Saturday, February 7, 2009


I don't ski.

I used to ski, though. And I enjoy the rush of flying down a mountain on skis just as much as the one that comes from flying down a mountain road on a bike. But I stopped skiing a decade ago because my feet cramp up. A lot of the blame for that lies in my form, or lack thereof, in that I don't lean forward enough when I ski, some of it has to do with injuring my feet as a kid, and some with having never found just the right set of boots.

Regardless of the drivers, though, the key point is that at the main point of interface between my body and the sport of skiing, I have generally been miserably uncomfortable. So I stopped, though it looks as though I'll be starting again, since my wife has been bringing my girls to the local training hill.

In cycling, you have five main touch points with a bike. Your hands, your feet, and your bum. Hands get grips and controls, feet get pedals and shoes, and your bum gets a saddle. The equipment at each of these touch points is interesting in its own right (and worthy of exploration), but today I'm interested in saddles.

I've had lots of saddles, mostly ones that didn't work for me, and I wanted to share what I think I've learned in trying to find something that fits.

The first thing I've learned is that vanity is generally a pretty counter-productive contributor to a decision making process. Vanity drives cyclists interested in speed and the style of perceived speed (typically young guys, let's face it) to do things like move to the skinniest tires they can find, or ride without a seat bag, or ride with just one water bottle, or choose a saddle with the surface area of a dollar bill. It's ironic that guys who often snicker silently at their wives or girlfriends for wearing uncomfortable shoes in the name of fashion will happily engage in equivalent madness with their bike.

Skinny tires look fast, but they are uncomfortable and fragile, which makes them a wrong-headed solution to speed -- nothing slows down your average speed like a flat tire. Having only one water bottle may save a couple of pounds, but so will skipping that third beer or bag of chips, and staying hydrated is very important to both athletic performance and general health. And having to stop to refill slows you down more than schlepping a second bottle. Riding without the supplies and equipment to fix a flat tire is just irresponsible, not to mention inconsiderate of whomever you're going to rely on to get you out of that particular jam, whether a stranger or a loved one. And riding a saddle that looks good but feels awful is not just unnecessary, it may also be damaging to parts of your body you just don't want damaged.

I'll leave the medical stuff to professionals, and stick to the basics, here -- if a long ride (20 miles plus) consistently leaves you sore in the bum or numb in the crotch, it's time to make a change to your saddle.

If you have these symptoms, the first thing to check is your saddle's position. Saddles can be adjusted three ways, and all three can have an impact on how comfortable you are. First is height, though you'll feel the wrong saddle height more in your legs and knees than in your bum. The second is fore/aft positioning, though you'll feel that more in your knees as well. The third is the angle of the saddle in the clamp, which is a straight-up crotch numbness issue.

When you're riding, the angle of the saddle should ideally achieve two things. First, you should feel like the rear of the saddle is supporting you and keeping you in the right position, and second the middle and nose of the saddle should not be creating pressure points on your crotch. To the support question, if you angle the nose of the saddle down too much, you'll find yourself sliding forward on the saddle, which puts more pressure on your hands and arms, as you push yourself back on the saddle. If you angle the nose of the saddle too high, you may find that your crotch goes numb. If in fine-tuning your saddle position, you can't find an angle that gives you support but avoids numbness, it's time for a new saddle that won't press into your perineal area.

Bum soreness comes from the pressure between your perch bones and the saddle. This tends to ease up as you ride more, as your body toughens up those touch-points. But allowing for that toughening to happen, if your bum is consistently sore after a ride of any significance, the saddle probably isn't right for your body. This might be a problem with the shape, the materials, the width, or any number of other things (for example, the amount of impact transmitted to the rider as the result of tire choices, frame materials, frame geometry, suspension, etc). But if the saddle doesn't fit you, there's not a lot you can do to fix that particular saddle. Resist the temptation to go get a gel seat cover in the name of comfort -- your money is better spent on finding the right saddle for your body.

Whether to save your crotch or your bum, if you conclude you need a new saddle, it may take some experiementation to figure out what works for you. In fact, you should be ready to experiment and to be deliberate in your experimentation. For example, try to qualify how your current saddle bothers you, and identify what the problem with it is. Is it too narrow for your perch bones, for example, so you're not really perching on the saddle the way you should be? Or is the saddle rounded too much, dropping your perineal tissues down onto the nose section? Once you have a sense of how the saddle is fitting on your body, you can try saddles that might change up the fit in a meaningful way. You can experiment with different widths, or flatter or rounder rear sections, or nose cut-outs, or different padding, or different construction. And some trial and error is unavoidable. But you can maximize your learning by paying attention to what you're feeling and comparing the shapes that feel better or worse.

