So far in this series I’ve written about the location of the saddle, but what of the saddle itself? Saddles are a very charged subject. I’ve got a friend who rides daily and has one of those granny fat-ass saddles with about 4 inches of padding on it – and he claims that if he could find room (or a cover) for another 4, he’d put that on there too.
This notion, while common, is exactly the opposite of what is comfortable for anything more than a simple trip around the block. When you get into real mileage (15-30 miles a day on average) and endurance cycling (60 miles plus), the rule is this: The more padding you’ve got on the saddle, the more pain you’re in for. This reality cannot be debated, it cannot be reasoned with and it most definitely cannot be gotten used to. For road cycling, the thinner the padding the better as long as you have the right saddle – the trick is to wear a decent pair of cycling shorts. Having the proper saddle, one that allows you to sit on the saddle on your “sit bones”:
When you’re able to sit on the sit bones, on a minimally padded saddle, blood can flow to other, um, important parts of the anatomy. The staunch of that blood flow, in addition to unnecessary friction, is what causes all of that pain. This also goes in conjunction with having the saddle in the right location, if the saddle is improperly located you’ll be likely to attribute the pain generated by having the saddle located improperly to “not enough padding”.
Now, that photo above is of a Specialized Body Geometry measuring device used specifically to measure the sit bones. Once the technician has that measurement, they can actually set you up with a saddle made specifically to the width you require (I’m a 143 mm). Not only will they take that measurement of your sit bones into account, they also factor riding style into the equation. Whether you ride upright or lower (more aerodynamically) will have a bearing on the width of the saddle you need.
Unfortunately, picking the right saddle can be a very difficult proposition. I know guys who have been through several before they finally come to one they really like. Most bike shops will allow you to test ride a saddle for up to a month, so don’t be afraid to ask what their policy is – but if they’re cool enough to let you test one, don’t scuff it or it’s yours.
Finally, the pain generated by a saddle that is too wide (or too narrow) should be rather simple to figure out… The fleshy part around one of your sit bones or your hip will hurt. The more you ride, the more it will hurt – it won’t go away after a couple of days of rest. One you spend some time in the saddle again, it’ll flare back up. To make matters more delicate, this one takes some time to figure out (at least it did for me). It took having to talk to one of the more experienced mechanics at my local shop to get it figured out.
Mountain biking is a bit of a different monster when it comes to padding on the saddle. I have a hard tail (no rear suspension) mountain bike so my saddle is quite a bit more padding but that comes at a price… I hate riding that bike more than 20 miles because I know exactly when the lack of blood flow becomes an issue, I can feel it. It appears as though, after looking at some of the major brands, things have changed since my mountain bike came out and even the mountain bike saddles are going minimalist – very good news indeed.
Tri saddles differ from standard road saddles in that they often have a bit more padding on the nose of the saddle, where a triathlete typically ends up. Because I have no experience with these Ill refrain from comment on them. Talk to your local bike shop pro.
UPDATE: Here’s a great post from the feminine perspective…