Friday, February 13, 2009

Spongy Wonder, and other stories...

Wow, when I look back at my recent blog entries, it's a weird combination of sensible things and extremist things. I call on people to be reasonable, and in the next sentence I talk about how awful some group of people is, or call our former president a robot. Sigh.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Ever since a bit before I broke my wrist, I've been getting worse and worse at getting exercise. While my father goes out and walks three miles a day a few months after having a triple bypass, I just lie around all day hacking or reading the news or debating with people. So a couple of weeks ago I decided to do something about that, and what I decided to do was to start bicycling again. Bicycling is the one form of exercise that's been with me since I was quite young, and at which I have ever been able to be consistent.

So I started riding. Problems arose. The two first things that come up when bicycling in Arizona is that the air is extremely dry, and the sun is brutal, even in the winter. Not only do I despise sunblock, but it takes a while to put on, and longer to get off when you're done. I'm a strong sniffer, and so the smell of it drives me nuts. This has kept me from riding in Arizona for a long time. Fortunately Andrea came up with an answer - I'd been thinking of using a balaclava, but she came up with a sort of lycra tube that's been doing a good job. It's called a Buff, and it protects my face against sun better than a bandanna, while still being breathable. It's also quite stylish:

Anyway, this worked surprisingly well - not only does it protect my face from the sun, but it turns out that if I breathe through my mouth (which Lisa-ji probably would not recommend) my breath condenses on the Buff on the way out, and then evaporates into the air I inhale, so that my throat doesn't get so dry. It's a remarkably strong effect - if I take the Buff off, my throat starts to dry out almost immediately.

So with that obstacle gone, I started riding a lot. Ten miles a day was no problem, and I did a nice ride up to La Encantada one day that was about twenty miles. These are not long rides by bicyclist standards, but if you do them every day they start to add up. This is when the next problem began: the bicycle seat.

I have a really nice racing bike - not a high-end one, but it was near the top of the line the year I bought it, and it's a Lemond, which was a pretty spiffy brand at the time. It's about fifteen years old now, but still a really nice bike. The trouble with racing bikes is that they're compromised for a riding position that pretty much assumes you are a bicycle racer. That is to say, you push hard the whole ride. You really aren't expected to put much weight on the seat.

So here I am, just starting out, putting way too much weight on the seat. And I don't really expect that to change - I'm looking for a nice hour-long workout, not a speed race. Even as I get into better shape, racing in the hot Arizona sun doesn't seem like a bright idea. I know what heat exhaustion feels like, and I'm happy to avoid it at all costs.

So I decided to try a new seat. I've been meaning to try one of these for a long time - not necessarily the particular one that I bought, but certainly something like it. The seat I decided to try is called the Spongy Wonder. The idea with this seat is that you are supposed to sit on it with your sitz bones, so the fact that you are putting a lot of weight on your bicycle seat won't matter - your sitz bones can take it. The seat looks like this:

I've taken it out twice so far, so it's too soon to tell how it's going to work out, but it's been an interesting experience already. Some people who try seats like this complain about it because they feel out of control when they ride with it. This is because they are accustomed to using the horn of the saddle as a lever to oppose the out-of-balance pedaling force they are applying. Without the horn of the saddle, you have two choices - you can balance out the forces with your hands, which exerts a twisting expansive force on your spine, or you can rotate your hips to remain in balance as you pedal. It's not clear to me that the ergonomics of either of these solutions is very good, but the point is that I actually haven't felt at all out of control with this saddle - even on the first ride, my main concerns were with the ergonomics of the thing, not with remaining in control.

I've already done quite a bit of adjusting. It feels like the saddle needs to lean forward a little farther than I can make it lean with the saddle post mount that I currently have. The first time I rode on it most of my weight was actually on my gluteus maximus muscles, not on my sitz bones. In order to correct this, I needed to lower the seat. I rode about six or seven miles today with the lowered seat, and while I think I was still hitting my glutes, it wasn't very noticeable - the sitting aspect of the seat felt fine.

