It’s a fact of the human condition that few could argue with – if your rear-end’s not comfortable, you’re just not going to enjoy your day. It can be the difference between a really enjoyable ride and a drawn-out misery that you can’t wait to end.
And unlike other physical afflictions that cyclists need to guard against, the ones that are attributed to poor saddle choice range from icky to scary – numb genitals, crotch chafe, yeast infections, prostate problems, even impotency. Of course some of these health concerns come with the territory – it has been found by medical researchers, for example, that the pressures generated in the perineum region while astride a bike can be up to five times greater than those known to cause decubitus ulcers (pressure sores) in bedridden patients. Of course it doesn’t help the saddle’s public image that these problems are all “down there”.
So having established the very central importance of saddles, how can cyclists be sure they are sitting on the right one? You can find part of the answer from the name – saddle. Calling a bicycle seat a “saddle” is not just some fancy-schmancy affectation, but actually carries with it the functional definition, with an historical nicety, of what it means to “ride”.
A “seat” is designed to take your entire passive weight, whereas a saddle is intended to take most of your weight, but not all of it – a cyclist can be said to be “perched” on their bike, not just plonked on top of it. Riding brings in weight-bearing contributions from your arms and especially legs – for example, most cyclists know to adopt the “jockey” position to deal with bumps and jolts (lifting your rear up to take your weight on hands and feet).
Basic support (for boys and girls)
A saddle will need to support most of your weight, but it is the targeted points of support that matter, not necessarily the area of support – a case of quality beats quantity. The main body bits that need this support are your “sit bones” (ischial tuberosities, if you want to get anatomical), which are those two protrusions that are the first to feel uncomfortable when sitting for too long on a brick fence, for example.
One well-accepted fact is that the saddle geometry for men and women is generally different, with women often (but not always) having wider pelvises. Therefore female sit bones generally require a wider support base.
There are several methods for measuring the distance or width needed to support your sit bones (such as to sit leaning forward in wet sand and measuring the resulting depressions, or through tactile measurement while in a yoga “child pose” position), but your local bike shop may have suggestions too. One way is to sit on a softer-style saddle for a while, then get off and immediately look closely at the dents in it.
However it’s important to remember that width should be limited to only what is necessary. While it’s paramount to have adequate width for sit bones, there also needs to be adequate clearance (no wider than necessary) at the “nose” of the saddle. The long narrow shape of most racing saddles ensures no interference with those pumping thighs. It all comes down to a balance between your body anatomy and the type of riding you’re involved in.
Coping with pressure
Having established what you need by way of weight support for your bone structure, the next consideration will be the soft tissues involved – and this is where those scary afflictions we mentioned are either quelled or quickened. The front-most portion of the saddle – the nose – is the part that is most likely to compress nerves, chafe skin and otherwise irritate soft tissues.
Many saddles have channels or grooves formed down the length, and some have a long slot cut out along the middle. Even if these are not visible, the same channel or cutaway can be present but filled with soft gel and covered by the saddle’s outer layer. The idea is to reduce pressure on the soft tissues between and forward of the sit bones. Here again there can be differences in men’s and women’s saddles, due to differing anatomies – for example the cutaway or channel may be positioned differently for men and women.
Some saddles do away with the centre part altogether – more or less meaning the saddle is “split” from its nose to where the sit bone support is positioned, or from the back to the tip of the nose. Some can even be formed of two completely separate halves, with a cross piece underneath joining the rails. The lack of a centre is believed by many to be a good choice for riders who suffer ongoing numbness issues, or who are worried about the long term affects of long periods of pressure (that is, restricted blood flow) on the reproductive body bits. A criticism however is that the two “sides” can rock up and down within a narrow range, and reduce power transfer efficiency.
