A Noob’s Guide to Saddles and Saddle Width: Conclusions on a Decade-Long Experiment. Saddle Width is the Key to Happiness
I’ve written about bike saddles before. I currently own four bikes (five if I count our tandem). I’ve been through a bit of N-1, but for good causes. My old Cannondale will go with my daughter to college once I convert it to modern shifting this winter and I gave my old Trek 3700 mountain bike to a co-worker at the beginning of his career whose big box bike had completely broken down. For those five bikes I currently own… counting… nine saddles. I’ve got everything. 155-mm, 143-mm, 138-mm and even a 128-mm. I’ve got thinly padded saddles and thickly padded saddles, flat saddles and contoured saddles, cutouts, no cutouts and yuge cutouts… steel rails, titanium rails, and carbon rails.
In the following post, I’ll detail what I’ve learned over many years of saddle sores, hamstring pain so bad I was hobbled, squirming on my saddle on anything more than a 40-mile ride, and finally, saddle nirvana and actually feeling a saddle sore go away, as I rode, after switching the saddle on my most prized race bike.
I was measured for saddle width in the late fall of 2012 for the first time. Till then, I’d ridden on anything I could get my hands on, not knowing the difference, and certainly not understanding why the saddles I did choose hurt so bad. My first problem, one that many noobs have, was the padding paradox:
In road cycling more is less and less is more, was ever thus – comfortable. In mountain biking, gravel biking, and tandem riding, a little padding goes helps me go a long way.
The key is picking the right contouring and setting the saddle in the proper position on the bike, including height, fore/aft, and tilt. My road saddles are 36-3/8″ off the pedal spindle, 22-5/8″ from the handlebar center, contoured, and 3° nose down. The gravel, mountain and tandem bicycles take a page from that setup, but the nose down angle and distance from the handlebar changes for each bike. From my aforementioned prized race bike to my gravel bike, to my mountain bike. On all of my bikes, the biggest difference is the saddle’s width.
The type of cycling and how upright I will ride determines the width of the saddle. I found this out on my own, too. When I was first measured, I took it that the measurement would be the end all, be all. 143-mm was my saddle width. All of the saddles I bought, till last year, were purchased with that measurement. Everything was a 143.
Last year, Trek had a beautiful, light carbon fiber saddle for sale. It was a 138 Montrose Pro. I dropped more than 100 grams from the old saddle and to my surprise, for the first time since I started purchasing saddles for bicycles, I experienced what it feels like for a saddle to disappear under me.
This year, the Montrose Pro was even more steeply discounted so, in the middle of a saddle sore outbreak, I bought another, though this one was a 128-mm, and I put that saddle on my Specialized Venge. I thought, “if the 138 feels better than my 143-mm Specialized Romin, maybe that 128 will be even better“…
With the purchase of that 128-mm Montrose, my three dimensional education in saddles began to crystalize. I was afraid when I hit the “purchase” button on Trek’s website with that saddle. I was worried the saddle would be too narrow and thus, painful. How mistaken I was.
When I was measured and it was determined my width would be a 143, I was measured sitting upright with my knees only slightly raised from 90°. That’s not how I ride, though, sitting upright. I ride road bikes in a very aggressive posture for a 50-year-old man:
I knew enough that I needed a contoured saddle to be comfortable. I’m not incredibly flexible and all the research in the last decade or more says that flexible people ride flat saddles while we flex-challenged ride a contoured saddle. Fine with me. However, what isn’t discussed, or is commonly left out, is how the support bones that are ridden on change as the drop from the saddle nose to the handlebar increases.
Put simply, as we rotate our hips forward to lower our shoulders, the support bones narrow. Thus, I’m infinitely comfortable on a 143 on my tandem, mountain bike, and gravel bike – the ride is much more upright. On my road bikes, both of which feature large drops from the saddle to the handlebar, that same 143 will give me saddle sores because of excessive rubbing at the crook of my leg and hip. I don’t get that with the 138 or the 128.
With the 128 Montrose on my race bike and a 138 on my rain bike, I literally rode a saddle sore away. I ride every day, saddle sore or no, and while the first day was painful, after I got the 128 correctly adjusted, the pain faded until the sore went completely away.
On the other hand, with the road season over, we’re riding on gravel roads now. My gravel bike has a slightly more upright, less aggressive setup, and that exact same 143-mm Specialized Romin that gave me saddle sores on my Venge feels like butter on the gravel bike. As my hips rotate back to sit up a little, the distance between the support bones increases and that 143 fits as it was measured way back when.
If this seems like a lot to keep straight, you aren’t wrong. Most people won’t go to the length I do to get right on their bike(s). Most people don’t ride like I do, though. When you’re in the saddle almost every day, you want the experience to be as pain-free as is possible.
So, to wrap this post up, let’s look at some key saddle features and getting a saddle properly set:
- Flat or contoured? Flat for flexible, contoured otherwise.
- Padding: More is not always the answer. I like to go for as little padding as is possible for how I’m riding.
- Width: Having to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I’d go with the upright measurement, knees slightly raised from 90°. That’s the width for my mountain, gravel, and tandem which are more upright. Then, decrease width for more aggressive postures on the road bikes.
- Saddle height: General saddle height is dialed in first – heels on the pedals (bike on a trainer or supporting yourself in a doorway indoors or in the garage), pedal backwards. Legs straighten without rocking at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
- Fore/Aft next: After a short warm-up on that trainer, find your “happy place” on your saddle and pedal for a few minutes. Stop with your crank arms parallel to the ground and run a 4′ level from the front of your kneecap to the ground, touching the front of the crank arm. The level’s plumb bubble should be between the lines, adjust fore/aft till it is as close as possible. You can also use a plumb bob, but that goes from just below the kneecap to the center of the pedal spindle. Same measurement, different method of getting it.
- Adjust down-angle of the saddle to suit, so you’re riding on your support bones (not necessarily the sit bones, mind you).
- Dial in final saddle height.
Bob’s your uncle.