Buyer’s Guide to Saddles
How to find the best saddle for your bottom
Your saddle is arguably the most important component on your bike - like that other key to comfort, your shorts, if it's doing its job properly you'll never notice it, but if it isn't…Ouch! It’s your main contact point with the bicycle, and for some of us even subtle variations between two similar saddle designs can lead to one of them crossing fine line between comfortable perch and instrument of torture.
These days most of us buy bikes as complete machines rather than buying a frame and building it up - these bikes all come with saddles and for a lot of people the saddle they got with their bike works just fine. Every component on a complete bike has to contribute to meeting a price point, but bike manufacturers aren't stupid they may spec a generic product but it is one designed to work for as many people as possible. And for a lot of us the saddle our bike was born with works just fine.
However, if it doesn't or you want to drop some weight from your bike, or pep up its looks with a new perch you'll need to find the right one. If it ain't broke though you may want to consider whether you really want to fix it before you start looking for another saddle - it's not surprise that pros, couriers, expedition riders - indeed anyone who spends a lot of time on a bike takes the same favoured saddle from bike to bike. Nor is it the case that you necessarily need the most high tech saddle to go the fastest - the Tour de France has been won on £25 saddles.
If you do need a different saddle though you are faced with a bewildering choice, saddles come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes to suit every type of riding from racing, touring, commuting and leisure cycling.
While this huge choice means there’s a saddle to suit every bum, it does make knowing just where to start a touch tricky when you're faced with a choice of potentially hundreds of saddles. So you need to narrow down your choice to find the perfect saddle, and that's the aim of this guide.
The critical part of choosing the right saddle is finding a shape that fits your body and suits your riding style. Generally speaking, the more stretched out your riding position and the faster you ride, the narrower the saddle you need. And the more upright your position and the slower you ride, the wider the saddle needs to be. When you're stretched out, you place less weight on the saddle, but when you sit upright, the saddle has to support more of your weight. That's why race bikes have very thin saddles, and Boris bikes have extremely wide saddles.
Manufacturers are getting better at helping you to choose the right saddle. Most have their own system of narrowing the choice, either by deciding what type of cyclist you are - usually by your range of flexibility and your position on the bike, or using a fit system that measures the distance between your sit bones, to pair you with the saddle that best matches your anatomy.
A good saddle should support the sit bones, not the entire bum. It’s where your sit bones contact the saddle that is key, a saddle needs to provide adequate support in these two key areas. That’s why many saddles are offered in different widths, reflecting the difference in peoples anatomy. Some manufacturers have up to three width saddles to suit the range of variance. The nose of the saddle supports some of the cyclist’s weight. Oh, one thing to remember here is that just because you have a bigger bottom it doesn't necessarily follow that you have wider sit bones.
Saddle shapes largely fall into several camps. There’s those that are flat, some are rounded, some have scooped backs, some are narrow, others much wider. You can narrow down the choice by deciding what style of riding you do. A saddle that is too wide can lead to chafing, and one too narrow can feel like you’re sitting on a knife.
Generally, thinner saddles with minimal padding are more suited to racers with aggressive riding positions, riding in the drops and crouched low over the handlebars. Such a position means you’re not sitting with all your weight on the saddle, you actually put very little load on the saddle when riding in such a position.
For touring cyclists saddles with a wider shape are favoured, as you don't adopt such an aggressive position when putting the miles in on tour as you do when racing. For long days in the saddle, and day after day, you need the highest level of comfort possible, and leather saddles are regularly the first choice. They're very durable too, and usually last years longer than saddles made from synthetic foam padding.
For more leisurely riding where an upright position is adopted, more of your weight will be concentrated through the saddle. A wider saddle with more support and extra padding will be the preferred choice here.
You can get saddles aimed to road racing, triathlon, touring, commuting, mountain biking, and they all take different approaches with shapes and padding. This does help narrow down the choice. There are some saddles that are favoured by different groups of cyclists, and there are some that seem to straddle the different camps. The Charge Spoon is one such saddle that leaps to mind as being particularly well suited to British bums, whether road racing, touring or mountain biking.
Material, rails and shell
The type of materials used to construct a saddle range from plastic bases and steel rails on entry-level models to entire moulded carbon fibre bases and rails on the very expensive models. The more you spend, the lighter the materials used, so if weight is a key priority for you, you need to start saving up. Lightweight saddles are those in the 200g region.
If comfort is important to you, then steer clear of carbon rails as hollow titanium rails can often provide additional flex to absorb some of the vibrations that pass through the frame into the seatpost. We’re even seeing many professional racers choose these saddles over the very top-end models.
The base of the saddle is an area that a manufacturer can design in extra flex, to allow the saddle to subtly deform upon impacts. Some have holes or different materials in key places that allow the foam to expand through the hole, or the base to flex in a controlled manner.
The saddle cover can be made from synthetic leather like Lorica or real leather, and there’s many other materials manufacturers might use. Some add perforations and Kevlar edges to prevent wear and tear taking its toll. Time trial saddles often have a grippy material along the nose to stop the cyclist slipping back and forth, and we’re starting to see such materials make a presence on road saddles, as with Prologo’s CPC saddle.
