If you ride a bike and have a vulva, you likely already know where I’m headed here. Bike seats were not designed to get along well with our anatomy! We all know it, but not enough people are talking about it, and I want to change that.
A year ago, after much trial and error during many long days of cycle touring and bikepacking, I wrote a post about how women can reduce bike saddle discomfort. It was based on my own personal experience, discussions with other female riders, and internet research.
I hoped that post might help a few people, but was pleasantly surprised when it rose to the top of Google’s search results page for queries like “bike seat pain female.” Once it started getting hundreds of views a day, I knew I needed to make it an even better resource for cyclists desperate to ride their bikes with less pain and more joy.
So, I created a survey. I asked ALL kinds of VERY personal questions about anatomy, bikes, shorts, saddles, bodies, and more. I invited a bunch of female cyclists to answer them, and linked to the survey from the post that had inspired it. Through spring and summer of 2020 the survey collected over 300 responses from people who love riding bikes and really, really want to do so without pain.
Analyzing the results has been, quite honestly, an emotional process. In the free-form comments I found phrases like “bloody labia,” “mashed clitoris,” “scar tissue,” “blister,” “open sores,” “ruptured and bled,” and “permanent nerve damage.” Yikes! People, this is not ok!!
Reading these comments made my heart (and other places…) ache in sympathy. Do male cyclists have to deal with such damage to exquisitely sensitive places in order to experience the joys of riding? Something tells me that if they did, the cycling industry would have found a way to fix it by now. But I digress…
Beyond the blood and gore, the survey responses touched my heart in other ways. Many free-form comments were embodied, compassionate, and honest. They glowed with straightforward discussion of bodies, genitals, butts, skin conditions, pubic hair, and all the other things that we don’t talk about but which have EVERYthing to do with bike seat comfort.
Many respondents went beyond the physical, touching on the emotional toll of navigating these issues in an information-scarce and male-dominated environment. They acknowledged the awkwardness of trying to discuss personal issues with male bike fitters, the stress of spending money on yet another saddle that may or may not help, and the sadness of cutting back on riding because the pain outweighed the joy.
Despite all this, a stubborn strength and love of cycling shone through. Respondents were full of ideas, advice, and encouragement for their fellow riders. Many seemed thrilled that someone had finally asked about their experiences with these matters that most of us deal with in solitude. Their willingness to wade through my lengthy questionnaire is, in itself, a sign of great enthusiasm!
The rest of this post is devoted to analyzing the data from this survey. Instead of covering every single question, I’ve focused on data that relates to actionable interventions and seems to be statistically significant. Essentially it’s a summary of my biggest takeaways from the project so far.
If you’re here because you want to solve your own saddle pain and haven’t seen the original companion post yet, I suggest you start with this more practical post on how to solve saddle pain. But if you want to dig into the details and see what 300+ people had to say about their personal experiences, then let’s dive in.
I’ll be using terms like “women” and “female” to refer to “people with vulvas” for brevity, and because this is what most readers will be familiar with. And also because I don’t really want this page ranked at the top of Google search results for “vulvas.”
However, I acknowledge that gender and physical anatomy are not always so closely correlated. For example, some people who identify as male have vulvas, and some who identify as female do not, and some people don’t identify as one or the other at all.
My original survey wording tried to be inclusive by asking for cyclists who “identify as being physically female,” but a few respondents politely let me know I had still missed the mark by equating gender and anatomy. Duly noted. So, this is about people who have vulvas and ride bikes, and that’s that.
A vulva, in case your middle school sex ed class was insufficient, is the external part of genitals typically possessed by women: the labia, clitoris, and opening of the vagina. I’ll be using the term “soft tissue” below to refer to these structures in the context of bike saddle issues.
At the time this data was analyzed it included 315 responses. The first 46 were collected by posting to a Facebook group for women who travel on their bicycles, and the rest were collected through a link on this post about bike seat pain for women.
Naturally, women who found the survey after searching for help with bike seat pain (76% of respondents) were more likely to say they experience pain somewhat or very frequently. These responses make up the majority of the data discussed in this writeup, and represent a group of people who are actively looking for solutions.
