The Sorts of Saddle Sores, and Their Sources

A Note from Fatty: I’m under end-of-quarter / end of first year deadline pressure at work, so Al Maviva — one of the frequent commenters on this blog — said he’d write a guest post.

I didn’t expect it to be 4000+ words long, nor did I expect it to be quite so…ummm…graphic.

My recommendations: take occasional breaks as you read this. Stand up. Stretch. Walk around a bit until the feeling comes back in your legs. Also, maybe keep a barf bag handy, cuz Al gets pretty gross.

As you know, Fatty’s non-wounded hand is completely taken up with stuffing his face and picking his nose, and messing with a dangly little skin tag two inches below his third nipple. So it’s tough for him to write new material, and he asked me to come up with something to fill some space until he is back up and scribbling at full deranged capacity. I was warned – it has to be tasteful, informative, and above all, in keeping with high tone of the site. 

Thus I’m going to treat you to my disgusting taxonomy of repulsive saddle sores.


Anyway. It was hard duty – you couldn’t really wash a leather chamois, not without turning it into something resembling 220 grit emery paper, which then reverted into a .5 inch snot steak when wet – a delightful thing to ride along on for a snail. Not so good for a young man. Nor could you properly wash wool. Woolite only makes wool sort of waxy and gives it a baby smell, it doesn’t get out that delightful odor which scares off skunks and vultures, as well as non-roadie potential girlfriends/boyfriends. It was in the days before sportwool, and the invention of cashmere sheep, which are born with nice soft Nehru jackets on their backs.

So way back then in the drug and comfort-free days, we useta rub ground up gravel on our bottoms to toughen ourselves up and smack some kosher sea salt on there to sterilize our constantly raw bottoms, and take frequent hits of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ Patent Hair Restorer and Velocipede Operator Climbing Solution.

Eh, not really and this is going way off track. But the simple truth is leather and coarse wool was tough on the bottom, fancy chamois crème was unheard of among the morons with whom I rode, and it was not unknown for people to wear tighty whities under their shorts, little bits of extra cloth, or to double bag (i.e. two pairs of shorts); to do just about anything to stick something extra in between seat and bottom. It was not much removed from the early days of the Tour de France when riders would stick a steak double wrapped in butcher’s paper between their shorts and their bottom, ride all day, then eat the steak at night – though the way our shorts stank, I think I’d rather eat a rare steak seasoned under Gino Bartali’s hairy Italian butt during a five “hors categorie” day at the tour, than sniff my own shorts. And man, did they ever itch. I think those old shorts were actually made out of the nose hairs of aged goats, blended 60/40 with rusty steel wool used to scrub the barnacles of WWI vintage German battleships. dang, completely off the rails again.

Where was I? Oh yeah, buttache. Not surprisingly, we would get epic saddle sores. Great big red rub marks, that turned into little slimy battlefields, where the white blood cells duked it out with nasty bacteria, on a blood red plain. There was no satisfactory treatment for it, save some betadine, some baby powder, and a couple days off the bike, and with a little luck, you didn’t get a huge abscess.

I didn’t get bad saddlesores often, call it the luck of the young and stupid. Yet I marveled at the guys who did get sores, and who were off their bikes for weeks at a time, moaning it was just too painful to keep riding. I used to make fun of the old guys especially, since they seemed really vulnerable to it. Old to me, at that age, was 28.

Imagine my surprise upon returning to the world of road riding a couple years ago, when I discovered that chamoises now come in a wide variety of materials and padding styles, that there are fancy chamois creams, and people actually know (and are willing to share) how to avoid saddle sores. Imagine my surprise too, to discover that my bottom has now grown wookie hair, such that it looks a lot like Fatty’s arm, except without all the stitches and with several fewer fingernails.  In other words, my hirsute hind has happily welcomed me to the universe of Saddlesores, despite the advances in chamois technology. Consequently, I know more about the problems associated with saddles and hard riding than your average jockey at Pimlico.  

This led to me using scientific methods (a small hand-held mirror, and 20/40 eyesight) to closely observe this phylum (saddlesoricus painintheassicus), and to develop a taxonomy for it. You got your airsick bags handy? Here we go.

Should have used the Assos chamois crème. Prevents the Luxury Monkeybutt.Busted Big Butt Bruise
First off is the simple Busted Big Butt Bruise – purple spots on the sit bones, with very mild abrasions akin to razor burn. You get these from not riding much, then putting in a reasonably long day – which for regular riders is going from 25-30 mile days, to a 65-70 miler. Or if you don’t ride much, we’re talking about 6 miles, probably in your cutoff jean shorts and tie-die tanktop on your way to getting arrested at the adult theater. I suspect Boz gets these sores 100% of the occasions that he rides, i.e. twice yearly. The only solution is to ride more, or less, or to simply quit yer moanin about it, ya big nancy boy. We’d have never built this country if people like you had been in charge. “Oh, General Washington, my butt hurts. We can’t possibly ride across the Delaware tonight. I could never sit in that rowboat on that board.” “Oh, General Lafayette, my rear is tender. Do we have to form up in a square and march against the British?  I’m sure Yorktown can defend itself.” You people with your purple butts make me sick.

