Monday Mailbox is a series of posts dedicated to questions received over email. Here is one that pops up now and again:
This is embarrassing, but lately I've been getting what I think are saddle sores after long rides. How can I tell that is what they are? And do you have any advice for treating them?
Saddle sores are one of those common, yet mysterious problems that cyclists love to discuss endlessly. I am just one voice among many and by no means an expert. Happily, I was spared the affliction of saddle sores for my first three and a half years on the bike. It is only recently, when I started covering longer distances, that I began to get them occasionally.
What exactly is a saddle sore? Part of the reason there is so much mystique and different advice out there, is that there is no single medical definition. But at least everyone agrees about their location. Saddle sores appear on the crotch, where it comes in contact with the saddle. Popular spots include the uppermost inner thighs, the "taint," and that transitional ridge where leg becomes butt.
One opinion is that saddle sores are boils caused by abrasions. Another is that they are some special, horrible type of cyst that forms as a result of fluid buildup. But probably the most popular opinion is that they are infected hair follicles. It is very possible that in fact they can be any or all of these things, depending on the rider and cause - which also means that treatment and prevention methods might differ depending on what type it is. Based on my own observations, the infected follicle theory makes the most sense, so that is what I am going with. And as it happens, I've discovered a fairly quick and simple way to get rid of them. Who knows, it might work for you. So here is what I do:
After a ride, shower as soon as possible using non-perfumed soap. Once the area is clean, you will need two ingredients: tea tree oil and vaseline. It's important that the tea tree oil is just that, and not, say, a moisturiser containing it as an ingredient. Plain tea tree oil is now available in many mainstream pharmacies, so sourcing it should not be a problem.
Using a cotton swab, apply tea tree oil to the affected areas - but be careful not to get it onto any mucus membranes, as that could hurt. Once it dries, follow up with vaseline. Repeat every few hours, washing the area before each re-application.
While the sores heal, either stay off the bike, or ride a bike where the way your crotch contacts the saddle is sufficiently different. Wear breathable underwear made of natural fibers.
Using this method, any saddle sores I get go away within 2-3 days. For anything more serious I have no advice, as I've never experienced it myself. Needless to say, if your sores are not going away, consider seeing a doctor.
As far as prevention, there is of course the common sense advice: Find a saddle and shorts that work for you. Increase distances gradually. Use chamois cream to reduce friction. Be sure to shower before and after every ride. And always, always wear clean shorts. However, this is not always sufficient. Even the cleanest, most hygienic pair of shorts will turn into a bacterial cesspool after 10+ hours of riding. Even the most comfortable saddle can start to chafe eventually. And even if you start a ride squeaky clean, you will soon get filthy. That is to say, I don't think there is a sure prevention method once you start doing long distances. Some riders are more prone to saddle sores than others and some situations (such as hot weather) are more likely to cause them. You just have to deal with it when you get them. Hopefully for most of you saddle sores are just an occasional nuisance and not a serious problem.