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What Happens When A Road or Mountain Bike Saddle is Too Wide: Complications in Bike Setup… and One Major Pain In One’s Heinie.
I’ve written about this topic in the past, butt it keeps rearing its ugly head – and this time I’d gone radical in the name of… being a weight weenie! Of all things. Now, after enough double entendres in one sentence to choke a chicken, it’s time to get serious because this really is no laughing matter. The truth is, I’ve got a much better understanding of how saddles work – and more important, how the width of a saddle can have an affect on the sitting area. Because I’m still riding on one.
My true saddle width is somewhere between 128 and 138. A 138 is plenty comfortable but I’ve ridden quite a few centuries on a 128 with nothing but glowing reviews. My Bontrager Montrose Pro Carbon saddles aren’t all that special, either. They’re contoured rather than flat with minimal but fantastic padded support, and they’re light. 140-ish grams if I remember. Just shy of a third of a pound for a saddle. There are lighter saddles out there, down to 80 grams, but I tried a minimalist 110 gram saddle with virutually no padding and I just couldn’t make it work (and it wasn’t for a lack of effort). I have thousands of miles on those saddles and I learned something I didn’t know over the last few weeks.
I used to ride a Specialized Romin 143 that I thought was the cat’s pajamas. I had one on my race road bike and one on my rain road bike, and put tens of thousands of miles on them. At first, the local shop set me up with Specialized’s Body Geometry fitting. I’d done my best and was excited to see how I stacked up against all of the glorious video equipment and high-class software analytics that could be thrown at bike fitting.
The shop lowered my saddle two millimeters after the three hour fitting process.
Over the years and six to ten thousand mile years, I developed a sore spot on my left inner-thigh bone, just forward of the sit bone (my left leg is a little shorter than my right). I simply lived with it for years as it wasn’t a full-time pain. It was fleeting. A few years ago it stuck around for a while and I decided to lower my saddle a couple of millimeters to see if that would fix it. That worked for the most part.
Until I found a Bontrager Montrose Pro Carbon on sale for around $120. The Romin I had on the Trek at the time was heavy – 276 grams or a little less than two-thirds of a pound. The Montrose had a 138 mm width, though, and I was supposed to be a 143. I threw caution to the wind, figuring it was worth the risk to drop that much weight with so little money (they normally ran around $300). When my saddle came in, I fitted it on the Trek and rode it for the first time, it was glorious.
After giving it two months with nothing but good to say about the saddle, I went back to buy a second for my Venge. You find a saddle that feels that good, it doesn’t matter the brand mismatch. Sadly, they were out of the 138 but they had 128s in stock. I gave it a go. I dropped even more weight off the Specialized and the feel wasn’t all that different from the 138. I expected the 128 to hurt a little because it wasn’t wide enough, but that worry turned out to be unnecessary.
And once I had both Montrose saddles on my road bikes, I found I could raise the saddles, comfortably, back to the old shop setting. 36-5/8″ (93 cm or 930.2750 mm) and I don’t have that pain on my left inner thigh bone just forward of my sit bone anymore.
That is, I didn’t have that pain anymore until I started riding my gravel bike that has a 143 mm Specialized Romin 143 mm saddle on it and I hit a bump… and that’s when it all started to make sense.
The pain I’ve been experiencing gets worse the wider the saddle gets, too. My Trek originally came with a 155 mm saddle that had me so sore I thought it was a running injury. As it turned out, after a few days off the bike, the pain subsided – then flared right back up after riding again.
The point is, saddle width is a little tricky to diagnose and it can present as other things, such as a saddle being too high. There’s also a difference between finding something that’s livable and something perfect, as was my case with the small difference between a 143 and a 138 mm saddle. The more I ride, the more that little bit mattered.
When you absolutely, positively need the big guns for a big, fast ride…
Or for fun, when you just feel like cruising (though more than worthy in the event a real ride breaks out):
I’ll be writing more about the differences betwixt the two bikes above, but for today suffice it to say the Venge, watt for watt, is worth 1 to 1-1/2 mph over the Trek. It’d be closer to 1-mph if I put the 38s that currently sit on the Trek on the Venge – both bikes have 10-sp drivetrains so this would be easy as swapping wheels.
