Penises, Vaginas, and Bike Fit

I spent Friday evening in a lecture hall on a local college campus, listening to two leaders in bicycle fit science talk about what is known about bike fit. Dr. Andy Pruitt and Dr. Roger Minkow of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine were the presenters, and you knew it was going to be an interesting evening when Minkow said he was here to “change the world one penis at a time.”

Drs. Pruitt (left) and Minkow address the crowd.

Drs. Pruitt (left) and Minkow address the crowd.

Minkow is the man behind the Specialized Body Geometry Romin saddle (Romin is a contraction of the first syllables of his names). He regaled the crowd with tales of measuring cyclists’ private parts to get the best handle on saddle design.

We’ve all heard that you sit on your sit bones. That they’re supposed to hit the wide part of the saddle, and that will make for a comfortable ride. But Minkow said that’s not really the case. He said we sit on the bottom of the pelvic bones, and it’s really more like a rocking chair. So the Romin saddle has a center channel and flares out toward the back. The “rockers” of the pelvic bone sit on the flares just outside the channel.

The process they went through to develop the saddle was the most interesting part of the evening, and drew the most crowd response in the form of giggles and guffaws. Back when they started testing blood flow (down there), Minkow said 50 percent flow was considered a good number. He developed a ring that fastens to the penis and can measure blood flow. Testers put on the contraption, and rode bikes in a lab. Minkow said as they modified their saddle design, they were able to get blood flow up to 75-80 percent in most testers.

“Austin is cool,” he said. “Austin was the first city where we got people to volunteer to do the blood flow test.”

It was one matter to design a saddle that would fit men’s anatomies, but when it came to women, Minkow ran into a problem.

“Where is the vagina?” he asked. The crowd gasped, then giggled.

“Well, yeah, we men know where it is in order to use it,” he added. But in terms of measurement, women aren’t as easy to decipher as men. And they can’t be tested for blood flow. Luckily, there’s a big difference in women and men.

“Ladies can draw a diagram and show every point of pain,” Minkow said. “Men don’t have a clue. They could be at zero blood flow and not be aware of it.”

So a pressure map was created to show where pressure on women — and men — is greatest.

“There is no mid-line pressure on Body Geometry saddles,” Minkow said.

That’s important, because erectile dysfunction can be a reality if you ride improperly or if the bike isn’t set up correctly.

“Bike fit,” said Pruitt, “is about making the bike look like you.”

He compared fitting a bike to buying a suit of clothes. You can go to a store and pick a suit off the rack, and eventually find one your size. But if you were to take that same suit to a tailor, he could make the suit fit you perfectly, rather than acceptably.

Specialized has developed a bike fitting regimen for Specialized based on x,y, and z axes — x and y are the two dimensions visible from the side, but Pruitt says the z axis — viewing the bike from the front — is the difference between the Specialized system and others. Pro cyclists who have been fitted according to that system show notable improvements in power output and time trial times.

The crowd for this event, which was sponsored by Bicycle Sports Shop — one of the biggest bike shops in Austin — was overwhelmingly made up of experienced cyclists. People who appeared to be racers and triathletes sat near me. Some of the questions thrown at Minkow and Pruitt were highly technical, and they did their best to field them in terms everyone could understand.

Both Minkow and Pruitt are on retainer from Specialized, so the evening had the feeling of a commercial for that brand, but overall, the discussion of bike fit and saddle design was worth attending. If the two make an appearance in your area, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Seat Adjustment

I had been bothered after a ride of any length lately. I’ve always had trouble being comfortable in the saddle after an hour or so, but now I was getting low back pain. It cleared up quickly once I stopped riding, but if I was going to continue to enjoy being on the bike, I would have to take some action.

The obvious culprit was the saddle. I had been fitted to the bike way back in 2009, and the most unexpected finding there was that my seat had been too far back. The fitter moved it forward, and I enjoyed the feeling of riding in a slightly upright position, with the bars a tad closer to me than they had been.

But in the intervening years, I’ve been experimenting — making tiny adjustments in the saddle position. Over time, those tiny adjustments became substantial changes. I guessed the problem must be that the saddle needed to move forward again, because at this time, it was as far back as possible. I had even considered getting one of those seat posts with the additional back offset. But I decided first that I would try to get the bike back to the original settings the fitter had come up with.

I didn’t have a sheet with my measurements, but I did have my garage window. On the window sash, I had written in pencil that the distance from the nose of the saddle to the headset was exactly 16 inches. Now, it was about 16 1/2 inches.

