Phil Burt has worked at the very top level of elite cycling, spending twelve years as Head Physiotherapist for British Cycling and seven years with Team Sky. He has worked at three Olympic Games and seven Tour de France. In 2018 he switched his attentions away from exclusively elite performance to set up Phil Burt Innovation, offering bike fitting and saddle health consultancy for riders of all abilities to transform their cycling.

“In my time with British Cycling and Team Sky I was involved in lots of the ‘secret squirrel’ projects designed to improve elite level performance. I’ve been on the journey of winning medals but I now want to help the ordinary cyclist achieve their goals; whether that is win races, be more comfortable on their bike, enjoy cycling more or simply get fitter. What I realised working at elite level is that it all comes down to the relationship between a human and their bike.”

As part of his mission to bring cycling comfort to the masses Burt approached Endura with his ideas, “Jim McFarlane is a visionary guy. When Endura started to produce different width pads in their shorts, this was unheard of. Being able to work with someone already willing to think about pad design in a totally new way is very exciting.”

From this partnership between Phil Burt and Endura, the concept of Ergonomistry was born. Ergonomistry has comfort at the heart of everything, it is innovation backed by medical science to allow you to ride harder and longer. “With this project we have brought together world class experts from material sciences, different sports and most significantly the medical world including Southampton University’s skin health team, who have immense knowledge of skin health. We have tackled the issues of saddle injuries from every angle”

“One of the challenges when talking about comfort, especially to cyclists, is that it sounds a bit ‘soft’, like sitting in an armchair. Cycling has a culture of suffering and whilst it is true that training hard and pushing yourself on the bike is part of adapting and getting stronger it doesn’t mean that all ‘hurting’ is good. I’ve frequently heard the attitude that you just have to put up with stuff, but that’s not really going to help you develop as a cyclist.”

Disproportionate number of women have saddle sores

“In my time at British Cycling I was involved in a lot of projects to decrease injury, as part of this I discovered that women had a disproportionate number of saddle injuries compared with men. I also realised that women weren’t being served as well as men by the equipment available to them. At British Cycling we could go anywhere and get anything – and we still couldn’t find anything to solve the problem!” For many female cyclists this is not news – but it takes an innovator like Phil Burt and a progressive company like Endura to address the issue.

Comfort is often, wrongly, separated from performance. “In my time at British Cycling we went to the UCI to change the rules on having a nose-down saddle position as for some women this was the only way they could ride. If you are thinking of your saddle pain you can’t focus on your training or race performance. If saddle injuries are preventing you from training back to back days you can’t develop to your full potential as a rider. A lot of people adopt a riding posture that is suboptimal to alleviate saddle pressure – pushing back in the saddle or sitting in a more upright position. Good shorts allow you to sit where you want to sit and achieve the position that allows you to perform to your best.”

Breaking down taboos

If you gather a group of female cyclists together, as Endura did with their test panel, the subject of saddle sores might come up, but few people want to reveal the intimate details. “In my clinics and with the test panel we have been able to find out more about the problems women riders face by breaking down the taboos and talking openly. A lot of women come to me for bike-fit because of saddle sores, but many more suffer in silence. It can be really hard and distressing to talk about saddle sores and their causes. We don’t know how many women give up cycling and are lost from the sport. The ones we know about are the tip of the iceberg.”

“Women don’t know what other women look like down below and women don’t always realise how many different presentations there are. It’s not easy to talk about, not easy to see.” One of the least discussed issues is the huge variation in the way genitalia presents, “if you talk to gynaecologists and bikini waxers, as we did as part of this research, you learn that women have massively different soft tissue presentations, far more variation than there is for men. What works for one woman, is unlikely to work for another. It is hard and expensive to make saddles and there would need to be many different variations to cater for every woman. A more practical solution is to protect the skin from the pressure of the saddle.”

What causes saddle sores and injuries?

“Saddle sores are caused by four specific things; heat, water, pressure and friction, which is why we have developed a complete system to approach the problem. The new short pad with medical grade silicone elastomer prevents pressure, it sits within a foam pad that wicks sweat and aids breathability. To reduce friction, we have developed a pad cream, plus a wash to remove it after your ride and a post-shower moisturiser to maintain skin health.”

(Endura Ride Skincare will be launched later this year).

Skin-sores are a huge problem for immobile patients in hospital, once the skin breaks down infection can get in, which can lead to more serious illness. “The medical world has invested a huge amount in dealing with the issues of sores caused by the breakdown of skin. We are transferring that knowledge into cycling pad. We are using medical grade silicone, designed to absorb pressure. With medical grade silicone the pad doesn’t ‘bottom out’, however hard you push on the saddle the pressure will be dispersed.”

Positioning of the gel in the short is key, “gel at the back supports the sit-bones but we know women have problems further forwards. Because of a woman’s mechanical structure, the hips tend to rotate slightly forwards transferring weight on to the soft tissues at the front, so we have put more gel in this area. Gel doesn’t wick away sweat and foam doesn’t fully protect against pressure so you need both. To house the gel and foam together Endura have employed a chamfered edge so you can’t feel where the gel begins or ends.”

The pad is the heart of the short design but only part of the story. “The short itself is really important, the pad needs to be positioned and held in the right place throughout your ride. In the past there have been over-engineered solutions for going to the toilet, or how to position straps over breasts, but with this design we have kept it simple. Throughout the process we checked every detail with our team of female product testers to ensure legs are the right length, grippers stay in place and that whilst you can easily wee without taking off your jersey it’s secure and doesn’t impact the fit of the shorts.”

Layers of protection

There are multiple layers between rider and bike, each layer has a part to play in comfort and protection; saddle, shorts, pad, cream and then skin. “Protecting your skin is critical, a cream should be a barrier to not let water in or out. If you talk to skin experts they say the best barrier is Vaseline – petroleum oil jelly – it’s resistant to letting water in or out, so a good barrier. So, our pad cream has similar natural oils to Vaseline to protect your skin. The problem is Vaseline is the last thing you want on your skin when you finish cycling! You have to get it off in order to allow the skin to breath and recover and that is often hard without stripping the skin of other vital oils. We have tackled this with a three-part system of pad cream, wash and moisturiser, all backed up by science. A lot of saddle-sore issues are chronic so we need to manage the skin and improve its function. If we can make the skin healthier it won’t breakdown as easily.”

Rider centred design approach

“What we have created is a women’s short, designed by women. We had a female designer and a female test panel; the panel’s feedback has guided the design at every stage. We have made well over 250 pads to establish what was making the difference to rider comfort. I can’t stress enough how important the test group has been for this. Cycling is so equipment heavy we can get obsessed with objective measurements and forget the importance of subjective feedback. We shouldn’t dismiss comfort – if you feel comfortable then everything is in the right place for you to perform.”

“It’s been a two-year process because we have been using a brand-new substance in a pad. It has been massively time consuming and expensive but worth the investment, especially when you hear from the testers that it is the best short they have ridden in. But we are not arrogant enough to think this is the end of the process, we want to continually evolve the short and look forward to feedback from riders once the short is available to purchase.”

An end to the search

“Women are looking for the answers to saddle sores – and spending a lot of money on experimenting with different solutions. With this it’s a complete package; a completely innovative pad pad, cream, wash and moisturiser. A totally holistic system designed to work together.”

Let’s forget the old belief that suffering, especially with saddle-sores, is something to be glorified or ignored. Whether you are looking to win races, ride further than you have before or simply enjoy your cycling without saddle pain or injury, shorts can transform your experience.

FOOTNOTES Words by Hannah Reynolds, Photos by Falk Meier & Eilidh McKibbin.Manchester, UK

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