In a 2018 advert for Specialized’s Power saddle with their new Mimic technology, ex-pro road racer turned gravel rider Alison Tetrick spends the one-minute video stalling over euphemisms for vagina with the words repeatedly censored. At the very end, while riding out of the studio, she proudly shouts the phrase: “Your vagina will thank you!”
Three years later, however, the taboo around the word remains, and saddle discomfort is still a censored topic. Even Tetrick admits, over Zoom, that she still finds the subject embarrassing to talk about, “I'm still shaking talking about it because it's uncomfortable,” she says from her home in California. Fortunately, something that is no longer making her feel uncomfortable is her saddle.
Mimic, the patented technology the advert was promoting, is a pioneering approach to saddle design that incorporates layers of foam of varying densities in order to encourage blood flow to the vulva. Rather than featuring a cutout — which was widely considered the answer to all saddle woes — the Mimic, and latterly Mirror, saddles have a small, cushioned dip in the middle. Though its technology lends itself to both female and male riders, and Specialized uses it for saddles intended for men too, the design has proved particularly beneficial for women.
Tetrick’s involvement in the development of Mimic technology goes beyond merely appearing in an advert. The 36-year-old was integral in pointing out and helping to address the problem to the brand’s product development team.
“Ali was really the catalyst behind Mimic technology,” says Garrett Getter, Body Geometry Lead at Specialized. “She was not only willing to talk about some of these really uncomfortable topics, but then also work really closely with the product developer at the time, Jackie Cohen, who really helped pioneer the multiple locations of different densities of foam.”
The purpose of the foam, Getter explains, is to combat the different ways in which pressure from saddles can both constrict blood flow (ischemia) and cause swelling (edema). The prevalence of these two forms of tissue damage from saddles led to the design of both the softer nose and the spring-like cutout on the Mimic, “which is a big departure,” says Getter. “There's no hole here. And then also having this trampoline made of TPU, so that it can move underneath, but also add a little bit of support. Those are the two physiological scenarios that really led to a different way of looking at that centre line.”
Tetrick is all too familiar with those two types of tissue damage. While living in Spain during her pro career she began to suffer from extreme saddle discomfort that was impacting her training. “It was really bad. I wasn't able to ride a bike. I was getting so uncomfortable riding,” she recalls. “I went out for a ride in 2015[…] and I just like unclipped and sat at the side of the road and started crying. I was like: this is a problem.”
Alison Tetrick is an ex-pro road racer turned gravel adventurer
The problem became so pronounced that Tetrick was left with no choice but to look into undergoing labiaplasty — a surgical procedure to re-shape the vulva — to make riding bearable. “I was kind of pissed about having to get that,” she says. To her dismay, she realised upon consulting others before the operation, that the procedure was alarmingly common among the women’s peloton. “I think what made it the most upsetting was when I told other team-mates or directors and they were like: yeah, that's normal,” she recalls.
Although she was never officially sponsored by Specialized as a pro, Tetrick had a clause put in her team contracts allowing her to ride the brand’s saddles. “You get on teams, and they tell you that you have to ride these sponsor-specific equipment, which is part of it. But a saddle is a really important touchpoint,” she says. “And so I always had it in my contract that I could ride my own saddle. Specialized was just taking the logos off for me — I was not sponsored or anything — so I could ride at the time.”
It was during this period that Tetrick approached Specialized’s product design team and told them of the pain and discomfort she was experiencing. “What was happening was the current saddles at the time didn't recognise areas of high pressure,” she says. This pressure was causing the aforementioned ischemia and edema and bringing about the labial swelling and pain for Tetrick. While pressure mapping technology was being used in bike fitting at the time, it did not measure the pressure on soft tissue. “It looks like everything is fine, because your sit bones are propped up, so that's where the pressure is,” she says.
In addition, the cutouts that were widely believed to have resolved the pressure problems had possibly only masked them — or even exacerbated them. “I think for a long time we had said, alright the cutout is the answer, the cutout works for everyone,” says Getter. “It's kind of like this shock and awe situation when you hear about these stories, which is very similar across all of our products. But specifically for Mimic, it was an awakening that there were limitations to removing all of that material in the midline of the saddle, with the cutout.”
Incorporating soft tissue into pressure mapping led to the development of the varying foam densities and half-cutout ‘trampoline’. Still racing in Europe, Tetrick was offering herself up as a guinea pig and testing prototype Mimic saddles. “We were taking an Oura and putting this memory foam in there, and then changing this to be softer,” she recalls.