I made the adjustment. We’re told not to change things drastically — more than, say an eighth of an inch — so this was a drastic change. I rationalized it by reminding myself that I’d ridden in this position before.

On my first ride with the new position, I noticed the effect of the forward saddle right away. My arms bent naturally at the elbows. There was less pressure on my hands. I did a club ride of about 30 miles, and felt fine after it was all over.

Last week, I did a few short rides in the neighborhood before work, a longer ride with hills on Saturday, and a 37-mile club ride Sunday. No lower back pain.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close. And I have a hunch that any further adjustment I make will be on the saddle height rather than fore and aft — remembering that raising the saddle has the effect of moving it back, and lowering it has the effect of moving it forward.

By all means, tweak your riding position for the most comfort — but be sure you have a record of your original settings. You might need them.

Some Basic Tips For Noobs

I decided not to ride Sunday morning, because it was pouring rain when I woke up. Dumb move. Things were pretty well dried out by 9 a.m., and if I’d been a little more patient, I could have gone. As it was, I did a short ride with my wife, as I mentioned in the last post.

But I wanted to make up for the lost B ride, so I posted that I would go Monday morning, since it was a holiday. We would do the Same Fitzhugh route that the A’s did on Sunday. Three others came out to join me, including Yasmin and Frank, two new B riders who rode with us for the first time last week.

Both of them have recently bought new bikes, and they’re both strong riders who will only get stronger and faster as they keep riding. As we negotiated the rolling hills along Fitzhugh Road, Frank stayed with Buddy, who moved well out in front. Yasmin got ahead of me, and while I had some trouble sticking with her, we were closer together than Buddy and Frank were to us.

At the turnaround, about 16 miles out from the start, Yasmin complained that her saddle was bothering her. She’s a tall woman, and the bike frame she had appeared to be sized for a man. But the saddle was a narrow racing style. I could relate to her distress. I rode a narrow racing saddle for about a year, when I finally ditched it some something wider and more comfortable.

“When you take it back to the shop, ask them to fit you with a wider saddle,” I suggested. Because of women’s wider pelvises, they need wider saddles than men, anyway.

At another rest stop farther on, both Yasmin and Frank expressed concern about their hands. They were getting numb, and they were shaking them out periodically.

In Frank’s case, he was riding with his elbows locked. “One of the guys told me to ride with my elbows bent,” he said. “I’m trying to get used to that.” Bending the elbows takes weight off the hands. The saddle should have been positioned in such a way that the elbows naturally bend when the rider is in his standard riding position. When I had my bike fitting some years ago, the fitter said it’s more common that people have their saddle too far back rather than too far forward. For most people, he said, moving the saddle forward will provide that elbow bend and make for a more comfortable riding position.

Fitters often use KOPS, or Knee Over Pedal Spindle, as a way to determine saddle fore-aft position. But the other day I was re-reading Peter White’s excellent contrarian article about bike fitting, where he pooh-poohs that notion. It’s all about balance, he says, the kind of balance between power and comfort. The article inspired me to do some tweaking on my saddle position.

It turned out that Yasmin was pushing her hands against the brake hoods. While that seems like a normal position for a new rider, it can cause the hands to go numb quickly. I showed them how to position the hands so the pressure is on the outside heels of the hands, not the webbing between the thumb and forefinger. “It usually doesn’t take much of a shift in position to relieve the pressure,” I said.

We wrapped up the ride and went our separate ways. I hope the tips about saddle width, bending the elbows, and hand position will help Frank and Yasmin enjoy their riding. I fully expect it will have negative consequences for me — it’ll just make them stronger riders, and I’ll be left behind again.

Saddle Feels Funny – But In A Good Way!

I’ve been bugged lately by soreness in my butt during rides. This is a problem I’ve wrestled with pretty much since I started biking. A pro bike fit a couple of years ago helped, but not entirely. And in recent months, I find myself standing on the pedals at regular and more frequent intervals to take the pressure off from down under.

I finally decided to do something about it, and last weekend I dug out the Allen wrench and went to work on the seat. Well, nothing drastic. I just thought it made sense to scooch it back about an eighth of an inch. Using the time-honored method of gauging seat fore-and-aft, I realized that when riding normally on the hoods, the front hub stuck out from under my handlebars — just a little bit.

My first ride after the adjustment Friday afternoon was inconclusive. I thought maybe it felt better, but the ride was only for 20 miles — about an hour and 20 minutes. It wasn’t enough time to get a good feel for the new placement.

