‘Cyclist’s penis’: no cock up, but riders feel stiffed
Tuesday, 20 September 2005
Reporter: Jack Kerr
Are cyclist's putting their sexual health at risk?
First there was athlete’s foot, now it’s cyclist’s penis. It may never take off as a retail chain, but as a medical condition "cyclist’s penis" should be a cause of concern to those who are spending too much time on the two-wheeled saddle.
But, like smokers many years ago, most cyclists today are blissfully unaware that one of their favourite pastimes may be putting their bodies – or, specifically, one very sensitive area of it - at risk.
“This is a funny one,” laughs Bicycle South Australia’s Andy Johnstone. “There’s a condition called cyclist’s penis, and it generally, from my understanding, effects people who ride very long distances and mostly what they talk about is a lot of numbness.
“It’s probably becoming a thing of the past because bike seats are designed not to put pressure on the nerves, so you don’t have unfortunate side effects.”
Bashfulness about the problem is common in the cycling community. It is, after all, the kind of injury that can bruise the ego in ways that a sprained ankle or a bung knee won’t, and it’s easier to boast of being a bedroom superman.
“We probably would have welcomed such a thing at times when we’re trying to rope some of our people down,” one elite cycling coach told me. Other cyclists boasted of their reproductive capacity – “I've got one kid and one on the way, so I must be doing something right”.
Not taking it so light-heartedly though is Steve Schrader, one of the researchers involved in a recent special edition of the Journal of Sexual Medicine that focused on the condition.
“The association between cycling and sexual dysfunction, in some cases impotence, is pretty overwhelming,” he tells me over the phone from his home in the United States. “It’s about 4 to 5 per cent of the cycling population that does develop impotence, and there’s probably other degrees of sexual dysfunction above that.” This is higher than in the non-cycling population.
The cause, he says, is a combination of factors – amount of time in the saddle, the type of saddle, body weight – but the reason is straightforward.
“The cause of the problem, we believe, is the nose of the bicycle saddle. This long slender nose that you see on traditional bicycle saddles nicely tucks into an area we call the perineum.
“The perineum is the area behind the scrotum to the anus. It’s soft tissue, and there’s internal penis there. You have as much penis inside your body inside your body as you do outside your body, so the first thing you’re doing is you’re sitting on this penis.
“And the second thing, on either side of the penis lies what we call the pudendal nerve arteries and veins. These are flattened, and so as you sit on this saddle you’re compressing these vessels.
“Some studies have shown that 35 to 45 per cent of your body weight is sitting on this. And if you look anatomically at this part of the body, it was never designed to bear body weight, so there’s no protection of these blood vessels.”
I would dispute that and wonder where that information is coming from to be honest with you.
This leads, studies have shown, to severely restricted flows of blood and oxygen to the penis whilst in the saddle, and to leakage from the tissue which can amount to lower erectile quality in the bedroom.
Schrader recommends using a saddle with no extending nose, of which there are 7 or 8 on the market. “Some of them look like the nose has just been completely cut off…some of them are two pieces of a saddle that sit back under the buttocks.”
Schrader is currently studying a group of cyclists to see if the damage is reversible, but it is recommended that cyclist’s spend less than three hours a week riding with a traditional saddle, though even casual cyclist’s can have problems.
But not everyone in the cycling world is concurrence. It’s the China argument – bikes are the most common form of transport in the world’s most populus nation, so how can there be a problem?
One elite cycling coach told me that the only damage to that region he knew of was saddle sores.
“I’ve not heard of anyone with any physiological problems…maybe it’s something in a man’s world that they don’t discuss a lot, but I’ve got a lot of mates and its never come up. It’s not something that’s ever been discussed or I’ve ever heard of.
“I would dispute that and wonder where that information is coming from to be honest with you.”