Yet again, I digress.

Cross section of a fat cyclist's raw bottom. Note the fine marbling of fat: this fat cyclist has a tender bottom.Sirloin Steak Sitbone Scrape
Second is the Sirloin Steak Sitbone Scrape. These are characterized by twin red spots under the sit bones, with exposed meat that looks something like a cheap steak that was beaten, driven over by an 18 wheeler, marinated in A-1, and left out in the sun a little too long before being chewed on by crazed dingos. Yeah, there’s some flesh bruising – but there isn’t enough skin left on those two spots to have skin on which to display purple and yellow colors.

Frequently, one side is more bruised than the other – it means your saddle is crooked or you are pedaling more with one leg than the other and need to do some one legged pedaling drills. It isn’t infected like some of the other kinds of saddle sores, but infection is a definite possibility. These things put you in constant mid-grade pain, and the only known treatment is to not wear pants for at least a week, which makes things real interesting in the workplace. Sure, it means a sexual harassment claim from pretty much everybody in the office, but do you want to heal up and ride, or do you just want to sit there complaining about it?

On the plus side of the coin, the pervy dude in your office, the one who works on the copier, who wears a black trenchcoat *all the time* and who can’t seem to grow a mustache, expresses an interest in bike commuting for the first time.   On the down side, you simply confirmed what everybody else in the office always knew about serious bikers. perverts! All of them!

Samurai Sword of Saddle Suffering
Third is the Samurai Sword of Saddle Suffering. These stabbing pains normally come from a tiny ingrown hair or blocked pore, giving rise to an equally tiny but brutally painful little pimple. To the fingers, they feel like a grain of sand stuck just under the skin, and while beauty is only skin deep, these hurt right down to the bone. To the butt, they feel like a mid-sized samurai sword lodged just under the skin.

These tiny sores probably come from poor hygiene, or maybe from toughening up your skin so much that your hairs get worn down and decide to try growing into your body, rather than out, in a vain attempt to avoid getting ground down into your cheapjack Nashbar shorts, ya big cheap bugger. (Hey, I can’t help it. even your saddle sores don’t want to be seen in Nashbar gear. the folks at EtxeOndo will confirm that if you spend lots of money on designer shorts, the saddle sores and the Holy Trinity of cycling gods (aka Fausto Coppi, Charlie Gaul, and Major Taylor) will be less angry, and this will make your rear feel better. It’s scientific.)

It’s also possible that your post-ride baby powder or Gold Bond has clogged a pore, or maybe you have a bit of sand in there from that special weekend you spent at the beech with your significant other dune riding on mountain bikes. You people….

For whatever reason, these tiny sores hurt the worst, they have the greatest PSI of any saddlesores. (Pain per Square Inch). You can try to pinch them like a pimple, if you don’t mind your husband/wife/co-worker walking in on you as you lay on the floor in a puddle of your own urine, crying like a baby. Hey, some people are into that kind of thing, so I won’t throw stones here.

There is no good solution to this kind of saddle sore, other than to ride through it – which sometimes abrades the thing right off, converting it into a Sirloin Steak abrasion or a huge abscess, both of which are less painful. I get these sores most often of all of them, which would ordinarily be bad news. However, I like pain, a lot. So I can just pinch away or keep riding, and between the tears, the thing sometimes pops, or a little blister bursts open, which I then treat with a mixture of alcohol, and anything I have handy, usually more alcohol only this time orally administered. I don’t recommend it for everybody. Sometimes hot compresses may work, but I wouldn’t count on it. You may just wind up with a super heated, tiny, angry pimple – kind of like the PeeWee Herman-on-Crack of pimples – along with some irritated skin.

Like a lot of other insane things I recommend, I caveat it thusly: my planned remedy is stupid and possibly criminally insane, do not attempt it unless you are sure you can pull it off successfully.

Painful Purple Pimple of Pustulence
Fourth is Painful Purple Pimple of Pustulence. These look like ordinary pimples, if they had spent six years on Human Growth Hormone and following an East German Olympic Training Program. They are super-durable blocked pores, and maybe micro-infections, with a big whitehead rising out of a lumpy red spot perhaps as large as a dime’s width across.

I wish I could get bike parts as tough as these saddle sores – I would market them and make a million bucks. Man, can you imagine a mountain bike tube as tough to pop open as one of these purple monsters? Like the common cold, they take 5 days to develop, inflict maximum misery for another 5 days, and then take 5 days to go away – unless they choose to file for permanent residence.

