While you might think that your legs are doing all the hard work when you are on a bicycle tour, some would argue that your rump and crotch work even harder, holding your body up mile after mile with nothing to support it but a seat so small that even the airlines can do better.
Or at least that is what my private parts are telling my legs after several long days of high mileage riding.
Bike enough and you’ll find at one point or another that your bum can get a little bummed out, suffering saddle sores, labial swelling or numbness that can run the gamut from short-lived and mildly annoying to chronic and seriously concerning. Heat, sweat, chaffing and pressure can do a number on a gal’s woo-woo.
And it doesn't matter if you're young or old, experienced or beginner. Even professional cyclists struggle to stay comfortably seated. Just ask world champion trike cyclist and Paralympian Hannah Dines, who had to have vulva surgery to repair the damage done by constant groin friction. Less dramatically, I share my own amateur tale of woe later in this blog (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending).
The good news is that there are steps you can take to prevent or at least minimize these groin grumblings. Let’s review them, shall we?
Get a good bike saddle. By good, I don’t necessarily mean expensive. The goal is to find the saddle that most comfortably fits your body and riding style.
If you are an aggressive speed demon who likes to lean low and long into your handlebars, then the soft tissue part of your vulva is sharing the weight of your upper body with your sit bones. If you tend to ride upright, as on a hybrid or mountain bike, your sit bones are your primary support.
There are saddle shapes suited to each style of riding made specifically for women. For example, road cyclist saddles tend to be longer and thinner because your sit bones grow narrower when you are pitched forward. Hybrid seats have a wider berth to better support those sit bones for more vertical navigation. Some saddles have cut-out channels to relieve pressure on the perineum (which can help prevent labial swelling). Noseless saddles are exactly that---they support your sit bones but not the front of your groin. Leather saddles mold comfortably to your own idiosyncratic contours over time.
Many bike shops and bike accessory sellers will let you try a saddle for a week or two to make sure it will work for you. Some have a pad that can measure your sit bones in your riding posture, which can help in the selection process.
Adjust your saddle properly. When is a good saddle not so good? When it’s not adjusted properly. Again, rely on the expertise of your trusted bike shop professionals to help get your saddle at the correct height and angle. In fact, before you buy a new saddle, be sure your current saddle is adjusted properly. Sometimes that is all it takes to turn a hot seat into a love seat.
If you want to try adjusting your saddle yourself (and really, there is no reason not to), here are some starter points.
- Overall, you are looking for balanced weight distribution between your rump, your feet and your hands.
- Height: When your leg is extended to the bottom of the pedal stroke, your knee should have a slight bend to it, about 140-150 degrees.
- Forward/Backward: When your pedal stroke is at 3 o'clock, your knee should be directly over the spindle of your pedal.
- Tilt: The ideal position is level but a slight slope up or down may be more comfortable for you. If the nose tilts down too far, it puts too much pressure on your wrists and hands. If the nose is stuck up too far, there's undue pressure on your soft tissue.
Invest in bike chamois shorts and tights. Padded bike shorts (also called chamois) are a must for rides over 10 miles, and go a long way in reducing chafing, bruising and other discomfort. Cardinal rule no. 1: Never wear underwear with these shorts. Otherwise you are creating a new problem (chafing where the panty line meets the saddle) that you tried to eliminate by wearing chamois shorts in the first place. And you are missing out on the moisture-absorbing, anti-microbial action that is built into that chamois padding.
Over the years, I have found that by alternating chamois styles every day, I never subject one spot to too much friction. Plus, I keep the fashion paparazzi constantly guessing.
Uphold excellent hygiene. As soon as your ride is over, hop out of that chamois and into the shower. Otherwise you will be fermenting a petri dish of nasties (sweat, grime, bacteria) that could lead to a vaginal infection, skin infection and even urinary tract infection. Then dry yourself thoroughly.
At the risk of dishing TMI, I will tell you that I sometimes use a hair dryer set on cool to make sure my foo-foo is extra dry and fluffy, and then I wear a skirt or dress without underwear for the rest of the day to let that previously quarantined part of my body enjoy the breeze. If you are unable to shower right away, at least take a quick sponge bath and change into loose-fitting, clean and dry clothes. On super-long rides, consider bringing a spare chamois for a mid-day wardrobe change.
Also, wash your chamois after every single ride. No exceptions. If machine washing, turn shorts inside out to expose the chamois to as much water as possible. On tour, take those radioactive shorts (and jerseys and socks) in the shower with you and wash them by hand so you and your chamois can freshen up together. Line-dry your chamois thoroughly (preferably in sunlight to help zap any lingering germs). If, despite your impeccable cleaning efforts, you can’t get the stink out of your shorts, it’s time to replace them.
Shaving your pubic hair is not advised. Not only can you end up with ingrown hairs that are prone to infection, but you're also removing your body’s natural barrier to bacteria and friction.
Try chamois cream. Never heard of the stuff? These are lubricating and moisturizing creams and balms that also have anti-microbial and anti-chafing powers. Women-specific chamois creams generally skip the mentholated (read: tingling) ingredients and have a lower pH for better vaginal tolerance. Brand names abound: Chamois Butt’r for Her, Hoo Ha Ride, Assos Women’s Chamois Cream and Petal Power Joy Ride Women’s Chamois Cream are four brands made especially for us ladies.
You can apply the butter, balm or cream to your skin and/or to your chamois padding, whatever works best for you. Think twice about sharing chamois creams, however, as double-dipping is, uh, not cool. Kind of like toothbrushes, it’s best for everyone to have her own.
If you do run into a problem, don’t ignore it. A hair follicle that gets infected. Labial swelling. Yeast infections. Even with healthy habits, yucky stuff occasionally happens in the ‘hood. Sometimes a warm bath, some over-the-counter antiseptic ointments and medications and a few days off the bike will set things right again. Sometimes it’s best to get medical attention.
Last fall, for example, after a weekend of challenging riding, a benign labial cyst I’ve had for years ballooned into a hard and painful knot, and everything down there was tender and swollen. I tried sitz baths and warm compresses, but to no avail. So I got it checked out by my doc, who prescribed a course of antibiotics. Within a couple of days, I was back in the saddle. My woo-woo has been riding high ever since.
So, my cycling sisters, take care of yourself down there. I promise it will make your bike travels so much more enjoyable!