At one time or another, each one of us will be visited by the eternal cyclist's daemon that lurks in the shadows – the saddle sore. Steeped in lore, deeply personal and sometimes utterly disgusting, this little pest can derail the most dedicated of cyclists, and to top it off these devils are often as difficult to figure out as your schizophrenic ex-girlfriend. That being said, let's delve into your shorts and see what's cooking (or boiling, as it may be.)
What Are Saddle Sores and Who Gets Them?
The simple answer is that a "saddle sore" is any kind of skin injury in the nether regions. In reality, this could be any number of ailments from generic soreness of the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) to specific things like chafing, localized skin and follicular infections and open sores. For example, follicular infections are very similar to pimples.
Yes, those very same pus filled red bumps that made your teenage years hell have returned for a second attempt at ruining your life. Typically small and isolated, these can be extremely painful and keep you off the bike for several days to several weeks, especially if they become infected and turn into larger boils or "furuncles." You see, we all have bacteria on our skin, and when they find a cozy place to set up shop and breed, you can end up with an oozing, pus-filled mess. Amazing how such a fun word to say can be so disgusting, isn't it?
Chafing type saddle sores are generally a result of poor fitting shorts, seams that rub, poor saddle position or lack of lube in your chamois. They are often larger areas, feel almost like a sunburn and can be terribly painful if allowed to progress. In contrast, general sit bone soreness typically results from a poor bike fit, spending a lot of time in the saddle over really rough terrain or just sitting too long, all of which can result in tissue compression and breakdown.
As for figuring out who is vulnerable and who isn't keep in mind that saddle sores are non-discriminatory. They strike young and old, male or female, amateur or professional without provocation or distinction. That TUE for Cortisone that Lance had back in '99? Supposedly for a saddle sore. Remember Tom Boonen's little "saddle issue" last year that forced him to retire from the Vuelta and miss Worlds? Well, that was allegedly a hole in the back of his scrotum as a result of a bad saddle sore. Now as much as my female readers may enjoy thinking about Boonen's scrotum, that's probably not the way they want to envision it, so let's get on to stopping them before they start.
According to Ben Franklin, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." While this may not necessarily bode well for the doctor's bottom line, it does for yours, and for your mileage account as well. After all, nobody wants to be off the bike for two weeks, only to return and have to answer questions about "why weren't you at the last group ride…" How awkward is that to explain to your riding buddies? (Unless of course, you take get smug satisfaction in watching their disgusted faces while you graphically discuss your tender bits' ailments. Then by all means, go for it.)
- Get properly fit: This will be beneficial in preventing pretty much all kinds of saddle sores. For example, if your saddle is positioned too high, your hips will rock with each pedal stroke and rub your sensitive undercarriage across the saddle with each pedal revolution. Pressure points will also develop on the sit bones where they rock on the saddle, leading to further soreness. Not cool, eh?
- Stand up often: Standing up and lifting your butt off the saddle not only relieves the pressure in your tissues and lets them "spring" back a bit, but it restores circulation that can be cut off by long periods in the saddle. Small hills, the back of the paceline, rolling away from a stop sign and the like are good places to stand up for a few moments and not only stretch your legs but give your ass a slight reprieve.
- Move around on your saddle: See above – moving around allows pressure to be relieved from tissues and restores circulation.
- Find a smooth chamois: If not a one piece model, look for a chamois with flat lock seams and the fewer the better. Thicker isn't often better and don't be afraid of trying a bunch of different shorts/bibs in the quest for the perfect chamois.
- Find the perfect saddle: Saddles that are too wide can chafe the inides of your thighs. Saddles too narrow will eventually be termed "the grundlemuncher" in honor of what they do to your perineum. Women will typically use a wider saddle (wider pelvis) than men, but a qualified fit specialist can certainly help with this. And expect saddle choice to be a long process: rarely is the first one tested the best one.
- Consider lubing up: A good quality chamois cream can prevent rubbing and chafing and some of them even have additives like witch hazel and tea tree oil that have antibiotic properties and can help prevent nasty bacteria from setting up shop in your pores. It also provides a slick surface that can prevent chafing and rubbing.
- Strip down and wash up: After a ride, not only is sitting around in a clammy chamois disconcerting (sort of like wearing a wet diaper is an oft mentioned example) it can also lead to saddle sores. Strip off those nasty shorts and clean up your crotch with baby wipes or something similar. When you get home, immediately wash up with antibacterial soap to keep the offending germs on their toes. Wash your shorts soon as well, and ALWAYS wear fresh shorts on your next ride (if you make a habit of wearing dirty shorts, don't be surprised if you're suddenly left to ride all by your lonesome; nobody wants to ride with/behind that stank.)
- BUY PROPER FITTING SHORTS!!! I capitalize this because it's pretty bloody important. I can't tell you how many rides I've been on where people's shorts are sagging, where they are bunched up in places and even where they talk about "their junk bouncing around all over the place." I don't care if you've lost 30 pounds in the last 3 months and your $300 Assos bibs are now a size too big. HTFU and buy the correct size. All of the above advice can be rendered useless by shorts that don't fit. Really, there's NOTHING worse in the cycling world than ill fitted shorts, and they're a one way ticket to chafing, infection and hole-in-your-scrotumville.
How to Treat Them
So, even with the best of intentions and the most diligent precautions, you get off the saddle one day with a sore crotch and a nice infected pustule on some part of your undercarriage. How do you get rid of it fast? Well, by and large the best treatment for a saddle sore is to stay off the saddle, but barring that, you'll want to use things like over the counter acne gels, tea tree oil and astringents to dry it up and send the bugs packing.
- Change shorts/saddle: Try a different pair of shorts or saddle for a little while and see if that helps to alleviate the pressures that caused the saddle sore in the first place.
- Use heavier/more lube: Lube up that sore like your life depends on it. If in doubt, you may even resort to a slight smear of Bag Balm or vaseline to keep the friction off your sore. Some lubes on the market are designed to treat the sore as well as keep it friction free.
- Numb it up: While it won't help to heal the sore, per se, it will make riding with it tolerable. Using pain relievers and anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or topical anesthetics can make riding tolerable. Even Preparation H, smeared on the sore can help reduce the inflammation and numb it a bit. Just be careful: too liberal an application could result in unpleasant side effects.
- Donut it up: You know those little stick on donut pads that are used for foot corns? They'll work for a saddle sore too, and they come in a variety of sizes for even the worst saddle sores.
Other General Considerations
If for some reason you're dealing with a saddle sore for a long period of time or it seems to be getting worse, consider consulting a doctor. They may recommend oral antibiotics or other methods of helping to heal up a stubborn sore. Of course once you're all healed up, you may want to think about what led to the saddle sore in the first place and address them. If you don't you may find yourself discussing an oozing furuncle with your riding buddies while they silently gag to themselves. After all, I'm pretty sure they want to hear about your trip to hole-in-your-scrotumville as much as your wife/husband wants to help you apply chamois cream to your undercarriage…
Thoughts? Comments? Got a home remedy to share? Start the discussion in the comments below.