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How do you tell a gold medal winning cyclist she needs to stop getting bikini waxes? “It was a tricky one to broach, ” admits Phil Burt, British Cycling’s long-time physiotherapist. “But we knew that we had to try to persuade the girls to stop shaving and waxing if we were going to sort out the saddle pain we knew all of them were suffering with. At one point we were saying: ‘Should we be buying the girls beard-trimmers?’”
The realisation that the modern obsession with intimate hair removal was almost certainly exacerbating saddle problems among the world’s most successful female cyclists was just one discovery in British Cycling’s latest quest to be the best.
After London 2012, when Team GB won seven of the nine gold medals available in the velodrome, some wondered how the squad could improve further. A 10-year obsession with marginal gains – incremental improvements brought about by tiny tweaks that added up to serious competitive gains – appeared to have left few stones unturned. The squad already had the best bikes, the best kit, the most aerodynamic helmets. So what next?
Halfway through the following Olympic cycle, Burt, along with the team doctor, Richard Freeman, came across their next marginal gain: solving women’s saddle pain.
An increasing number of female riders, professional and amateur, were resorting to surgery to correct vulval disfigurement. It was well known that one other national squad was regularly prescribing its riders Emla cream, a local anaesthetic, to soothe chronic pain.
Plus Victoria Pendleton had struggled so much to find the right saddle in the run-up to 2012 that British Cycling’s so-called “secret squirrel club” of techies designed her a bespoke model, made out of the same silicone used in breast implants.
Together with colleagues, Burt did a survey. It was completed by 18 of the female riders and one man (“Men suffer just as much with this stuff but they just won’t admit it, ” reckons Burt). All of the women said that saddle problems were affecting not just their training but their competition. They’d been suffering in silence. “With a male doctor, physio and predominately male coaching staff, they didn’t feel comfortable in mentioning it. It was clear something had to be done, ” said Burt in the run-up to Rio.