Guide to Bicycle Saddles
Published: 12/17/2010 by eBicycles
The poor old saddle is often blamed for all sorts of problems that may range from simple bum soreness to a prostrate. Getting the right saddle requires both knowledge and often-times trial and error, as there are several factors to consider, but it's certainly worth the effort as having a well fitting saddle can greatly increase your comfort level when riding. Choosing a saddle begins with some simple considerations - your gender, body structure, type of riding, riding style and any riding preferences you may have. Once chosen, a saddle still needs to be fitted and adjusted to ensure you get the most out of it. In this guide, we'll cover all of these topics as well as some other tricks of the trade. You can navigate this guide using the links below:
Why the Bicycle Saddle / Seat is Important
The saddle is not just another component of the bike or simply where you park yourself, it’s there for a very good reason. Not only is it one of the three places your body actually meets the bike (the pedals and handlebars are the others), but it takes most of your weight on the bike, positions you over the pedals and helps you control the bike. Getting it all right will make you more efficient on the bike and ultimately help you enjoy riding more.
Not surprisingly the saddle draws the biggest number of complaints from riders as it is responsible for a rather intimate part of the body that can be sensitive. These complaints are often not through any fault of the saddle itself but rather because the saddle hasn’t been selected to suit the cyclist’s anatomy, is not properly adjusted or the cyclist has done a longer ride than their posterior can handle.
Seat or saddle, which is it?
There are a number of misconceptions about the saddle. The first is calling or thinking of it as a seat. A seat is designed to bear your entire weight, while a saddle is something that carries you, but not all of your weight.
Softer is better.
Another misconception is that an uncomfortable saddle should be replaced with a soft one. However, just as soft mattresses are not necessarily the most comfortable to sleep on, soft saddles are not necessarily the best to cycle on. Soft saddles don't provide much support for your body so you can quickly become tired and uncomfortable on longer rides.
Wider is more comfy.
A further misconception is that a wide seat is more comfortable than a narrow one. This really depends on the type of riding you'll be doing. Certainly, sleek racing saddles don’t look comfortable but wider seats create more friction and chafing when you're doing lots of pedalling (say on the road, or in a race). In general, the more you ride and pedal, the thinner and less obtrusive a saddle should be.
Types of Bicycle Saddles
Bike seats are a lot like running shoes. There are numerous varieties and styles designed to suit a type of body and style of riding. This section outlines the features of the different kinds of bike saddles and why the differences are important. A number of saddles have been developed over the years for aesthetic and health reasons. There are basically three kinds: cruiser, comfort and racing.
© Morten Liebach / flickr
Long, narrow saddle designed for road riding and racing. Well suited for fast, continuous pedaling.
Racing saddles are designed to allow full movement and prevent chafing. These saddles shift you forward so you have more weight on your hands and feet and less on the seat. Road saddles are thinner, harder and lighter while mountain bike saddles are also thin but with some padding. New racing saddles have been developed over time to protect the reproductive organs. No-nose saddles are supposed to improve erectile function and cutaway/soft centre saddles relieve pressure from the soft tissues associated with reproduction.
Pictured at right: Fizik Aroine Wing Flex Saddle (Amazon link), road bike saddle.
© Brandon Kelly
A padded leather comfort saddle designed for moderate pedaling and longer distance rides.
Comfort saddles are also wide with larger amounts of padding but designed to allow easy pedaling. Comfort saddles can be used for long distance touring and are often designed to absorb some of the shock and vibrations from rough country roads. Women-specific saddles might come into this category as they also have a wider seat to suit the female anatomy, a shorter nose and centre relief.
Pictured at right: Bontrager Suburbia WSD Comfort Saddle (Manufacturer link), available only in bike stores.
© UHLMAN / flickr
A wide and well padded cruiser saddle, best suited for leisure riding while sitting upright.