Sometimes they leave a little subcutaneous scar, a hardened dead spot or necrosis, that is like a BB under the skin, which never goes away. Oh joy. They appear to develop from blocked pores and ingrown hairs, and typically show up if you’ve done a lot of riding, and not a lot of hygiene,or if you miscalculate the treatment for a less serious saddlesore. Did you give the laundry to the 17 year old Cat II at the stage race after the TTT, go out for drinks and then expect him to actually wash your shorts while there was a perfectly good X-Box in the hotel room?

You can also get them if your minor pimple popping drives a small infection deep into the pore. Then you’re screwed.

The best treatment is pretty simple – either have a good friend (preferably a good friend who attended and maybe even graduated med school) lance them with a sterile needle or scalpel and drain them out (probably three times in three days), or do it yourself.  (I can’t tell you how good a friend it needs to be, to get them to lance saddle sores for you. we’re talking Three Musketeers / Gladiator Film level friendship.)

Some people would look at these as sort of the threshold for a doctor’s visit, but my thought is that until you either have a fever of >3 degrees over normal, or until the local postmaster stops by to give the pimple it’s own 4 digit zip extension, then it’s not really a big enough problem to merit professional medical attention. amateur hobbyists will do just fine up to that point.

Does this crater look familiar?Space Mountain Suppurator
Fifth  and finally, is the Space Mountain Suppurator. Some people call these “boils” but you can’t fool me. I’ve only had them a few times, and it was clear that my buttocks had signed on to be Civil War Reenactors, and to commemorate the Battle of the Crater on my nether regions – a huge explosion, followed by a huge hole, followed by massive casualties.

These menaces to mankind and civilization are recognizable because your riding partners start asking you if you have a racketball in your shorts, not in any of the places where you’d be okay with it looking like you had recreational equipment inside your Volers. You can also spot them because you can see shoes – it’s hard to stand up straight so you’ll be looking down at yours. They also appear to contain more white substance than Utah.

You really need to seek medical attention if you get one of these before the thing swallows you up, like The Blob. That, or you need to squeeze it until it blows up with an explosive pop. I’m not sure you have enough tolerance for pain to do that or enough strength to reach around your back to do it. So you’ll need a friend to help. Preferably somebody who isn’t that close of a friend, to whom you owe a substantial sum, best if the debt is quite delinquent. I have had a boil on my back treated this way, and the explosion is quite impressive, as is the great big weeping hole it leaves in place of the pustulence. That is the traditional, old school way of draining a boil. It really hurt – but not quite as bad as one I had enjoyed previously, that a military doc removed using a scalpel, without a local.

Ever had an infection scraped off the back side of your hip bone, sans anesthetic? I still sort of shiver, not the good kind of shiver, when I think about that one, never mind the whole “here, stuff the enormous hole in your back with a field dressing, rip it out daily, and then repack it” routine.  There’s no good solution for a boil, and take my word, you do not want to put pressure on them (like a 90 pound rucksack, your own 170 pound self, or even the exhaled breath of an infant butterfly on a gentle summer evening) for weeks afterwards.

Keep in mind, if you go search and destroy on the thing yourself, you face a substantial chance of pushing the infection out of the necrosis and into the surrounding flesh. That means if it is close to your spine (or if it’s a more general boil on your face or neck), you could frickin’ kill yourself. These things are bad news. To avoid them in the future – you may want to consider giving up your satan worship, cutting back on the donations to terrorist groups, and reducing your greenhouse gas emissions. I haven’t a clue why these develop, only that they seem to be some sort of karmic revenge, and they may in fact be unavoidable if you are fated to get one.

Perhaps the best remedy is to simply invite a dozen of your closest friends over the house to pray over the thing. It sounds silly, yet if you have a persistent boil on your butt, you won’t rule out the possibility that your butt is demonically possessed. You don’t believe me, then just try it. 

Prevention and Remedies
At long last, you’ve suffered through this insufferable list of disgusting horrors. The least I could do is offer you some Kenny Rogers-style “pardon me son, don’t do the things I’ve done” advice. Saddle sores are serious business if you’ve got one, and they can end your season; more than one pro has lost a full season or a career due to saddle sores. Little ones can grow into big ones if not properly nipped in the butt, as it were. So some tips about avoiding saddle sores are in order. 