This brings us to the next adjustment problem, though. When you are riding a bicycle, your body touches the bike in three places: the handlebars, the pedal, and the seat. With a traditional racing bike seat, a certain amount of your weight presses down on the saddle horn. If you're a strong racer, this isn't enough to do any harm, but for the average rider, it's certainly uncomfortable, and there's a growing consensus that it's actually harmful to the nerves that run through your perineum. In any case, the amount of weight that's pressing down, for the average rider, is substantial.

So the problem is that if you take this weight off, it has to go somewhere else. In my ride today, it went to the handlebars. This is a problem because the wrists are no less delicate than the perineum. A solution that transfers weight from the perineum to the wrists isn't much help. I raised the bars as high as they would go before my ride today, because this is what the manufacturer recommends, but it didn't really help, and I'm not convinced it's even the right idea. Depending on how far forward you bend, there's a point where you have to support your weight, and there's a point where your musculature starts to resist further bending, and thus begins to take on the weight of your torso, transferring it back to the seat and the pedals.

So my latest adjustment has been to actually *lower* the handlebars as far as they will go, to see how this affects the weight distribution. A brief ride this evening suggested to me that it does work, but it's a more extreme riding position, and so I'm not convinced it's going to actually be comfortable on a long ride. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.


Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Psst. Recumbent.

I've never had one. But I would.

Friday, February 13, 2009 5:27:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I know about recumbents. The ergonomics on those are even more questionable. The problem with recumbents is that on an upright bike, your legs and arms act as shock absorbers, protecting your spine. On a recumbent, you have no such protection.

If you don't ride much, or far, it's not a problem, but if you want to ride a hundred or two miles a week, it is a problem. You can put in shocks (e.g., a seat with shocks), but the point is that recumbents come with their own set of problems.

I don't mean to be a naysayer - I think that the modern safety bicycle design could be really substantially improved. When I was in my twenties I had the privilege of riding a Velocipede, which was a *really* radical redesign of the standard bicycle, by a guy (or a team, I don't remember) at MIT. Three wheels, rear-wheel steering, push-to-pedal. I believe it set a human-powered land speed record.

Unfortunately, it was a little too low to the ground to be safely used in traffic, but man was that a cool piece of machinery.

Friday, February 13, 2009 6:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jym said...

=v= I haven't seen this consensus of studies that you mention. Every one that's popped up on my screen could be traced back to Irwin Goldstein, who did the original (and very flawed) saddle = impotence study.

Certainly it's good to avoid putting weight on tender bits, so for years I've used Terry saddles, which are built with the sitz bones in mind and have a narrow channel down the middle to avoid putting pressure on the perineum.

I've always tilted my saddle forward to make room for other parts that I don't want to put pressure on. It seems to work just fine.

Friday, February 13, 2009 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Patricia Lemon said...

In this photograph, you don't look polka-dotted (as you did in the Facebook thumbnail), and I'm glad you're getting some exercise.
I do wonder, however, if you have lost your taste for rollerblading, which has none of these particular problems--or is it not do-able in AZ.

Friday, February 13, 2009 7:29:00 PM  
Blogger lil said...

Any updates on the seat? I was considering purchasing one myself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 9:19:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I gave up on the seat - it wasn't the right answer for me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 7:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've used the Spongy Wonder pretty successfully on a "comfort" bike since March of this year. It has allowed me to ride a bike with an ongoing tailbone problem. It took me very little tweaking to get it in an optimal position. I've always had wrist issues no matter what kind of bike I've used. Sorry, it didn't work as well for you. It was a blessing for me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009 3:54:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

That's good to know. I figured it must work for some people. What kind of bike do you ride, a cruiser?

Thursday, September 24, 2009 5:18:00 AM  
Blogger TJ Fly said...

Still have the spongy wonder seat? Want to part with it?

Sunday, June 19, 2011 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Nope, freecycled it when we left Tucson.

Monday, June 20, 2011 7:24:00 AM  

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