A recent Yale study written about in Monday's New York Times studied 48 "consistent" women cycllists who cycled at least 10 miles each week. They concluded that handlebar positioning can be a big determinant in whether women cyclists experience numbing and tingling in the soft tissues around their vulvas.
Here's how New York TImes writer Anahad O'Connor described the study:
"The women took their personal bikes and saddles into the lab. The researchers mounted the bikes on a stationary machine, and had the riders position their seats and handlebars according to their preference. As the women pedaled, they reported whether they felt soreness, numbness or tingling as a result of sitting on the bike seat, and a device was used to measure sensation in the pelvic floor."
In cases where the women's' handlebars were positioned lower than the seat, more numbing and tingling were "observed" in their perineums (that all important area of the anatomy that women seldom think of unless pregnant and about to give birth, or if it is saddle sore). In fact, the study's authors conclude that handlebar heights lower than saddle heights "significantly impact" genital sensation in women.
In one sense, this study is useful for city cyclists, and most especially for bike store owners who want to correctly fit bikes to their female owners to ensure they are comfortable and avoid this loss of genital sensation.
Otherwise, it's more or less no cause for alarm, due to a number of factors. First, as the Yale researchers pointed out out, they were studying competitive women cyclists, as this handlebar study was actually a subanalysis of an earlier study the researchers did on bicycle seats and competitive women cyclists.
Secondly, though there aren't fast and hard statistics, fewer female city cyclists seem to use the drop-bar handlebars or road bike models.
Thirdly, though again there aren't any statistics, city cyclists tend to prefer higher handlebars and a more upright positioning.
And lastly, bike fit and the type of saddle a woman chooses can vastly help to alleviate perineum pressure.
Stephanie Edman, a bike fitter with Sweatpea Bicycles in Portland, Oregon, explained to me when I asked her about saddle fit that when cyclists sit on a saddle they are generally resting on their sit bones (ischial tuberosities) as well as on a bony structure called the pubic rami. Choosing a saddle that provides good support to this bony structure is important. Softer cushy saddles or gel saddles might seem like a good solution, but if a rider is pressing soft tissue into that soft saddle there's still a chance that the dreaded decrease in "genital sensation" might occur.
The Yale researchers who studied the saddle issue concluded that cut-out saddles are NOT a good option for women riders (though in this case they mean competitive women riders).
So what's a female city cyclist to do? Get fitted to your bike – that can be done either before you buy or after you already have a bike. Having to reach too far forward to grip the handlebars is one thing to watch out for when getting fit to your bike.
Make sure your saddle is wide enough to support your bone structure (which can actually be measured with a device known as the Ass-o-Meter), and also make sure that when riding the saddle doesn't press unduly into your soft spots. Saddle noses can be adjusted up or down to aid this issue - you may have to experiment with minute adjustments up or down. Brooks saddles are known for their ability to, over time, conform to your body shape. Noseless saddles have a lot less area available to press into.
Edman says that looking for bike shops that will let you test ride or even return saddles is one strategy to getting something that works.