09 May 2008

Finding the right saddle

I can't tell you what the best saddle is (Brooks! Brooks!) because only your bum can tell you (Brooks!). I can point you to an excellent article on saddle fit, and excerpt some content, with deepest gratitude to Sheldon:

Everybody wants a comfortable saddle on their bicycle. What is not so obvious is what constitutes a comfortable saddle.

You'll notice that I do call them "saddles," not "seats." There is a reason for this. A "seat" is something you sit on, and is designed to bear essentially your entire weight. Recumbent bicycles have "seats," but conventional upright bicycles have saddles. A saddle is intended to carry some, but not all of your weight. The rest of your weight is mainly carried by your legs, and some by your hands and arms.

A cyclist who is out of cycling shape, from being off a bicycle for a bit, will start out strong, but the legs will tire rapidly. When the legs tire, the rider sits harder on the saddle, and that's when the trouble starts. Many saddle complaints are actually traceable to fatigue caused by starting out the season with a longer ride than you are ready for.

Hard or Soft?

When a cyclist finds a saddle uncomfortable, the first impulse is often to look for a soft one. This is often a mistake. Just as the softest mattress is not necessarily the most comfortable to sleep on, the softest saddle is not the most comfortable to cycle on.

Imagine sitting down on a coffee table. Your weight is concentrated on the two bumps of your "sit bones", also known as the "ischial tuberosities." These are the parts of your body designed to bear your seated weight. Most cases of saddle-related discomfort arise because the load is carried on the soft tissues between the sit bones.

Imagine placing a soft pillow on top of the coffee table. Now, as you sit down on it, the sit bones compress the pillow, which yields until the sit bones are almost on the table surface again. The difference is that now, you have pressure in between your sit bones from the middle part of the pillow.

Many cyclists are unaware of this, and many saddles are made to appeal to the purchaser who chooses a saddle on the basis of how easily the thumb can sink into the squishy top. This type of saddle is only comfortable for very short rides, (though an inexperienced cyclist will often find it more comfortable than a better saddle, as long as rides don't exceed a mile or two). Saddles with excessive padding are also a common cause of painful chafing of the inner thigh, as rides become longer.

OK, so you want a minimalist saddle which is just wide enough to support your sit bones.

Most saddles are designed for men, not for women. Due to the wider hips of most women, this can result in the sit bones overhanging a narrow saddle, leading to painful pressure on soft tissues.

In general, women's saddles are somewhat wider and somewhat shorter than those that work best for men. Some newer women's saddles have a large cutout in the middle to eliminate pressure on soft tissues. These work well for many women, but some riders find the sharp-ish edges of the hole irritating.

My solution is a tensioned leather saddle (Brooks!):

Until the mid 1970s, most good quality bicycles came with tensioned leather saddles. These have a frame basically similar to that of the padded plastic saddle. A thick piece of leather is rivetted to the bridge, and to an adjustable fitting at the nose of the saddle. The leather is suspended sort of like a hammock.

A properly shaped leather saddle is an excellent choice for the high-mileage rider who doesn't mind the fact that it is a bit heavier than a plastic saddle.

Leather saddles provide "give" by stretching and flexing, without the need for foam padding. The lack of foam greatly improves comfort in hot weather, as heat and perspiration can "breathe" through the porous leather.

Leather saddles also "break in" to fit the particular shape of the rider, in much the same way as a baseball glove does
(or a fine pair of shoes!). They do require more care than plastic saddles.

I have a Brooks B17 and a Brooks B72. No, you can't have either of them, I love them both. Best of luck finding your perfect saddle!


MG said...

Hi, Chic Cyclist...

Just found your blog, and wanted to say I very much enjoy it! Also, wanted to add my two cents and say I am a big fan of the Flyer "S."

Anonymous said...

Hello Chic Cyclist,

Great post on saddles. I too am a big fan of the Brooks. Some people say that Brooks' are too hard at first, but I did not find that to be the case. I think your post on the difference between a seat and a saddle sums it up well.

Charlotte said...

I can't take the credit for that, it was Sheldon who said it better than I ever could. Still, I'm glad you agree!

Miss Sarah said...

Go Brooks! I totally agree. My custom road bike has a brooks and it's like having a really great quality handbag with an outfit. That saddle is the ultimate return on investment bike accessory:)

Charlotte said...

Ahh, you're speaking my language! :)

Kat212 said...

Hello Chic Cyclist, Just found your blog ( added it of course) But wanted to say thank you for the saddle advice I have been searching for a new more comfortable saddle for some time now and think I will give" brooks" a try. Hopefully it will prove worth investing in.

Rifraf said...

Hi Chic Cyclist,
just found your blog and have to concur with your brooks comments.
I've enjoyed using my Brooks B-73 on my Moulton APB for around 15 years now. Armchair comfort personified.
It adds over a kilo of weight so wont appeal to everyone but the comfort factor means I can stay longer in the saddle and cover more milage in a day than before on the "Sella Turbo" original that came with the bike.
Keep spinning