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Last year I got hooked up to a penile oxygen flow meter in the home town of William Shakespeare. This test - developed in Germany - has helped Specialized tweak its Body Geometry line of saddles to make them more ergo than ever.
I wasn’t the only one to volunteer to be hooked up. Mark Alker, one of the editors at Singletrack magazine, also put his “pound of flesh” into the hands of Specialized’s scientists. This video shows how he got on:
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a “pound of flesh” from Antonio. In Shakespeare’s day, ‘flesh’ was a euphemism for penis. If bikes were around at the time, no doubt Will would have ridden one and he would have penned a sonnet or two about saddles and their impact, ahem, on men’s fleshy parts.
Had Will suffered any cycling-induced Erectile Dysfunction (ED), maybe an Elizabethan bike shop would have directed him to get a proper bike fit, to ride often on the pedals, not always the seat, and to fit an ergo saddle to protect his “pizzle” (another euphemism for you-know-what)?
At an event last year it was my pizzle on the line. It was wired up for science in Stratford upon Avon, birthplace of the bike-less bard. I was at a dealer training event for UK stockists of Specialized bikes and equipment. Specialized had flown in medical experts from the US and Germany to demonstrate why the company’s Body Geometry products - shoes, mitts, bar tape, saddles aren’t much ado about nothing, they can be proven to be effective in live lab tests.
Since 1998, Specialized has sold more than 2 million ergo saddles featuring the ‘Minkow wedge’, a design said to maintain blood flow through the perineal arteries. The perineum is the soft spot between the base of the penis and the anus. The perineal padding protects the pudental nerves and blood vessels which thread through your ischial tuberosities, ie sit bones.
The Minkow Wedge has been much modified since 1998, with the latest Body Geometry saddles having been sculpted with a scalpel and tested at the urology department of the University of Cologne Medical Center.
The scalpel wielder was the eponymous Dr Roger Minkow, an ergonomics specialist from California. As well as his work for Specialized, Minkow has designed comfort products for United Airlines and other well-known companies.
He started working with Specialized in 1997. This was the year that Boston urologist Dr. Irwin Goldstein caused a worldwide media frenzy after he told Bicycling magazine that cycling caused impotency.
“Men should never ride bicycles,” he said. “Riding should be banned…it’s the most irrational form of exercise I could ever bring to discussion… The bike seat is archaic. It’s unanatomic. The perineum is an intricate neurovascular complex, but there are no shoulder pads or helmets to protect it.”
Minkow surmised that if cycling was uncomfortable for some people because undercarriage blood flow was being impeded by the saddles of the day, new ergo saddles would be needed. He cut chunks from a Turbo saddle and visited the 1997 Interbike trade show. Here he met Ed Pavelka, one of the two writers of the Bicycling feature and showed him the modified saddle. After the show, Mike Sinyard, founder and president of Specialized, called Pavelka and said Specialized wanted to address the ED issue.
“[Sinyard] asked did I know anyone who could help him come up with a better saddle? I said sure, and he lives next door to you in Petaluma, California. I gave Minkow’s name and number, and the rest is history,” said Pavelka.
Minkow’s scooping was not a new technique, saddles-with-cut-outs have existed from the end of the 19th century. But Minkow used his ergonomic experience - he’s good with seats - to help Specialized create traditional-looking saddles that were more comfortable for most people than non-ergo saddles.
Dr Irwin Goldstein advocated so-called noseless saddles, others said forget road bikes, go recumbent.
In 1997, Goldstein had tested his arterial compression theory only on cyclists in static positions, there was no testing on cyclists in motion. Even now there’s no perfect test. Martin Resnick, chairman of the Department of Urology at Case Western Reserve University Hospital, in Cleveland, USA, has said:
“There isn’t any clear, definitive data yet, just theory. Truth is, we simply don’t know if sitting on a bike and reducing blood supply to the penis for half an hour, an hour, or two hours is even relevant to erectile dysfunction.”
Goldstein disputes that. He reckons the latest tests do prove a link between arterial compression and ED.
In his Journal of Sexual Medicine, a paper he co-authored in 2005 said that to “better understand cavernosal arterial blood flow hemodynamics at the perineumâ€“saddle interface” the only way to “accurately record cavernosal arterial inflow while sitting on a bicycle seat” would be to use “duplex Doppler ultrasonography in the static condition and during erection.”
This test could measure “external compressive forces” but it does not “record cavernosal erectile tissue perfusion”. Nor can it test a cyclist pumping away on a saddle.
Goldstein and his students do use a penile blood flow test and this is likely similar to one perfected by Dr Frank Sommer in 2002 when he was at the University of Cologne Medical Center. (Sommer has since moved to the University of Hamburg, where he is the world’s first professor of men’s health).
Andrea Menghelli, PR man at Italian saddle maker Selle Royal believes Minkow is being disengenous when he highlights the Sommer test as a standard to which all saddles must pass.
“That’s only one test. Pressure on the nerves is also an important factor, but that’s not measurable. You can’t design saddles merely by making sure they get good readings using Dr Sommer’s testing.”
