About that Bicycling Magazine and 20/20 news story on, er...

Story in Bicycling Magazine starts it all...

It started in July, 1997 when Bicycling Magazine printed a lengthy article regarding possible problems that men might experience after riding a bike.  The article was somewhat alarmist at best (good cover story to sell lots of copies!) and focused more on emotion than fact.  Basically, it said that a particular Doctor has found a strong link between large amount of time in the saddle and problems with blood flow at a time when a guy might want, er, blood flow to a particular region.  That's about as subtle as I can put it and still get the point across.

So we're given a bunch of anecdotal evidence as well as some x-rays showing what happens when two particular blood vessels are compressed, as could happen on a bicycle.  In most cases, we're told, the vessels return to normal afterwards and there's no impairment of function.  However, in some instances, these blood vessels remain collapsed, and the guy becomes, er, functionally impaired.

20/20 smells sex and sensationalizes the issue...

So far, so good (or bad).  The story isn't fun to read (if you're a guy), but makes you think a bit before going out and hurting yourself on a bike.  But then 20/20 picks up the story and it becomes clear that this particular Doctor (Goldstien) really has it in for cyclists, claiming that perhaps the majority of people suffering from such impairment may very well have been injured from riding a bike...which, without factual information to back this up, is about as valid as saying that drinking orange juice kills people because most dead people did, in fact, drink orange juice at some time.

But most of this is old news

First, this is nothing really new.  For years people have known that undue pressure on the prostate area can cause nerve damage that might lead to all sorts of maladies, including impotence (there, I said it...but probably far enough down in the story that any kids looking for something exciting got bored long ago and left!).

Second, the Bicycling Magazine story pointed out that this problem occurs mainly in men who ride huge numbers of miles, and even then isn't all that common...certainly not as common as the 20/20 show was making a case for.

Third, talking with several of our "serious riding" male customers shortly after the show made it appear that they regarded this as not that big a deal.  This runs counter to the idea that there's nothing more important to the average guy than sex...and, in fact, these customers replied simply that they really enjoyed cycling, it was a major part of their life, and they were willing to accept some risks regarding something that they really didn't think was that likely to happen.  Wow.  This was not the reaction I expected!

So what do we think?

I don't think the article and show are totally without merit.  When you see the area those two blood vessels run, you can see why the saddle you may be riding on right now might not be doing you any favors.  And, keep in mind that these blood vessels carry no nerve endings, so damage can occur without any feeling of pain.

But the type of saddle is not the main villain!
a combination of tilt and the drop from seat to handlebar that makes the difference)

Much as we'd like to sell zillions of new saddles, in most cases the saddle itself is not the problem.  It's more how one sits on the saddle that is at issue here, and it really doesn't matter whether you've got a $10 stock seat or the fanciest $100 aftermarket urologist-approved model...if you're not set up correctly on the bike, you're going to have potential for problems down the road.

First place to start is with the tilt, or angle, of the saddle.  In almost no case is it a good idea to ride with a saddle that's tilted up at the front!  This focuses the pressure on exactly the wrong areas.  As you slide forward on the seat, you're essentially driving your most delicate parts (and the ones that could cause problems down the road) into the nose of the seat if it's "up" at the front.

So do you want the seat "down" at the front?  That's not a good idea either, because you're going to spend the whole ride pushing back from the handlebars, creating a lot of tension in your arms & shoulders.  A level saddle is the best bet.

What if a "level" saddle causes discomfort?  Then it's definitely time for a different saddle.  You need to be able to distribute pressure across a wide area, and the only way you're going to be able to do this is if the saddle's level.  If this gives you problems at the front of the saddle, then you might look into something with either a cutout or soft layers of foam and/or gel in the appropriate location.

But there's more to it than just saddle tilt.  If your seat is well above the level of the handlebar, then you're going to be rotating downward over the front of the saddle, once again bringing the wrong areas into hard contact with the seat.  This, I believe, is the #1 reason for saddle-related male problems.

Specifically, note the difference in height between the top of the saddle and the top of the handlebar.  For a smaller road bike (up to about 54cm or so) try to keep this difference to 5cmIllustration of seat/saddle differential (2 inches) or less.  For a mid-sized road bike (up to 58cm) a difference of 6cm (2.5 inches) is acceptable, and for larger bikes, try to avoid greater than an 8cm difference (3 inches).  The issue here is that, as the difference becomes too great, the rider is rotating his mid-section downward over the front of the saddle, bringing undue pressure onto exactly the wrong areas.  In my opinion, this is far more likely to cause a problem than a saddle!