Cruiser saddles provide a lot of cushioning and have support on both ends. The upright nature of the handlebars on cruisers means a lot of your weight is directly on the seat. And because “cruising” is what you’re doing, you don’t need to pedal quickly so you can have a wide, padded saddle to support your weight. Banana saddles with their long shaped and well-padded shell are often used on cruisers and children’s bikes.
Pictured at right: Nirve Island Flower Cruiser Saddle (Amazon link) in Brown.
© Hobson Associates, Inc.
Dual cushion, noseless saddle for riders who can't get comfortable on a conventional saddle.
There are also unique, and sometimes innovative, types of saddles, or inventions, out on the market from time to time. These include inflatable saddles, saddles with a cushion for each cheek, and saddle covers that contain water or air. Some are even constructed using sheepskin.
Pictured at right: Hobson Pro Hub X2 (Amazon link), dual cushion saddle.
Saddles for different riding styles
It is important to use a style-specific saddle as they aren’t suited to all kinds of riding. A saddle for fast races will be torture over long distance events. While wider seats create too much interference the faster you go. Make sure you consider what type of riding you will be doing before you invest in a saddle.
Basically faster riders need a narrow racing saddle that will shift you forward and place more weight on the hands and feet, thus reducing much of the weight on the seat. Wide seats create too much friction or chafing on legs pedalling at a higher cadence. Casual riders on comfort or cruiser bikes sit more upright with most of their weight on the seat. Therefore these are best suited to wide, padded saddles with good support and cushioning.
Everyone’s posterior is different but none more so than men and women. Women have wider hips and wider ischial bones (“perch bones”). The usual practice when choosing a saddle is to go for a gender specific one, men on men’s models with longer, narrower saddles and women on wider ones that provide more support.
Women's road/racing saddle, shorter in length and wider in the back to better accommodate a woman's anatomy.
This is not always the case however. While some women find it more comfortable to sit on a slightly wider saddle with more pelvic support, some may actually prefer men’s saddles particularly for racing bikes. Similarly, some men with wider hips may prefer to pick something in the women’s style that agrees with their anatomy.
The best advice here is to give several saddles a try to see what is most agreeable to your body type.
Saddle Design, Features and Materials
Saddles are composed of a number of components including the shell, cover, rails and suspension. The nose is the most forward part.
The shell creates the shape of the saddle using molded plastic, carbon fiber, nylon or even leather. Leather has long been considered the most comfortable because it conforms to the shape of the rider over time, but it's expensive and less weather resistant than other materials.
Most saddles have a cover forming padding on top of the shell. This could be closed cell foam, gel/fabric/lycra combination, vinyl, artificial leather or real leather. Some riders buy extra pads/covers to put over uncomfortable saddles, however these accessories probably won't help too much. If your current saddle isn't working, you should first try adjusting the position, and if that doesn't work, then try a new saddle.
The rails connect the saddle to the bike and run along the underside. There are usually two parallel rails with nose and rear adjustments made of steel, titanium, aluminum, magnesium or carbon fiber that may be solid or hollow. Some newer bikes have the rails integrated into the shell while BMX bikes have pivotal seat posts. Another new rail type is the i-beam which extends along the length of the saddle and uses two clamping bolts.
Suspension components such as springs or elastomers, built into some saddles, help absorb vibrations.
Saddles vary mostly in terms of width for adults. Racing saddles are narrower and comfort saddles are wider. Here are the differences in common saddle styles available today:
- Race – lightweight, narrow, stiff top, minimal padding
- Mountain bike – fairly narrow, medium padding, lightweight, shaped rear, downward slope, reinforced
- Gel – cushioning, medium weight, slightly wider, flexible top, bumps to support sit bones
- Suspension – built into the underside of the seat with elastomers, narrow, light weight
- Cutaway – similar to mountain bike with material removed from pressure points or holes cut
- Wide/cushion – wide especially at the back, well padded, some springs, heavy
- All-leather – medium weight, wide at the back, needs a cover if it rains, expensive, requires breaking in
- Noseless – medium to lightweight, gender-specific, medium padding, no nose, split down center or centreline recessed
- Other – there are a number of designs in this group but most are heavier with ample padding and parts move with the body.
