What Kind of Bicycle Saddle Should I Ride?
New cyclists often wonder how anyone could ride long distances on such narrow saddles. In reality, riding for any length of time on a too-wide saddle is impossible, or nearly so. The wide, cushiony saddles seen on casual bikes aren’t meant for riding comfort but for superficial sitting comfort. It is immediately more “comfortable” to sit on one of these sofa-like contraptions, leading to the improper assumption that this comfort on the showroom floor translates into comfort on the road.
A narrow, relatively firm road saddle has everything you need for comfort on any ride. It is narrow enough that your legs will not rub against it pedaling. The sofa-saddle’s copious width will quickly chafe your thighs into an angry red miasma. The firm padding properly supports your sit bones, ensuring that soft tissue is not crushed against the saddle. The sofa-saddle’s vast sponginess offers no support, scissoring your soft bits in a vice-like grip.
Everyone has seen the sofa-saddles – the stationary bikes in the gym all have them. You probably know someone with a bike in their garage that never gets ridden that sports one of these cushy monstrosities. The apotheosis of the ultra-cush, however, is a regular sofa-like saddle (usually complete with big springs underneath) that the rider has then, in a misguided stab at comfort, covered with super-plush sheepskin. As you will see below, this additional horror foisted on the already horrific not only does not improve this saddle, it actually makes it worse.
In general, look for a shape that is flatter across the back – this allows the saddle to support your sit bones while elevating soft tissue above the pressure points on the saddle. Also, saddles that are flatter front-to-rear also tend to be more comfortable for the same reason – a bowed saddle can focus pressure in unwanted areas. The idea saddle width depends in part on the width of your sit bones, but that is just a rough guide.
Cutouts have been very popular ever since a large bike company introduced a model in connection with ads featuring a certain promiscuous president, saddles with cutouts in the nose are designed to minimize or reduce pressure on the soft tissue. Proponents will cite all kinds of studies that show increased blood flow, protection of vital functions, etc. The reality is, as with all saddles, there is no magic bullet. Some people thrive on saddles with cutouts, while others hate them passionately. The trade-offs for the extra airiness are occasionally pressure points at the cutout edges. For some, this isn’t a problem, but for others that match fine with traditional saddles, it’s intolerable.
Extended Front Portion or Nose
Some saddles, operating on the assumption that if a rider sits only on the sit bones then a saddle should only provide seating for the sit bones, produce saddles that totally lack a nose. They are, essentially, just two sit-bone cushions. In some cases they are individually sprung bumps, or maybe just a platform, but the common theme is that there is nothing protruding between your legs. Sounds like a good idea, right? If there is nothing between your legs, there is nothing to put pressure on your soft tissue.
There is one major flaw to this argument, however: control or the lack thereof. If you are literally perched on a nose-less saddle then you have no way to laterally direct the bike. It would like trying to ride a horse with your legs up in the air and only your sit bones on the saddle. It literally makes riding the bike impossible.
If all you plan to do is ride on the stationary bike for 15 minutes three times a week, do whatever you need to do to get on there. But if you want to actually ride outside (which presumably you do since you are reading this guide) then you need a saddle that not only meets your comfort needs, but also provides control and performance. So go with your nose (since nose-less saddles stink) and make sure your saddle is, indeed, a nose ahead.
Your mind thinks that soft is comfortable and firm is, well, less comfortable. Many people style this as a subjective debate, the equivalent of the soft/firm mattress conundrum, an irresolvable koan of personal taste. But when it comes to bicycle saddles, there is actually a right answer, and to give away the game, the right answer is not soft.
A proper cycling saddle should be firm to support your sit bones without crushing soft tissue. Firmness provides a base to push against when pedaling and a reliable surface that will move consistently as you shift weight and maneuver. This all contributes to a solid and powerful feeling on the bike. As you go on longer and longer rides, you will increasingly appreciate the benefits of a firmer saddle with less soreness, numbness and fatigue.
Certainly there is some adaptation to the saddle – it takes a while for the ligaments and muscles in your sit area to adapt. But the adaptation takes no longer than basic fitness adaptations and after even a few rides you will find that you are riding longer and with greater comfort than you ever imagined.
And that sheepskin rug you want to slap on the saddle? Don’t. With even less support than the saddle itself, the sheepskin causes your sit bones to sink even farther down, putting even greater pressure on your sensitive zone.
Now firm is not the same as hard. The saddle should be pleasantly firm, with just enough cushion to support your sit bones. This is where, unfortunately, an infinite range of subjectivity enters into the debate. For there truly is no perfect saddle for everyone, rather there is only the one perfect saddle for you. Casually browsing the isles of a bike shop will reveal a bewildering array of options (many expensive). How can you even begin to decide?
Choosing Your Saddle
So presumably your existing bike has a saddle. Do you like it? Have you spent any time riding on it? Keep in mind that if you haven’t, the saddle might feel uncomfortable simply because you are unused to riding. But if you have put some miles in and, despite your best wishes and hopes (and a pair of well fitting bikes shorts) the saddle still seems to be the culprit, seek out other options. One reliable method is to contact a local bicycle fit expert – they usually have oodles of saddles that you can try for a nominal fee (in any event, less than buying dozens of saddles). Also, your friends presumably have bikes, too, and you could try their saddles.
Another good option is test riding bikes at the local bike emporium – they all have different saddles, and it’s easy to go out for a spin. Of course none of these can replicate the feel of riding for miles and miles, but you’d be surprised how easy it is feel the bad ones. If a saddle won’t work it is usually obvious within the first few hundred meters. If the saddle makes it past this point, then it might work out, and borrowing one longer term from a bike fit guy might give you enough ride time to make a purchasing decision.