Before You Ride That Bike, Know the Sexual Risks

John Tierney asks a good question:  why are people risking their sexual health by ignoring the risks of traditional bike seats?

It's the area of soft tissue called the perineum, and it's not just a male problem -- female cyclists have also reported soreness and numbness in this genital region. But neither sex seems interested in these saddles, and I'm as baffled as Mr. Brown is by their apathy. 

I've spent much of my journalistic career debunking health scares, but the bike-saddle menace struck me as a no-brainer when I first heard about it. Why, if you had an easy alternative, would you take any risk with that part of the anatomy? Even if you didn't feel any symptoms, even if you didn't believe the researchers' warnings, even if you thought it was perfectly healthy to feel numb during a ride -- why not switch just for comfort's sake? Why go on crushing your crotch?

When I tried a no-nose model for my 16-mile daily commute, it was so much more comfortable that I promptly threw away the old saddle. But over the years I've had zero success persuading any other cyclists to switch, even when I quote the painfully succinct warning from Steven Schrader, the reproductive physiologist at Niosh who did the experiment with police officers.

"There's as much penis inside the body as outside," Dr. Schrader told me. "When you sit on a regular bike saddle, you're sitting on your penis."

There's accumulating evidence that women, too, can suffer pain and loss of sensation in the area.  So why do cyclists laugh off the risks?

Tierney offers a bunch of plausible reasons, including the fact that no one wants to walk into a bike shop and announce that he's worried about erectile dysfunction, and what do you have to fix it?  But he also argues that we tend to discount familiar risks, especially when the damage is not immediate and obvious:

It's possible the problem isn't as serious as the researchers believe, but I see other reasons for the indifference. We all tend to underestimate the danger from old-fashioned, familiar technologies, particularly when the effects aren't immediately obvious. Young athletes focus on victory today, not the future damage to their bodies. And if the winner of the Tour de France doesn't ride a no-nose saddle, then neither will riders who want to look like him.

There's a social aspect as well.  We take cues about what is safe from other people; we're willing to take even substantial risks as long as other people are.  And unwilling to take even small risks when they aren't, which is why I suspect today's kids are so excessively overparented.  The actual risks to nine year olds biking around the suburb by themselves are pretty small, which is why people my age were allowed to do it--but once other parents start keeping their kids home, more sensible parents are almost forced to follow suit, both because of social disapproval, and because of the crushing regret they would feel over not taking "normal" precautions in the unlikely chance that their kid got into an accident.

I'd bet that in twenty years, most cyclists will be using seats that put the pressure where it belongs, on your pelvic bones, and people who use traditional seats will be regarded as idiots, the way people I know now look at those who refuse to buckle up.  But right up to the tipping point, there will be a lot of folks arguing that split seats are for impotent losers, not real cyclists.

We underestimate these forces as a barrier to innovation.  Makers of these seats have solved a real problem, but they're fighting an uphill battle against our biases.