Upgrading 101: Saddles

When you get back in the saddle after some time off, besides the elation that comes from being back on two wheels, you’ll likely have some soreness in your… derriere. Your body will take a few rides to get back in the swing of things, and in the meantime you’ll also find yourself looking at new saddles.

While your saddle is an important bike-body contact point and a great bang-for-your-buck upgrade opportunity, getting a new saddle won’t magically reduce the soreness of those first few rides, so it’s a good idea to hold off until you’re (re)used to spending time on the bike. Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry and all that.

But once you’re firing on all cylinders again and decide it’s time to upgrade your throne – how do you make sense of all the shapes, sizes, and options out there? In this post, we’ll look at saddle selection and making the right choice for you.

Big and Soft

When thinking “comfort” most people imagine big pillow-y saddles, and the number of padded saddle covers on the market are a testament to people’s desires to be more comfortable on the bike. They’re also a testament to some companies’ willingness to sell people what they want as opposed to what they need. The fact is, a more padded saddle is almost never the best solution to make your butt happy on the bike.

The issue is that bike saddles are just that, saddles. Not seats, sofas, or hammocks – a bike saddle isn’t designed to take all your weight, it’s designed to keep you centered and supported, but a lot of your weight will be held up by your feet on the pedals, similar to a horse saddle where your weight is supported by your feet in the stirrups. When you put all your weight on a padded saddle, the padding compresses as your sit-bones sink in and you end up with weight on all the soft-tissue down there – which can get painful fairly quickly.

For short trips, a puffy saddle can be totally fine, but once you start making rides of 5+ miles, your body will object to all that soft-tissue pressure. That’s why the people who really stack up miles usually go with something that looks significantly less comfortable – but is actually much easier on your backside.

Hard and Narrow

To the uninitiated, riding on a hard slender saddle can look more like a medieval form of torture than a comfort-move, but surprisingly some of the saddles people swear by are nothing more than hard-stretched leather or a thin layer of carbon fiber.

The secret to their comfort comes from their support of your sit-bones, and often, their flexibility. Where you sink into a padded saddle, your sit-bones will keep you propped up on a hard saddle, delivering pressure where your bones are designed to take it and keeping your soft-tissue cozily elevated above the crush. Materials like leather and carbon fiber also offer flexibility, so while the saddles may lack springs, their natural flex can act as a mini-suspension, saving you from experiencing the worst of those bumps in the road and making pedaling easier as your legs aren’t fighting their way through padded interference.

So What’s Just Right?

With all that in mind, it really comes down to personal preference, fit, and feel. You want a saddle that’s wide enough to support your sit bones, and narrow enough that it doesn’t impede your pedal stroke. Firm enough that you don’t put pressure on your soft-tissue, but flexible enough that you’re comfortable for the kind of rides you plan on taking. For most people, it’s somewhere in between a carbon fiber “racing” saddle, and the super-padded-gel-covered-pillow-tops that are more mattress than bike part. The best way to find the right fit for you is to try out as many different ones as you can.

Jump on a friend’s bike and go for a spin or, even better, swap saddles for a week so you can really get a feel for it. Ask around the office, dorm, coffee shop if anyone has a saddle they no longer use that you could try out (we all do). Swing by your local bike shop, they’ll have test saddles you can borrow while you try to lock down a fit that feels right. Just be sure to record the dimensions of the saddles you like and eventually you’ll have a guide you can use when ordering new saddles too!

Just remember that everyone’s body is a little bit different and that means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Lots of riders swear by their Brooks’ but there are others who just can’t get comfy on them. You’ll hear racers sing the praises of carbon fiber, while others need a bit less flexibility and a bit more support. The best thing you can do for your butt is test ride as many saddles as you can until you find the one that “just works”. And once you do, you’ll wonder how you ever rode on anything else.