On Sunday’s ride though, I did spend enough time in the saddle. My ride was almost three full hours, and we traveled 43 miles. Sure, I stood on the pedals. But on a ride of that length, who doesn’t? What I did notice was that the seat felt more comfortable. I was sitting a slight bit back, and it seemed to make a difference.

When we got to the convenience store we use for a turnaround, I propped the bike up against a wall and went in to refill my bottles. When I came out, I took a look at the bike — then looked again. That saddle seemed to have a marked tilt down! I have no idea how it got that way, except that when I loosened the bolts to move the saddle back, I must have knocked it off level.

Even a quick snapshot in my cluttered garage shows the forward tilt to the saddle.

Even a quick snapshot in my cluttered garage shows the forward tilt to the saddle.

I’ve always set my saddles so they’re level. Well, maybe I fudge a little bit, and tilt it half a bubble down, according to my carpenters level. But this was lots different. The tilt forward was noticeable just by eyeballing it. My initial reaction was to reach for my multi-tool and set things right, but then I remembered — on the ride out here, my butt wasn’t bothering me. The soreness and pressure I usually experience just wasn’t there. I decided to leave well enough alone, and ride back.

I’ve already talked about that ride in the previous post. It was an easy ride for my companions, and a challenge for me. But even during the final mile, when I was pedaling hard to keep up with one of the club’s faster women, the saddle wasn’t bothering me. In fact, I seemed to be able to apply more power to the pedals in the new position.

Last summer, I rode with an older gentleman who tilts his saddle forward at a drastic angle. I told him I was surprised that he didn’t slide off during his rides — the tilt was that severe. He pointed out that he spends most of his riding time on his aero bars, and he needs a tilted saddle to fit the bars well with a well bent-over riding position. It must work — he’s a faster rider than I am.

So even though I’m riding with a greater forward tilt than I think I should, I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe I should have been doing it this way all along. My saddle tilt isn’t as great as that fellow’s, but as I said, it’s obvious even to the casual cyclist. I’ll let you know if I decide to keep it this way.

Sitting on the Sit Bones? Maybe Not

Long-time readers of this blog are aware that I have had an ongoing battle with various saddles. It seems that after about an hour’s riding, my butt starts to hurt. I’ve tried several different saddles, and thought I had finally hit upon one that was acceptable — not perfect by any means, but one that seemed to work better for me than most others I’ve tried.

Even with this one though, I have to resort to some tricks to stay comfortable. I stand and pedal every so often. Whenever I coast, I take the weight off my butt. I vary my hand positions on the bars constantly. But when riding Friday, I accidentally scooched into a position that was mahvelous.

The admonition when riding is to sit on the sit bones — the “ischial tuberosities” — that protrude from the pelvis. I’ve always been aware of this saying, and I thought I had always been abiding by it. But this shift of position moved me to the real sit bones. I could tell the difference. Suddenly, my bottom felt at ease — as though it should have been in this spot all along, and should continue there from now on.

Funny thing is, I’m not really on my sit bones. At least, not the sit bones we all think of. It was all cleared up for me when I stumbled onto Steve Hogg’s Bike Fitting Website. Hogg writes extensively about the arcana of a proper bike fit (Reading his articles is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon when you can’t get out for your ride) and you’ll learn a lot by visiting his site.

According to Steve Hogg, we really sit on the pelvic bones just forward of the ischial tuberosities.

He points out that the pelvis is not constructed for us to sit on the ischial tuberosities. Instead, the bones on each side of the base of pelvis curve a little bit lower than the tuberosities protrude. They angle from wide at the rear to narrow at the front, and if the saddle is the right design, they’ll rest right on top of it.

I must have rocked back just enough that these bones rested on the saddle, instead of my perineum. I’ve been crushing my taint all along, and apparently thought that was what we had to put up with when riding a bike.

It seems a lot of cyclists have trouble with finding the right spot. As our frequent guest poster Jeff Hemmel pointed out in a review of the Bontrager Affinity saddle, Bontrager designed its perch to facilitate finding the right spot on the pubic arch.

I spent the rest of Friday’s ride, and Saturday’s, changing my position on the saddle so I could practice getting back to the exact spot I needed to get to. I think I have it down. At any rate, my rides seemed more comfortable to me than they usually are after I’ve put in 15 miles or so.

Now, you might think that if I’m putting my weight a bit forward of where we have always thought it should be that I’d be crushing my softy bits. In my case, the Forte Classic saddle I ride has a cutout, so there’s no pressure there anyway. I’d be interested in trying one of my other saddles that don’t have a cutout to see just what the results would be — but I’m in no hurry to do so. For the time being, I’ll just enjoy my rides.