Saddle expert Joshua Cohen counters that argument. The author of Finding the Perfect Bicycle Seat said: “It would be impossible for an object as proportionally large as a seat to compress the arteries without pressing on the nerves as well.”
Cohen - designer of the E3 Form road saddle - said there has been “an increase in saddle companies rushing to try to find places to get their saddles tested with oxygen monitors.”
But, he adds, “it’s important to remember that the results of one individual do not necessarily translate to others, and to determine a true effect of a saddle design, a large sample size is needed.”
Continuing Frank Sommer’s oxygen testing work is Dr Alex Kroekel from the University of Cologne Medical Center. He was at the Specialized dealer event with his Lycra-clad brother â€“ and a bunch of penile blood flow measuring equipment.
Marcus Kroekel, a graduate in sports physiology, is the main guinea pig for all the saddle blood flow tests at the University of Cologne Medical Center. Kroekel Jnr is well used to the undertackle tampering required for the test. Many new subjects get ‘performance anxiety’ when their pork sword is wired up and can’t get enough oxygen to flow when standing, never mind sitting on a saddle surrounded by men in white coats.
Over on BikeBiz.com I’ve written articles about this transcutaneous penile partial oxygen pressure test but wasn’t personally intimate with exactly what was wired to where. I felt duty bound to volunteer.
Changing into cycling shorts, I went through to the hotel lecture room where the saddle lab tests were conducted at the two day event. There was a table equipped with monitoring devices, a video camera trained on the oxygen levels reader and a huge screen to reveal the results to a small corner of this scepter’d isle. Dr Kroekel was straight to the point: “Let me have your penis.”
I mumbled something about ‘best offer I’ve had all day’ and dropped my shorts. Herr doktor asked me to reveal my glans. Gulp.
Craddling my family-maker in his hand, he sprayed the head with an electrolyte solution – it stung – and stuck on a half-inch plastic electrode holder, the main medical use of which is monitoring the vital signs of new born babes.
The electrode holder was sticky. If it’s held on with glue, I thought, taking it off again was going to be interesting.
A Clark pO2 electrode - “this will get warm,” said Dr Kroekel - was fitted into the holder and four surgical strips kept the holder in place. My penis was handed back to my safe keeping and - now much smaller than at the start of the procedure - it was tucked away in my shorts, but not before Dr. Kroekel made sure it was pointing skywards and not, he demonstrated, folded over like a hooked little finger.
I was now umbilically attached to $30k-worth of transcutenous oxygen measuring equipment, unable to make a run for it even if I’d wanted to.
I climbed on the turbo trainer. My penile oxygen levels were transmitted from my shorts to the monitoring device and thence to the projector. A small gathering of bike shop owners, medics, reps and journalists had collected.
My oxygen levels - measured in tcpO2 - started alarmingly low. I’d seen the test in action the day before and knew anything under ten was v v bad, meaning little oxygen was getting slooshed through my Alcock’s canal. In fact, this slow start was the norm. The levels started to rise. I stabilised at 114. This is high. Most cyclists, and many non-cyclists, struggle to get past 70.
Dr Minkow’s eyebrows rose to meet my oxygen peak: “We’ve never seen figures like these before for a first test,” he said. I beamed, quipping that I bet he said that to all the boys, but the US and German medics in the room were also surprised at the figure I topped out at. The test no longer hurt as much.
I pedalled for two minutes on a famous saddle, touted for its roadie- friendly, ‘medically-proven’ comfort factor. My oxygen levels dropped through the floor. By the end of the test I’d lost 90 per cent of my penile blood flow.
The expensive saddle had not been uncomfortable. The LED digits on the big screen had plummeted without me feeling any discomfort whatsoever. No numb nuts, everything had felt fine, comfy even.
Dismounting, the oxygen levels shot straight back up. Mental note to self: when riding, get up off the saddle and honk lots.
Dr Kroekel fitted a Body Geometry saddle to the bike, the ‘06 Alias. I repeated the test, same position, same two minutes of moderate effort. The blood flow digits fell, by not by much. Just a piddling few per cent, and even that was only when I put deliberate pressure on the nose of the saddle.
The BG saddle had felt no different to the brand-X saddle. Neither had been uncomfortable, but only one thumped the blood flow test.
The good doctors had ’see, told you so’ smiles on their faces.
Dr Minkow joked he wanted me to go on tour with the equipment.
“You have the penis of a non-cyclist,” said Dr Minkow. This was a compliment. However, I moaned this must mean I don’t ride enough. I had expected some level of cycling-induced damage. Dr Irwin Goldstein eat yer heart out!
I ride every day. I do 24-hour MTB races, solo. In my youth, I spent 18 months cycle touring in the Middle East. I never drive when I can cycle. But I have charmed bum-level blood vessels: none of the day-in, day-out perineal pummelling has had a long-term impact on my capacity for horizontal jogging. I laugh in the face of Erectile Dysfunction.
Dr Minkow: “These are very good figures. You have very healthy arteries. You should go home and tell your wife, although I think she already knows.” Laughs from the crowd and more eye-brow raising: this is getting good for my self-esteem.
