Now, I’m going to keep this as simple as I can, for an insanely difficult and controversial topic. There are three things at play that pertain to positioning the saddle properly, and two that go to the size of the saddle that are absolute musts to achieve something close to perfection. Maybe “really, really close”.
First and foremost, I’ve never found there to be a saddle that corrects for a lack of saddle time. There are comfortable saddles, sure, but time must be spent in the saddle. There’s no way around this.
Before I get into locating the saddle, let’s talk about saddle size and style. The general rule is, the more flexible you are, the flatter the saddle you can comfortably ride. The less flexible, the more contour you’ll want in the saddle. The contouring of the saddle allows the hips to open up when you ride in an aggressive, road bike position. Getting the contour of the saddle to your liking is a big piece in this puzzle of perfecting the saddle.
After contour, there’s width. I’ve read, from much smarter people than I, that a saddle that isn’t wide enough is excruciating. This hasn’t been my experience at all. My problems have always centered on saddles that were too wide. Now, there are interesting things at play here. First, the more aggressive a position we ride in, the thinner the saddle should be. The more upright we ride, the wider the saddle.
I can comfortably ride on a 143 mm saddle on our tandem, but those are excruciating on my road bikes. I rub the insides of my of my pelvic bones on the edges of the saddle in an aggressive setup. On my Trek 5200 (below, left) I run a 138. On my Specialized Venge (below, right) I run a 128 that is pure heaven next to a 143.
After we get the contour, next we move to width. I was measured at a 143 mm width, but that works for an upright position, call it the tandem riding position I mentioned earlier. The more aggressive I ride, on my two road bikes, the less width I want. When it comes down the the bottom line, I don’t mess with what works and keeps my heinie happy. I just roll with it.
The best way to figure your saddle width is to get measured at a shop that has a proprietor or two who know what they’re doing. Make sure to let them know how aggressive your setup on the bike is (if they don’t already know), or take a picture – or even the bike – with you to get measured.
With that out of the way, we’re going to get down to the nitty gritty and position. I’ve been of two minds on this. For a while, I was like, “Yeah, saddle height is important, but as long as you’re close, say within a few millimeters without going too high, it’s all good”. I disagree with that point currently. I’ve got an exact number that works on all of my bikes – and by exact, I mean that word. Before we get height drilled in, though, I should get into the fore/aft positioning of the saddle, because we do this first because this affects the up/down location.
Simply stated, on a road bike, the fore/aft position gets a normal rider’s leading edge of their knee directly above the pedal spindle when the feet are clipped in and the pedals are parallel to the ground. I like to check this when I’m setting a new saddle by getting the height close to where I want it (my personal norm is 36-5/8″ on the nose, maybe a 32nd of an inch less). Then I warm up for a minute or two and check the level by setting my crank arms parallel to the ground and running a 4′ level from the pedal spindle up to the leading edge of my knee. That should be plumb, up and down.
With that set, I move to the height. I’ll go with the 36-5/8″ and give it a ride, preferably outdoors because the trainer just doesn’t do the real world feel justice. Then I set the tilt of the saddle, while I’m out, so I’m perfectly balanced and cradled with my hands down in the drops or on the hoods. Once that’s done, I can drill in my saddle height over the next few rides. 36-5/8″ is close enough, but I may lower it just a touch if something doesn’t quite feel right over, say, 100 miles in a few days.
And that’s how I get to my Goldilocks saddle height position. It’s not too high (any higher and I’ll have some form of pain), it’s not too low. It’s just right.
It’s a lot of effort, yes, but it pays off… in the end.
I couldn’t resist.
I think the biggest noob mistake is not to tinker. You have to tinker with your bike, especially the saddle position. The chances of it being bang on out of the box are close to zero.
Saddle positioning is probably the most tinkered with by amateurs – meaning me. And it changes with every pair of shorts.
My wife is the same! I’m constantly changing her saddle height! I tend to pick one and leave it for quite a while… but I do dial every saddle in closely when I set it up.