How to cycle long distances WITH saddle sores?

Gear / Kit, Transcontinental

I took part of the Transcontinental race No7. At the start, the first day hit us with over 40C degrees heat, over 3500m elevation and gravel parcours. By day two I had developed saddle sores. At the end of that day I cycled the last 40 kilometres almost entirely standing, out of the saddle, because I simply couldn’t sit down.

I was not the only one to experience saddle sores. In fact the leader of the Race, a TCR veteran Bjorn Lenard had to scratch due to saddles sores (and a bee sting). This is while he was the favourite to win the race and had hundreds of kilometres lead in just a couple of days of riding.

“It’s impossible to keep on riding, it really is.” he shrugs through his omelette. “This doesn’t heal in just another day or two, so…”. Björn isn’t the type to say it, but to have his hopes wiped out – after a whole year of preparation and training – must be crushing.

https://www.transcontinental.cc/report/2019/7/29/race-report-day-3

This is to simply highlight that saddle sores happen to everyone, often when we don’t expect them and they are always unpleasant, and sometimes completely prevent us from achieving goals that we have invested a lot in.

Prevention

No, this is not another post about prevention. There are a ton of them out there. Here is a good long overview, but this post is about what to do when you get them in the middle of a race.

Causes

To understand why I went for my solution below, you need to understand what saddle sores are and what causes them.

Some saddle sores look a lot like spots and these are often caused by an infected hair follicle. Sores that look more like boils are usually larger and can be more painful. For some people, the main cause of pain is more likely to be abrasion caused by chafing.

https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/how-to-prevent-saddle-sores-177366

They are small infections of your pores / hair follicles caused by irritation to the area due to friction.

Contributing factors can be:

  • A lot of sweat (hot weather/elevation) – it builds up salts which increase friction
  • Saddle not fitting properly – this can be after long hours, maybe because it was put incorrectly at the airport, or the position on the bike
  • Bumpy roads (gravel) – it causes a lot more “beating” of your rear end which bruises the skin
  • Weight – more weight can cause more friction with the saddle

At the TCRNo7 we had a lot of heat, a lot of elevation and plenty of gravel in just the first two days. As you can tell, they meant a lot of sweating, a lot of pedal rotations (up the hills) causing potentially more friction than the average (plus a more upright position = more pressure on the saddle) and gravel which could have contributed as well.

Solution

I read a lot about saddle sores on that second day, when I arrived at my AirBnb. I was just two days into the race and felt like I have to quit because I couldn’t sit anymore. I read everything I could find online, but all the information was either on prevention (too late for me) or causes. The main solution everyone gave was rest and time of the saddle. Great, thanks! That wasn’t an option for me, so I decided to try to breakdown the problem and solve it one element at a time.

First problem – infection.

The bruised, irritated skin is essentially a wound which soaks all day long in your sweat and is under pressure providing less blood and air to the area. This means that I had to prevent sweat and water to get to the skin and add something with antiseptic and healing properties to prevent things from getting worse.

One easily available product that gave me the antiseptic and healing properties was Sudocrem.

Second problem – friction.

I had used chamois cream, but in the 40C heat it just evaporated or was washed away with sweat in about half an hour. So it simply didn’t last and do it’s job. I needed something to lubricate and stay there for long periods of time

To both lubricate for long periods of time and prevent water or sweat to get to the skin I could easily find Vaseline in any pharmacy or even shop.

Third problem – cleanliness.

Keeping the area clean, dry and aired is paramount for the healing to happen.

This meant no more bivying as an option – every night had to be at a hotel, with a shower, clean the cycling shorts and sleeping so that the skin can breathe while having an antiseptic medication on the irritated area.

However, applying Sudocrem and Vaseline on the skin during the day, would saturate the shorts with both of them and make them impossible to clean, and as a result would spread bacteria. So I had to find an easy and sanitary way of applying the two, and also cleaning, and re-applying them. The solution? Sanitary pads!

Sanitary pads positioned on the bib before putting the shorts on

I would put two sanitary pads on the bibs, apply first vaseline and then Sudocrem on top so that they are saturated. Then I would apply vaseline and Sudocrem on myself and put the shorts on.

The feeling is interesting at first, but you quickly get used to it. And once you are on the saddle you won’t feel friction, your irritated skin is now protected from sweat, water and is soaked in antiseptic and healing medication.

I would have to change these pads maybe two to four times a day, depending on heat and if they last because the friction often destroys them and they become uncomfortable, edges and wrinkles start to form too and you can feel it. But that was not a problem because it meant I could remove them, use wet wipes to clean the skin, set a new fresh pair of pads, soak them in vaseline and Sudocream and repeat the process.

Once I arrived in my hotel room I would shower, clean the shorts and apply Panthenol Spray on the skin. This is an antiseptic spray which soaks into the skin and still lets it breathe (which Sudocrem doesn’t do).

Does it work?

Does this process actually help? Yes, for me it did. It allowed me to not quit the race on day 2, but to average over 250km a day for the next 6 days without a problem and by the end of it my saddle sores had healed! I had no more pain!

The main drawback to this approach is that the regular cleaning and replacing of pads, vaseline, Sudocrem takes time and you won’t win a race like this (that was not on my goals though). For me it gave me the chance to do more than I would have otherwise.

Summary

The reason I wrote this post is because when I needed it most, I didn’t find one with at least some sort of information on the subject to give me a chance to overcome the difficulty at hand. I am writing it with the hope that it might help someone else who has found themselves in my position.

If you have had the same problems and have found a different solution, please share in the comments as I would love to hear alternatives.

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