks of spring. Then my crotch is good to go. You might need more time to firm up those sits bones the first time around.
posted by Maarika at 10:56 AM on May 25, 2012

Yeah, if you haven't been using a chamois the difference is pretty huge. I'd start there. It's worth it to spend the extra money and get a good one. I'm small and have a bony ass, and I quite like the Sugoi I have.

Proper bike fitting from a shop that knows what they're doing (ask around).

If none of those work, then maybe try a different saddle.

I'm just taking up the sport myself, just passing along what I've learned.
posted by AV at 3:55 PM on May 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice, everyone.

I ran out a few days after the posting and got a new saddle, a Specialized Body Geometry Oura. I had them measure my sit bones at the shop, and they recommended the 155mm version.

It felt way better at first but after logging about 200 miles on it I'm still having issues. A quality chamois, a few different saddles (I got a Terry Butterfly today, will likely return the Oura), and probably a professional fitting are in the works.

Thanks, the_shrike, for the vote of confidence about Adamo. I checked them out and was definitely intrigued; I think your description is enough to make me try one.

If I get this figured out I'll try to report back...even though it does sound like the solution is different for everyone.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 4:43 PM on June 12, 2012

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