Cycling saddle sores can be an awkward topic. If you’ve ever spent significant time in the saddle riding your bike with any degree of consistency, or perhaps even if you haven’t, you have no doubt experienced those dreaded cycling saddle sores. Saddle sores can range from minor irritations to what feels like you’ve got a tack stuck in your sensitive bits every time you saddle up. If you haven’t experienced it – trust us when we say, you don’t want to.
For those of you that have suffered through cycling saddle sores, this is a silly question. For those of you who haven't: Cycling saddle sores are awful little mounds of ride-ruining discomfort, of course. But, for those of you new to this (lucky you!), or trying to figure out what that awful pain is, a saddle sore is a raised area of skin or a boil, which is most often caused by an abrasion from chafing or an infected hair follicle. Sometimes, saddle sores sit underneath the skin and present as a swollen area that feels bruised. In the worst cases, these pesky treasures can even require draining (don’t do it yourself) or antibiotics. Yikes!
While not perfect, the good news is that there are ways to prevent cycling saddle sores, which we will describe below.
As with so many things, the best treatment for cycling saddle sores is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Putting a little bit of care into your kit selection and pre/post-ride rituals can go a long way to ensuring you aren’t doing your next century ride standing on the pedals. Here are our top tips for preventing cycling saddle sores.
We’re no longer shocked when we ask people how they selected their saddle and they say, “it came with my bike” (gulp!). This could work, but it’s a real wildcard. Contrary to popular belief, saddles are not one-size-fits-all, and it’s critical to find a saddle that doesn’t create chafing. Everyone’s anatomy is slightly different and we believe it requires a bit of science rather than trial-and-error to find the right fitting saddle.
Ideally, the width of your saddle suits your anatomy and can accommodate your riding style. The width of the ideal saddle is generally determined by the width of your sit bones. Hardcore riders typically prefer a saddle that provides pressure relief at the front while those who tend to focus on more endurance rides seek out more padding at the rear to suit an upright position.
Fortunately, many saddle companies, such as Selle Italia, have come up with fit systems that can remove some of the guesswork. It has developed idmatch technology, which uses a strict scientific method to help cyclists determine their ideal seat size.
If there’s one thing we don’t mess around with, it’s the quality of our bib shorts (for men and women alike). They can be the difference between an epic ‘Tour de France, here I come!’ ride and a painful ‘I wonder if I could get an UberXL to pick me up’ nightmare.
First and foremost, ensure your shorts fit properly: Shorts that are too big could move around, which could cause chafing while shorts that are too small will dig into your body in uncomfortable ways.
Secondly, remember that most bib shorts feature a chamois. In a nutshell, a chamois is a napped cotton-flannel blend that provides a layer of padding between the body and the saddle to reduce friction between your butt and the bike. But - beware - the quality of chamois pads do vary. A quality pair of cycling shorts is made of durable compression-oriented material and has seamless stitching that sits flat against your skin and away from areas that are likely to be flexing with each pedal stroke.
Often, when the dreaded saddle sores start, riders reach for the thickest chamois that they can find. We’ve often found this to exacerbate the issue. A short that is too thick will make the saddle fit poorly - there’s just less room for your legs to move around freely. Sometimes it even makes more sense to reach for a thinner chamois to reduce the pressure on the sensitive area. It’s slightly counterintuitive, but experiment with different thicknesses of chamois to see what works best for you.
For even more protection, consider applying chamois cream (particularly if you’re planning a longer ride).
We get it. For a number of cyclists – amateurs and professionals alike – this step can feel a bit too messy (and awkward). But it’s one you won’t want to skip if you're prone to saddle sores. The magic behind chamois cream is simple: It’s an anti-bacterial, viscous substance that helps to prevent germs from forming and reduces friction between skin and clothing (aka the chafing that can occur during a long ride). It typically contains soothing ingredients, like aloe vera or shea butter. You can find it in a number of forms, including balms, creams, and even powder.
Applying chamois cream is easy: Simply apply the cream directly to the skin, specifically where your body meets your saddle, and - then - put your shorts on. Not sure exactly where to put it? The area you feel most likely to develop a sore should do the trick. And remember, these aren't saddle sore ointments, but rather a preventative measure.
If you rode hard, it’s easy to be tempted to sit around in your bibs when you return - but don’t! Trust us: You’ll be glad you didn’t. Remember, too, to wash your bibs after every ride. Because bibs sit right up against the skin (without the added layer of underwear), they should be washed just like underwear - after every use.
Rule of thumb? Plan to remove your bibs immediately after your ride (and wash them!) - and, if you’re driving out with your bike and won’t have easy access to a shower - you’ll definitely want to remove your bibs after your ride so you’re not stuck in them on your drive back. Try to shower as soon as you get back, and put your bibs in the wash. Remember, it’s important to keep those sensitive bits clean and dry. Then, sit down and relax, and pop a recovery shake - another epic ride for the books!
Alright, this is (yet another) awkward topic, but it’s an essential consideration in staving off those cycling saddle sores. Cyclists have a bit of a reputation for shaving their legs (spoiler alert: we do, too), but we’re not really talking about your legs per se, are we?... So, should you run up the thigh and keep right on going? Well, maybe not. Hair provides a natural protection barrier for your skin and slicing it off can make the area more sensitive so proceed with caution or stick to trimming.
Ultimately, what you do in your pants is your business, but shaving means the hair will eventually grow back - and regrowth poses the risk of ingrown hairs and infection of the follicles. If you are going for the smooth look, make sure you pay special attention to the other items on this list - shorts, creams, and good hygiene.
Saddle sores are typically at their worst following prolonged periods of riding, which is pretty straightforward: More riding means potentially more chafing, which opens up the possibility for more saddle sores. A simple antidote is to take a rest day (or two, or three, …) - and to wear loose, breathable clothing while you do. Spending time off the saddle will give the affected area the opportunity to heal, which will ensure you’re back in the saddle (and enjoying it) in no time.
We know it’s tempting, but we recommend you resist the urge to take matters into your own hands (literally) by popping or squeezing saddle sores. That will likely make the recovery longer. Plus, popping or squeezing saddle sores could make your next ride even more painful.
This one is tricky and there is (as with many things) no one-size-fits all solution. Generally speaking, however, there is something to be said about proper nutrition. Some argue that Vitamin C and zinc support the formation of collagen, which helps the skin maintain its barriers, and therefore help avoid cycling saddle sores. Because zinc is lost through sweat, cyclists that are prone to sweat while in the saddle could potentially benefit from consuming zinc through dietary sources. But the jury is out on this one. As always, listen to your body and figure out what cycling nutrition works for you. It’ll be different for everyone.
In our own experience, minor saddle sores typically go away within a few days, but some can be more pesky and plague you for weeks or even months. If you are experiencing a particularly bad case and you think simple irritation may be turning into more of a saddle sore abscess, consider consulting a medical professional, like your family doctor.
The bottom (get it?!) line? Don’t let those pesky cycling saddle sores get in the way of an epic ride. Follow these easy steps to prevent them from rearing their ugly head. You’ll be glad you did.