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Saddle Chalk Talk

Saddle Chalk Talk

At times, the bicycle saddle exists as an afterthought, perched atop a seatpost (that received even less attention) as a place to park one’s posterior while the rest of the bike does everything important. On bikes sold and spec’d complete, saddles are sometimes seen as a place for the dealer or manufacturer to resist adding significant cost or weight, in an effort for stickers to remain competitive in these arenas. Taking an optimistic view, the wise consumer simply swaps and stashes any sub-optimal saddles as spares for when a buddy’s carbon rail torture device meets an early demise. The reality is, the saddle is the part of the bike with which we share our most intimate contact, and it’s worth getting right. While it may not be cheap, the upside is that many of the most useful saddles are also the best looking. Further, like anything that’s going to be touching your privates, it’s worth shelling out for.

Among many factors that influence the shape and construction chosen for a saddle, two stand out: the distribution of the rider’s weight fore and aft, and the intended use of the bike.

 

In general, the more weight the rider places on the saddle, the wider and more flexible the saddle should be. An upright riding position (as achieved with high and/or swept back handlebars) pairs comfortably with a wide, firm, and supportive saddle. The Brooks B-67 is a fine candidate. Given that pressure is a ratio of force to area, and weight, a measure of force: a wide saddle better distributes the weight of the rider over a larger surface area, thereby reducing the pressure. By contrast, a more forward riding position with more weight upon the hands typically calls for a narrower and possibly less flexible saddle. Bent at the waist, a rider’s thighs would usually interfere with a wide saddle.

A particularly flexible saddle in this scenario can yield that sinking feeling where the rider can’t seem to “stay on top” of the saddle as much as he or she’d like. The Brooks Swallow has long been a favorite of messengers (and wannabes) who need to ride their bike all day, but also have to get somewhere at Mach I or risk skipping a payday. Most folks will be somewhere in the middle of these extremes, but oughta allow these to be guiding principles in shape and flex when changing from one saddle to another. Under no circumstances should a saddle with great amounts of “squish” be ridden for long periods of time. We’ll get to fit later, but in essence, a soft saddle feels great only for a few moments to a few miles. After that, the compression of the saddle pushing back against the rider’s legs creates additional pressure points along the hamstrings and butt. At the same time, the inability to circulate blood through the legs leads to lots of stuff going numb, and at the very least less oxygenated blood to the lower extremities. I need not remind the reader that these lower extremities are the pistons that drive the whole operation.

Among many factors that influence the shape and construction chosen for a saddle, two stand out: the distribution of the rider’s weight fore and aft, and the intended use of the bike.

 

In general, the more weight the rider places on the saddle, the wider and more flexible the saddle should be. An upright riding position (as achieved with high and/or swept back handlebars) pairs comfortably with a wide, firm, and supportive saddle. The Brooks B-67 is a fine candidate. Given that pressure is a ratio of force to area, and weight, a measure of force: a wide saddle better distributes the weight of the rider over a larger surface area, thereby reducing the pressure. By contrast, a more forward riding position with more weight upon the hands typically calls for a narrower and possibly less flexible saddle. Bent at the waist, a rider’s thighs would usually interfere with a wide saddle. A particularly flexible saddle in this scenario can yield that sinking feeling where the rider can’t seem to “stay on top” of the saddle as much as he or she’d like.

The Brooks Swallow has long been a favorite of messengers (and wannabes) who need to ride their bike all day, but also have to get somewhere at Mach I or risk skipping a payday. Most folks will be somewhere in the middle of these extremes, but oughta allow these to be guiding principles in shape and flex when changing from one saddle to another. Under no circumstances should a saddle with great amounts of “squish” be ridden for long periods of time. We’ll get to fit later, but in essence, a soft saddle feels great only for a few moments to a few miles.

After that, the compression of the saddle pushing back against the rider’s legs creates additional pressure points along the hamstrings and butt. At the same time, the inability to circulate blood through the legs leads to lots of stuff going numb, and at the very least less oxygenated blood to the lower extremities. I need not remind the reader that these lower extremities are the pistons that drive the whole operation.

