Spa Cycle's Aire Leather Saddle is part of Spa's range of own-brand leather saddles that's been making waves recently at a fraction of the price of a Brooks equivalent.
That's not to say that the Spa offerings are just cheap clones; go back a few decades and you'd find other saddlers making saddles to the same basic template, it just happened that Brooks was the last man standing as the world moved on to vinyl, plastic and various flavours of artificial leather.
Not so long ago, a leather saddle was almost as quaint as spats or a handlebar moustache and you could pick up a Brooks B17 for about £25, which seemed ridiculously cheap for a quality Made-In-Britain heritage product. Roll forward nine years and moustaches are hip, tweed rules Britannia and every bugger has an artisan pork pie and bottle of home-made ginger beer in their wicker basket as they tootle about pretending to be in the Famous Five.
Leather (along with other ancient tech like wool and steel) is back and popular again. Brooks haven't been slow to ride the retro-wave and have cranked up their marketing, branding and prices accordingly. It's hard to begrudge them a chance to capitalise, but it has meant that what was an affordable option for long distance comfort has now become an expensive accessory and that leaves a gap which Spa has been canny enough to fill.
In an ideal world I'd just tell you about the saddle, but I know that what everyone wants to know (including me) is:- 'how does it stack up against a Brooks?' After all, the Aire is almost identical to the Brooks flagship model, the Swallow, both being narrow racing saddles with the sides joined underneath to help maintain tension and prevent the saddle from splaying out. It also has bag loops.
The Aire has chromed steel rails, very shiny, and weighs 594g, 100g more than the chrome Swallow, largely on account of the extra thick leather. With Spa also moving into titanium frames, you have to wonder if there might be a titanium railed Aire in the pipeline.
The leather on an Aire is very, very thick, much thicker than on my Swift, and has a matt finish, in contrast to the shiny top on a Brooks, which makes it much less slippery during the initial breaking-in phase.
It also has a bonded sheet of material on the underside, which I presume helps with weatherproofing and might also provide a bit more stretch resistance. As per tradition I threw away the complimentary nose-bolt spanner (once you've started to mess about with the nose bolt, you've probably managed to knacker your saddle already) and slapped on a good dollop of Proofide.
Spa don't give a whole load of information about their saddles, other than to say that they are made from Australian cowhide. At a guess I'd say that the slightly wonky Engrish on the instruction label hints at far eastern construction and build quality is very tidy throughout.
First impressions are of a very, very hard saddle. The super thick leather feels like wood and sounds like it when you knock on the top. I'm one of the lucky people who are blessed with a Brooks friendly backside, so I wasn't too worried, but I did wonder how long the breaking in would take.
Past experience says that a Brooks will start to form the characteristic sit-bone dimples after a few hundred miles and I wondered how long the thicker leather of the Aire would take. So far I've put just over a thousand miles into the saddle, including some long audaxes of over 200+ miles, and the top is only just starting to give when you push hard on it. There's a hint of spread around the joining plate but no sign of any dimples forming on top.
I'd guess that although the leather is much thicker than a Brooks, it's a bit softer. I'm not quite sure what implications this might have for longevity. I suspect that it might sag a bit more rapidly than a Brooks and possibly not last quite as long, but without waiting ten years to write this review it's be hard to be sure.
It's certainly very comfortable, even after 15+ hours of riding and given the price I wouldn't turn my nose up at one, even if it turns out not to have the legendary Brooks longevity (which is also a function of rider weight and mileage).
I was very impressed with the Aire. I shouldn't have been too surprised; Spa are well known in audax and touring circles and they'd be doing themselves a serious disservice if they'd just sourced some cheaply made rubbish.
What is surprising is that they have managed to bring it in for just £45 which is astonishing value for money. For comparison, the Swallow is listed at £131.93 which is almost three times as much.
For hard-core randonneurs on a budget or leather saddle virgins who want to try one without breaking the bank the Aire is just about perfect.
A great saddle that's well worth trying.
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Make and model: Spa Cycles Aire Leather Saddle
Size tested: Brown
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
"A classic racing saddle made from Australian cowhide on a chrome plated cro-mo frame."
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Width (at widest point): 148mm
Very tidy build quality. Leather is, perhaps, not quite up to the same standard as Brooks.
Excellent - completely comfy even over a 400k audax and almost 18hrs of riding.
At just over 1000 miles it's barely broken in. Softer leather might mean it's less durable, but even if it only lasts half as long as a Brooks, it's only a third of the price.
You buy these for comfort on long rides, not weight. Extra thick leather adds weight compared to a Swallow.
Doesn't seem to mould itself the way a Brooks does, but has softened noticeably over the last 1000 miles and is very comfy indeed. Even on a 400k audax it was comfortable right to the end.
Almost a third the cost of a Swallow. Superb.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Comfort, quality and incredible value for money.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes.
Anything further to say about the product in conclusion?
Top notch old-skool saddle for an amazingly modest price.
Age: 42 Height: 5' 8 Weight: er....85kg
I usually ride: Kona Dew Drop, Dawes Century SE, Carlton Corsa My best bike is: Guess SC1 scandium
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, Audax and long distance solo rides