  • For Your Butt – Prevention – always get out of wet shorts immediately after a ride. Always wash up as soon as possible, preferably with Betadine or Dial or other anti-bacterial soap. (Betadine has iodine and kills germs pretty fast, it’s great if you’re okay with having an orange butt, depending on what type of betadine you use. You may need to let the Dial sit on there for a couple minutes to get the anti-bacterial effect). After you dry off, wiping down with some 93% rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball might help, if you can handle the stinging sensation and you don’t have dry skin problems. Then put on some Gold Bond Powder – “Pack Yer Crack” as one of my stinky friends used to say.  Dry is usually best, but you might consider using some kind of anti-bacterial and moisturizing cream too, if your skin gets dried out with the scrubbing and if it is abraded a little. And as a last ditch measure, some chamois creams make pretty fair moisturizers.
  • For Your Butt – Treatment – Anti-bacterial cream is okay on the abrasions including mildly infected ones, but you probably don’t want to put anything on the big blisters, except perhaps some ‘drawing salve,’ which may pull the infection and pus out if it hasn’t hardened into a big ball of dried pus inside a big necrosis. (Don’t ask how I know all this stuff. it’s a series of horrifying stories that led up to all this knowledge of skin infections.) Pinching the sores if they are small and pustulent is a mixed bag. Sometimes it brings relief. Sometimes it causes a bigger infection. Tough call. You can lance with a sterile needle or scalpel if they are small, but you probably need to squeeze out the infection if it is bigger than a little speck, because there’s often a necrosis and a big ball of dried pus in the middle of it. For larger sores, you really need to go see a doc. Take it from a moron who has self-medicated – you don’t want to treat a boil or big huge pimple yourself. I once converted a boil on my chin into a generalized subcutenous face infection by self-treatment. It was a shockingly bad outcome, that ended with a doctor literally screaming at me for being such a deluded, stupid moron. The more things change. 
  • Your shorts – experiment with different kinds of chamois until you find the one that is kindest on your butt. Thicker doesn’t mean better,  thinner doesn’t necessarily mean harsher. Never wear the same shorts two days in a row. Wash the shorts after each time you use them. Find some kind of chamois cream or body glide that you agree with, then use it every time you ride. Make sure the shorts fit and don’t gather and pinch your skin. Really nice shorts – Castelli, Etxe Ondo, Assos – really are that much kinder to your bottom. Bibs also help because they keep the chamois well aligned and ‘unbunched’ on your butt. Is a $200 set of bibs precisely four times as good as a $50 pair of shorts? No. It’s merely twice as good. Which sounds like a ripoff until you’re 75 miles into a 125 mile day. The more you ride, the more likely you need to wear premium shorts, until you hit that point of nirvana where your entire ass is a giant callous, like a turtle’s shell, and you don’t need shorts or anything. At that point you’ve probably achieved total enlightenment, however, so you really shouldn’t be reading this since you already know what I’m about to say. 
  • Saddle – don’t skimp or overspend on a saddle. Try different saddles until you find one that seems to ‘disappear’ under your butt, and not just because of your butt’s enormous size. Fatter doesn’t mean easier on the butt, cutouts may be easy on the plumbing but harder on the sitbones, and thin + thinly padded doesn’t mean uncomfortable – the downright skinny and barely padded, slightly crowned FiZik Arione is more comfortable (and less likely to produce saddle sores) than my sofa. Your mileage may vary; some people find the best fit with a $20 bargain saddle, others try dozens and in the end drop $200 for the perfect perch. Want a good place to start?  Go to a Specialized store. They have a little pad (co-marketing with the “Body Geometry” line of products) that you sit on that measures the distance between your sit bones. You sit on it, and you leave an impression. Then they have an accurate idea about how wide your saddle needs to be for a typical fit. It isn’t a perfect fit; some people’s butts should fit a particular saddle, but they prefer the feel of a saddle that theoretically doesn’t fit at all. Still, the Specialized Boutique may be a good starting point if you are clueless, and your butt hurts. (Being clueless and having a sore butt is where a couple of my better stories actually end rather than start, but then again, I’m digressing, in a lot of ways).
  • Your Legs – the underlooked facet in saddle-sore-dom. Saddle sores usually start with abrasions. Abrasions usually come from sitting too hard on the saddle for too long while moving, and grinding along, bouncing your right then left buttock off the seat. A saddle sore is your butt’s method of asserting self defense – “Your honor, I killed him because he just wouldn’t quit beating on me, day after day, and then when that 75 mile road race rolled around, and he was supposed to go to Moab the next day.” To avoid butt abuse, you should have your bike properly fitted, so that you don’t have a lot of pelvis rocking (right left right left) as you ride. You should also shift position slightly every couple minutes while riding, including standing up now and again, readjusting your shorts, and getting some blood flow into your butt and feet. Moreover, you should build up leg strength so that your butt is not taking so much of the weight. Your weight is borne by a triangle of arms, legs, butt; and it’s not feasible to lean harder on your arms. It is feasible, however, to build up leg strength, and to spend more time actually pedaling, thus taking weight off your butt.

So there you have it – how to keep a boogie in your butt.

Next week – athlete’s foot proves existence of poor moral character. 

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