Back in the Saddle Again
Originally posted 1/5/2013
I started riding bikes as a young kid, and I can remember ol’ dad doing his best to help me graduate away from training wheels. That’s probably my second memory ever, at least without the application of some sort of drug. I liked bike riding, and by the time I was in junior high I was regularly pedaling my middleweight to the next town some 6 miles away. That isn’t much distance at all, but on a heavy, single-speed bike like that, it had its effects. I remember the girl next door insulting me by announcing that my legs looked fat. That was notable, because I was a typical skinny kid. I also remember The Big Drag Race, where every kid in the subdivision brought his bike to form a line across the road. I felt I had a fair chance to win, though I was very nervous about the one kid who showed up with a green Raleigh 3-speed lightweight. That offset another kid with the Titanic, a very heavy Schwinn with a front suspension that seemed to absorb every pedal stroke he made. I won, and by quite a safety margin if I do say so myself. Pat-pat. So, I kept riding a lot.
Later on, I advanced to a multi-speed road racing bike, and then another, and another. I was proud of my sleek leather English Brooks racing saddle, which never seemed to soften or actually become comfortable despite numerous applications of leather dressing, and which became like iron if it ever got wet. It was what real racers used. Naturally, I eventually backed off of bike riding once I grew up and cars took their place.
Road racing bikes are heavily compromised for power delivery and low air resistance. They are inherently tough on the spine and the hands, though. Over the long term, they are punishing, and take their toll. When I took up recreational biking again in the mid-Nineties, I got a mountain bike which was light and had a comparatively upright riding position. It was fine, but Life was intruding about then, and I stored it away. Fast forward to today.
A mountain bike is a good way to do local errands when camping, and many times one can avoid wear and tear on the tow vehicle when a trip to town is needed. So it made sense to strap it on the trailer’s bike carrier when I left home to explore the country. But, when the time came to use it, I found that even a three or four mile ride left both my hands and naughty bits numb. A sore butt is okay – you need to let your seat toughen up and adjust. Numbness anywhere else is not okay, though. It doesn’t acclimate, toughen up, or do anything but get worse, because it’s a signal that nerve damage has been done. A little research showed that although bicycling is good exercise, bike saddles can cause all manner of problems for men (and some women as well). More miles equals more damage. Relatively recent research has linked conventional bike seats with sexual problems as well as prostate problems caused by compressive pressure on the perineum, an area between the two sit bones. The sit bones are designed to take the load, but nothing else is. Conventional bike seats rely heavily on “supporting” the perineum, which is a very bad place to accept load and shock. Once scar tissue starts building up, the game’s pretty much over. No more Entertainment Center, plus potential problems with urinating. Short-term, it’s reversible. Long-term, not so much. It’s an indelicate subject, but one worth mentioning.
Why? Because it gets no press. My old-school doctor recently poo-poo’d the whole concept when I brought it up as a possibility. I was having a spectrum of problems even though my prostate tested as only marginally enlarged. Sure, I’m old. What do you expect? But the signal light for me was that no prescription for any symptom had much of any effect at all. Damage done. Then hopping on my bike once again became like hitting a sore thumb twice in the same day, and spending extra time in the bathroom after a ride isn’t all that fascinating. Eventually, I couldn’t even sit stationary on the seat without quite a bit of discomfort, so you know something’s goin’ on down there!
But I want to ride. Walking is okay but well, boring. As an exercise, it takes too long (I’m slow) and forces exposure to the low winter sun, even with a broad-brimmed hat. Not a good thing in my case. So I researched the problem and several potential solutions. My pick was unfortunately not the least expensive seat out there, but I justified it to myself that it would eventually save startup and short, cold-engine runs for the $0.40/mile truck. You might pick another seat – several are very good designs – but I was after no nose at all, a pronounced space between the pads, and generous pad sizing for sit bone support. Those preferences wound up to be the Spiderflex. I just rode it today over a fair distance, on errands.
You might ask, “Why not simply angle the existing saddle down to get the nose out of action, and sit on the rear only?” Since the price is right, I’ve tried that, and all it does is to force your hips to slide forward. The shaping of the seat surface does not allow you to use the raised rear as a sitting platform – you’re suddenly sitting on what feels like a small-diameter pipe, and it’s intensely uncomfortable. When you shift forward for a moment’s rest, you slide down the nose toward the handlebars. There’s simply no way to take the nose out of action, and even with the nose angled slightly up, sit bone support is still miserable.
The next logical question is, “Why not consider one of those big cushy gel seats from WalMart? Can’t beat the price, and they’re soft. Why not one of those gel racing seats with two raised pads that you sit on?” Though the big cushy seats make it more comfortable for occasional riders on very short rides, they don’t decrease pressure to the perineum a bit. Your butt feels better, but your man-parts (if present) don’t. It is true that some racing-style seats feature raised pads to sit on, and a pronounced groove along the center to try to reduce center pressure. The answer to this depends on who you ask. Some physical testing has indicated that it concentrates pressure along the side edges of the perineum, which is even worse than center pressure is. I love to save a buck, but I decided to skip the issue entirely and not be a guinea pig any more.
What’s good about the Spiderflex saddle? It works. The complete absence of a saddle nose and any perineal contact makes hopping on for a ride once again possible, and without any discomfort or after-ride problems. Those days are done. You just get on and go wherever you want. To my surprise, my campsite’s rock-strewn access road that had made me go at a slow crawl now seemed like no big deal at all. I could go at whatever speed I wanted. Part of that improvement is from sitting solely on the sit bones, and part is because the seat under-structure uses steel rods that can deform, plus an enclosed single coil spring. I assumed that the seat would use spring rates appropriate for a 300-pound rider, but I was wrong. It works very well, yet feels aligned and proper.
What doesn’t work so well? I haven’t found anything in my type of use. The manufacturer prominently cautions buyers right up front that the seat may take getting used to, and may need to be readjusted a few times for maximum comfort. This isn’t the type of seat you can slap on and ride blind with (though I did). Because it supports the rider very differently, the relationship between the seat, rider, and handlebars does suddenly become more significant. Different bikes have different rider positions and measurement relationships, so final seat setup can be unique to that bike. I’ve found that the initial adjustment setting for the performance rider wanted to get me forward over the bars, which wouldn’t be good for my hands, so the next notch more level was about right, putting me in with the cruisers. With this setting, I could feel a firm seat edge right along the two creases between my butt and my legs. While I would prefer it not to be there, it hasn’t become an issue. It is possible that when I play with the handlebars to get myself a bit more upright and take more pressure off my hands, a little more seat tweaking may be in order.
A separate issue (in my mind at least) is that standing up to pedal is different enough that you need to stay awake until you get used to it. A standing rider tends to use the nose of a conventional seat against his or her inner thighs to stabilize the bike while pedaling hard. With that gone, the rider must pull and push against the handlebars more to keep the bike vertical. That takes energy. Because of riding position, this may be less of an issue with mountain bikes than it is with road bikes. Still, a competition road bike rider would probably want to train with the Spiderflex, and reserve a conventional seat just for the event itself. Me? I don’t stand on the pedals for nothing or nobody anymore! I’m on vacation!