In September 1997, Ed Pavelka, a columnist with
Bicycling magazine, made a startling revelation: He had erectile
dysfunction from riding his bike. He wrote at the time: "...tests revealed
that the blood flow to my penis had become so restricted that I was incapable
of an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse."
Pavelka's conviction that biking had led to his problem was
soon backed up by medical authority. Irwin Goldstein, MD, a specialist of
erectile dysfunction with the Boston University Medical Center, was widely
quoted in the press saying that all male cyclists risked erectile dysfunction,
and that they should consider giving up the sport if they enjoyed sex.
For men, the health benefits of bicycling may involve a troublesome
trade-off. While riding a bicycle burns calories and improves cardiovascular
fitness, too many hours on a bicycle saddle can compress the artery and vital
nerves leading to the penis.
The result? A risk of numbness, pain, and erectile dysfunction.
A male cyclist can place a significant percentage of his weight on his
perineum, an area between the scrotum and the anus where the nerves and
arteries to the penis pass. This pressure...
Goldstein, whose patients included a number of cyclists with
sexual dysfunction, performed a study at Boston University Medical Center to
investigate the connection. His 1997 study showed that cyclists experienced
more sexual dysfunction than athletes who didn't bike. Cyclists' complaints
included erectile dysfunction, groin and penile numbness, and problems
But what was it about cycling that led particularly to erectile
dysfunction? Goldstein's study hadn't uncovered a cause, but another study done
at the University of California, San Diego, offered an explanation. The study
-- done in conjunction with Serfas, a bicycle accessory company in Lake Forest,
Calif. -- found that the rub lies not in cycling itself but in the seats.
"Men can develop erectile dysfunction after sitting on a
hard bicycle seat for many hours because they compress an area of the anatomy
known as the perineum," explains Ken Taylor, MD, a former assistant
clinical professor of family medicine at UCSD and a co-researcher in the 1999
cycling-impotence study. The perineum is the area between the anus and the
Tim Roddy, M.D., a urologist in Edmonds, Wash., agrees that the
pressure of sitting on a bike seat can cause the problem: "A man can
squeeze off some of the vital arteries and nerves necessary for normal sexual
functioning by sitting on a hard bicycle seat too long," he says.
If the Seat Fits
Serfas, a manufacturer of biking accessories, set out to design
a seat that would shift the rider's weight off the perineum. The result, called
"the Eliminator," has a long groove down its middle and is hollowed out
in front. In April 1999, researchers tested the newly designed seat on 15
regular cyclists, most of whom pedaled between 150 and 300 miles weekly.
The results? Though 80% of those using a conventional seat
suffered numbness, only 14% of those using the new seat did. Serfas now offers
several seat models for street and mountain bikes.
More Studies, More Seats
Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc., of Morgan Hill, Calif.,
also offers seats designed to help men ride safely. Medical designer Roger
Minkow, MD, helped develop the Body Geometry Saddle seat with input from
urologists and police bicycle divisions. The Specialized seat is very narrow
and has a V-shaped wedge cut from the rear.