But even in the smaller group of experienced bicycle travelers and bikepackers, 30% gave the same answer! Think about that for a minute: among a group of experienced cyclists who were not actively researching the issue, 30% experience saddle pain somewhat or very frequently! So, while the survey sample is definitely skewed toward those who do experience pain, we can infer that a substantial portion of the general female cyclist population shares their issues.
What else can we say about the group represented in this data? The responses come from a varied group of people with a wide range of experience levels, riding styles, and bodies. Here are a few snapshots from the data:
- Experience level: how many miles have you cycled in your life:
- 10,000+ miles: 11%
- 5000-10,000 miles: 19%
- 500 – 5000 miles: 40%
- less than 500 miles: 30%
- Primary type of riding:
- Commuting: 19%
- Road biking: 57%
- Mountain biking: 7%
- Multi-day touring or bikepacking: 17%
- Goals and style:
- Competitive (I primarily ride to train for and compete in races or events): 2%
- Somewhat competitive (I sometimes or often race competitively, regardless of finishing position, or push my own limits): 13%
- Recreational, but sometimes with a focus on increasing distance and/or pace: 69%
- Relaxed and completely recreational: 16%
- Range of ages from 15 to 75, average of 39
- Range of weights from 85 – 300 pounds
- Range of height from 4’7″ to 6’2″
- 314 cis-gender women, and 1 trans-gender man who has a vulva and thus deals with the same issues as cis-gendered female riders
Frequency and Intensity of Pain
Perhaps the most painfully obvious – pun intended – conclusion from the survey is that bike seat issues are a big problem for many women. When asked how often bike saddle pain has significantly decreased their enjoyment of a ride, 62% said often or sometimes, and only 3% said never! That’s a lot of riding enjoyment being disrupted.
Exploring the impact further, 31% answered that bike saddle pain has sometimes or often caused them to cut a ride short, and a full 23% said it has sometimes or often caused them to cancel or skip a ride. Yikes! Not only are these people enjoying their rides less, they are actually riding less than they would like because of pain.
Most Common Causes of Pain
Here are the % of respondents who experience each of these issues “often” or “all the time” when they ride, and the % who describe the pain as “intense” (compared to moderate or mild):
|Problem||% who experience this problem all the time or often||% who experience intense pain from this problem|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||47%||21%|
|Painful pressure or irritation of clitoris||27%||16%|
|Numbness or tingling anywhere in crotch or groin region||27%||10%|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near sit bones / butt||25%||9%|
|Chafed or irritated skin near soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||22%||12%|
|Chafed or irritated skin near inner thighs or where thighs meet torso||10%||4%|
|Chafed or irritated skin near sit bones / butt||8%||3%|
|Chafed or irritated skin between butt cheeks||1%||1%|
The takeaway here is that soft tissue pain is a primary concern when it comes to cycling with typical female anatomy. Respondents rated issues related to soft tissue as both more frequent and more intensely painful than other types of pain like sit bone tenderness and chafing. In other words, we really do have our own special issues to deal with, and we need to find our own specific solutions.
Think about it this way for a minute: 47% of respondents have pain in their genitals often or all the time when they ride. Is this true for people with penises and testicles too?! As I understand it, guys can certainly have saddle issues of their own, but this seems to be on an entirely different level.
In addition to the problems listed above, some riders described their issues by checking the “other” box and writing in challenges like:
- itching and burning
- pain during urination
- scar tissue on genitals
- painful cysts
- nerve damage and pain radiating down leg
- extreme swelling of soft tissue
- loss of sexual sensation, inability to orgasm
Yikes! Again, some pretty bad stuff. Let’s see if we can deduce any potential solutions from the rest of the data.
Innies and Outies
Nope, we’re not talking about bellybuttons here.
While researching my original post on dealing with bike seat pain, I came across the suggestion that genital shape might contribute to a woman’s likelihood of saddle pain. As a female cyclist myself this seemed very intuitive, so I asked respondents to classify themselves as “innies” versus “outies” according to their understanding of this (tasteful) description. (Essentially, an outie’s soft tissue is more prominent and takes up more space than an innie’s.)
