My business is helping people to feel good on their bikes. That means that I get to see a lot of different saddles.
It also means that I’ve spent more time than most understanding what it is that makes a saddle likely to be comfortable for a wide range of people. I’d like to think that if I were a saddle manufacturer this would be a good objective.
However saddle manufacturers don’t seem to think this way and produce a lot of saddles that are only likely to be comfortable for a narrow range of people. In fact, they actively encourage us to think that we have to keep
trying buying saddles until we find the ‘one’, and that the reason we’re uncomfortable is simply because we’ve not yet found it.
How to make a saddle comfortable for a wide range of people…
- Cater for a range of sit bone width. This should be pretty easy. Make the saddle narrow at the front (narrow enough that it doesn’t chafe the thighs) and wide at the back. People simply sit on the bit that’s the right width for them.
- Make it flat. It’s no good meeting requirement 1 if people can only sit in one place, which is the case if the saddle has a dip. By ‘has a dip’ I mean that it is lower in the middle than it is at the front and the back. If a saddle has a dip there’s only one place to sit and, therefore, it has only one width. Companies that make dipped saddles have to make them in a range of widths.
- Allow a lot of fore and aft adjustment. It’s all very well having a bit of saddle that’s the right width for you, but that bit has to be in the right place when it’s on the bike. Many people have problems with flat saddles because when they’re riding they slide off the comfy bit (…and onto an uncomfy bit, …and moving back and forth causes chafing, which is as bad as pressure). This is where a good bike fit comes into play. A good bike fit ensures that you don’t move around. With a large range of fore and aft adjustment there’s much more chance of being able to achieve a good fit: one that puts the right bit of the saddle in the right position for you.
And that’s about it. Simple eh? Why can’t/don’t saddle manufacturers do that? Most put about 6cm of straight section on the rails, which gives about 2-3cm of fore and aft adjustment.
Instead they produce ranges of fat, thin, padded and unpadded saddles with slots, holes and dips in the middle and pointy bits at the back, with smooth surfaces and grippy surfaces in any number of natural and synthetic materials and with rails made from a whole load more. They make saddles for men and for women, for racing, for touring, for leisure, for e-bikes, for off road, for bulls, for snakes and even for chameleons.
As you might have guessed by now, I think that a lot of these features are are pointless gimmicks. Not that it matters if your saddle has some of them: there’s no problem with a hole, for example, but if you’re sitting on your sit bones it shouldn’t make any difference whether there is a hole in the saddle or not. Most of the things that we sit on don’t have to have a hole do they?
Why should one saddle fit everyone? Surely we’re all different.
We are, but when it comes to sit bones the scope for for difference between individuals is quite small. The differences that we need to cater for are the (much bigger) differences elsewhere – which is why scope for adjustment is critical, rather than the shape of the saddle itself.
I find that a lot of peoples’ opinion of their saddle changes the instant the saddle is in the right place. In fact (as I suggest that people bring all the saddles that they own when they come for a fitting) they usually find that all of their discarded saddles are just fine if only they could get them in the right place.
Does the type of riding that you do make any difference?
This is where the whole bike fitting thing starts to matter. If you think that bike fit is about angles and aerodynamics you’re likely to be in for an uncomfortable ride – regardless of your saddle. Comfort, or rather discomfort, has a lot to do with pressure and tension: when we’re cycling pressure is concentrated in the three small areas that touch the bike: the soles of the feet, the hands and those bits of us that are touching the saddle. Feet are good at pressure, hands are not and the saddle area divides into bits that are (the sit bones) and bits that are not (pubis, perineum, genitals). Your body naturally tries to keep pressure off the bits that don’t like it, and can do so while it has plenty of energy by tensing a whole load of muscles. However, if your riding style/setup puts pressure on the bits that don’t like it, it will not be sustainably comfortable over many hours. You will suffer from pressure related issues in your hands and saddle area, whatever saddle you have.
So don’t be fooled by all that stuff about ‘the right saddle’. The right saddle is the saddle that’s in the right place. In this age of stock-geometry frames and non-replaceable seat posts the saddle rail is becoming the only remaining point of adjustment, and it’s down to the saddle itself to ensure that it can be correctly positioned.