Here are examples of each saddle style:
© ryoichitanaka / flickr
Leather racing saddle with low padding and center cutout. This saddle is best suited for road riding.
© Trek Bicycle Corporation
Mountain bike saddle with medium padding and a wider design than road bikes.
© Brandon Kelly
A gel saddle with lycra covering. Gel saddles use shock absorbing gel as the padding on the saddle.
© yoppy / flickr
Road saddle with cutaway center line and a cutout in the center. Both of these features reduce pressure on the perineum.
© Moto@Club4AG / flickr
Leather saddle with rigid metal frame. The leather acts as the padding and shell in one.
© ISM Seat
A split, noseless saddle designed to reduce pressure in sensitive areas for both men and women.
Quality and price ranges
If you find a bike you like by all means get it and then spend a little extra to get the right saddle for you – it’s well worth it. Any bicycle saddle should provide a nice balance between performance, weight and price. And the amount you want to pay will depend on your budget and how much time you spend on the bike. If you don't ride too often, any saddle may do, but if you do a lot of riding you need to get the right kind of saddle.
With so many kinds of saddles available and so many different features, it can be confusing to figure out what you need. Here are a few tips:
- Buy a high quality saddle - these are typically designed with rails and made from carbon fiber (most expensive), titanium or steel. They are highly adjustable, can take a lot of abuse and last a long time.
- Avoid plastic saddles with no covering; unless you are an old-school BMX rider who spends very little time sitting in the saddle (because you're doing tricks in mid-air), get something with padding. Your body will thank you.
- Foam and gel covered saddles are the most common these days while leather ones are popular with long-distance cyclists. Gel covered saddles are typically a bit softer than foam, while both offer good value for the price.
- Women looking for wider rear options should get a saddle that’s much the same in the nose as a men’s model but a little shorter and wider to fit the female pelvis.
- Don't be afraid to spend $50+ USD on your saddle, especially if you ride frequently. It's a small investment to make for your riding comfort.
Always make sure you have gone through all the options about saddle adjustment and that you are using the right saddle for your riding style before going out and buying something new. Prices can range anywhere from $20 USD and up for a saddle.
Where to buy, bike shop vs. online
Bicycle saddles are a dime a dozen and in so many types and styles it can be a bit confusing. The best way to start your research is by asking your biking friends. Most riders will probably have a tale, no pun intended, about their saddle or give you some feedback. And if you know riders with a similar build to your own that is extra helpful.
Local bicycle dealers are also a wealth of knowledge. They will know which saddles are popular and why, the quality of the materials and the models to buy. They may also allow you to test ride the saddle or use it for a day as long as it’s returned undamaged. If they allow this, try a long ride before you make up your mind. It’s the bike shop’s job to keep their customers happy and you will find them quite helpful. They may also be able to suggest a few adjustments to make your ride more comfortable.
Buying online may score you some good price deals, but you really should know the product and have tested it first.
Saddle's Affect on the Body
Numbness, chafing, boils and even impotency are some of the physical ailments you could experience from the wrong saddle. Unfortunately saddles can have an inadvertent effect on your riding and physiology.
A saddle that is comfortable for one rider may be torture for another. But there are other ways you can increase your comfort on the bike. Here are some things to try once you've gotten the right saddle and adjusted it properly:
- Wear cycling shorts
- Move around regularly to shift the pressure to different parts of your body
- Stand from time to time to relieve pressure and get other muscles working
- Sit upright to take the pressure off your hands
- On bumpy terrain, lift your weight off the saddle slightly so the vibrations from rocks and ruts don’t slam into your groin
- Ride more often, your body will get used to the saddle over time
The nose of the saddle is the part that often bothers riders. It can compress nerves, irritate the genitals and cause chafing. There has been a lot of discussion about cycle related impotency based on the concern that the rider’s weight flattens the penile arteries and reduces blood-flow capacity.