Of the 84% who bravely answered this question, a bit over half (57%) were outies, and the remainder (43%) innies. Now, did this correlate with their incidence of saddle related pain while riding?
Absolutely, as it turns out. The answers show that outies are more likely to suffer from soft tissue pain, which makes sense given that their soft tissue is more prominent.
|Problem||% of innies who experience this problem often or all the time||% of outies who experience this problem often or all the time|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near female soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||41%||57%|
|Chafed or irritated skin near female soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||18%||27%|
|Numbness or tingling anywhere in crotch or groin region||20%||33%|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near sit bones / butt||30%||20%|
Another way to look at soft tissue pain and genital shape is to consider the % of respondents who report never having “Painful pressure or bruised feeling near female soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc).” This number is 28% for innies, and 10% for outies. In other words, outies are three times as likely as innies to struggle with some degree of soft tissue pain while riding!
So innies are lucky, right? Well, the tradeoff seems to be that they conversely suffer more from sit bone pain, as shown in the last row above. Presumably this is because their less prominent soft tissue is not taking as much weight. Relatively speaking, this might be a good thing for them, since sit bone pain was rated as less intense than soft tissue pain by most respondents. But of course, any pain is bad.
Forward vs. Upright Riding Posture
Aside from beginners working out the initial kinks of bike fit and body conditioning, it’s generally understood that female riders who use an aggressive forward riding posture – as in competitive road racing – struggle more with soft tissue pain. I wanted to verify that, and also look at how it interacted with the innie / outie distinction as well as saddle cutouts.
The survey data does support the idea that forward posture is linked to greater soft tissue pain, as you can see here:
|Problem||% of somewhat or aggressively forward leaning riders who experience this problem often or all the time||% of somewhat or very upright riders who experience this problem often or all the time|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near female soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||54%||39%|
|Chafed or irritated skin near female soft tissue (labia, vulva, etc)||27%||16%|
|Painful pressure or irritation of clitoris||30%||24%|
|Painful pressure or bruised feeling near sit bones / butt||19%||22%|
So, riders who use a more aggressive forward lean are more likely to experience soft tissue pain, and a bit less likely to experience sit bone pain. Makes sense, as a forward-tilted pelvis puts the soft tissue squarely in the weight-bearing zone and causes the sit bones to bear less of the burden.
Forward / Upright + Innie / Outie
Next I wanted to know, how do innies versus outies fare when it comes to forward leaning posture? The numbers in this table show the % of respondents in each segment who experience soft tissue pain often or all the time when they ride:
|forward (somewhat or aggressively)||56%||60%|
|upright (somewhat or very)||20%||54%|
Here are the conclusions I draw from this table:
- Forward riding posture is tough on both innies and outies, though slightly worse for outies.
- Being an outie is tough for any kind of riding posture, though slightly worse for forward-leaning riders.
- The only folks who seem to have an easier time with soft tissue pain are innies who ride in an upright position. Lucky them!
- Forward-leaning outies have it worst. If you’re an outie who wants to ride competitively on the road, you are likely to struggle with soft tissue pain.
Well, that’s not great news. It seems as if bike seats and vulvas are just not designed to get along well, at least for a significant portion of the population! The innie/outie distinction also helps us understand why one woman might love a certain saddle that’s a torture device for another. Our genital shapes are very unique and, as it turns out, surprisingly important for bike comfort.
Next I looked at the one obvious accommodation the cycling industry has made to try and fix this issue: saddle cutouts. Can a saddle with a cutout help even a forward-leaning outie?
The logic behind saddle cutouts is that they take some pressure off soft tissue by creating more space for it. In general, it seems that cutouts do help somewhat, but how do they interact with riding posture and genital shape? These two tables suggest an answer.
