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The first thing that went into my small suitcase when packing for ten days of riding in the French Alps and Pyrenees was my saddle. Sure the bike I was hiring would come with a decent quality saddle, and if I left my own behind, I might have even be able to squeeze in a change of shoes and avoid flying into the fashion capital of the world looking like a style disaster. But it was an easy choice. There was no way I was going to risk spending ten long days on the bike wincing every time I sat down.
Saddles are such an important part of comfortably enjoying your time on the bike that once you find one that works you may not want to go anywhere without it, but what if you haven’t found the one? Riding buddies might sympathise with the pained look on your face as you attempt to ride through the discomfort. They also may try to convince you their much-loved saddle is also the perfect choice for you. And while it’s worth giving their recommendation a whirl in the hunt for your new favourite saddle, it’s important to remember that differences in the body and the riding style can make a saddle that is comfortable for one sheer agony for another.
There are a number of issues to take into account when trying to find that saddle that keeps you riding comfortably. While opinions between players in the industry may vary slightly around the variety of factors, a number of key considerations cropped up as I spoke with interview subjects and riding partners.
Let’s start with the obvious. Men and women have a very different shape in the saddle area, and the key contact points of the sit bones are often, but certainly not always, wider in women. The range of saddles designed specifically for women is growing with PRO, Selle Italia, Liv, Bontrager, Specialized, Selle SMP and Fizik just some of the names in the sector. Major bike brands are now spending time researching and designing saddles to cater for gender differences which go beyond width.
“The cut-out shape for women’s saddles are designed with the women’s anatomy in mind to aid in relieving pressure and numbness, by eliminating compression of the nerves, arteries, and soft tissue,” said Matt Mangen, saddles product manager at Specialized Bicycle Components.
Some riders prefer a curvier saddle with a kick up at the back that they can lock into while others prefer a flatter style of saddle that it is easier to move around on. Different disciplines can also lend themselves to different seat shapes, so the right saddle choice for your road bike may not necessarily be the right one to use on your time trial bike or when you line up for a cross-country mountain bike race.
“[Cross-country races] are mostly shorter, more burst oriented events and you may move around the saddle a lot more in those disciplines than you do for endurance road riding, and therefore the saddle probably doesn’t need to be as shaped,” said Emma Colson of Topbike Physio, who is a sports and musculoskeletal physiotherapist with a special interest in bike fitting.
“In particular for the mountain bike, where you want to manoeuvre the bike underneath you for obstacles and things like that, you may want … something that can slide between your legs more easily,” said Colson, who represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games on the mountain bike.
Sit bone measurement
Sit bones are, or at least should be, key pressure points so a saddle that is too narrow may not offer the right support and one that is too wide can interfere with efficient leg movement. The distance between the sit bones is one of the key measures used in fit systems such as Selle Italia’s ID Match system and Specialized Body Geometry Fit.
“Our women’s saddles have two different shapes (round and flat) and are available in two widths – 142 and 152 mm wide compared to 132 and 142 mm for the men’s saddles,” said PRO product developer Roy Heideveld. “The choice for the 142 and 152 mm options is primarily done because of the difference in pelvic structure. The more sportive and deep the riding position is the more the pelvic rotates forward. Because of the pelvic differences, a women’s pubic arch has a bigger angle, generally resulting in wider sit bones. When rotating the pelvic forward to a deep riding position a women’s public arch needs wider support, meaning a wider saddle nose. We kept this the same for both men and women as we found this to be suitable for both genders during pressure tests.”
Position on the bike
A different position on the bike changes the positioning of the channels or cut-outs required for pressure relief. The major saddle manufacturers largely approach the position issue in two different ways. Some focus largely on whether the cyclist is riding in a relaxed or more aggressive racing position based on the style of bike they are riding and others on the characteristics of the body that influence their position on the bike.
Liv is very much focussed on the body characteristics of bone structure and flexibility when it comes to choosing a saddle. They have concluded that a women’s more U shaped pelvis leads to the two key contact positions of upright and forward, compared with the three contact position that men have with a pelvis shape that is closer to a V.
“Upright would mean that you would tend to carry the majority of your weight on your sit bones. Forward means that the majority of the weight is going to fall on your soft tissue, at the front of the saddle,” said Janette Sherman, global communications manager at Liv.
”If you are more flexible you are actually an upright because you are not having to tilt forward in order to reach the handlebars,” said Sherman.
The amount of padding a person requires can be down to personal preference, but there are also a number of other influencing factors and the padding requirements can change over time.
Colson said injury that causes the rider to place less load on the legs can result in them placing more pressure on the seat while beginner riders or riders coming back after some time off the bike are also likely to take less load on the legs so may require more padding.
“Riders that ride a lot don’t need the extra padding because their ischial tuberosities (sit bones) are used to the pressure, while someone that doesn’t ride as much may have sensitive sit bones if they ride a saddle with thinner foam,” said Specialized’s Mangen whose experience suggest that the elite riders who spend more time on the bike like to have direct contact with the saddle and won’t report discomfort with a smaller amount of padding.
PRO’s Heideveld has had a slightly different perspective. “During the research stage we’ve done pressure mapping to see the difference between male and female and the exact spot that these differences occur. The anatomic cutout shape was changed a little bit and the padding became a little bit thicker for more comfort. We verified the changes we made with some of the ladies of the Liv Plantur team and some ‘normal’ lady consumers we have working in our office.”
Saddle discomfort isn’t always about the saddle. Sometimes it’s about the bike fit. After I dragged my ideal saddle halfway around the world, I eagerly awaited my first taste of climbing. riding up Alpe d’Huez, I was feeling confident that while my legs might scream out in pain as I rode up Alpe d’Huez, my saddle would help make the ride as comfortable as possible. Much to my surprise, I gingerly rolled down the mountain with blisters on my backside.
It quickly became clear I had forgotten a very important step that follows finding a saddle that fits and that is make sure it is adjusted properly. All it took was a shift of a couple of millimetres and I forgot about the saddle pain for the rest of the trip and could instead concentrate on inflicting it on my legs.
Topbike Physio’s Colson said it is important to make sure the saddle isn’t too far forward or back otherwise the rider will just sit on the wrong point. The saddle should be flat or nose down and it must not be too high.
“If it is too high you are really going to have a lot of pressure on yourself just to stretch your legs over it,” said Colson.
Riding habits can also help.
“It is important for both men and women to routinely get their bottom off the saddle. Don’t sit in the one position. Stand up every now and again, and let the blood flow get back into that area,” said Colson.
Still struggling with saddle discomfort? Liv’s Sherman said it was clearly important to find a saddle that fits but riders should also not forget to try things like swapping to a different chamois and using chamois butter to help iron out any niggling issues.
We want to know
What saddles do you love?
How have you successfully dealt with saddle discomfort?
Have you had your sit bones measured in your quest for the perfect saddle?