A Paralympic cyclist who represented Great Britain at Rio 2016 has spoken of the pain she has endured for five years due to swelling of the vulva, and is calling on saddle manufacturers to urgently research better products for women.
Hannah Dines, originally from Glasgow, started racing in the T2 trike classification in late 2013 and within two years was winning World Cup medals. Fifth in both the time trial and road race at Rio, she is currently ranked fourth in the world.
But in a candid article published in Guardian Women , she spoke of the pain and swelling she has endured to pursue her cycling dreams and which, after five years, has led to her undergoing surgery to alleviate the problem.
“While there is no love lost between me and the necessary evil that is my saddle, I have continued to train, despite huge amounts of destruction to my body, pain and trauma,” she wrote.
With her UK Sport funding ceasing after Rio, the postgraduate student admits that it is a financial struggle to carry on competing with the goal of riding at Tokyo next year, only possible thanks to the backing of her team, Storey Racing, plus money raised through crowdfunding, grants and other sources.
“Mostly, my race costs are covered, but I struggle to pay my rent,” she confessed. “Cycling is my labour of love – I just didn’t realise what a literal pain in the ass and more it would turn out to be.”
She wrote about some of the problems that women face in seeking treatment: “Your regular general practitioner will be flummoxed by any chronic saddle complaint. On top of that, evidence-based healthcare needs research to work properly and there is none.
“There is nowhere for individuals to go and nobody has ever systematically and scientifically documented the problems women on the saddle can face, at least in a form that medical practitioners can access, though a quick online search brings up too many unhappy stories to count.
"Finally, in November, I found Phil Burt, the former head of physiotherapy at British Cycling, who runs the world’s first multidisciplinary saddle health clinic in Manchester,” Dines continued.
“He said my swelling was too bad for his preventive methods in which riders sit on a pressure-mapping saddle to visualise problem areas as they pedal. My only option was surgery.”
She wrote in graphic detail of when she first became aware of the swelling, in 2014, and of her reluctance to raise the issue with British Cycling, saying that “The message [from within the organisation] was: show weakness and you’re out.
“While valuable parts of the male genitalia can be moved out of the way, female cyclists sit right on the money,” she noted.
Dines said that by 2018, she “could no longer” ignore the swelling on one side of her vulva, which had become a lump that had “got quite hard and was, literally, massive.”
Her surgery was performed by a vulval cancer specialist, with the paracyclist observing that “When a doctor sees another woman like me, ‘cancer’ will often be their first thought as that can be the cause of vulval swelling.
“If there were studies into the vulva and its lipoma-formation-defence against constant and unremitting pressure from the saddle, maybe this wouldn’t happen. But there has never been a study – only articles like this and experiences like mine,” she said.
The Guardian article contains advice to female cyclists about issues such as saddle choice, and what Dines, who expresses regret that she didn’t seek help for the condition sooner, terms “a hierarchy of injury from the easiest to alleviate to the direst of consequences.”
She also urged women to “Learn to be open about pain and swelling, too. Silence, secrecy and shame only exacerbates the problem.”
Acknowledging that, “Of course, men get horrendous saddle sores too,” she added: “But when bike helmets are marketed by the Germany transport ministry using a model in her underwear with the slogan ‘Looks like shit. But saves my life’, instead of maybe using one of the country’s host of Olympic champion bike sprinters; or the fact that women are still excluded from the Tour de France, there is a feeling that female bike racing is not taken as seriously. This has a huge impact on health and research.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.