Tough Bottoms

There may be a better land where bicycle saddles are made of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard.
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1900

“You MUST get padded cycling shorts.”   This is one of the first things that I tell would-be cyclists as they begin contemplating doing one of our long-distance rides.  Many don’t heed the advice until after a first training ride.  For some, unfortunately, they give up on the idea entirely after spending their first hour on a road bike without cycling shorts.

When unfamiliar people first see and feel the hardness of the saddles on our road bikes, they often ask how we can stand to sit on the seats for so long.  I jokingly tell them that we condition our bottoms by sitting on 2×4 boards…tall ways.  That is actually a good lead-in for telling them that padded cycling shorts and time in the saddle are some of the best ways to prepare your body and make the experience as comfortable as possible.

All cycling shorts are not created equal.  Considering how much time you might end up using them, a little extra investment in quality shorts could make a big difference in comfort and the ability to ride longer distances.  On second half of our third ride across Texas, I got to a point where I ended up wearing two pairs of shorts at the same time to give my bottom some relief.  Similarly, on our BRAT6 ride, I doubled up on shorts on the first day of back-to-back century rides.  And interestingly enough, the second century day was more comfortable than the first day—I was wearing a nearly new pair of quality shorts that easily got me through the day.  Chamois butter or some other lubricant, applied at least two times a day while riding, is also highly recommended.

There are other tricks to giving relief to your bottom.  Changing positions on the saddle is helpful during a long ride.  As with changing wrists positions on the handlebars to give them relief, it is helpful to sometimes shift a little more to the front or back of the saddle.  Shifting up to a harder gear and standing while pedaling is also a good strategy to take the weight off your bottom.  Using downhills as opportunities to stand on the pedals and relieve some pressure is also a helpful technique.

It is also important to talk with someone knowledgeable at a cycling shop to find a saddle that fits your anatomy.  After having such problems on BRAT3, I ended up buying a different-shaped saddle to better fit my sit bones.  While trying different options, I found that some of the saddles were not comfortable for my build.  I eventually did find a saddle that has been a good match.  Your bike shop professional can also help ensure that your saddle is correctly positioned on your seat stem.

Bicycle seats are firm and narrow on purpose.  They help reduce the friction that results from repetitive motions.  When combined with quality shorts, proper positioning and fit, physical conditioning, and strategies to provide relief while riding, those hard and skinny saddles can more readily help you get where you want to go.

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