Even an identical bike, when used for different purposes, calls for a different saddle. Short road rides rarely expose the merits or faults of a saddle. There’s just not enough abuse to really find out what works. Long road rides, rocky mountain biking, tours: these are trying times. Short, rough mountain bike riding calls for a nearly level saddle, possibly with some minimal and firm cushion to help absorb sudden jarring bumps. This type of saddle will typically be plastic, which is likely the best material we’ve come up with for dealing with moisture, muck, and mud dealt out in the mountain bike scene. WTB has several offerings that fit the bill here. For long road rides or extended mountain or road touring, stick with materials and shapes that provide long-lasting comfort.

Enter the venerable Brooks B-17. The shape is in the sweet spot in terms of width, which lends itself to the moderate posture most folks use for longer rides. Made of leather, rivets, and steel or titanium rails, the materials are about as pure as you’ll find anywhere. Leather, in fact, deserves it’s own conversation entirely, but we’ll stick to seats for now.

 

 

Leather’s meant for saddles for the same reason it’s meant for baseball gloves and work boots. During courtship (some call this “break-in”) leather forms a lifelong pair bond with the user unlike any other material. Leather is supportive and flexible, yet strong and assertive enough to let you know when you’ve erred in setup or riding style. If I may be so bold, this is a winning combination of traits that you should also seek in a mate. Before riding a leather saddle, apply some leather dressing, such as Proofide. A generous glob (less than a dollop) should do fine on the top and bottom of the saddle, and maybe a little for the dry spot on your elbow. Some folks grab a rag or fallen toothbrush for this, and that’s fine, but I say dive in there with bare hands. It’s more personal. In my experience vigor is rewarded in this exercise, as the frictional heat generated by some fierce rubbing helps work the dressing into the pores of the leather quite nicely. Take the time to admire the rivets while you work, and ponder the permanence yet replace-ability of such a connection. This process needs to be repeated periodically, as determined by use and environment. For a fair weather Sunday driver, once every couple years should do it. For my western Washington commuter, once in October and once in March was good. While you’re at it, check the tension or sag level of your saddle. After a variable spell, the saddle will stretch. Fear not, as most manufacturers have included a tension bolt that can be adjusted, to its length, to accommodate the ductility. A turn or a couple turns as needed or at the re-dressing interval is typical, and greatly extends the useful life of the saddle.

Empirically speaking, a good saddle that’s poorly adjusted can be just as lousy as a poor saddle to begin with. In essence, the position of the saddle should allow the rider to have the most significant contact channeled through the sit bones. To the uninitiated, the sit bones are the knobby protrusions on either side of your lower backend. To find them, take a seat on a hard, flat, low, uncomfortable wooden bench. Then lean forward in the manner of Rodin’s Thinker, and the bones that you feel (or hear) upon the bench are your targets. Putting your weight on these bones takes it off of the softer parts of your backside, which are designed for cushion, not for load-bearing. The angle of the saddle to achieve this will largely depend on the position of the handlebars, among other factors. With bars at saddle height or thereabouts, keep the saddle mostly level. For bars as high or higher than saddle height, a slight tilt upward helps keep the rider’s sitting region centered over the saddle’s sitting region. A perfect harmony. Back to that seatpost. A two-bolt seatpost not only is more secure, but also makes adjustments and fine tuning a snap. For example, to adjust tilt upwards without changing fore/aft position on the rails, loosen the front bolt a few turns, and then tighten the rear and observe your saddle magically point to the sky. Reverse the process to tilt the saddle nose downward.

Saddles are personal, and a savvy rider will try as many as possible to find the best fit. Veteran riders may have some discards that they’ve outgrown or didn’t like in the first place. Check the Ebays and check your buddies’ garages if you can. That best fit, by the way, changes with your body and changes with your riding style. Accordingly, you may have a few “favorites” throughout your riding career, and there’s no shame in that. Your time and consideration spent here will keep you happily in that saddle longer and more often.