Numbers in these tables show the % of respondents in each segment who experience soft tissue pain often or all the time when they ride:
Riders With Cutout Saddles
|forward (somewhat or aggressively)||51%||54%|
|upright (somewhat or very)||22%||41%|
Riders Without Cutout Saddles
|forward (somewhat or aggressively)||67%||70%|
|upright (somewhat or very)||18%||43%|
So who do saddle cutouts help most? Here’s what this table tells me:
- Forward-leaning innies and outies alike might benefit from a saddle cutout, though many will still have soft tissue pain.
- Saddle cutouts are less important for riders with a more upright posture.
Free-form comments submitted elsewhere in the survey also supported this, with several respondents recommending cutouts when asked what advice they would give to other riders.
Taking the idea of a cutout even further, a few riders swear by split nose saddles. These seem like they would help relieve pubic bone pressure as well as soft tissue pain for forward-leaning riders, while still providing good control of the bike. Speed and Comfort and ISM seem to be popular options in this category.
The survey asked riders which saddle tilt angle they find most comfortable. I had hoped to uncover patterns between different segments such as riding posture and innie/outie, but surprisingly all these segments gave fairly similar results. Here are the responses from the entire group:
|Saddle tilt preference||% of respondents|
|Nose down a moderate amount||5%|
|Nose down just a tiny amount||33%|
|Nose up just a tiny amount||8%|
|Nose up a moderate amount||1%|
|Not sure / I haven’t tried changing my saddle tilt||37%|
These numbers suggest, unsurprisingly, that level or slightly nose-down is a good place to start for most riders. Looking at the small number of riders who prefer nose up, no obvious patterns emerged to suggest what the difference might be.
The survey asked respondents about their current saddle and how much they like it, as well as past saddles that they have NOT liked. I had hoped to uncover preference patterns based on factors like riding posture and innie / outie. I’m sorry to disappoint those hoping for a foolproof saddle recommendation, but results confirmed what I already suspected: saddle preference is deeply individual in too many complex ways to be captured by this relatively small data set.
I’ll go through a few of the more commonly mentioned saddles from the data to illustrate what I mean. The screenshots below show four columns: saddle make and model, satisfaction level, innie or outie, and riding posture.
For example, three respondents ride a Specialized Dolce saddle. Two very different styles of rider – an upright-sitting outie and forward-leaning innie – both expressed dissatisfaction with this saddle, while a forward-leaning outie loves it. Clearly, there are more factors at work here than just posture and innie/outie, and not enough data to get to the bottom of it.
Another example is the Terry Butterfly saddle, one of the more commonly mentioned models. Again, there is no pattern of satisfaction or dissatisfaction based on riding posture or genital shape:
ISM saddles are known for their split nose, which I assumed would be favored by outies in particular. Well, of the five riders with ISM saddles, the unsatisfied one is also the only outie! I’m guessing this is just a fluke, but perhaps innies will want to take note.
Another innovative attempt at solving the soft tissue problem: Specialized’s Mimic technology. I really appreciate how they’re talking about the issue and factoring it into their designs. Does it work? The survey results were mixed but generally favorable; 8 out of 11 riders with a Mimic saddle were somewhat or very satisfied with it:
The various Selle Italia Flow models are popular, and though there weren’t many repeat mentions of the same model I grouped them all together and found mixed satisfaction:
The most commonly mentioned saddle in the survey, and the only one I’d feel comfortable making statistically significant claims about, is the famous Brooks B17. A large majority of riders said they were satisfied with it, though since the Brooks is primarily a touring saddle it’s worth noting most of these riders use a fairly moderate posture. It’s also worth noting that a number of respondents listed Brooks in their answer about past saddles that had NOT worked for them. I’ve heard it before and this data seems to confirm: Brooks is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of saddle.
One thing that is clear, independently of saddle model: actively choosing your own saddle, instead of just using the one that came with the bike, is definitely linked to higher satisfaction. Among those using the saddle that came with their bike, 60% were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with it. Among those who had chosen their own saddle online or at a bike shop, dissatisfaction dropped to 38%. We need to replace those stock saddles, especially on lower end bikes!
