Road and Gravel Bikes; How I Set My Bike Saddles So I Get the Correct Height, Offset, and Tilt… EVERY Time.
A virtual cycling friend of mine, Matty, over at MattyandAnnika.life and I were recently commenting about a reader of his blog who had a saddle issue that caused pain after a mere 20 miles. Of course, because I was just lucky enough to see the comment, I sprung into action. There are three things and a possible fourth that will cause the saddle pain where there’s no broken skin, but rather it’s like a butt bone, or worse, the inside of your thigh bone feels bruised.
Now, before I get into this fairly technical post, if you’re wearing normal gym shorts (running, basketball, etc.) on a bicycle, that’s the problem. You need cycling shorts. You can wear those funky shorts and ride happy, or limit yourself to 15 miles at a crack… choose. Click on this post to get an idea of what you want (here) and buy a few pair. Modern saddles don’t work right without padded shorts – and those bulky, heavily padded monstrous saddles will have you hurting worse than you are now…
I suffered through this exact issue back in 2012 after buying my first real road bike, a Trek 5200 T from the local shop, used. It came with a rather bulky 155 mm saddle… and I was just a year into riding a bicycle. I didn’t know that saddles even came in different widths back then. After thinking the severe pain I was feeling was due to a running issue, I had a few days off the bike before going for a run (it was too cold to ride, sometime in the winter). Much to my surprise, that “running injury” didn’t hurt. It didn’t take long to take three away from five to come up with a saddle problem. I took my bike to the shop where they promptly measured my sit bones, then the saddle, and informed me it was no wonder I was in so much pain. My bike went from:
Now, going by the common novice thinking, the saddle on the left, with its vast padding advantage, should have been far superior to that little svelte number on the right. That thinking is wrong. The svelte saddle is butter because it fits my butt. I even went one better after I got the bike painted and refurbished and put a sexy, light carbon fiber number on it:
The Specialized Romin saddle on my Venge is 143 mm while the Bontrager saddle on the Trek is 138. After a year on the Bontrager and eight on the Specialized, I like the 138 a little better. Without getting too deep into the woods on this, saddle width is a big deal.
Next, you’ve got your saddle height and the fore/aft position. Now this gets a little tricky to dial in because all of the little tips and tricks for pulling a number out of thin air are great, but they’re not perfect. They get you close. So, we’re going to do a general saddle height set first. With your bike hooked up to an indoor trainer, put your heels on the pedals and pedal backward… your legs should straighten at the bottom, without rocking your hips. That’ll get you close enough for government work. Next, we’re tackling the fore/aft position of the saddle. For that, warm up for a few minutes on that trainer. Get comfortable… and then stop pedaling so the crank arms are parallel to the ground. Take a 4′ level and set the edge of the level against the end of your leading crank arm and against your knee. The bubble should be between the black lines. Adjust your saddle until it is. Finally, we get to the tilt. If you’ve got a contoured saddle, you level the nose. If you have a flat saddle, you level the entire saddle. A level app on a tablet works fantastically for this. Now, what you’re looking for is a perfect “cradling” effect from your saddle. If the nose is down, you’ll feel like you’re sliding down the front of the saddle. If the nose is too far up, it’ll feel like the nose is digging into your crotch (and let me tell you, that sucks). Raise or lower the nose of the saddle until it perfectly cradles you with your hands on the hoods. Once you’re set, place your hands in the drops. Does the nose dig into your nether regions? If so, drop the nose just ever so slightly. If not, you’re almost done.
At that point, once everything is dialed in close, I like to raise the saddle slightly. I want to make sure I’ve got the saddle as high as I can comfortably get it because this improves power to the pedal as long as you don’t go too far. If you’re too high, oh, it’s gonna hurt. Too low… well, if you did the heel thing right, it won’t be too low. Raise your saddle a millimeter at a time until you can feel the saddle digging in a little bit. Once you get there, lower it a millimeter. Then go for a 30 minute ride… uncomfortable at all – and I mean at all? If the saddle is still digging in a little, you’ll lower it another millimeter. That’s exactly how I get my saddle into the perfect position on my bikes. Now, this can take months to get perfect. Months. Be patient. If you’re feeling discomfort, address it with saddle tilt or raising/lowering the saddle. Don’t change the fore/aft position (you change the stem to fix reach issues).
Now, after you’ve done all of this, if your saddle still bugs you, you need a different saddle. The one you’ve got doesn’t suit you. Not all saddles agree with a cyclist. They’re very personal that way. I like a deeply contoured saddle. Others like their saddle as flat as a board. In the diagram below, I’m a Position 2 cyclist:
My friends, it is very important to be finicky when it comes to saddles. Antin, the poor fellow I started this post off about, could only ride 20 miles before his posterior started firing up. First, you need miles to build up heinie tolerance. If, after several dozen rides, you still feel like one of those red-assed baboons after you get off your bike, something needs adjusting.
The best advice I can give is to pay attention to what your butt is telling you. If you break the feeling down, you’ll probably be able to tell what the problem is so you don’t have to use a shotgun approach.
And one last point that will throw a monkey wrench into everything… The saddle heights aren’t exactly the same on my two road and gravel bikes. The gavel bike is a sixteenth (1.5 mm) of an inch lower than my Venge (36-3/8″) and my Trek’s saddle height is a 32nd (0.8 mm) lower than the Venge. I truly believe that setup, headset stack and frame geometry require subtle differences in the saddle height… and this is why I go to all of the trouble I do. I can tell you, without question or hesitation, I can’t raise the Trek’s saddle that 1/32″ and ride comfortably. I tried it. That 0.8 mm makes a difference.
Good luck, and if you’ve got problems, comment below and we’ll see if we can’t get that sorted out.