The Trek has a lot of pull, though, because that bike, my bike, was handmade in the USA. Everyone has their frames made in Taiwan nowadays.
Anyway, everyone should be lucky enough to have to make the hard choice of which one to ride.
Today is one of those, “when you absolutely, positively, have to get there fast” days. The Venge is all dolled up, ready to go.
The Perfect Racy Setup for a Restored Trek 5200; Transforming an Old (But Not Tired) Horse to New Glory
My cycling brother from another mother bought himself a Postal Edition Trek 5200 and fitted it with 11-speed Ultegra components (looks like an 11/28 cassette with a 50/34 chainset). I’ve had my 5200, a few years older (his looks like a 2002), since 2012 so I’ve had a lot of time to tinker with it to make it into exactly the bike I want it. I’m here to tell you, if you want a good, workhorse frame to build into a new, racy steed, the 5200 is an excellent choice. It’s a little on the squishy side at the bottom bracket by today’s standards, but modern components work. You can get everything you need – 11 speed components, wheels, cranksets, headsets… and you don’t have to go expensive, either. I’ve got a budget Shimano crankset with SRAM chainrings and the 105 drivetrain that came off my Specialized Venge when I upgraded that to Ultegra. I think, if memory serves, I’ve got about $1,000 into upgrading all of the components and wheels – and that includes the $200 I plunked down to upgrade my Venge’s drivetrain – for the entire build (not including the paint job, however):
So here’s what you’ll need to know, generally, to build up a 5200, from the frame up. First, you’ve got a 68 mm English threaded bottom bracket (I’ve got an Ultegra BBR60 on mine that has been fantastic). I also have, and highly recommend, a Chris King 1″ threaded headset (for the pre-2000 5200’s). King’s headsets are known to be bomb-proof. You’ll have enough room at the back triangle for 10 or 11 speed components, so go nuts. For the wheels, you’ll want to be careful and keep the rim width to 23-mm max (25 will be a little too wide – I tried 25’s with 26 mm tires and there simply isn’t enough clearance at the chainstays – the tire will rub whilst climbing out of the saddle). For the seatpost, you’ll need a 27.2 mm. I went with a carbon fiber Easton model that I’ve had on there since ’14 or so. The old, original seat posts had slots to adjust the saddle nose up/down. I found my comfort zone to be exactly in between two slots. I needed/wanted something infinitely adjustable. I use a quill adapter so I can use a standard threadless stem. I’ve got a Bontrager Elite Blendr 90 mm x 17 degree (flipped, obviously). I specifically went with the 17 so I’d end up with the stem parallel to the top tube. Finally, to round out the new parts, I’ve got a sweet Bontrager Montrose Pro 138 mm carbon fiber saddle and a Bontrager Elite Aero alloy handlebar that I put on a couple of summers ago.
From the ground up, it’s an impressive build and I thoroughly enjoy riding it. It’s surprisingly light, too. I’m at 18-1/2 pounds as you see it in the photo above, but could go much lighter with Ultegra or Dura Ace components. While it’ll never measure up to modern race bikes, it’ll hold its own in any setting. I’ve heard it said that frame has more US wins on it than any frame in the history of cycling.
I can remember the first time I rode my 5200 – a test ride to see how I liked it before I pulled the trigger. Compared to my old Cannondale SR-400 aluminum steed with a steel fork, the 5200 rode like a dream. At first, anyway…
I started changing the bike within my first few months of owning it. The first change was the saddle. The old saddle was 155 mm wide and I need, max, a 143 (I’m partial to 138 mm in width). With a saddle that was too wide, I ended up with a pain that started in my inner thigh and worked down the back of my leg into my hamstring. At first I thought it was a running injury but lucked out tracing it back to my saddle. With the new, vastly sleeker saddle, the bike went from pretty good to spectacular.
