Ride your bike enough and saddle sores will inevitably come knocking on your door at some point. It doesn’t matter how good your personal hygiene is, these little buggers will appear anyway. It’s part of the joy of cycling and something you have to learn to treat and manage as best as possible.
Like Chihuahuas, the annoyance saddles sores provide far outweigh their size. For something so tiny, they can make even the shortest ride a painful experience. So it’s best to learn what they are and how to prevent them and then how to treat them when you get them.
If you’re embarrassed about getting a saddle sore, don’t be. Eddy Merckx couldn’t begin the 1976 Tour de France because he had one and Greg Le Mond couldn’t finish the 1992 Tour because the one he got while on the tour was so bad. Given that these two legends were brought low by the humble saddle sore, there really is nothing to be ashamed about.
What are saddle sores?
Saddle sores begin with an abrasion on the skin in your shorts area. It’s a collective term that includes boils, spots, ingrowing hairs and any skin damage that is made worse by riding the bike. Given the pressure you put this region under when in the saddle, it’s no wonder that stuff happens down there.
These sores can be caused by cheap shorts, ill-fitting saddle, poor hygiene or simply too much riding without enough recovery. The bad news is that you cannot prevent saddle sores. If they want to appear, they will regardless of what you do. The good news is there are some simple measures you can take to minimise the chances of them appearing.
Preventing saddle sores
Preventing saddle sores is actually relatively straightforward. As sores are caused by only a few conditions, mitigating them goes a long way to avoiding these most annoying of skin irritations.
Shorts – Buy quality shorts with seams in all the right places and a chamois pad that is thick enough for your needs. Forget buying power meters, new wheels, saddles with carbon rails or any of that stuff. All that is for naught if you’re not comfortable in your shorts. Spending as much as you can afford on a pair of good bib shorts that fit well will be the best investment you make besides the bike itself. Guaranteed.
Always wear clean shorts and change them as soon as you finish your ride. Only wear your shorts once before washing. Wash them at as high a temperature as the material will allow. While low temp washing may be environmentally friendly, it does not kill bacteria. So while they might smell clean, they won’t be. If you must wash at low temperatures, use an antibacterial detergent additive.
Saddle – A good saddle is almost as important an investment as your shorts. In fact, we would say it is the second best investment you can make. As the principal contact point on your bike, it is essential to get a saddle that fits your physiology. It also needs to be set at a height that maximises comfort and allows you to get the power down.
Saddles are a very subjective choice so there is no ‘best saddle. Try some, get a bike fit to find the correct height and then buy the best you can afford in your chosen fit.
Poor hygiene – There is no escaping it, saddle sores can be caused by bacterial infections due to not washing properly down below. Bacteria thrives in warm, wet places and the nether regions are prime real estate for them. Keeping the area clean before and most definitely, directly after a ride will go a long way to avoiding saddle sores.
Always shower immediately after a ride and ensure you pay particular attention to cleaning thoroughly down there.
Chamois cream – Buttering your bits may seem a little girly, but it really isn’t. A few seconds adding some chamois cream to yourself can save hours of irritation or pain during a ride. Add a modest amount of chamois cream either directly to the skin or to your shorts but make sure you cover the areas most likely to chafe. Some, like Assos that I use, also contain mild antibacterial additives to help control bacteria as much as possible.
Never ride without it.
Treating saddle sores
Even with all those preventative measures, saddle sores can still make an appearance when you least expect it. The most important thing to remember when you get a saddle sore is to treat it early. If you ignore a saddle sore, it will not go away. You need to treat it quickly and effectively before it makes every ride a misery.
Unfortunately, the very best advice I can give is to stop riding when you get a saddle sore. Exacerbating the sore will only make it worse. Stay off the bike, keep clean and use a mild antiseptic cream on the sore until it disappears. If the area swells up, an ice pack can help a lot with the discomfort.
Don’t pick it, squeeze it or mess with it either. You’ll only make it worse. If it gets worse or causes excessive pain, go see a doctor.
I and many other cyclists have ridden through saddle sores, mainly out of stubbornness or a desire not to lose those rare sunny days. It is possible to do if the sore is only minor. After 20 minutes or so in the saddle, the area goes numb and the pain goes away. Just make sure you follow all the tips above, use clean shorts, use chamois cream, an antibacterial agent of some kind and shower immediately afterwards.
Whether you ride though it or not, if the saddle sore seems to be getting worse, begins to smell or hasn’t gone away after a couple of weeks, it’s time to see that doctor.
If you take the right precautions, dealing with saddle sores is fairly straightforward. Just bear in mind that unlike other types of pain we endure for our love of cycling, the pain that comes with these sores is not one to be ignored. Not without dealing with it first anyway.