These saddles may however appeal if you’re kept awake at night worrying about perceived dangers to the familial lineage, and this can understandably outweigh a rider’s focus on performance. The fact is, saddles are a very personal piece of cycling equipment, and your choice will very much be dictated by what matters to you, and what your body is telling you. An alternative solution to pressure problems stemming from the saddle’s nose, which some inventive manufacturers have tried, is to more or less do away with the nose entirely. One of the criticisms of this cure from many who have tried it is the resulting reduction in the feeling of lateral control, from not having some saddle between the thighs to bear against.
Should you find that numbness persists, it may not always be the saddle itself that is the problem. Having a saddle too high, or tilted down too far, will lead to a rider sitting too far forward on the narrower part of the saddle. This can increase pressure on arteries in the soft tissue areas and lead to nerve irritation, and means the rider’s weight is not being properly supported. Consider that sometimes such problems may be more a case of adjustment than choice of saddle, as saddle height, fore and aft position, and tilt can all alter the pressures exerted on soft tissues.
An oft-repeated mistake, when the primary goal is comfort, is to seek out softness and padding. This however can work against the rider, as too much padding in a saddle will take away from the support necessary for your sit bones, and can actually increase pressure on the vital soft tissue areas. A more “spongy” saddle can also increase the risk of the afflictions perpetrated by moisture build up and body heat retention.
Another factor to remember is that cyclists may need to go through a process sometimes known as “getting your seat” – that is, after finding what you believe is the right saddle for you, and having all the appropriate adjustments to make your bike fit true, it may be a case of clocking off a few kilometres. Conventional wisdom is that this should be done in a series of shorter rides. It is more or less a case of “breaking in” your bike and your bum, but no-one would suggest taking this process too far. If there are persistent problems, these should be addressed.
Style and design factors
The faster you ride, the more likely it is that you will want a narrower, racing style saddle. The position for pelting along (down on the drops for example) shifts your weight forward, putting more on the front of the bike and less on the back end. And a narrower shaped nose is also necessary to reduce interference with the peddling action that takes place at the top of your thighs. The commuting cyclist, on the other hand, may sit a little more upright and could find better comfort with slightly more width and a little more gel padding in the sit bone support areas.
Saddle comfort can also depend on the clothing generally worn when riding, especially on longer rides. This is because clothing such as jeans and ordinary shorts will have seams in the crotch area, and resting on top of these seams puts more pressure on the sensitive tissues that cause numbness or pain. Cycling shorts have padding in the right spots, but importantly do not have seams in the crotch area (better quality knicks that is). And this is also the reason why underwear is generally not recommended, because of the seams, but also because the extra layer of material will only add to chafing danger.
A related consideration is to inspect the saddle for any raised stitching, which can again cause irritation if a rider is sensitive to this. Stitching can be rendered relatively harmless by the padding in your knicks, however beware of any that escapes your particular cycling shorts chamois area, such as stitching down the sides of the saddle’s nose.
A style difference you may notice between saddles is the amount of flatness or curve when viewed from the side. The designs that favour a slight up-kick at the tail of the saddle are said to be more supportive of the lower back, if this is a consideration for some riders, as this shape encourages the lower part of the pelvis to pivot forward. But a flatter profiled saddle allows for a greater range of self-adjustment of riding position, which may suit riders who do a fair bit of moving around when cycling. Changing positions can help relieve pressure build-up.
Another point of difference can be the amount of roundness of the top of a saddle when viewed from the front. Remember that the goal is to support the sit bones while avoiding excessive pressure between and forward of them. All this will depend on your personal anatomy, so make sure your saddle “fits” your particular derriere.
Remember, we’re all different down there, so what is comfortable to one person can be excruciatingly painful to another. It has even been seriously suggested that bicycles should really be sold without a saddle, just as many are sold without pedals, which would encourage considered choices from purchasers at the point of sale (where local bike shop staff are on hand to give informed advice). Your choice of saddle is an extremely individual one – it is arguably the most personal choice you will make regarding cycling equipment. But it is a choice that will make or break your cycling pleasure.
This article first appeared in Australian Cyclist magazine