"Men should never ride bicycles,” said an American urologist in 1997, leading to a worldwide erectile dysfunction scare. Now, cycling is being touted as being damaging to female genitalia. An article in this week’s British Medical Journal reports that women racers can develop ‘bicyclist's vulva’

Saddles in the line of fire again

Medical attacks on cycling are as old as cycling. Pressure on the genitalia – especially the female genitalia – was seen as suspect in the late 19th century. Leading doctors called for bans on women cycling. Such calls went unheeded and the bicycle was a key tool of women’s emancipation giving them new freedom and mobility. And despite the claims that riding on bike saddles would lead to impotence, the world population did not suffer.

And today, despite the fact 90 percent of the Chinese population old enough to ride bikes do so, there are few complaints that China is suffering from a lack of babies due to urological problems brought on by bicycling.

However, every few years the old canards are resurrected. In 1997 Boston University urologist Dr Irwin Goldstein claimed – in Bicycling magazine of the US – that cycling lead to erectile dysfunction. He wasn’t a fan of cycling.

"Men should never ride bicycles,” he said.

“Riding should be banned and outlawed. It’s the most irrational form of exercise I could ever bring to discussion."

Despite the fact Goldstein’s findings were never been reviewed and assessed by his peers, published in an academic journal or tested and replicated by other researchers, his views were published worldwide in a wide variety of media. ‘Comfort’ saddles with ‘softspots’ and strategic cut-outs were the bike trade’s answer to the criticisms and the worry.

This week’s article in the BMJ at least points out that the undercarriage problems are in long-distance athletes, not recreational cyclists, but it doesn’t take much for the mainstream media to take a serious article and make it into a short scare-story.

The BMJ article is by doctors based at the Sports Gynaecology Unit of Brugmann University Hospital in Brussels. Luc Baeyens, professor and head of the department of gynaecology, Elke Vermeersch, resident in gynaecology and obstetrics, Pierre Bourgeois, head of nuclear medicine, reported that a small sample group of competition cyclists had labial swellings and lymphatic disease after regularly cycling an average of 462.5 km per week.

Unlike Goldstein, the Belgian doctors don’t advocate the end of cycling as we know it nor do they say high level competitive cycling is a unsuitable activity for women.

And in an accompanying comment piece in the doctor’s magazine, Mary Ann Elston, a lecturer at the University of London, states that “for most of us, the risk of serious harm from contact between body and bike is…insignificant.”

The health benefits of cycling always outweigh negatives such as cross-bar injury or being squished by an artic.

And cycling has always had important social benefits too.

At the end of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), one of the leading lights in the American women’s rights movement, said cycling was a positive force:

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."


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