Thursday, July 19, 2012

Finding the Right Saddle

One of the most difficult tasks for a cyclist is finding the right saddle.  Every butt is different ... they come in many shapes and sizes.  Some are barely there, some are chiseled works of art, and some are ... well, I could make a joke about having a unique zip code, but that would be mean, and I think you get the point.  To go along with the infinite shapes and sizes, there is an equally infinite number of ways a bicycle can be set up .. different handlebar shapes and height, very aggressive to very relaxed frame geometry, and so on.  In addition, one needs to look at the intended use of the bicycle to help select an appropriate saddle style.  Will it be used for racing or training?  Will it be used for long-distance touring or endurance events?  Is it a bike used for short errand rides?  Cruisin' at the beach?  It's no wonder there are so many saddle manufacturers and models on the market.  It can be a daunting task to find the right one.

Yeah, yeah ... I know.  What's the big deal?  It's just a saddle, right?  When I was a kid, there was no question of which saddle to choose.  I had a bike ... it had a saddle ... I rode it ... I didn't complain.  However, since I've grown older, my southern region has become a bit more sensitive and selective.  Perhaps it's the aging body ... perhaps it's the additional "cargo" my body has acquired that places greater stress on that portion of my anatomy.  Whatever the reason, it's hard to really enjoy a long bike ride if my butt turns numb or starts to hurt ... so putting the time and effort into finding the proper cushion for my tush'n is rather important.

What I've found is that there's really only one way to know, and that's to ride a saddle for a fairly long period of time in a wide variety of circumstances that will reveal the best and worst of its character.  Feeling the saddle surface by hand won't tell you anything.  Sitting on it in the shop won't work ... and neither will a short test ride.  Nope.  If you plan on riding your bike on the road/trails for 2 or more hours at a time, then you'll need to test ride a saddle on those roads/trails for a few multi-hour hour rides before you can truly make an informed decision.  You can't really know what a saddle feels like until you've been sitting on it for an extended period of time.  If you take nothing else away from this post, remember that.  The first few miles tell you nothing.  The miles beyond tell you everything.  That's when the uncomfortable qualities, if there are any,  begin to show up ... those things that will make finishing your favorite long ride unbearable.

Of course, it's not always possible to try a saddle for an extended period of time, but there are some bike shops who understand the need, and have a selection of demo units available for their customers to try.  In addition, there are some online retailers who offer as long as 6 months to return certain saddles if they don't work out (some rules and regulations do apply).  It is wise for one who seeks posterior enlightenment to do their homework and find a local shop and/or online retailer who will work with them and develop a respectful relationship of trust.

It's also a really, REALLY good idea to do a lot of research and narrow down the field of saddle prospects to a manageable list.  Research is abundant on saddles ... just do an online search for "best bicycle saddle" and you'll see what I mean.  You should also ask a lot of people who enjoy the same kind of riding as you do.  Ask people at your local bike shop what they recommend for your riding needs (buy something small while you're there so they don't think you're just milking them for free info).  While you do all of this, keep in mind that what works for others may not work for you. Even though your friend uses saddle X and rides 4,000 miles every week on the exact same model bike as you, you may find saddle X to feel as though you're sitting on the well-maintained edge of a large Japanese Santoku knife.  However, when you've done enough research, you may begin to see certain models appearing often as the "best" or "worst".  Pay attention to what people DON'T like about a saddle as much as what they DO like.  These are very important things to know and some of those dislikes may sound familiar.

When you've put together a list of 5 or 6 saddles that seem like good choices, find one of each to try for a while (a week or two is perfect).  Start with friends who may have a spare, then local shops who have demos, then retailers with liberal return policies.  Then, one at a time, test the saddles you think may work for your needs.  Make detailed notes as you go, and take photos of the saddles, so you have an increasingly better idea of what you do and don't like along the way.

For the sake of simplicity, let's assume you already have your preferred saddle position dialed in.  That's a closely-related topic that won't fit into the space of this post ... another time, perhaps.  Replace your existing saddle with the new model, making sure the height and setback are in the same position, and start with the saddle surface level, unless otherwise advised by the manufacturer.  Some minor adjustments may need to be made on a per saddle basis, but always start from your known good reference point.

