Choosing the Proper Bike Saddle for a Road Bike – and Setting it So it doesn’t HURT: No more riding on barbed wire….
Road bike saddles are sometimes a tough case to crack. Getting mine set up perfectly has taken years. For some, it’s simply buying a saddle, slapping it on in the traditional spot after taking a few pertinent measurements, and you’re off. For others, not so much. I will posit this, though: The more you ride, the more important it is to get it right.
I have a unique situation that I’ve dealt with over the years and I’ll offer this simple recap: First, I have my race bike set up perfectly – and by perfectly, I mean within a millimeter front to back, up and down, side to side (width), and level. There is something amazing about having a bike set-up so perfect. I also have a rain bike that is close to the race bike in how it’s set up, but it’s not quite perfect. That bike has taken some tinkering – thus the reason for this post. Finally, there’s my wife’s bike. Her saddle position and the type of saddle has been incredibly difficult to dial in, between style, thickness of padding, and position. I finally got it right over the last two weeks…. and I almost wept inside to be done.
First, a few things must be known and accepted.
- This will be a process. We seek progress, not perfection. Not at first.
- The “goal posts” will move. This isn’t a set it and forget it thing, not for most.
- The importance of interpreting feedback from the body, knowing what you’re feeling and how that relates to saddle position, cannot be understated. If you don’t know what you’re feeling, hoping someone else will and be able to adjust your saddle to that… well, it isn’t going to end well.
- More important, not all feedback requires moving the saddle. A little nagging pain when mileage is increased or after a really hard day or two in the saddle is normal. What’s important is the structural pain – when the knees hurt after or during every ride, when a hamstring flares up (hamstring issues can often be traced back to saddle width, by the way), things like that.
What I like to use to work on my saddle position:
- Proper Allen wrenches
- My trainer (for the tougher, bigger adjustments). The trainer affords me the opportunity to take a lot of variables out of the equation.
- A 4′ (1.25 meter) level (for the initial set-up).
- A spirit level (6″ to 8″, a tiny level). There are smartphone apps for that, too.
To get my saddle height, I used the old-school 109% of my inseam measurement. That works out to 36-3/8″ on the nose. Take a book, jam it into your crotch (be careful, of course) and measure from the floor up (make sure the book is level). Take off your shoes first. Take that number and multiply it by 1.09, convert the decimals to a fraction (use Bing), and you’re good to go. You can also use the old heel on the pedals at the axles and pedal backward method… That works too.
Fore/aft positioning for a road bike saddle is pretty simple. Drop a weighted string from the front of your knee toward the pedal. The weight should be right smack-dab in the center of the pedal axle when the crank arms are parallel with the ground. Or simply use a 4′ level – place the top-back edge against your knee and the bottom-back edge against the end of the crank arm with the crank arms parallel to the ground… You should be plumb (level, up and down). That’s where you start (for a time trial bike, the starting measurement for the fore/aft positioning is very different). Ride for a while. Pain at the front of the knee means you lower the saddle. Pain at the back of the knee means you raise it. Fore/aft position will change slightly as you raise or lower the saddle, remember that. Also, if you raise the saddle, it comes forward. Lowering it means you move it back, so be aware of that. Conversely, if you have to move the saddle forward, you’ll likely want to raise it just a bit. If you move the saddle back? You guessed it, lower it a little.
Those are the basics. Now, let’s deal with the fine tuning, because this is the interesting part. Once we get the saddle close, we want to dial it in. If we’re feeling too stretched out or too scrunched up in the cockpit, we don’t move the saddle, well, a little bit is okay. We change the stem which brings the handlebar closer or pushes it farther away. That said, there’s a happy spot on the saddle, and that happy spot is meant to cradle the cyclist and support their position on the bike. For this reason, I hate the “level it and call it good” option. Leveling the saddle doesn’t go far enough, especially for those of us who ride in an aggressive posture and put in a pile of miles:
First, there are three types of saddle: Flat, contoured and a happy medium in between the two. On the race bike I have a contoured saddle, on the rain bike I have the happy medium. On the race bike, the front nose of the saddle is level plus a degree or two of “up” so it cradles me. If my position was a little more aggressive, I’d naturally set the nose down closer to level for the nose of the saddle. If I was more upright, I would naturally have the nose up a little higher.
For the rain bike, I’m still dialing that one in, but that was level minus 1.3 degrees until yesterday… Remember, there’s an app for leveling? It actually gives you tenths of a degree, very nice. Anyway, the rain bike’s saddle level is measured front to back because the minimal contouring of the saddle makes it too tricky to find a good place for the level. What’s important though, is how the saddle cradles me relative to the bike’s set-up. If it’s nosed down too much, I’ll want to slide to the front of the saddle. If it’s nosed up too much, I’ll feel pressure where it sucks to feel pressure when I’m riding. The idea is to fine-tune the level so the saddle neither pushes me forward, nor puts too much pressure on the front nether regions, if you know what I mean. We’re talking about millimeters here, too, even tenths of millimeters. So use small moves.
I’ve got my Venge to use as a benchmark, because it’s perfect, so we start there. I’ve got the Trek saddle height right, adjusted up 2mm for a little bit more padding on that particular saddle, and the fore/aft is located where it should be. I’ve been riding with this set-up for two weeks now and I realized yesterday that I’m having to scoot back on the saddle, maybe five or ten millimeters or so, every few miles. So this morning, I loosened the front bolt and tightened the back on the saddle to move the nose up a hair (just a half-time each bolt):
l tested that out on the trainer for a few minutes and it felt good, so that meant taking it out for a road test. The road test felt a little better than what I switched from, so I’ll be sticking with that for now…
The ultimate goal in all of this is simple; When it’s all said and done, I want my butt to automatically find its happy spot on the saddle when I sit down on it. I want to be cradled by the saddle so it’s not pushing me forward or giving me pressure up front… Until I have that happy medium, I have to tinker once in a while as I become aware of new changes in how the saddle feels.
As for picking the right saddle, the key is not always more padding. Not on a road bike anyway. There are instances where a little more padding helps though. My Venge is one of the stiffest frames available on the market, but Specialized magically made it compliant for road chatter. My 5200, fifteen years of technological advancement behind the Venge, is the opposite. It’s a squishier ride but less reasonable on road chatter. On the Trek, a few extra millimeters (not inches) of padding helps smooth the road out considerably. In fact, the saddle I have on there now is a mountain bike saddle… but it works.
To wrap this post up, if you’re thinking of putting one of those gel pads over your saddle, your bike needs the set-up fixed to fit you better. You should never, ever need one of those on a road bike. Never. Look at me…. Ever. If you can’t get it set right using the instructions in this post, take it to a pro. Your heinie deserves it.