So a lot of bicycle saddles are now designed to ensure “blood flow” to sensitive areas and some may have cutaways. These saddles have a channel down the centre of the seat lengthways or a hole towards the front of the nose. Other seats may have soft foam or gel in the nose or soften the base of the seat. The idea is to remove the stiffness from the seat in sensitive areas, thereby reducing the amount of irritation for the rider. You can also alleviate pressure on the groin by ensuring the saddle is properly positioned.
If you still can't get comfortable on the saddle no matter what you do, consider switching to a recumbent. The recumbent is like an easy chair and even has a back for support. Your legs are out in front, while you sit in the seat and pedal.
The split seat is another debatable solution, it has no nose and can relieve penile numbness but compromises lateral control. The two pads also rock a bit and must be angled down so circulation is not cut to the thighs, but it then throws the rider forward and can cause associated hand/wrist/neck issues.
Muscles can become adapted to riding in any position, even incorrect ones, however an ill-fitted saddle can lead to muscle imbalance or joint pain/problems. Muscle imbalance then becomes a cause of chronic injury.
A common muscular imbalance is between the quadriceps muscles and the hamstrings. For example if the saddle is too low the hamstrings tighten and this can lead to knee bursitis or tendon trouble. This can be corrected by adjusting the saddle to the right height and also by stretching or massaging the tight muscles and strengthening the weaker muscle group.
Muscle pain can develop at any time during cycling training and is indeed a part of the process as you’re building fitness or recovering from long sessions. However joint pain and numbness can be signs of overuse, which can be avoided by gradually increasing your riding levels to allow muscles to develop.
© johnthescone / flickr
Velodrome rider with the correct amount of knee bend with saddle adjusted to the right height.
A quality, well-positioned saddle should smoothen out your pedaling action and be better for your muscles and joints. The most common cycling overuse injuries are in the knees and hips and can be a direct reflection of your saddle position. If you look out for these physical symptoms you can make adequate adjustments to your bike to prevent injury.
If your knees are excessively bent and your quadriceps burn with effort, you may have your saddle positioned too low. This makes cycling more tiring and can cause injury as you are limiting the extension of your legs. It often leads to pain in the anterior of the knee.
If you find it a struggle to pedal through the bottom of the stroke and rock excessively with your hips on the saddle, or are sliding forward too much and putting pressure on your groin, your saddle may be too high. If you have to straighten your knee through the rotation you won’t be able to pedal smoothly and can put more wear on your joints and cause posterior knee pain.
The saddle’s fore/aft position and your cleat position may also contribute to knee pain. If your saddle is too far back and you have to reach for the pedal it stretches the IT (iliotibial band – running on the outside of the leg from hip to knee) with resultant knee pain.
A 25-30 degree knee angle is recommended to avoid injury and studies have shown optimal power for pedaling comes above 96 percent of leg length.
If you are suffering from the saddle blues, there are some further options to what we have described above which may not actually require you to change your saddle position at all.
If you don’t ride much you’re bound to be sore. Get out there more and see if that helps.
Get bicycle shorts
Padded cycling shorts, or those without seams in the crotch do help reduce numbness and pain – trust us. Underwear is not worn with cycling shorts.
© Paceline Products
Chamois crème for cyclists is applied directly to your groin area or the inside of your cycling shorts.
Apply lube to your short’s padding to reduce friction and prevent chafing.
© Brandon Kelly
Bicycle with a suspension seatpost that is designed to absorb small bumps and vibrations.
Upgrade to a suspension seat post
These provide an inch or so of travel and will reduce the beating on rides.
Try a recumbent
These bikes have saddles in a reclining position that support your entire body. They may well be the way to go after you’ve tried all the conventional options.
Here is more information about bicycle saddles:
© Robert S. Donovan / flickr
from Me - San Fran, CA - 03/19/2013 03:37:47
What an infortmative, well-written article. Thank you whoever is responsible