While companies pushing drugs like Viagra and Cialis keep stalking their middle-aged male audiences with commercial after commercial on NFL Sunday—hawking little blue pills meant to evoke suggestive smiles and the dimming of lights—Dr. Craig Niederberger, professor of urology and engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago, aims to investigate and reverse links between erectile dysfunction and his own target audience: male bicyclists.
Once an avid cyclist himself, Niederberger, 51, is leading a study of the effects of bike seats on male pelvic blood flow that, down the line, will result in the engineering of what he hopes to be the least detrimental bike seat possible. In the study, now in its fifth year, researchers map the arteries of subjects in an ultrasound lab, measuring the force required to block blood supply to the genitals. (In case you didn't know, restricted blood supply, often caused by blood vessel or nerve damage, can lead to erectile dysfunction.) This "occlusion force" is then compared with the force each bike seat exerts during a series of rides.
Previous research on bike seats and erectile dysfunction has been based on "sketchy" data, Niederberger says. "The problems with the data collected was that it would measure pressure on just the seat. I know that if someone sits on the seat, they're going to exert force on the seat. How would that help us figure out if the seat is causing erectile dysfunction?"
So the team built a portable device that can be attached to the study participant. It's pretty DIY looking. The soon-to-be-patented technology is housed in a kind of minibackpack you might find on the back of a football tailgater. A twisted mess of multicolored wires protrudes from the bottom of the pack and connects to four thin, clear adhesive sensors—think Crest Whitestrips—applied to the subject's arteries. The backpack allows the study to move off the stationary bike and out of the lab, into a natural world that requires more balance and shifting of weight.
"Our studies are the only ones that I know of that measure force in typical bicycle riding as well as in the lab," Niederberger says. "We were able to take guys out on their own bikes with a variety of different seats."
Thus far, the study has had 16 volunteer subjects, most of them in their 30s and 40s. Six different seats have been tested—three with noses and three without. "You'd expect that just taking the nose away would solve the problem" because it's the nose that presses on the arteries, Niederberger says. "It turns out that works for some men, but for others it makes it worse."
Sujeeth Parthiban, a bioengineering PhD student who runs the research, explains why noseless isn't the answer. "People feel discomfort on the noseless seats and try to push back, which ends up with them sitting on the arteries. After those rides, we ask volunteers to rate noseless seats based on comfort level, and they are rated pretty poorly."
Niederberger advises bicyclists not to buy into the hype when a seat design is heralded for preventing blockage and improving blood flow. Bicyclists whose seats are comfortable should stick with their seats "until there are better seats out there actually based on data."
He uses Ralph Nader's trailblazing crusade for heightened automobile safety in the 60s as a guiding point for his 20 years of research. "Ralph Nader came along and made some key engineering observations. Now we have a way of developing specifications for safety during an automobile accident. In the bicycle seat world, we're still in the pre-Nader era."
As a regular cyclist, one who doesn't own a car and rides year-round, I'd be lying if I said I didn't wonder about damage "down there." I even switched my seat a couple years back, updating a clunky mid-80s vintage seat to a sleeker one that I thought was more practical.
Niederberger admits the ideal seat may not be offered at your neighborhood bike shop any time soon. "I hoped we would find an existing seat that was good for all men. So far we haven't found the Holy Grail of seats. I think we're just going to end up making one.
"We're engineers," he says. "We live for projects like these. It's what turns us on."
(Want to volunteer for the study? Call 312-996-9330.)