Padded bike shorts are a popular and helpful intervention, with 77% of respondents having tried them and 72% of those saying the shorts helped somewhat or a lot.
When asked what they look for in a comfortable pair, these were the most popular answers (respondents were asked to check all that applied):
|Elastic at leg openings is comfortable||57%|
|No thick or abrasive seams||55%|
|Padding is thick in the right places||53%|
|Padding doesn’t bunch up||50%|
|Padding is thick enough||35%|
|Padding is not too thick||25%|
A few women wrote in their comments that padded shorts tend to help with sit bone pain but can make soft tissue pain worse. I’ve never seen a chamois designed to pad the sit bones but not the soft tissue area, which seems like it would help with this problem. Pearl Izumi, are you listening??
Underwear or no underwear with cycling shorts? Here’s what the respondents said:
Among more experienced riders the % who never wear underwear increases to 78%, suggesting this may be one of those things new cyclists figure out as they go.
Bike short models and brands are highly varied and the fit is obviously quite individual. I couldn’t find any useful patterns in this data, but here’s a sample of what respondents listed for their favorite short brands:
- Pearl Izumi
- Louis Garneau
I was surprised to see that only 37% of respondents had tried chamois cream, since for me personally it has been a game changer! Among those who use it, it was a very helpful intervention, improving pain somewhat or a lot for 62%. More experienced riders were somewhat more likely to say they use chamois cream, suggesting it’s something that newer riders might not have yet discovered.
Of those who do use chamois cream, the most common areas to apply it were: genitals / soft tissue, sit bones / butt area, and inner thighs. Less common areas also mentioned: crease where thighs meet pelvic region, between butt cheeks.
When asked for their favorite brand of chamois cream, these were the answers that appeared more than once:
What’s Helped the Most
Though many of the respondents were still looking for solutions to their pain, the survey asked which interventions they’d already tried and how much each had helped. Here’s what they said.
|Action||% who tried it||Of those who tried, % saying it improved their pain somewhat or a lot||Of those who tried, % saying it made their pain worse|
|Padded shorts that fit properly||79%||72%||3%|
|Changing seat angle||69%||57%||3%|
|Professional bike fit||35%||54%||3%|
|Changing seat height||78%||50%||3%|
|Changing handlebar height||47%||47%||2%|
|More experience and time in saddle||92%||43%||14%|
|Taking frequent breaks while riding||81%||33%||6%|
|Improved strength in core and/or legs||78%||32%||3%|
|Riding hillier terrain||73%||14%||26%|
|Shaving or trimming hair in relevant areas||56%||11%||25%|
|Riding rougher surfaces (gravel, dirt, etc)||70%||9%||47%|
I tried analyzing this data separately for innies and outies, hoping to find distinct patterns, but saw no significant difference. I wonder if a larger sample size, plus targeting those who have already made significant improvements in their pain, would reveal more.
We can still draw some conclusions from this table though, such as:
- Professional bike fits are helpful, but if you’re on a budget, fiddling with seat height and tilt is likely to be helpful too.
- Chamois cream is surprisingly underappreciated! I was surprised by how few had tried it. It has a high likelihood of helping, low likelihood of hurting, and is cheap and easy.
- The factors toward the bottom, like shaving hair and riding more rugged terrain, made things worse for a number of people but did help a lucky few. If other things haven’t worked, these could be worth cautious exploration.
Some respondents also submitted ideas that had helped them but weren’t choices in the survey, including:
- Adjusting seat position forward or backward on the rails
- Reducing tire pressure on bumpy surfaces
- Losing weight (survey data supports this, showing that those who reported weighing less than 180 pounds experienced slightly less sit bone pain)
- Shorter rides and/or baggy breathable shorts when the weather is hot
- Rotating brake hoods up/back on a road bike (similar effect as raising handlebars)
- Spring-supported saddle
- Being mindful of body position and shifting it periodically
- Moleskin beneath sit bones to protect from chafing
- Thick maxi pad and coconut oil
- Moving pubic hair out of the way when putting on shorts
Pregnancy and Delivery
I hypothesized that the process of pregnancy and delivery might cause a woman’s saddle issues and preferences to change in the long term. Perhaps shifts in pelvic structure or changes to soft tissue would make previously loved saddles horrible, or vice versa.
