You know that old expression: “no pain, no gain.” Well, forget about it.
When it comes to choosing a good bike seat, you have everything to gain by putting a little effort into finding a saddle that will fit your tush like a glove. Perhaps you just bought a new bike or have been building up a hand-me-down. In addition to outfitting your ride with new handlebars, grips and pedals, you’ll want to invest at least as much attention into your saddle. And that doesn’t mean you need to empty your wallet to get the best seat for your body type – you simply need to know what to look for and what to ask when shopping around.
Many bikes come with stock accessories not designed for the people who will be using them. Replacing your saddle could change the way you ride for the better.
Locate the Pain
If your saddle is uncomfortable, try to determine exactly where the pain is, and try to be as specific about describing that pain as you can. Between the three points of contact where your body rests on your bike – feet, hands and butt – at least 55 percent of your weight will rest on your seat. The area that you sit on is called the perineal region, and it includes a network of blood vessels and nerves that lie between your sit bones.
If you are feeling pain or numbness between these bones, your saddle could be too narrow. If chafing along your inner thighs is the issue, or if your sit bones are sore, perhaps your saddle is too wide or too flat. Women tend to have a wider space between their sit bones than men do, so bike saddles for women tend to be broader (see “What to Know Before You Buy”). The key is to have as much surface area contact on your seat as possible so that your weight is evenly distributed.
Choose a Saddle
When I bought my last bike seat, I had Goldilocks in mind. I wanted something not too hard and not too soft. I wanted to find a saddle that was “just right.” In addition to testing out different saddles, it is worthwhile to consider the geometry of bike saddle design. Joshua Cohen, in his book The Illustrated Guide to Bicycle Seats (see review on p.77), recommends avoiding saddles that curve steeply upwards in the middle to avoid excessive upwards pressure. A slight curvature will allow you to slide from side to side comfortably.
Viewed from the side, the saddle should have a slight flare in the rear to hold you in place. A slight dip in the middle will support you comfortably and allow for front-to-back movement. If you are riding a city bike and sitting in a more upright position, the rear of the seat will be much wider than the nose. A road bike with drop bars will have you leaning forward and so a narrower seat might be your preference.
You also want to think about saddle material and padding. I swear by my Brooks B17 leather saddle. In fact, after I had my first Brooks stolen last year, I swallowed hard, fought back tears and bought a new one to replace it. Leather stretches to conform to the shape of your pelvis and allows your body to slide naturally as you pedal. An added bonus is that you can adjust a tightening bolt under the saddle as the leather softens and stretches over time.
If the leather option is too expensive or not to your liking, by far the most common bike seat is a variation of a hard plastic shell padded with foam or gel and covered with vinyl. Beware that too much padding can result in chafing on your thighs. If you really need extra cushioning, consider padded bike shorts as an option.
So you found your dream saddle. You now know more about bike seat design than you do about gear ratios or bearing grease. You even tried a couple of seats out after test-driving a few bikes at your local shop. There is more. To fully reap the benefits of your carefully chosen saddle, it needs to fit on your bike properly. You can adjust your seat three ways, the most obvious being raising or lowering your seat post. Underneath the seat you will see two rails that are attached to the seat post with a clamp. The seat can be moved forwards or backwards along this clamp. You can also tilt the nose of the saddle.
Finally, some saddles come with springs, and you can even buy seat posts with shock absorbers. This is a matter of personal taste. My thinking on this is that if you have maximized the saddle surface that your body is in contact with and the saddle is properly installed, you should be ready to ride.
What to Know Before You Buy a Saddle
+ pressure relief is possible with cutaway slots in the saddle
+ look for women-specific seats or seats designed to fit the position of your sit bones – wider seats will accommodate wider sit bones
+ your pelvis tends to sit further back
+ watch for numbness and chafing, as they might be signs that you need a different type of saddle
+ your sit bones tend to be closer together, so choose a narrower seat
+ numbness can lead to nerve damage and even erectile dysfunction
+ ensure padding on your saddle is not getting too compressed
+ chafing can lead to saddle sores if not attended to