Rusted bike seat with worn leather cover

Saddle sores are a pain…

Whether you are new to cycling or have been cycling for a while, you have probably experienced some saddle pain, or issues in your “nether regions”. Typical issues include chaffing, sores, subcutaneous cysts, and numbness. It is a common, recurring theme among cyclists.

Below is a Top 5 list of things to look for when trying to identify the causes of saddle discomfort, so that you can make your riding more comfortable and, hopefully, pain-free! There could be others (and if so, feel free to comment below), but these seem to be the most common potential issues.

1. Start with the simple adjustments first

Outdoor vs. indoor riding

Many people find that riding on a trainer indoors hurts more. That is because the rider does not move around in the saddle much during an indoor session. Outdoors there are many reasons to constantly change positions on the bike, such as when drafting, climbing, descending, stopping at traffic lights, etc. As such, make sure you move around and stand up on the bike from time to time indoors as well.

Type of saddle

Try different types of saddles. Many local bike shops have saddles that you can borrow and test for a week before buying. While you are at the store, it’s a good idea to have your sit bones measured to help you narrow down (no pun intended) your choices.

Some of the most popular saddles among the ladies are the Selle ItaliaNoseless ISM/Adamo, Infinity L2, Cobb. For those do it yourselfers, watch this video to properly measure your sit bones.

Saddle position

If you are confident that you have a good saddle, but still have issues, check that the saddle is completely level and not tilted forward or backwards. Other adjustments to the saddle are height and distance from the handle bars (too far forward or too far back).  

Here is a good video that explains how to position your saddle. However, keep in mind that it is always better to make these adjustments as part of an overall bike fit (see additional discussion below).

Saddle age

Saddles have a useful life, so it is possible that your saddle is worn out and needs to be replaced. This is usually the cause of saddle sores if you were just fine months ago and all of a sudden the saddle started to bother you.

It is not always obvious when the saddle gets too old. Often times there is wear in the foam that changes the structure of the saddle without noticeable changes from the outside. A good rule of thumb is to replace your saddle every 2-3 years if you ride regularly.

2. Bike fit

Regardless of saddle issues, every cyclist should get a proper bike fit at a reliable bike shop. It is THE best investment you can make as a cyclist and worth every penny. Bike fit can be basic (typically offered free of charge when you buy a bike), or more sophisticated, such as the ones below:

Professional fit

A professional bike fit usually takes 1.5 hours and includes a full flexibility assessment and standing observation to determine the best position. Next the cyclist rides the bike on a trainer and the fitter makes any adjustments needed, checking the fore and aft position of the pedal/cleat interface using a level and plum bob, handlebar drop and reach and seat fore and aft.

Professional RETÜL fit

A professional RETÜL fit takes about 2.5 hours and it involves the use of 3D technology to see precise biomechanics while the cyclist is pedalling. This allows the fitter to see dynamic mechanics such as knee extension (from side view) in relation to knee wobble (from front view).

With the data provided by the Retül system, the fitter can use his bike fit training and expertise to make the best decisions on adjustments to bike, cyclist and/or other equipment. This is the most precise but also typically the most expensive type of bike fit.

3. Reassess the fit periodically

Perhaps your saddle and bike were comfortable, but not anymore. That is because over time, with use, the saddle might slide down a little so that its height is no longer what it should be for you. In addition, you may have changed how you position yourself on the bike as a result of more experience, increased flexibility, or other similar reasons.

These changes can cause saddle sores and other pains, such as in the neck, back, and/or knees. Therefore, it is good to take note of the measurements of your bike, so that you can check it from time to time or after a long ride on a particularly rough terrain.

[idea]You can mark your saddle height and position with black electric tape.  If the tape is moving, sliding or buckling, reassess the situation.[/idea]

4. Everything fits, but it still hurts. Now what?

Suppose you tried all of the above and it got better, but you are still having issues in the saddle area. Some other things to consider are:

Type and age of your bibs/shorts

Some riders only replace their shorts when they see obvious signs of wear and tear. In reality, shorts should be replaced more often when the chamois starts to loose its shape and properties. In addition, keep in mind these helpful tips to extend the useful life of your shorts:

  • Use only sports detergent to preserve the fabric technical properties.
  • Use cold water and gentle cycle or wash it by hand.
  • Lay them flat to dry – do not put the shorts in the drier.
  • Use only cycling-specific or chamois-friendly creams. Petroleum-based ointments such as A&D and Aquaphor will damage the chamois. See chamois cream suggestions below.

Try a new brand of shorts

It might be time to try a new brand or two of bibs/shorts to see what works best. Make sure the padding is smooth (no stitches), wide or narrow enough for you, and it fits snugly into your body.

Most cyclists I know seem to prefer the Rapha and Assos brands. Good cycling gear is very expensive. However, Rapha and Assos have good year-end sales. For the best deals, buy your summer gear at the start of winter, and winter gear at the start of summer. Also, Assos has a Factory Outlet here: hhttps://www.swissiconic.com/ They sell last season styles, odd sizes, and excess inventory up to 50% off.

Chamois cream

Chamois cream is made for cycling and is applied directly to the skin and/or to the chamois in the bib shorts/shorts. It helps avoid chaffing by creating a protective layer in the skin. Some brands are better than others and last longer than others.

Examples of chamois creams are DZnuts, Mad Alchemy, Chamois Butt’r, and my all-time favorite, Assos. Watch out for chamois creams with menthol.  I’m not exactly sure why some products add it, but it can cause a burning feeling in your skin, and if you have any abrasions down south (I know from first hand experience), it won’t feel good. Button Hole is one product that has menthol, and although some cyclists like it, I would not recommend it.

Do NOT use underwear under your cycling shorts.

Do NOT use underwear under your cycling shorts.  Believe it or not, this is a common question among new cyclists and an absolute no no. The other day a gentleman showed up for a group ride with a pair of sweatpants under his cycling shorts for leg warmers. You should not do this either.

Read how a bike fit solved my saddle issues!

5. Don’t give up!

Lastly, it takes time to get used to many hours in the saddle, and there are some “growing pains” associated with getting your body used to it. Although the pain should not be from bad chaffing or nagging saddle sores. With the current technology (bike fit, types of saddles, special shorts/bibs), there is no reason for a cyclist to be in pain.

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