But then comes the hard part. The glans patch has to be removed.
“Is that something you do?” I ventured to Dr Kroekel.
“I can do it, but we find it’s best if you do it yourself. Have a shower. Take your time.”
Ever ripped a band-aid from an open wound? Marcus Kroekel gets his willy wired for a living. I hope he’s well paid.
Harin Padma-Nathan, MD, director of The Male Clinic in Santa Monica, California, and a former student of Irwin Goldstein, has said:
“Will biking cause impotence for the average cyclist? Does that risk outweigh the sport’s cardiovascular benefits? The answer is no on both counts.”
Richard Lieberman, MD, a clinical associate professor of surgery at The Pennsylvania State University, has said: “I can think of a lot more things that are deleterious to one’s health that should be outlawed before bikes. In fact, the overall vascular health of the cyclist may, in a lot of cases, outweigh some of the local deficit that’s created.”
However, Goldstein and his acolytes continue to push the message that cycling is unsafe.
An editorial in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine - Goldstein’s house journal, remember - was written by Dr. Steven Schrader, a supervisory research biologist at the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Introducing papers such as ‘Only the Nose Knows: Penile Hemodynamic Study of the Perineum - Saddle Interface in Men with Erectile Dysfunction Utilizing Bicycle Saddles and Seats with and without Nose Extensions’ by Ricardo Munarriz and Irwin Goldstein and others, Schrader took potshots at cycling:
“While literature over the last 20 years…has described the perineal problems resulting from compression by bicycle saddles, there continue to be endless testimonials about ‘miles of cycling’ and ‘erections of steel.’ While such testimonials are not surprising in the popular press or on the Internet, it is disappointing that such comments have been expressed by physicians and other scientific-based professionals. Some of the testimonials have even appeared on scientific electronic bulletin boards, along with remarks regarding the proliferation of bicycle riders in China without erectile problems. They sound similar to the cigarette smoker proclaiming that they have smoked a pack a day for years without lung cancer.”
Dr Schrader has a history of ‘cycling is bad for your health’ papers.
In 2002, he published a paper on US bike cops. Schrader said the cycling police he tested had many fewer erections while they slept than their fellow officers.
You may or may not want to know this, but bike cops had erections during 27.1 percent of recorded sleep sessions. Coach potato cops had nearly twice as many erections per night, said the doctor.
Schrader stressed the bike trade needs to develop “effective strategies based on sound ergonometrics and urogenital physiologic principles” and testing is needed “to reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction from bicycle riding.”
Dr Goldstein goes further: “There are two kinds of cyclists: those who are impotent, and those who will be.”
However, as my oxygen readings show, it’s possible to be a regular, long-distance cyclist - a 24-hour event soloist, even - and still have “the penis of a non-cyclist.” Hey, Dr Schrader, I even have regular “erections of steel”, but that’s for a whole different website…
Conclusion: Shakespeare wrote that too much booze “provokes the desire but it taketh away the performance.” Don’t let your saddle do the same thing. Pay for a pro bike fit, get out of the saddle lots when riding, don’t assume your comfy, so-called ‘ergo saddle’ is good for your ass. The saddles that cut off oxygen flow the quickest, aren’t rock-hard, ‘razor-blade’ saddles, according to the Sommer test, it’s actually the softest, squishiest saddles. Thinly padded racing saddles are better for blood flow than many spongy ‘comfort’ saddles: but best of all are anatomic saddles, with grooves, cut- outs, pressure-relieving pads and bases engineered to offer just the right amount of flex. Tush topography varies so don’t think a saddle that your mate swears by will be any good for you. It might be, but pay attention the next time you see a magazine article which group tests saddles by sending a journo to Cologne. If you find you’re riding with a saddle that is shown to perform poorly in this test, ditch it and buy one of the saddles that excels in the test.
Who’s most at risk from arterial compression?
Pro cyclists spend many hours per day in the saddle but they happily have sex and father children. Perhaps there’s some under-reporting of undercarriage problems - ED in the pro peleton would be bad news for saddle sponsors, for sure - but Minkow believes pros are less at risk because their thighs and buttocks are bigger and stronger than yours and mine. “Bigger muscles add layers of protection,” said Minkow.
Pros also crank out high watts on most rides, almost hovvering above their saddles rather than digging deep into them. And, of course, pro cyclists have the benefit of millimetre-accurate bike fits and get professional help to fine-tune saddle position until it’s perfectly dialled in.
They also know it’s sensible to get out of the saddle frequently, to add in spurts of speed, yes, but also to prevent numbness.
Minkow believes it’s now-and-again cyclists who are at most risk of long-term damage from non-ergo saddles.
‘Charity cyclists’ ride for hours in one position, they are so unused to cycling they assume the discomfort is normal. Nobody has told them to honk. They wouldn’t know an ergo saddle if it bit them on the arse.
‘Big boned’ enthusiast cyclists may also be more prone to arterial compression because of their sheer bulk. Sparrows like me exert less perineum pressure.