Why you need... Chamois Cream
Back in the day, there was – the raw beef steak. Tradition – or legend - has it that bike racers of the Heroic Era, which roughly preceded the first world war, would place a thin slice of fillet steak inside their baggy woollen shorts in order to cushion the vibrations and friction generated by riding over rough, dusty roads. It has also been claimed that the steak would be cooked and eaten at the end of a race, presumably because it would be wasteful to throw it away.
Such succulent extravagance inevitably gave way to the greater economy offered by stitching a suitably saddle-shaped piece of thin, supple chamois leather to the inside of fitted shorts to provide a soft surface in contact with the delicate skin of the cyclist’s perineum. Why the later solution is desirable is not hard to discover; on any ride of more than moderate duration, leg wear not made for cycling becomes both uncomfortable and unhygienic.
The problem of discomfort is the more pressing; on a ride of as little as an hour, the presence of stitched seams can create intolerable pressure points while loose fabric will rub against the skin, causing chafing and soreness. Cycling shorts address both issues, the first through the provision of an insert that covers and smoothes out any seams and the second by fitting snugly against the skin. The close fit of correctly-sized cycling shorts also ensures that the chamois insert is kept firmly pressed against the skin to prevent relative movement, which should be between shorts and saddle covering, not between the shorts and the skin.
This close, intimate fit between perineum and chamois in turn creates its own problem as perspiration from the skin dampens the insert and creates a moist, warm environment in which potentially harmful bacteria can thrive. The regular, thorough washing required to keep bacterial and fungal growth at bay quickly degrades genuine chamois leather, removing the natural oils that keep it soft and supple, and the only way to obtain good service from old-style shorts with such a chamois is to apply a softening cream post-wash to prevent the drying and hardening that will otherwise inevitably occur.
With the advent of the synthetic chamois insert at the end of the 1970s, this major drawback of chamois leather ceased to matter and cyclists found themselves freed from the onerous but obligatory task of chamois maintenance; one that, if neglected, might lead to saddle sores and, in the worst cases, a season-ending abscess. While the convenience of the new type of insert rapidly consigned the genuine chamois to obsolescence, it somehow failed to do away with the ritual practice involving the application of cream that went with it.
There are those who maintain that ‘chamois’ or shammy cream is an unnecessary adjunct to the modern synthetic cycling shorts insert, which in all but the most low-cost examples is manufactured with some sort of anti-microbial treatment that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Indeed, many of the most technically-advanced current inserts incorporate, along with an anti-microbial treatment, variable density foam padding and special fibres that speed the transport of moisture. The resulting layered pad surely renders the application of chamois cream superfluous – or does it?
The answer surely depends on many factors including the distance shorts are likely to be ridden, the relative tendency to perspire of the rider and the possibility – likelihood, even, when commuting – that shorts may be used, removed and used again before being washed. On brief rides of up to a couple of hours, shorts may not be worn for long enough for discomfort to be a problem when used with a saddle suited to the rider and correctly set up.
Even so, many enthusiasts prefer to apply chamois cream on shorter rides for the simple reason that it enhances riding comfort by reducing still further any friction that might arise between the skin and the insert. Many chamois creams also contain a cooling or astringent component that produces a pleasant sensation on contact with the skin; the effect varies between brands and suits some users better than others.
On longer outings, the enhanced comfort provided by chamois cream can make the difference between a painful and a pleasurable experience and every long-distance cyclist should try using it on at least one extended ride before dismissing the stuff as a mere luxury. The almost complete lack of skin friction encountered when riding with a liberally-coated insert is especially welcome after several hours in the saddle, when any suspicion of chafing comes on top of the discomfort of deepening muscle fatigue.
The anti-microbial properties of chamois cream are arguably of minor importance on a one-off ride of whatever duration short of a 600km audax, since there is not enough time for the micro-organisms to thrive to a problematic level. The exception might be a long ride on a hot day, when a greater rate of perspiration can combine with warmer temperatures to promote rapid microbial growth. In any case, however, the use of an agent such as chamois cream that inhibits microbial activity usefully reduces the risk of skin infection and its associated problems of sores and rashes. For the everyday cyclist, this is of no small importance, as bacterial infection of, say, a hair follicle can progress to a painful lesion. Irrespective of the microbe-inhibiting properties of the insert, those of any cream applied are worth having.
It may be inferred that the use of chamois cream is optional and a luxury. The latter it is not. Serious cyclists recognize that it is a vital part of a structured cycling routine, since it prevents or minimizes the possibility of an injury that can mean having to take time off the bike, which in turn affects training and associated competitive or sporting activities. Professional racers will use chamois cream even when riding on an indoor trainer, which might appear to be the one time that it is not needed. Instead, turbo-training means sitting in the saddle for extended periods while perspiring freely and often involves pedalling at high cadences; just the conditions in which a top-quality chamois cream is most needed.
There are, of course, creams and creams… Alongside products formulated for the purpose sit more general-purpose, er, spreads that can be put to the same use. Typical examples include antiseptic creams and ointments formulated for first aid use such as Savlon and Sudocrem, both of which are popular with cyclists keen to avoid paying the premium price associated with chamois cream proper. Sudocrem in particular is a favourite of long-distance audax riders, perhaps because it is exceptionally long-lasting. It is also a very effective antiseptic. Its main drawback as a chamois cream is its tenacity; its formulation makes it not only hard to wash out of the insert but hard to get off skin at the end of the ride.
Neither product has the consistency or friction prevention of a true chamois cream, which should be able to provide skin lubricity, easily spread to ensure good coverage and sufficient penetration of the insert fabric and able to maintain its anti-friction properties for the duration of the ride. The ideal chamois cream is also easily washed out of the insert, free of additives that might themselves irritate the skin and either unscented or possessed of a scent agreeable to the user.
Assuming such a cream can be found, how should it be applied? The two obvious methods are to the chamois and directly to the skin. The latter has the merit of putting the cream exactly where the user expects it to be needed but tends to leave a thin, barely-adequate layer that is quickly absorbed by the insert. The alternative allows the user to apply a generous dollop to the fabric of the insert, where it may be worked in to ensure a long-lasting supply.
With experience it is not difficult to figure out where it is best applied and, as a bonus, application directly to the insert holds out the prospect of delaying gratification until the shorts are pulled on. This, in turn, leaves but one question: should cream be applied just prior to pulling the shorts up the last few inches or before first stepping into them, when the chamois is conveniently to hand?
Now you know why you need chamois cream, it's time to get some! Click here to see our Strip Anti-Chafing Cream.