Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting to the Bottom of Saddle Choice

"Oh my god, that skinny little seat must be so uncomfortable!"

Every cyclist who rides a performance-oriented bike of one sort or another had heard that at some point, either from a complete non-cyclist or someone who rides an upright comfort bike. It's true, on the wrong bike, a narrow racing saddle would be completely inappropriate, but because of body position, sometimes a narrow perch works better.

Saddle choice is a very personal thing, as everyone's body is a bit different, but there are some generalities that apply to just about everyone.

  • Whatever saddle you choose, it should allow your weight to rest primarily on the bony points at the bottom of your pelvis, known as ischial tuberosities or "sit bones." 
  • Very soft saddles are like very soft mattresses, comfortable for a short period of time, but over a longer span will often create more pain than they cure. Overly squishy bike seats often result in pressure points, numbness and chafing. 
  • Too-hard saddles also cause discomfort and chafing, most riders come to prefer saddles that are firm and supportive, but not rock-hard
  • The more upright you sit, the wider you tend to want your saddle
  • The more leaned-over your riding position, the narrower you tend to prefer your saddle
  • Whatever shape of saddle you prefer, it shouldn't interfere with your ability to pedal smoothly
  • The angle of the saddle should be roughly parallel to the ground. Depending on a number of factors, you might find having the nose of the saddle pointed slightly down or slightly up to be most comfortable, but the key word is "slightly."
My own personal preference for an all-around comfortable saddle is the Terry Liberator, which I feel provides a good balance between cushion and support, is wide enough to give you a good platform without being so wide it gets in the way and has a center cutout which eliminates pressure and chafing regardless of what clothes you're riding in. I am also a fan of Brooks-style traditional leather saddles, which, although fairly stiff, have just enough flex to them for comfort, and mold to your posterior over time. I currently have leather saddles on a couple of my bikes, in particular ones sold by Velo-Orange, which, while they don't have the cachet of the Brooks, are a good value and hold up well. Leather saddles also have the additional benefit of having bag loops mounted on the back, which allows the use of a traditional saddlebag. 

Many comfort and hybrid bikes come with a relatively wide saddle, often with springs or shock-absorbers of some sort. These can be very comfortable on an upright commuter bike, and the springs can help soak up the jolts one feels while sitting in a very upright position (when leaned over in a sportier position, the legs and hands help take impacts, but as you sit more upright, more of your weight is placed straight down on your sit bones, so a bit of spring can be a blessing). Ideally, for an upright ride, a somewhat wide seat with springs and just enough padding or flex would be the way to go. A Brooks B-67 seems like a great option for this type of thing, but is a bit pricey for me. Something along these lines is probably a more economical option. The only thing to be wary of is that you don't get a saddle that's TOO wide, otherwise what often happens is you creep forward as you pedal, so you end up sitting on the nose of the saddle, which becomes very uncomfortable very quickly. 

On modern style-saddles, like the Liberator, I do like a cutout or center channel for commuting. Not because, as some sources would have you believe, because I'm concerned with the center of the seat cutting off blood flow and causing impotence, but because I often ride in regular jeans or khakis. Non-cycling pants usually have a seam running right up the center of the crotch, and a bike saddle with a cutout takes the pressure of the seam, which otherwise could increase chafing and saddle sores. 

There have been numerous attempts to completely redesign the bicycle saddle over the years, and the idea of a "noseless" design comes up periodically but never seems to catch on (Jerome K. Jerome talks about such a design in his 1900 account of a cycling trip he took with his buddies, so it's not a new concept at all). I have tried a few variations on this design and found them all to be extremely uncomfortable and inefficient. Normal bicycle seats are, as they're called, a "saddle," you sit astride them with your legs on either side of the seat, whereas noseless designs tend to be more of a "bench." Because of this, your legs tend to push against the front of the seat when you pedal, which I've found has the effect of pushing your body forward off the seat. When I've tried to ride on this sort of seat, I always found myself having to push back with my hands on the grips to keep from sliding forward, which got tiring really quickly. There are some who claim that these noseless designs are very comfortable on upright cruiser-type bikes, but mostly I've seen them on bikes that don't get ridden (because the owner finds they have a hard time riding them comfortably). 

Choosing the right saddle for you often takes a bit of trial and error, and you can only take another person's preferences as a starting point, unless you happen to have an exactly identical derriere (how do you even check that?), but somewhere between big, cruiser-style "tractor seats" and minimalist nightmares like this, it's likely you can find something that suits your needs. You'll have to bear in mind, though, that even the most comfortable seat requires a bit of acclimation on your part, and you're probably going to have to suffer through a bit of getting "reacquainted" if you haven't been riding much lately. 

As Jerome said in Three Men on the Bummel, back in 1900 "There may be a better land where bicycle saddles are made out of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard."

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