Why would anyone want a stem so low that it might cause such trouble?  Primarily for aerodynamics.  Lower stem=less torso and head up in the wind!  Triathletes in particular go to great trouble trying to achieve the most aerodynamic position possible, and even serious recreational riders get into aerodynamics as well.  But hear this, and hear this clearly.  If your saddle/handlebar differential is beyond the recommendations above, or if you're feeling any discomfort in the saddle area, try raising the stem a bit.  If this makes cycling more comfortable, your stem was low enough to potentially create serious problems down the road!

Your riding style makes a difference too!

Something else to consider.  The way you ride might make all the difference in the world.  Most injuries don't occur instantly, but rather over a long period of exposure to whatever's causing the problem.  If your riding style is such that you sit endlessly on the saddle and never stand up or stretch, you're much more likely to have problems.  The best way to combat this is to regularly take a break from the grind and stand up for a bit, take a breather, stretch a bit, and then get back in the saddle.  Wanna hear a secret?  If you do this on a regular basis, before you start to experience a sore tail end, you'll go a lot further without pain than you would otherwise.  Anyone who has miles on a tandem knows this to be true!  Even when you're feeling great, you still need to take breaks once in awhile and you'll feel a whole lot better for a whole lot longer.

Cyclists most at risk are those living in flat areas, since it's unlikely they'd find many "natural" excuses to get out of the saddle and stand for a bit.  On the other hand, those living in very hilly areas are more likely to find themselves alternating between sitting and standing as they climb.

But what about mountain bikes?  Different issues here since, in general, mountain bikers don't ride in such an aerodynamic (low) position on their bike, and the frequent need to stand up reduces the likelihood of problems caused by staying in the same position for long periods of time.  More likely to cause problems on a mountain bike would be impact with the top tube in the event of a crash...this can really hurt!  Nevertheless, it's still possible that an overly-aggressive riding position (such as found with a tall rider on a small frame) could cause trouble.

And about those "studies" showing that a different saddle provided a miracle cure?

Keep in mind what we're talking about here...male impotence...which, despite recent studies that show physical contributions to the problem, is still accepted as something that the mind has incredible control over...so if someone tells you that changing your saddle will fix the problem, and you really believe it, it just might!

So far, all the studies I've heard about have been commissioned by people trying to push a product and show a complete lack of common sense in their approach.   What's needed are controlled studies where a rider's position on the bike and style of riding are taken into account.

It's all about common sense.

And, of course, the other thing that's needed is basic common sense on the part of the rider.  If you're uncomfortable on your saddle for any reason, seek the advice of a competent shop or experienced cycling friend!  Don't be stupid like the guy quoted in one article, who waited until he was "bloody and numb" before thinking there might be an issue.  And don't be quite so willing to sacrifice comfort in a quest for absolute speed.  

In the meantime, I think a man's biggest concern might be if his wife watched the show or read the article and suggested that he ought to spend more time on a bike!

For the definitive debunking of the cycling-creates-impotence myth, check out what Charlie McCorkell, owner of Bicycle Habitat in New York City, has to say.  He's done all the homework that I would have loved to do, if I had the time.  Excellent work from a great guy.

Last updated 09/09/07


Interesting stories 
Common questions 
Kid's stuff 
Tech Stuff 
Rides & Maps 

Directions & Hours We're Open
1451 El Camino Redwood City, CA 94063 (650) 366-7130
2310 Homestead (Foothill Crossing), Los Altos, CA 94024 (408) 735-8735

www.ChainReaction.com & www.ChainReactionBicycles.com

Email to Mike in Redwood City or Steve in Los Altos
Content, including text & images, may not be republished without permission
Web Author: Mike Jacoubowsky, Chain Reaction Bicycles
Not responsible for typos etc, but please let us know about them!

Chain Reaction sells bicycles & accessories from Trek, Gary Fisher, BikeFriday,Shimano, Pearl Izumi, Continental, Descente,
Sidi, Giro, Blackburn, Speedplay, Oakley, Saris, NiteRider, Bontrager, Torelli, Look, DeFeet, Rock N Roll, Hammer, Cytomax,
Powerbar, Fox, Clif Bar, CamelBak, Chris King, Profile Design, Craft, X-Lab and many more!