I've personally found that a firmer, flatter saddle works best for my body. For my sporty bikes, I've had luck with the classic Selle San Marco Regal. It's skinny, but not so skinny that it sits inside my perch bones, and the flattish rear section supports my pelvis in a way that keeps the saddle's nose out of my business. For me, it's as comfortable a racing saddle as I've found. It took the vain part of me a while to warm up to the rivets on the back for a racing bike. But I did, and I'm now on my second of these saddles on the Kestrel.

For my tourey bikes, I'm a reasonably enthusiastic fan of the Brooks B-17. The first hour in the saddle isn't always great, but after that I pretty much stop thinking about it, which is about the highest compliment a saddle can be paid. I have a green one with the big hammered copper rivets, which you can see at the top. Doesn't look very green anymore, unfortunately.

In contrast, I haven't had much luck with the Brooks Team Professional. I tried a new, black one on the Kestrel last winter, and just couldn't get comfortable. The rear section is too round for my body, which drops me too low onto the nose of the saddle. With the saddle angled so as to keep the nose from causing numbness, I slide towards the bars. And when angled so I don't slide towards the bars, I started getting numbness in short order, which is a sure sign of a bad fit.

I have an old, old, old Brooks Team Professional in Brown on the Paramount, and it has a substantially different shape to it than the new one I tried last year. It's flatter in the rear and middle than the current Team Professionals, but not quite as flat as a B-17. I have had high hopes for it, but it dried out almost completely over the years, and has been very uncomfortable to ride. But the discomfort is relative to my perch bones, so I think the shape is right, it's just punishingly hard. Last season I tried saddle soap and Brooks Proofide leather treatment and that didn't acheive much. So I soaked it repeatedly with neatsfoot oil this fall, and we'll see if that does anything to soften it up for the spring. If it doesn't, I'll find something else.

I've tried various saddles with cut-outs and other shaping gimmicks designed to keep the perineal area safe, and I have to say they just don't work for me. I can feel the cut-out under me, and it's distracting. Again, the biggest compliment I can pay a saddle is that it goes unnoticed, so these aren't a good fit.

Juliana doesn't have much experience with saddles, but she professes to love her B-17S, which is the woman's version of the B-17. It's about the same size and shape as the saddle that came on her mountain bike, but less poofy because it's unpadded (where her MTB saddle is overly padded). As I said recently, I'll probably pick one of these up for Ava as well, but that probably won't be necessary for another season or so -- she's still very small.

My wife claims her current Brooks Team Professional S a vast improvement over the Selle San Marco Rolls that was last on her Bianchi. That was a very uncomfortable saddle for me, too (I tried it for exactly one ride on the Paramount, after I picked up her Brooks, and was amazed she had ridden at all with that thing). I can't speak to what her body needs, but for my part it was way too rounded in the rear. She hasn't tried a B-17 S, to my knowledge, but the added width of the Team Professional S appears to be working for her.

The last thing I wanted to add is that in terms of experimenting, I've found eBay can be a valuable tool. If you buy a crap saddle at retail mark-up, it'll have absolutely no resale value, and you'll take a bath on it when you do sell it. But pick up a decent saddle well-bought and you won't lose much value if you try it for a week and don't like it. Watching saddles on eBay can give you a good feel for what's a good deal or a bad deal on a model you want to try, which can help minimize the financial sting of experimenting with saddles. For example, I bought that new black Brooks Team Professional I mentioned for like $145 plus shipping on eBay. It was clamped to a bike for 36 hours, in which I determined that it wouldn't work and why, and I sold it on eBay with an honest story of its history and reason for sale for maybe $135. By trying that saddle, and studying its shape as compared to saddles that were known to work well for me, I was able to figure out a lot about what does and doesn't fit my body. Not bad for $10 plus shipping!

Having a comfortable saddle is really important, and comfortable saddles are definitely out there. Finding one may take some time, some experimentation and may cost some money. But the payoff in terms of comfort and preventing health problems is well worth it. Pay attention to your body, do your research, and don't be a slave to a particular idea of fashion, and you'll find something that works for you.

All for now,


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