“I would be riding around on this stuff, like trying to figure it out. It was a fascinating project, because it hadn't existed yet, so to find that material that ultimately can support the soft tissue, release that pressure, but then also not have it fall through the cutout where then you're losing blood flow because it's pinched. And so we did that for a couple of years.”
In a male-dominated sport where the prevailing approach to women’s-specific technology is often one of indifference, the Mimic saddle has had an untold impact on the women who use it and their ability to ride without discomfort. Hannah Dines, who recounted her extensive suffering and eventual labiaplasty from sadde-induced pain for The Guardian, wrote that the Mimic is “the only saddle I can now use without pain.”
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of SD Worx admits that she has never suffered to the extent of Tetrick or Dines: “I can't say I ever considered surgery, I've never had to go that drastic way,”she says. However she has still come up against problems during her career, “but I've had a fair number of issues over the years.”
Like Tetrick, she encountered difficulty in the past through having to change to sponsored saddles. “I found a saddle that really worked for me when I was on Cervelo Bigla, but we didn't have a saddle sponsor, so we could use whatever we found,” she says. “When I first moved to CCC-Liv [Moolman Pasio’s former team] it was really uncomfortable because you think: what am I going to do? This is my saddle, and I know it's a conflicting brand. I'm not going to be able to use it.”
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio was an immediate convert to Mimic
In her latest move, to Specialized-sponsored SD Worx, it was a very different experience. “Usually, I would have to go through a couple of saddles before I found one that works,” she says. “Whereas with the Specialized Mimic saddle it was immediately a perfect fit. So I didn't even have to try anything else.”
Like Tetrick, Moolman Pasio has also noted the severity and prevalence of saddle problems in the women’s peloton, “I know of girls that have actually even retired because it's just too much. And to be able to make it better, they'd have to do some crazy surgery that they're not willing to do,” she says. “So it can be a very, very sensitive topic and hugely impact people's careers.”
Amongst the current SD Worx team, however, saddles are rarely discussed. “And I don't think that's because the girls are not willing to talk about it,” says Moolman Pasio. “I think it's because everyone manages to find a saddle that works for them.”
Both women agree that, even in a sport where pain is part of the vernacular, saddle discomfort is something that doesn’t belong.“This is definitely something you shouldn't suffer in silence about,” says Tetrick. “That's the part where suffering should not be glorified, and we should talk about it.”
For Moolman Pasio, the way forward is to demand change, “you shouldn't just settle for it and think that's the way it is... to put up with the pain or the discomfort you have,” she says. “There is always a solution and you need to push to find that solution.”
Tetrick notes that that is exactly what Specialized have done with their Mimic saddles. “I think the project was an incredible representation of, first of all, bringing the subject to the table and having a safe place to talk about it, and then try to solve the problem,” she says. “And then all this did is open up a whole new avenue of pursuing to make it even better in other areas.”
In a company like Specialized where being at the edge of innovation is key, the team are already looking at ways to improve on the technology. The Mirror — a 3D printed next-generation Mimic — has already gone one step further, but there’s more on the horizon. “What we learned from Mimic is having these different densities is actually super important because not all tissue needs the same thing,” says Getter. “So that's where Mirror is kind of that elevation and in the coming years, you'll start to see how that all plays out for our product line.”
Tetrick, for her part, is still at the forefront. Now focusing on gravel racing, she still works with the design team to (off) road test various pieces of equipment — including saddles. “I love working with Specialized, for a lot of reasons, but it was really interesting for me, and a very professional company with an incredible team of engineers and innovators,” she says. “They don't just say, ‘we're going to try to solve this problem for women’, they actually put their money where their mouth is — into the research, and into actually doing it.”
Mimic for men
While Mimic is a hit amongst professional women, the technology is also used in saddles for men, as the benefits in terms of pressure and bloodflow can be felt by all riders.
From the Specialized Bridge Comp with Mimic, geared toward lifestyle riding, to the more race focussed Romin, Phenom and Power saddles, Specialized is now offering Mimic for all users at all levels, from Comp to S-Works. It’s not only an option for men, but Specialized hints that more than a few riders at the Tour de France will be riding with Mimic saddles.
Mimic remains a new technology, and it’s no wonder it is beginning to cascade through so much of Specialized’s range. Given its considerable benefits for women, that’s something that could bring a noticeable benefit to all of cycling.
Produced in association with Specialized bikes