The 5200 pretty much remained as it is above for several years. I bought a Specialized Venge just the second year they were in stores and that became the bike that I obsessed over until I had it perfect. Then, I switched my attention back to the Trek, where it’s stayed for quite a while – once I got the Specialized right, the Trek project increased in… um… necessity. I’ve got a few tricks that made the transformation easier and vastly more comfortable.
First, the 5200 has an old quill stem, threaded headset. Switching that to a modern threadless setup is possible but problematic for a number of reasons I won’t bother getting into. Besides, I wanted my bike to basically, remain original (frame and fork). I bought a quill stem adapter so I could put any stem I wanted on the bike. I settled on a 17° flipped stem (90-mm) for an aggressive cockpit. I broomed the old seat post years ago for a carbon fiber Easton model because the original stem had notches to set the nose angle and it just so happened that one notch high was uncomfortable and one notch low had me sliding off the nose of the saddle. I wanted perfect and the Easton was infinitely adjustable.
The drivetrain (and paint job) was next – I switched from a 9 speed triple to a 10 speed 105 double and had a new headset installed in the process (the old one was smoked). That change made a big difference in weight and got rid of several redundant gear choices.
Next was an unnecessary but awesome handlebar upgrade. Now, the original bar (shown in blue bar tape in the two first photos) had been broomed a couple of years prior. The original was a 44-cm handlebar and I ride a 42 on my Specialized. I’d upgraded the original bar on the Venge to carbon fiber and I loved the feel of the reach and drop on the Specialized bar so I installed that handlebar on my Trek (… I know). Then, a year or so ago, I found a cool alloy aero bar made by Bontrager and I got a fantastic deal on it (I paid $40, it retails at $99.99 – in fact, it’s on sale again). The newer aero bar is very nice, and in the proper 42 mm width. The handlebar was followed by the real capper; the wheels.
Until this summer, the Trek has, with the exception of last year’s DALMAC (a four-day tour from the capital city of Michigan to the upper tip of the mitten), always had alloy wheels. I got a decent bonus at work so I picked up a set of 50’s for the Specialized and put the 38’s on the Trek. That change made way for the biggest increase in comfort since switching from my aluminum Cannondale to the carbon fiber Trek. There are a few reasons for this leap in comfort that are worth getting into the details.
First, with the old alloy wheels, they were 19.5 mm wide – outside to outside. This meant a 23 or 24-mm tire was the widest possible because 25’s would “lightbulb” and rub the insides of the chainstays whenever I got out of the saddle. The Ican 38’s are 23-mm wide, though. The wider rim means no lightbulb effect on a 25-mm tire, so no rubbing out of the saddle. This means I can run a lower pressure on the wider tire which translates into a vastly superior and smoother ride. Now, Specialized has switched from 23 and 25-mm tires to 24 and 26 – I don’t think I can get away with a 26-mm tire on the 23-mm wide rims – there simply isn’t enough room to work with. For now, I’m running Michelin 25-mm Pro 4’s, but eventually, I’ll drop to Specialized Turbo Pro 24’s and run 100 psi in lieu of 95-ish on the 25’s.
What I just described is one of the problems inherent in working with a classic frame. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the widest tire on a road bike was 23-mm. There was a misunderstanding centered on how tires worked regarding rolling resistance that fed the misguided notion that “thinner” was better. To a point, thicker tires (25 to 28-mm) are actually better because they can be run at lower pressure which improves ride quality – so while rolling resistance drops minimally, ride quality improves vastly which means the rider isn’t pummeled over bumps and that translates to greater power to the pedals because we’re not trying to overcome the vibration created by road imperfections.
So, this presents a problem with the frame width where the chainstays meet the bottom bracket shell. This inadequacy often can be rectified by a wider rim. In my case, rather than having to run a 23-mm tire, I can fit a 25. What I can’t get away with is a 25-mm wide rim with a 26-mm tire. It just so happens that the 50’s I bought for the Venge are 25 wide. I can fit them on the Trek but clearance is enough of an issue that I know better than to even ride it.
On a final note relating to wheels, I’ve written a couple of posts about upgrading to Halo hex-key skewers. These were responsible for another leap in ride quality that make the need to carry the hex-key to release the wheels worth it. I can’t say enough good about those skewers. It’s about the same improvement as going from quick release skewers to through-axles. They’re that good.