Minor Adjustments

Over the past week, I’ve had occasion to make adjustments to the saddles on both my and Pat’s bike. Her bike, of course, needed a replacement saddle after hers fell apart on New Year’s Day. In my case, I got new crank arms, and thought their longer length would require some changes in my saddle position.

Once again I was intrigued by the difference a few millimeters makes. First, my saddle. My crank arms are now 175mm, as opposed to the 172.5mm ones they replaced. So a 2.5mm drop in the seat height was called for, no? I decided not to go quite that far, but did lower the seat by roughly two millimeters.

The first ride after the change left me feeling no real difference. But later that evening, I felt a soreness just above my right knee. Nothing serious, but it was there. I decided I’d have to keep experimenting to get just the right setting.

Pat’s bike had its own issues. I put on the saddle that came as original equipment, and measured the distance from the saddle nose to the center of the headset to make sure they were the same. Then, I made sure the saddle was level. It was ready for her to ride it.

Right off the bat, there were problems. I had not tightened the saddle enough, and Pat worked it loose in just a few pedal strokes. We returned to the house, and I did some more wrenching. We did the nine-mile neighborhood ride she likes to do during the week.

“It feels like my butt is hanging off the back,” she complained.

I checked the level of the saddle. It was off again, the nose pointing slightly up. More tweaking.

On the same ride Saturday, things seemed better for her. She didn’t have the “hanging” sensation, but said she still felt like the nose was pointing up a little. I got out the wrench and the level, and with any luck, it should meet her expectations now.

In my case, I had neglected to move the saddle back to compensate for its lower height. But after two or three rides, I decided it never needed to be lowered in the first place. I raised it to its previous height, and this time, I moved it back two millimeters.

My next ride had some interesting results. I felt most comfortable when I scooted my butt way back on the saddle. It looked like I would have to move it back a lot farther.

But I was leery of doing that. Moving the saddle too far back would affect my reach to the bars, and my arms had a nice bend to them. I remembered how I rode for the first year after buying the bike, with my elbows locked and my arms straight. I didn’t want to experience that again.

On my Saturday ride, I was in a different pair of bibs than I wore the day before. The Friday bibs were by Castelli, with their distinctive thin but dense chamois pad. The Saturday bibs were Sugois, which have a thicker, softer, and larger pad. On the Saturday ride, I was perfectly comfortable riding in a normal position on the saddle. On Sunday, I wore a pair of tights by Performance. No problems.

So, I think I have the adjustment correct now. I’d noted the difference shorts make in the past, and kicked myself for not paying attention to that this time around. I’ve heard Lance Armstrong referred to as “Mr. Millimeter,” because of his ultra-awareness to changes in his bike’s setup. Any more changes in my setup will be in tiny increments, too.

Saddled With a Problem

At the end of our New Year’s Day ride, Pat pulled into the grass/dirt/mud parking lot ahead of me. I walked the skinny-tired bike. When I caught up to her, she had a perplexed look on her face.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing at her saddle.

She put her hand on it, and it dipped quite a bit. It was very easy to rock the saddle without much effort.

“What the heck…?” I sputtered.

I grabbed the saddle too, and rocked it up and down. Then I stooped to look underneath.

It’s amazing she was able to complete the ride at all. Both saddle rails had broken. The saddle was held in place by part of a broken rail, which looked about ready to slide away on its own. The seat bag stayed in place only because of the velcro wrap around the seat post.

I touched one of the rails, and a chunk of it broke away in my hand. To my untrained eye, it appeared to be a case of metal fatigue. Sure, it was a chilly day, but by this time, it was around 50 degrees (10C), so it’s not like the rails were dealing with temperature extremes.

“Well, at least it broke at the right place,” Pat said. The ride was sponsored by a local bike shop. We walked over to the store to check out saddles. Even though the store had been open for a while before the ride, so riders could stock up on necessities, it was closed now for New Year’s Day.

“I can fix you up at home,” I said.

We got the bike home, and I removed the saddle to take a closer look.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe you have. The saddle is not original equipment on her 1992 bike. When she started training for a charity ride in 2007, some experienced bikers suggested she’d be more comfortable with a new saddle. The one recommended by the LBS was a Specialized Dolce Gel woman’s saddle. Pat always thought it was okay, but just okay.

We’ll probably be back at the store soon. Today I dug out the original saddle that came with the bike (I tend to be a bit of a pack rat) and put it on. It’s going to feel different from what she’s been used to, but maybe I can get away without having to shell out money for a new perch.