Rick Fidanzato has heard all the complaints from folks who walk into his bicycle shop: sore wrists, bad backs, and yes, even numb private parts.
"It all starts with the bicycle seat," Fidanzato explained. "Nearly every cycling ailment can be traced in one way or another back to that one piece of equipment."
Fidanzato runs two shops in St. Petersburg: ABC Bicycles on Central Avenue and the Trek Bicycle Store on Fourth Street. He and his staff serve every type of rider imaginable, from leisure cyclists on beach cruisers to hard-core, age-group triathletes on $5,000 road bikes. But they all have one thing in common — a derriere that needs to be pampered.
"The first thing you notice about a bicycle is the seat," he said. "I guess you could call it the foundation for fun. If it's not comfortable, you may not want the bike."
An ill-fitting bike seat can lead to more than a sore backside. For men, the pressure created by many traditional bike seats can lead to erectile problems, impotence and nerve damage, due to poor blood flow. Women can have their own bike seat issues as well, including vaginitis, bacterial infections and yeast infections.
But many of these medical problems can be avoided by simply buying a different bike seat.
Fifteen years ago, Steve Toll was like any other casual bike rider.
"I would hit the Pinellas Trail and ride until the pain became too much and then head home," he said. "I loved to bicycle but I just couldn't find a comfortable seat."
Then, one day at home, the proverbial lightbulb went off in Toll's head.
"I was sitting on the toilet," he explained. "I had been there quite some time when it suddenly occurred to me that the toilet seat didn't hurt."
A man with a mission — comfort — Toll spent the next several years tinkering with designs.
"The key to our seats is the split fork design," Toll said of his creation, the ISM (Ideal Saddle Modification) seat. "The gap keeps the pressure off the most sensitive areas of the body."
Toll's seats are not gender specific. They are fitted according to the space between the "sit bones" (Any reputable bike shop should have employees who can help you find the right fit).
Most traditional bike seats place too much of the rider's weight on the perineal area, the soft tissue between the sit bones. Since ISM saddles have no nose, most of the rider's body weight is supported by the sit bones.
When the prototype ISM Saddle first hit the cycling scene 10 years ago, triathletes took notice.
"Most serious triathletes have to spend a lot of time on the bike if they want to be competitive," Toll said. "So having a comfortable seat can really increase the length of a training session."
In the years that followed, the unconventional saddle was embraced by athletes of all levels, including casual weekend warriors and seasoned competitors. Athletes using ISM saddles have since chalked up an impressive 11 Ironman wins and two Olympic silver medals.
The Tampa company recently hired Australian Michellie Jones, an icon in the triathlon community, to work with other world-class athletes on the ISM Saddles program, including U.S. Olympians Laura Bennett, Sarah Haskins and Andy Potts.
The ISM saddles are expensive — from $130 to $200 — but as Toll likes to say, "How much are you willing to pay for comfort."
The right fit
But you can buy the most expensive saddle and still have a bruised backside.
"It is all about the fit," Fidanzato said. "Go to your local bike shop and make sure that you have good riding posture and your seat is adjusted properly."
The ISM Saddle is just one of many high-quality replacement bicycle seats on the market. Other brands to look for include Bontrager, Serfas, Selle Italia and Brooks. Prices start at $50 and go up to $500.
Fidanzato said to ask about the store's return policy. "We have a 90-day ride and decide policy," he said. "If you don't like the way it feels after riding for a couple of weeks, just bring it back.
"Look for a store that will stand behind its product and not just try to keep selling you seats."
And when it comes to bike seats, bigger isn't always necessarily better. A bike seat can have too much padding; a seat that is too soft can be just as painful as one that is too hard.
Terry Tomalin, the Times' outdoors/fitness editor, can be reached at email@example.com.