Performance issues?

Is bettering your times with your bike affecting your chances of a better time in bed with your partner?

By Steve White

Bike-related erectile dysfunction (ED) is a touchy subject. A now famous picture in the August 1997 issue of Bicycling magazine got the ball rolling when they depicted a seat wrapped in barbed wire to introduce the worrying idea that cycling might be one cause of ED.

Dr Irwin Goldstein of the Boston Medical Center was quoted in the piece as saying, “Men should never ride bicycles,” before going on to talk about the risk posed to sexual health by the arterial blood flow to the penis being reduced from sitting on a saddle. The dramatic tone guaranteed it mass media interest but further research was needed and over time the issue faded from general view. To this day it seems that many cyclists are unsure whether they should be concerned or not.

To much less fanfare, further research was done and revealed findings that broadly supported Dr Goldstein’s conclusions. In 2000, ‘The Cologne Survey’, by Dr Frank Sommer, now Professor of Men’s Health at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf was published in the Journal of Urology. The survey involved almost 1,800 cyclists among a total pool of around 6,800 men and concluded that there was indeed a connection between ED and cycling.

The central issue is how blood flow is impacted by the pressure on the arteries that are routed through the perineum, the area between the penis and the anus. This area lies between the ‘sit bones’ or, more formally, the ischial tuberosities, the extensions of the pelvis that we sit on. Sitting on a regular chair places very little pressure on this area, deforming the arteries to a level that they can easily recover from – as a straw would respond as moderate pressure was placed on it and then removed. A classically shaped racing saddle however, places a great deal more pressure on this area, to a level that potentially can cause lasting damage in some men.

Unfortunately you cannot feel this loss of flow, but many cyclists have encountered ‘numb nuts’, a temporary loss of feeling after riding, a warning sign of pressure build-up. It isn’t, though, necessarily a sign of ED, nor is the lack of numbness a sign that all is well.

In 2002, Dr Sommer developed a way to measure penile blood flow in cyclists, offering brands a way to determine how to shape saddles that relieve some of the pressure. Since then many brands have offered cut-aways, central channels of varying lengths and widths that offer relief to the perineum. These are especially important for riders adopting aggressive riding postures, lying low in aero positions and therefore placing greater pressure on the area.

Dr Roger Minkow is a consultant with Specialized, where he has been looking at saddle design for more than a decade. “We test all production and prototype saddles as well as many of our competitors’ saddles,” he says.

Their research has highlighted the importance of the distance between the sit bones. This ranges between individuals depending on body size and shape, suggesting that saddles designed for, say, the typical Caucasian distribution of body shapes, may be an over-simplification.

This work is, as yet, unpublished: “We, as manufacturers, have a conflict of interest. For medical papers to be published there must be independent analysis which costs so much that it is prohibitive for small laboratories,” says Dr Minkow.

Their work has pointed them towards a more customised approach, which they deliver through their Body Geometry Fit Integration Technology.

Nick Gosseen is Product Manager – Saddles, for Specialized. He says that all the saddles in their Body Geometry range have been bloodflow tested, highlighting the design process behind the Sitero as an example: “The intent was to let riders rotate further forward without having to sacrifice soft tissue comfort while doing so. The Sitero is really designed to be ridden in the aggressive position only – it has a very specific use.”

“Professional riders are sponsored and many times are paid to ride certain equipment,” Gosseen says. “We have many riders asking for our saddles, with no logos, but contractual issues prevent this from happening.” AA


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