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Body Watch

Hell on Wheels

Sure, bicycling is a good thing. But enthusiasts know that saddle can do a number on them. Here's how to avoid those, uh, sensitive situations.


Bicycling is great for the heart, legs and spirit, but it can be pretty tough on the posterior.

About a third of a cyclist's body weight rests on a few inches of tender flesh poised on a small hard saddle. So it's no wonder that many pedal pushers experience a host of ailments ranging from saddle sores to genital numbness and, for some men, temporary impotence.

"It's a part of the body not meant for weight-bearing," says Dr. Andrew Pruitt, a sports medicine specialist. As chief medical officer for USA Cycling, he has treated a variety of injuries to this delicate site, from minor irritations caused by rubbing and chafing to traumas resulting from wipeouts in which the crotch hits the crossbar.

The most common complaint by far, he says, is saddle sores, a combination of bruising and skin irritation from friction at the contact points of the saddle. The hot, moist environment inside biking shorts provides an ideal breeding ground for bacteria that can cause pimples and boils to fester. Left untreated, these lesions can develop into serious infections.

A clean, padded pair of bike shorts provides the first line of defense. And nothing should come between you and your shorts, Pruitt says, since "cotton or nylon underwear can act like fine sandpaper," irritating skin and trapping moisture

against the body. But if you're a recreational cyclist who'd rather walk than be seen in

skin-tight Lycra, don't worry: Bike shorts are now available in styles that look like wide-leg shorts but have chamois-lined padding hidden inside.

To minimize irritation, lubricate areas of friction with petroleum jelly, advises Dr. Bernie Burton, a dermatologist who cycles about 2,000 miles a year and serves on the editorial health board of Bicycling magazine.

After your ride, avoid the temptation to scrub the area with alcohol. "That will only dry out the skin and irritate it further," says Burton, who recommends washing with tender loving care and a gentle soap. You can apply talcum powder to clean, dry skin after riding, but don't pour on powder before a ride. Once you start to sweat, Burton says, "you'll wind up with a white, sticky rear end."

Too much time in the saddle can result in more than soreness. Some cyclists of both sexes experience genital numbness. For men, this can be accompanied by a temporary inability to

achieve an erection, says Dr. Sheldon O. Burman, a cyclist and cardiovascular surgeon who is director of Chicago's Male Sexual Dysfunction Institute. This phenomenon, dubbed "cyclist's penis," occurs, he says, "because sitting on a thin, hard bicycle seat can compress the nerves and blood vessels that are important for erection."

Burman solved his own problem with numbness by switching to a split, padded bicycle seat that took the pressure off the strategic spot in his body.

Indeed, the right saddle in the right position can mean the difference between a smooth ride and torment on two wheels.

"You don't have to be satisfied with the seat that came on your bike," Pruitt says. "Go to a good bike shop and get expert help to find a seat that fits, and make sure it's adjusted properly."

Seat savvy can be particularly important for women, he notes, since they have a wider pelvis than men and may prefer a saddle especially designed for the female bottom. In addition, be sure you:

* Choose a saddle that allows you to sit comfortably on your "sit bones."

* Position the saddle so it's level. Tilting the nose downward slightly may take some pressure off the genital area, but it will put more stress on the knees.

* On rough terrain, lift your buttocks off the seat. Ease into cycling. Start off with shorter rides.

* Stand up to pedal at frequent intervals.

* Bring your own saddle if you're renting a bike out of town.

* Consider a recumbent bicycle, where your legs pedal out in front of you, to take the stress off strategic spots.

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