The humble bicycle is the most popular vehicle on the planet. Despite this, Americans remain deeply uncomfortable with it. We need lots of special equipment before we'll consider straddling a bike, and even when we commute, we dress up in so much safety gear it's as if we’re cleaning up a chemical spill.
Yet the nadir in our relationship with the bicycle came when we convinced ourselves that riding one caused sexual dysfunction.
Indeed, many people still subscribe to this idea, and therefore find bicycles—and more specifically, bicycle saddles—daunting. It's hard to say when all this started (Hippocrates linked impotence to horseback riding), but the pied piper of perineal panic in cycling was Irwin Goldstein, a urology professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. In layperson's terms, Goldsten claimed that cycling lays waste to the crotch, and in 1997 he declared: “Men should never ride bicycles. Riding should be banned and outlawed. It's the most irrational form of exercise I could ever bring to discussion.” This also extended to women. Goldstein cited the example of a cyclist who endured “a neuropathy where she cannot send information from her clitoris to her brain.”
In a culture already afraid of the bicycle, the idea took hold, and what followed were countless articles (forwarded to countless cyclists by countless concerned relatives) about how cycling’s the worst thing you can do to your reproductive organs short of putting them in the microwave. “Even a young man may lose the ability to achieve an erection,” warned WebMD, citing Goldstein. “Your bike is destroying your penis. Unless you are a woman. In which case it's destroying your vagina,” declared Jalopnik in an article called “Five Seats to Save Your Penis From Your Bike.” “Impotence warning hits Bike Week,” cried the BBC.
Subsequent studies have (not shockingly!) refuted these claims. Most recently, a study published in the Journal of Urology found that “neither recreational nor intense cycling appear to have a negative impact on men’s sexual and urinary function.”
This is vindicating. People have managed to ride bikes, copulate, and reproduce since the late 19th century. You probably know some. As a longtime cyclist, I've always considered the whole sexual dysfunction thing to be part of a vast anti-bike conspiracy. After all, if your goal is to scare people away from bikes, what better way to do so than convince them that cycling will destroy their sex lives?
Meanwhile, years of fear mongering have taken their toll. It’s resulted in a bumper crop of anatomical saddle designs ranging from the legitimately comfy to the quirky to the downright absurd. Impotence mania turned into a major marketing coup. In the wake of the flaccidity scare, Specialized introduced their first Body Geometry saddles, designed by Roger Minkow. When your private parts are on the line, there’s nothing more reassuring than a saddle boasting a doctor’s signature and the aesthetics of an orthopedic shoe.
The success of the line ushered in an age of the cycling component as rehabilitation tool. Over time, other companies like Selle Italia and Selle San Marco followed suit, and the designs became more svelte. Eventually all those ostensibly pressure-relieving channels and cutouts and droopy noses became the norm. Sure, some of these features may help, but others are the equivalent of cigarette filters: they seem like they should be doing something, but they’re really not addressing the underlying problem.
Today you can purchase all manner of noseless-ass pedestals. Some look like toilet seats, others like horseshoe crabs, and still others like something you might sit on so that a doctor can administer an internal exam.
None of this is to dismiss the very real problem of saddle discomfort, nor is it to imply that a saddle design isn’t legitimate simply because it looks funny. Every cyclist is different, and therefore every rider is going to prefer a certain saddle over another. Moreover, different riding styles demand different saddle shapes. And yes, depending on your undercarriage, you may even need a saddle that looks like the headrest from a Kia Sorento. Comfort is the bottom line.
At the same time, saddle discomfort is almost always the result of one of two things:
- Improper setup.
- Rider delusion.
In the case of the former, the fix may be as simple as tweaking your position on the bike. The latter is a bit more complicated. It could be that you expect too much out of your bike, or that you insist on riding a style of bike that is completely wrong for you. Even a perfectly dialed bike will cause discomfort if you don’t shift your position after awhile, and if you’re thinking of putting a noseless saddle on your carbon road bike in the pursuit of unattainable chaise lounge comfort, well, maybe what you really need is a recumbent.
In any case, given our relationship with bicycles, it’s no surprise that our fear of saddles grew to full-blown conspiracy theory. Now it’s time to put all that to rest and truly get comfortable.