Saddle Sores

Eric Peterson - (2003-05-13)

There are two times a year that I get a lot of questions about a delicate subject; saddle sores. Early in the training season when leg speed is extra high, and when the weather gets hot and sticky. Right now we have both, as endurance rides in small chain rings are encouraged to maintain leg speed and the weather has definitely been hot.

Saddle sores fall into several, progressively serious categories and should be addressed ASAP to prevent their evolving into the next more painful phase. Hygiene is obviously the best preventive medicine and includes the basics of never wearing cycling shorts a second time without a washing and to get out of your sweaty things as quickly as you can after ending your ride. The “clammy chamois” is the most notorious cause of saddle discomfort.

The first stage of saddle soreness is chafing and occurs for many reasons. Aggressive riding and hopping around on the seat in little gears will give everyone chafe at one time or another. Longer times on the bike can obviously make it uncomfortable, but there are some remedies. Chamois cream can be applied to help the skin/pad interface so the shorts get chafed rather than the skin by the chamois. Creams designed for diaper rash are pretty effective. One called Eucerin, available at pharmacies is effective and less expensive than the cycling specific products. Working specifically on small gear leg speed will also help reduce that hopping which is causing the chafe. In some cases saddle height itself might need lowering (just a little) to help accommodate that same leg speed. Rough roads can be nasty and in that case riding in a bigger gear at a lower cadence will help reduce road shock by taking weight off the saddle because of more pressure to the pedals, and be aware of the upcoming road surface to choose a smoother line.

So every body gets chafed at one time or another and the best therapy is a hot shower with a good bacterial soap. Betadine and Hibiclens are two such liquid soaps available in drug stores. Ask the pharmacist, as they sometimes keep it behind the counter. Shower with this as soon as you can, or sponge bath near the car if it’s going to be a long ride home. Wear loose underwear and use medicated talc to keep the area dry. A regular program like this will prevent any larger and more painful problems.

If left untended; Chafing can develop into the more painful blocked follicles, which are basically pimples where you need them least. They appear as tiny bumps under the skin and will swell until they demand more rigorous attention. The regimen of basic hygiene and products should be followed and sometimes that’s enough for them to subside, but occasionally you will have to get them to drain through the use of drawing salves or hot compresses. (ouch!) Drawing salves can be applied directly to the chamois and can provide some relief while you ride. Sometimes an aggressive ride can open them, allowing the bacterial soaps to heal them.

If by now I’ve terrified you into preventive maintenance, so much the better, for the next phase is beyond the reach of do-it-yourself repairmen. Those little bumps, left untreated, will evolve into buboes and boils, both of which will require medical attention, antibiotics and possibly surgery. Time off the bike is also necessary when the problem gets this far.

In 1989, when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon in the TT stage into Paris; Fignon says he lost the stage and the tour because of the unbearable pain he suffered from saddle sores. Why risk losing the tour?

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