How to deal with a pain in the arse

It’s been five weeks since my crash and with the help of Sophie at Physio In The City I’m finally making some progress towards recovery from the whiplash that followed. I’d had mild whiplash many times before (I snowboard with much more enthusiasm than skill) but I hadn’t realised how debilitating severe whiplash can be. As Shermer’s Neck is one of the bigger threats to my Transcontinental Race I’m now focused on not just recovering but improving and trying to take my neck and shoulder strength to new levels.

“I’ve had minor whiplash many times before; I snowboard with much more enthusiasm than skill.”

With the new J Laverack frameset being made and the wheels being built, I’ve turned my attention to the weakest links in my setup. The current weakest – and by far the most important – is saddle choice. I’ve ridden almost all of my miles on a Fizik Arione, which comes as standard on many good bikes and is often seen on the seat posts of the professionals, though that may often be the result of a team sponsorship deal rather than the riders’ preference. When the bike arrived I knew no better and quickly got used to the saddle. It was only when I began spending more time in the drops or tucked onto the hoods that it began to feel awkward. Too much pressure on the perineum had me sitting slightly off-centre and I noticed my shorts were starting to wear unevenly. I can get away with this over shorter distances but even the tiniest niggles can quickly escalate into race-ending problems when you multiply things by 4,000(km).

“The tiniest niggles can quickly escalate into race-ending problems when you multiply things by 4,000(km)”

Tritone
Fizik Tritone

Once I’d committed to the TCR I knew I’d need to find a better saddle. It made sense to add aerobar extensions to the Canyon and start conditioning my body to that position as early as I could, but that wasn’t possible on the Fizik. Back in October I decided to call in some professional help and spent an hour with a fitter trying a dozen or more saddles on my bike, rigged up to a turbo trainer. We tried offerings from all the big saddle brands, including the ISM Adamo that’s often presented as the answer to problems like mine. Some were comfortable for upright riding and others were comfortable for riding in an aero position, but none felt right in all circumstances. Closest was a Fizik Tritone, a noseless saddle designed to get around UCI regulations and still allow riders to take an aggressive time trial position. I rode this 200 miles to Hull later that week and while the TT position was comfortable I still found it too sore to ride upright and my rump grumbled for a few days. I was still no closer to a solution.

ISM Adamo PL1-0

Priorities shifted to choosing and speccing the bike, as that would take some time to be made, and so I went back to my Arione saddle and just did short stints on the aerobars, carrying them around anyway to get used to the way they affect handling. As I recover from the crash and my distances slowly creep back up I’m soon going to be limited by not being able to use the aerobars, so it’s time to crack that saddle problem once and for all. Maybe I was too quick to write off the ISM Adamo, given how many people swear by it? Maybe a longer test is needed to really understand how it fits in the real world? I ordered myself a 2016 ISM Adamo PL1.0, specifically designed for hilly time trials where riders need to be in an aero tuck and still be able to sit up and climb comfortably. A short hour test on local roads gave me enough confidence to test it on a 100 mile ride from Rugby to London. A false sense of confidence, as it turns out.

“With my patience exhausted – and my arse cheeks glowing – it was time to have a proper saddle fit”

Open
Lots of beautiful details on this Open gnarmac bike.

With my patience exhausted – and my arse cheeks glowing – I booked the next available session with Jimmy at CycleFit London to have a proper saddle fit with pressure mapping and finally find a saddle that didn’t feel like a bag of spanners. I walked into the store early this morning and it’s a shrine to cycling porn. The bright orange Open caught my eye and apparently the eye of another TCR rider who’d been in for a fit. £2,250 for the frame alone though, it’s a bit punchy, as beautiful as it is. Step one of the fit session is a chat about what I’m doing, what I need from a saddle and where things have gone wrong so far. Then it’s time to park my posterior on a small gel-topped bench that illustrates my sit bone width. I’m simultaneously pleased and disappointed to hear that I have an unspectacularly normal butt at around 138mm saddle bone width.

Mapping Adamo
Using the pressure map to verify the discomfort I was experiencing with the Adamo.

Jimmy wrapped the pressure cover over the Adamo just to see what things looked like as a baseline. It was all kinds of terrible and it’s no wonder I was suffering. I may be being unfair and it could all be related to position on the saddle, but I never found anywhere that felt natural. He pulls out his go-to saddle for measurements like mine: Bontrager’s Montrose road saddle. Apparently developed from a MTB saddle after pro riders started using it over their issued road saddles. After the voodoo shapes I’d been riding the Montrose looked very very normal. He set the bike rig up to mirror the fit of my Canyon and threw the pressure cover onto the Montrose. Jimmy encouraged me to sit further back on the saddle. And then further back still. And then still further back. It was an alien feeling. Not uncomfortable but far from natural. I wonder if I need to retrain my brain after spending too long sat on the wrong spot on the wrong saddle? Watching the pressure map live on-screen the difference was obvious.

Rigging up
Replicating my current bike position on the test rig with laser-guided accuracy.

The aim of a good saddle fit is to have most of the weight borne by the sit-bones of the skeleton and to take as much pressure off the delicate soft tissue as possible. The red line on the mapping diagram below shows how stable the rider is or isn’t. The more horizontal the better, so the short 60° line on the original test (left: Adamo PL1.0 in TT position) is an extreme example. The map on the right shows the Bontrager Montrose from an upright position, with good stability, well-defined sit-bone contact and an even spread of light support around them.

Pressure Map
Dramatic improvement of weight distribution and sit-bone contact with the Bontrager saddle.

We tweaked a few measurements on the bike fit, with Jimmy offering some valuable and very timely opinions on component choices for my TCR bike. We also tried the time trial equivalent, the Hilo RXL, which has a little more padding. This might be useful if I do end up using thinner shorts. As time passed I was getting more familiar with the saddle and while it’ll still take some conscious effort to sit far enough back I was definitely in a whole new territory for comfort. Hopefully I’m still feeling the same after a 275km test on Sunday.

Montrose

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