Athletes in most contact sports wear a cup. And while we know it’s not the most comfortable piece of protective equipment, you know what’s a lot less comfortable? Taking a direct hit to the groin.
I would argue that cycling and mountain biking are also contact sports, though not in the traditional sense: while you won’t get physical with other riders, one mistake and you could land on your bike frame or the ground at any moment. So should cyclists and mountain bikers wear a cup?
A cup is meant to protect your groin against a straight-on impact; but this is a rare occurrence when biking. There are other more effective ways to protect yourself, like wearing padded bike shorts, choosing a properly fitting saddle and getting the right bike frame size for your height.
Before you dig through your old gear bag and find the cup you used during junior varsity hockey, let’s look at whether that’s even necessary. And regardless, maybe it’s time to invest in a new one…
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Do Pro Cyclists or Mountain Bikers Wear Cups?
In the professional biking world, you’ll find very few athletes who recommend wearing a cup. While it obviously offers protection to a key area, it doesn’t integrate well with a bike saddle. When pedaling in a seated position, a cup will most certainly get in the way, and may actually cause more harm than good.
Look at the riding position of most road cyclists, and it already appears uncomfortable enough. Professional racers will often be perched on the nose of their saddle for hours at a time. If they wore a cup, the saddle would push the cup’s hard plastic shell into the perineum (the area underneath the genitals that protects delicate nerves), potentially causing severe discomfort.
Cross-country mountain bikers and even enduro racers (on the climbing portions at least) also spend a good amount of time seated, and ditch the cup in favor of a more comfortable ride. XC and enduro races also last several hours: this is no time for genital discomfort!
The one riding discipline where a cup may be beneficial would be downhill riding. DH racers rarely sit during a stage, but do move around a lot over their bike, especially when shifting their weight rearward on steep trail sections or drops. A cup may prevent an errant saddle strike when moving back and forth over extremely rough terrain.
Even so, a DH rider is still more likely to sustain injuries to other areas of the body from crashes and falls, with the genitals being relatively safe from harm (but you can never be 100% certain!) Full face helmets, neck braces, body armor, elbow and knee pads, and even shin guards are common components of a DH riding kit; cups are not.
Should You Wear a Cup While Biking?
You want to protect your most sensitive area from harm…I totally get it. But wearing a cup will most likely cause you a lot of discomfort while seated. It could also impede your pedaling ability, and the constant rubbing of the hard plastic shell on the inside of your legs as you pedal may lead to chafing…another thing bikers are all too familiar with.
My advice? Skip the cup unless you’re a downhill mountain biker. And even then, it’s probably not worth it.
So you should just leave your genitals completely unprotected? Of course not! There are better ways to protect yourself from injury that don’t involve wearing a cup. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective ways now.
Alternatives to Wearing a Cup
Wear Bike Shorts With Chamois
When I first got padded bike shorts, I was amazed at how much more comfortable riding became. Before, after a couple hours of riding, my butt (…and other areas) got really sore. In fact, the discomfort would last into the next day, prompting me to think something more serious may be going on.
Little did I know this was easily prevented by buying a chamois to wear underneath my riding shorts. If you’ve yet to ride with padded shorts, you’ll find it’s an instant game changer!
A chamois offers padding to cover the area from your sit bones to your perineum. Bike saddles usually have little padding and are therefore not the most comfortable things to sit on, so a little extra cushion goes a long way to minimizing discomfort, allowing you to ride longer.
You can either buy bike shorts with an integrated padded liner or a chamois on its own to wear underneath the shorts you already have (which is what I did). They certainly can be expensive, but if you’re on a budget you can find cheap options on Amazon. I’m sure they may not be the highest quality, but the $10 pair I bought a year ago shows no signs of wearing out yet!
A chamois should be an essential part of your riding kit, so if you don’t have one, it’s time to do your butt a favor.
Use a Properly Fitting Bike Seat
Not all bike saddles are the same, because not all humans are built the same. If you wear a chamois and still notice pain during your ride, you could be sitting on a saddle that’s not optimally constructed for your unique build.
Bike saddles are designed to fit specific sit bone widths. Some also have cutouts to relieve pressure on the perineum while seated. The width of your sit bones and how you ride will determine the width of your saddle and whether you need one with a cutout or not.
For more information on bike saddles and a guide to measuring your sit bone width to get the right saddle for your body type, check out my previous article Why Bike Seats Have Holes / Cutouts (Explained for Beginners).
The saddle your bike came with may feel ok now, but once you get a saddle that fits you properly, the difference will be immediately noticeable.
Choose the Right Bike Frame Size for Your Height
It may sound like a dumb question, but is your bike sized correctly for your height?
We’ve probably all done it: you’re riding along, maybe on a tricky section of trail, and without warning your front tire hits an obstacle. Your feet bounce off the pedals and you land, groin first, on your top tube.
Once you’re able to walk again and have fought back the urge to throw up, take a good look at your bike and ask yourself if it’s the right size for you.
Check out the specs of any bike and you’ll see an overwhelming number of measurements. While they’re all important for choosing the right bike for your riding style, some are more valuable to know than others when it comes to protecting your groin. These include:
Reach: The horizontal distance measured from the head tube to the bottom bracket.
Standover Height: The distance from the top tube to the ground, measured just in front of the bottom bracket (where you would normally stand when taking your feet off the pedals and hopping forward off the saddle).
A bike’s reach will determine how cramped or spread out you feel in your normal riding position. A reach that’s too short or too long will not provide an optimal riding position, making it harder to control the bike. If you’re too upright or too stretched out, it will be easier for rough terrain to bump you off the pedals.
A bike’s standover height will determine how much clearance you have between you and the bike’s top tube. If your bike’s standover height is too tall for your inseam, anytime you get bumped off the pedals you’re going to land right on the top tube in the worst way possible.
Bike models come in different frame sizes for a reason. If you’re shopping for a new bike, look at these two measurements first to ensure you choose the size that best fits your height.
Ditch the Cup Already
When it comes to biking, a cup just isn’t necessary. Wearing a chamois and making sure your bike is set up properly for your height and body shape will do far more to protect your groin (and the rest of you) from harm.
Sure, you still may take a hit to this area when bad luck strikes (we’ve all been there), but even a cup won’t protect you when you get kicked off the pedals and land on your bike’s top tube. So don’t worry about the things you can’t control: instead, focus on the things you can do that will protect you in the other 99% of cases.
And please remember to wash your chamois after every ride!
Otherwise…that’s just gross.