Sunday, June 08, 2008

Ah, 'tis spring and.....ew – what's that smell?

(It's been a stressful week, and for some odd reason, I've been dwelling on saddle sores. Don't ask.)

I find minor amusement in the fashionista approach to cycling. There's a segment of the bicycling population that decries the use of Lycra and purpose-built cycling clothing, preferring more 'normal' clothes for everyday riding. That may work well in a colder climate or for the occasional cyclist, but someone who rides everyday in all sorts of weather needs to use the proper clothing. It's the difference between a spin around the block and a long-term commitment. I intend to be riding tomorrow, next week, next month, and through the winter if my knee holds out.

Fair warning – I'm writing about body odor, saddle sores, and foot fungus today. This is a brief introduction to these subjects. I've provided some links to more detailed information.

Hygiene is important in prevention and cycling clothing has a role to play. If you're a devotee of “Copenhagen-style” cycling dreck, where short distance bicycling is a substitute for walking, the following does not apply. But in most American cities, cycling distances are longer, leading to more problems with sweat management. Here in Oklahoma, where temperatures are already into the 90+ range ( 32+ C) most days, even a modest distance of 2 or 3 miles will leave you sweat soaked. The idea of sitting around at work in fashionable-but-sweaty clothing as it slowly dries just strikes me as icky. There's probably a more technical term, but icky will do.

Body Odor

By itself, sweat has little odor. It provides an excellent growth medium for bacteria, however, and it's the growth of those organisms that produces body odor. Cycling clothes help to reduce their growth of by wicking moisture away from the skin more rapidly than most natural fibers. Wool is the exception, which explains its popularity in the pre-Lycra days. So one commuting strategy is to ride to work and remove your cycling clothes on arrival. While it doesn't entirely stop bacterial growth, it does help to slow the little buggers down. In the absence of a shower, a couple of baby wipes will remove or kill the bacteria.

Body odor won't keep you off the bike, though for some it's a real enough concern to be an obstacle to bicycle commuting. Saddle sores, on the other hand, can put you off the bike and into a chair (gingerly) for days or even weeks. I mention body odor because sweat produces it, and because sweat and the resulting bacterial or fungal growth has a large role in producing saddle sores.


The simplest type of saddle sore is an abrasion. These injuries result from friction often caused by seams in clothing. Cut-off jeans are especially notorious for this. Even cycling shorts can cause an abrasion if they have a fold or crease. Treatment is fairly easy. Clean the affected area and dry it thoroughly. Then apply a topical anti-bacterial ointment. It's usually best to do this before bed as there's no way to cover it with a bandage. If you plan to ride in the morning, add more ointment. This does two things: it kills bacteria and it reduces friction. Be sure your shorts fit properly. You may have to try various types to find the ones most suitable for your anatomy.

Since an abrasion removes the tough upper skin layers, it exposes skin cells that more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections. Always treat an abrasion in order to prevent something worse.

Fungal infections

Often called jock itch, fungal infections are definitely worse. In the beginning, they feel like an abrasion but they don't respond to anti-bacterials and they grow steadily worse. And they do grow! They appear to be abrasions that never heal because the infection eats new skin just as fast as it grows. The area will be tender and very moist. These are the same fungi that cause athlete's foot, but the crotch gives them much more area to occupy. They like warm, dark, humid conditions. These fungi cause a distinctive odor. Let's be realistic and call it a stench. It's unmistakable. They do not respond to soap and water, actually preferring an alkaline environment. So it's important to remove every trace of soap. Oh, and don't think you can make the skin acidic with, say, vinegar and kill the little buggers. You'll howl and dance in the shower as your eyes pop out of your head. Guess how I know this.

Treat these infections with an anti-fungal like Lamasil. Tinactin, or Micatin. If you continue riding, re-apply the ointment several times each day. It may take weeks to fully heal. Since these fungi are often transmitted from feet to crotch by washing, wash your feet last. If you shower in a locker room, use flip flops to minimize your contact with the floor.

Also, it's a very good practice to apply an anti-fungal at the first sign of an infection, when the itch or burning starts. Keep using it for at least 10 days per the instructions.


Zits form when bacteria penetrate the skin, most often through a hair follicle or a pore. They take time to fester into the normal, painful saddle sore, typically growing over the course of a few days or even a week, before becoming the familiar skin eruption. They can be painful far out of proportion to their size.

Road Bike Rider offers extensive tips on treating saddle sores while continuing to ride. They recommend that your saddle fits well and is properly adjusted. If you rock back and forth, you're providing a saw-like action. The fit of your shorts is important too. Their recommendations are excellent and I won't duplicate them here, so follow the link if you need more information. I'm taken with the idea of using a foam donut originally intended for corns or calluses on the feet as a way to reduce pressure on a saddle sore. But then too, I'm not looking forward to trying it.

Medicate. To help heal pimple-like saddle sores, check the skin-care section of a pharmacy for an acne lotion containing 10% benzoyl peroxide. Even better, ask your physician about a prescription for a topical antibiotic called erythromycin (brand name Emgel). We used Emgel during the 1993 Northern PAC Tour covering 3,400 miles in 24 days and completed the ride without a single saddle sore. Dab it on any “hot spots” right after washing.”

As with all the above, prevention is the best remedy. Wash your shorts regularly. Remove them promptly after a ride, and if you use them for commuting, try to allow them to dry before the ride home. Keep your skin dry when off the bike by using talc or some other form of drying powder. I used plain corn starch for years until my skin began reacting badly to it. You can adapt the same approach for riding. If it's a short distance, use talc to stay dry. For longer distances or in hot, humid weather, apply some ointment like Bag Balm before the ride. Some riders will apply a liberal coating of petroleum jelly to the inside of their shorts. I did this a long time ago for a couple of century rides. It really does work, but there's that icky factor to contend with when you pull them on in the morning.


Cysts, abscesses, or boils can occur when a pore or hair follicle becomes plugged and infected. Typically, they feel like a small, hard mass just under the skin surface. White blood cells attack them. They swell up, form a 'white head' and drain eventually. Sometimes, due to their size or position, they have to be drained by a physician. Boils may drain into the blood and this can be a life-threatening condition. They are very contagious, so if one erupts, it's critical to clean the affected area and apply an anti-bacterial. Some cases may require treatment with prescription antibiotics.

Other resources:

No animals were killed, maimed, beaten, sodomized, subjected to ridicule, or eaten in the production of this post, but it's still early.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger welshcyclist said...

Thanks for the info, I'm sad to say I've had some experience of a couple of these problems, as a regular commuter, with no shower facilities at work. The best advice of all to follow, is to wash, both before and after the ride. Strangely, and I'd like others to comment on this, I've found washing with a flannel, and just hot water, with no use of soap, works best for me. So on arrival at work, I pop to the gents, and have, what I call, a "hot flannel down". As I said it works for me.

5:29 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home