Surprisingly, the results didn’t show this as strongly as I expected. Of women who had given birth, 78% reported no significant change to their bike saddle comfort, 21% said their saddle comfort did decrease, and a lucky 1% said their comfort increased!
Though the survey did ask for age, the data didn’t reveal any obvious patterns based on it. However, reading through the free-form comments I noticed some women saying age had changed their saddle issues. Several said they had ridden comfortably in the past but now faced problems. A few mentioned menopause, and its accompanying changes to skin and tissue tone, as a possible factor.
A Note on Satistics
I’m not a statistician, but my background in math and physics helped me sort through this data. I’ve tried to only draw conclusions where I think they make sense given potential pitfalls like small sample size, sampling bias (mostly surveying women who are actively looking for solutions to saddle pain), and imperfectly designed questions.
For example, you might think using chamois cream should lead to fewer reports of chafing. In fact, the survey data shows the opposite! Does that mean chamois cream doesn’t work? Or does it mean that only those who have problems with chafing in the first place end up trying chamois cream? My guess is the latter, and I’ve avoided trying to draw conclusions in cases like these.
I’ve also avoided drawing conclusions where the numbers aren’t large enough to be meaningful, for example with specific saddle makes and models. I would LOVE to get 3000 answers to the survey instead of the 300 I have, but until that happens (anyone know how to reach more female cyclists?) it’s not possible to say things like “outies prefer saddle X while innies prefer saddle Y.”
I’m sure there is room for improvement in both the question design and data analysis. If someone with professional experience in this area wants to help, let me know! In the meantime I’ve done my best.
Still More To Do
This survey collected a LOT of data, and so far I’ve highlighted only the most obvious patterns. There’s certainly more that could be uncovered with a larger data set, but for now I’d rather get this out into the world than wait for more responses.
To all who took the time to answer the many questions and provide helpful details, THANK YOU! I looked at ALL the answers and they have all helped shape the direction of this project.
Advice from Cyclists to Cyclists
I can’t think of a better way to end than by quoting some advice directly from the survey respondents. Though many are still struggling with painful issues, their responses radiated persistence, optimism, encouragement, and an obvious love of cycling. Here are just a few of their responses when asked what advice they would give to other riders struggling with pain:
“Don’t give up on cycling, keep looking until you find one that doesn’t cause pain. Don’t put up with pain, it shouldn’t be part of cycling.”
“Keep trying new saddles and bike fit. The seat or fit is the issue NOT YOU.”
“Find a really good fitter, have some uncomfortable conversations, and keep trying.”
“You’re not alone. Each person will have different answers so you have to trust what you feel more than anyone’s advice.”
“Stick it out! Riding is super fun! But pain does suck.”
“Read, research, don’t keep quiet!”
My long-shot dream is for this data, or ideally an even better and larger study, to encourage saddle manufacturers to engineer some actual solutions to these problems. As I hope this survey makes clear, scooping a hole in the middle of a slightly wider saddle does not adequately solve our problems. We need some creative engineers to rise to the challenge!
Beyond saddle design, some other fantastic ideas came out of this survey. I would love to see ideas like these become a reality:
- A low-cost “fit kit” that could be used at home to assess anatomy, sit bone width, etc. and recommend the right saddle.
- Breathable seamless undershorts or liners that could be worn comfortably under a chamois without chafing.
- Bike shorts with padding under the sit bones but NOT directly beneath soft tissue, a wish I’ve seen from several “outies” who find that padded bike shorts actually make their soft tissue problems worse.
If you have any interest in these endeavors then I invite you to get involved. Share this with your cycling group, social media followers, local bike shop, or friend who works in the cycling business. Send me your thoughts and ideas. Let’s work together to get the word out and increase the number of awkward but important conversations about vulvas and bike seats. Riding bikes shouldn’t have to be this painful!