Ride each saddle over a variety of terrain and distances on several occasions until you know how it feels for short and long rides, as well as smooth and bumpy surfaces.  When you find a saddle that feels good all the time (thinking positively here), your search is done.  Leave that saddle on the bike and ride it until it, the bike, or you falls apart and needs to be replaced.  Of course, you could continue testing saddles, even after finding one that's perfect.  We cyclers tend to do that, you know ... since there's always the chance that there's something even better than perfect.

As a sample of the process, here's a selection of saddles I've tried, while seeking a great perch for all-around adventure type mixed road and trail riding, which many would say is essentially a "touring" saddle.  Please keep in mind that my results do not imply my recommendation for YOU, since you may have completely different findings within the same set of test models.

The saddles I selected to test are shown below.  They were not free, and I have no affiliation with any of their manufacturers.  They are simply saddles I've purchased and tried over a period of a few years.  From left to right, they are:  WTB SST (stock model on the Surly LHT bike), Specialized BG Avatar (155mm width), Brooks B-17 Imperial, Terry Liberator Y Gel, and Phorm S 430 Gel Max.

All of these saddles were described as approriate for long distance riding or touring, each offering their own special features for added comfort.  The next photo shows the underside of the saddles, side by side, to reference the mounting rail position and length.  They are arranged in the photo with the front of the rails all at the same basic position, since I tend to prefer the saddle pushed back on the seatpost, especially on a bike with a steeper seat tube (like the Surly LHT).  Some saddles make this easier with longer rails, like the Specialized Avatar (2nd from left).  The photo reveals the amount of setback each saddle potentially has, when mounted on the same seatpost in the same position.

First up and at your left is the WTB (Wilderness Trail Bicycles) model SST.  The SST was a favorite among mountain bike riders  many years ago, and was recently re-introduced for 2010.  When it became available, Surly immediately added it to the stock component list for the Long Haul Trucker complete bike (see my post here), which is how I came to acquire it.

The saddle is nice in shape, with a fairly flat rear section and smooth transition to the sides and front.  The nose is hooked downward to help prevent snagging baggy shorts, and provides a decent front perch for those heavy-duty sprints.

Although it does have a good feel, it's rather narrow for my taste (about 143mm at the widest point).  Since I ride with more upright handlebars, I feel better-supported with something wider.

If I chose to ride with drop bars, it might work better for me ... but I doubt at this point that I'll be converting any time soon.  Been there, done that, not for me ... maybe for you, though?

Next and to the right is the Specialized Avatar.  This is a mid-level model that incorporates the manufacturer's Body Geometry features in the form of a deep cut-out middle section that's designed to relieve pressure and improve blood flow to the ... um ... delicate bits.

This model comes in multiple widths, and I chose the larger 155mm version.  This may sound narrow, but its usable seating area is virtually identical to the Brooks B-17, considered by most to be the premium touring saddle. The saddle shape is nice and flat in the back and narrow in the nose, which helps to prevent any thigh chafing.

One very nice feature of this saddle is its long mounting rails and forward placement.  This makes it possible to push the saddle back farther on the seatpost for a more comfortable position on a bike with a steep seat tube angle.

I like this saddle a lot, and found it quite comfortable for all kinds of riding.  There are only 2 things I don't care for:  1) the fairly "racy" appearance, which is just a personal preference in coordinating with my more classically-styled bikes, and  2) the lack of bag loops on the rails for mounting a tool roll or larger seat bag. Again, just a personal preference.

Pictured to the left is the Brooks B-17.  The photo is of the Imperial model, which has the center slot for the same reasons as the Specialized Avatar.  The B-17 series (all of them) are the preferred saddle of touring cyclists, as well as most vintage bike aficionados, both for their beautiful appearance and comfortable/durable/functional performance.

The top is constructed of a single piece of heavy leather, which naturally provides a bit of suspension as it flexes and forms over a period of time to the riders bottom, for a "custom" fit.  It is the flex and suspension of the leather that also provides great comfort on long rides, where the B-17 really shines.

There are several versions of the B-17, some with special trimmings or even organic leather, some with a cut-out section as shown on the Imperial here, but they all share the same shape.  At its widest point it measures 170mm, but has a usable sitting space of a little less, due to the metal rivets and frame supporting the leather.  The metal bits wouldn't be much fun to sit directly on.