Leather saddles have a single piece of leather that is tensioned on a metal frame, so it’s essentially suspended like a hammock, and provides a good range of give that can prove very comfortable on longer rides. They need more looking after than regular saddles, and sometimes need breaking in, the leather needs proofing, and you need to be careful in wet weather, they don’t much like the rain - which is why you most often find them on mudguard-equipped touring bicycles. Brooks are the name most associated with leather saddles but they aren't the only maker out there. Spa Cycles to a well regarded, and well priced, range of leather perches - that possibly require more breaking in than a Brooks, but not that much more.
Padding and cutouts
Most saddles use some form of foam padding, but the amount of padding used and the density can vary a lot. Racier saddles often have less padding, while saddles for commuting and leisure cyclist will have deeper and softer padding, to cushion the ride - however if you ride fast, or for long distances too much padding might not be your friend, it can move, pinch or chafe rather than supporting your sit bones.
It’s easy to think a saddle with very firm padding is going to be uncomfortable, but once you get used to them they can be a lot more comfortable than softly cushioned saddles for riding of the fast variety. Because you lean forward, you perch on the saddle rather than sit on it, so you can get away with less padding. Strategically placed gel inserts are another frequent solution to providing comfort.
In 1997 a study by Dr. Irwin Goldstein put the cat among the pigeons, claiming cycling could lead to erectile disfunction in men and cause permanent reproductive failure. A load of nonsense it may be, but the story produced a lot of concern, and the saddle with the hole in the middle suddenly became very popular. Step forward Specialized in 1998 who produced their first Body Geometry saddle, with a cutaway channel claimed to reduce the decreased blood flow that can lead to numbness.
In fact the idea is not new. The first saddle with a hole was actually born as early as 1903, and Georgena Terry produced the first modern example for women in 1992 It also has to be said that the claims for saddles with channels in them are hedged with all sorts of caveats.
For instance there is no agreement that decreased blood flow, or even numbness will cause erectile dysfunction in men or genital numbness in women. And even proponents of channels and holes agree that there is another simple cure - stand up and any decreased blood flow to your bits will immediately resolve itself. Also even if decreased blood flow does cause a problem depending how you are wired down there the amount of difference between a normal saddle and one with a channel may be minimal to non-existent. In the interestes of science our esteemed editor once had his organ wired up to measure the difference in blood flow between his usual saddle and one with a channel in it - for him at least it turned out there was no difference.
So they’re not for everyone, you only need looking at the bikes of the professionals to see that many quite happily cycle many thousands of kilometres a year with little side effect, so there’s a lot more to comfort than just adding the channel. They do work for some people though, indeed some swear by them. It’s a case of trying different saddles and seeing what works for you.
If you have particular urological or prostate problems it may well be worth looking at a saddle with a hole or channel or cutaway - there are plenty to choose from. Or you might even take things a stage further and looking at something with a drop nose - like a Selle SMP or even a noseless saddle - like the ISM Adamo Racing saddle pictured above,
One other thing to bear in mind when it comes to padding on a saddle - particularly a performance saddle - it has a limited lifespan after which time the padding isn't really doing any padding any more because it has become too compressed by the millions of times your bottom has compressed it. Basically the more performance oriented a saddle and the less actual padding it has the more time limited is the lifespan of the padding it does have. Many top end performance saddles have an expected lifespan of a couple of seasons if used the way they are intended.
Saddles for women
Most manufacturers now have a large choice of women-specific saddles to recognise, as with bib shorts, the differences in anatomy. It should be noted that many women get on just fine with men's saddles, just as many women happily ride men's bikes. Generally women have wider sit bones so there’s a choice of suitable wider saddles to suit. That said, looking at some saddle ranges, there’s still a much smaller choice for women than men, something which needs addressing.
Georgena Terry developed a reputation for comfortable saddles aimed specifically at women, in doing so pioneering the first women’s specific designed products. She produced a saddle for women in 1992 with a cutaway section, a design she later expanded to men’s saddles.
Try before you buy
Ideally, you want to try a saddle on your bike before parting with your money, and a few saddle manufacturers recognise the problem of spending a lot of cash on an untested saddle. Some then offer try before you buy schemes, where you can run a saddle for a desired amount of time to decide if it’s right for you. That can save you collective a large pile of saddles in your shed as you enter the quest for the ultimate saddle.
Saddle height and bike fit
As important as picking the right saddle, ensuring you have the saddle at the correct height and distance from the handlebars is also very important. Sometimes, you can have the right saddle, but you’re not sitting on it correctly, which can be a case of it being too far forward or backwards. If you find yourself wriggling about on your saddle a lot when riding, it could be a sign it’s not correctly positioned.
We’d recommend getting a professional bike fit, and there are many available these days. They’ll assess your level of flexibility, physical limitations and your cycling goals, and ensure you’re correctly fitted on the bike. The bike needs to git you, not the body fitting the bike.