Having ridden the B-17 saddles almost exclusively for a couple of years  now, they have, for me,  become the saddle to measure up to.  I have tried other saddles recently ... just to feel I'm still in touch with that modern technology stuff ... and I still come back to the good old leather.  It looks right, and it feels right on my classically-styled bikes.  They do take a little time to break in, along with some minor maintenance, but it is well worth the effort for the comfort on long rides (short ones, too!).  Bag loops, too ... yay!!

The next saddle on the list is the Liberator Y Gel from Terry.  Although primarily a women's bicycle/component/apparel manufacturer, Terry also offers several saddles for men.  The Liberator Y is described as their most comfortable touring model, designed for a slightly more upright position.  It is 6.8 inches wide (172mm), and has a perforated leather top, firm padding, and a layer of supportive gel.  Like the Specialized Avatar, the center is cut out for pressure relief.

The description and reviews of this saddle sounded like a great fit for the kind of cycling I do, so I gave it a shot.  What I found was that the padding and gel layers, though fairly firm, were still a little too much for comfort after riding for about an hour.  Up until that point, it felt very good, but after that, it was just painful.  The shape and cutout area are okay, but really didn't seem to offer any additional comfort, likely since the padding compressed into and around my backside, creating pressure where it wasn't desired.

In contrast, the Specialized Avatar has less padding and a flatter shape, which (at least for me) resulted in a more consistent ride that didn't fatigue my butt after an hour or so.  The Brooks B17 is the same in that sense ... no "padding fatigue".

The last saddle tested for comparison is from a German company called Phorm.  The word on the street is that the Phorm people are some kind of subsidiary of the Ergon company (don't quote me on that, though), who's been making some of the coolest handlebar grips in the industry for several years.  Their grips have been true game-changers. If that rumor is true, then there's some serious engineering talent behind this saddle design, which is why I felt the need to at least try it.

The model is a Phorm S 430 Gel Max, and is offered as an ultra-comfortable long-distance touring saddle.  Right on, dude!!  That's exactly what I want in a saddle.  It's a little wider at 185mm.  It has a weatherproof covering, multi-density padding for proper support where it's needed in different places, and a central cut-out with a mesh splash guard.  It also has a damping system on the rails made from Cellasto, which has been used extensively in the auto industry for its durable yet sensitive compression quality.

Cool, right? Well ... it was very comfortable for the first 10 miles ... after which it seemed to lose its comfort quickly, just as the Terry Liberator.  Too cushy .. and perhaps a hair too wide for my riding style, as well.  It is also noticeably heavier than any of the other saddles in the list (not that I'm a weight weenie or anything ... just sayin').  However, I will say it may be one of the best general purpose city bike saddles I've seen so far ... for shorter rides, commuting, shopping, and so on.

So ... there you have it ... five different saddles I've tried over a long-ish period of time in search of the perfect perch.  What did I learn?  Well, I learned that padded saddles may look more comfortable on the surface, but actually create more fatigue and pain on longer rides.  I also learned that I prefer the look and feel of classic leather saddles, at least the B-17 shaped models from Brooks.  Oddly enough, the only non-Brooks saddle I really liked is shaped very much like the B-17, only with more modern design.  I also learned that you don't know how a saddle really feels until you've been on it for at least an hour, preferably two or more.  Almost any saddle will feel fine, even great, for a few miles, but what felt great for the first ten miles can feel utterly painful at mile 11 and beyond.  All of this information has taken some time to gather, but it is incredibly valuable, since I now have a pretty good about idea what shape and style works best for me.  Future purchases will be less "hopeful guess" and more "educated logical selection".  Of course, there will always be the new and better product that needs to be tried ... perhaps the manufacturers will send some for proper testing and review?

I hope the long telling of my saddle search process is helpful to some of you.  Again, I can't say my choice will be the best for you ... but maybe the reasons for my choice will help in your own search process.

May your bum be pleasantly supported!!


  1. This is great! I've been scoping out a better (wider) saddle, to replace my.. you guessed iy, WTB SST. The Avatar sounds pretty good.

    Thanks for the shootout write-up, very helpful.

  2. The Phorm saddles were the Terry saddles until the Ergon (the German company) stole Terry's product and brought it to the US under the name "Phorm"