We’ve gone through some nasty weather over the last day or two, so I readied the Trek 5200 for Saturday duty. I felt I probably could have ridden the Venge, the chance of rain was only 10%. I thought about it a minute but stuck with the Trek. It needs a good romp now and again.
Then Greg texted he’d meet us on the road. “Okay”, I thought, “Greg plays nice.” Then Winston pulled into the driveway. “Ruh roh.” Then McMike rolled up… on his Venge. “Oh, crap.” That’s a trifecta of fast right there. I stuck with the Trek anyway, though the pull to switch to the Venge was strong.
Mike S. texted he was running five minutes late but I stuck with the Trek. We rolled as soon as he was ready…
And in classic Michigan fashion, it was spitting on us before my Garmin read 1.3 mi. 100% chance of getting 10% wet. There were times it was looking ugly and just four miles in I swore we were riding directly into rain but… nothing. Some wet pavement was it.
Oh, but there was wind. It was though someone simply turned off summer, just like that. One day, hot and muggy (91° or 33 C) to cool and windy the next – we’ll have to pull out the arm and knee warmers this morning. Thankfully, a couple years ago I slammed the front end with a -17° stem. I’m able to ride as low on the Trek as I do on the Venge.
So there I was, marveling at how wonderful my Trek was. I expect a certain level of comfort out of the Venge. The amount of engineering that went into the bike was astounding, right down to the partnership with McLaren. The 5200, though, the same frame Lance Armstrong won the ’99 Tour de France on, is a modern classic – one of the first full carbon fiber frames, I’d never expect that level of comfort. Yet there is was, as I was hurtling down the road at 25+ mph with a smile stretched across my face.
We found out early in the ride it was McMike’s birthday ride. We pulled into the driveway with just over 70 miles – enough he just needed to ride home and do a loop around his neighborhood to get his 72 miles.
And he can kick my 50-year old ass up and down the road whenever he wants.
It was a fantastic day in the saddle on the Trek. There’s just something sweet about the feel of a classic. Every time I ride it on a long ride or tour, I’m thankful I rebuilt it.
I beat the rain bike up pretty good Sunday morning. It had rained much of the day Saturday and well into the night, but we woke up to 60° temps (15 C) and partly cloudy skies. The roads were really, really, very, incredibly wet… but I wasn’t about to miss sunshine and 60°! Normally, 60 isn’t anything to write home about, but in Michigan, in March, 60 is glorious and rare.
Within a mile I had water and dirt dripping off the frame and drivetrain but because the bike is so solid, I had no worries. I just rode on with my buddy, Chuck well off to my side and back so to hold the social distancing norm. My Venge was sitting protected and comfy in my bike room.
My rain bike isn’t perfect, of course. It takes a noticeable amount of added effort to keep her spun up and rolling, but it’s a nice trade-off, actually… I’ve gotta put more effort into it so when I switch over to my Venge, I’m that much faster on it.
The first fourteen miles were wet and gnarly, into a mild headwind, but as we approached our stop, the wind started to pick up. We still had eleven miles to get to tailwind. Five miles later and that once mild headwind was a 20+mph lesson in effort. Three miles later and we were getting into 30-mph gusts. I laughed out loud more than once. Three miles later, the pain was over. We turned for home, the wind having dried the roads out completely. And the push was worth the effort to get there.
My Garmin radar died first, then my Edge 520 Plus ran out of juice… then I ran out of gas. It had been a long week, I think, going from approximately 125 miles a week to almost 250 and without a day off the bike in two weeks. Even with the cross-tailwind I wanted to sit up and soft pedal home a few times. I didn’t, though. I stayed with Chuck, trying to break it down into miles… three to go, only nine minutes. Surely I can handle that. Two miles, less than six minutes. One mile.
I showered up and was off in nap land shortly after firing down some lunch. I woke up with a smile on my face and one hell of a dirty rain bike. An hour later, she was clean, lubed, drivetrain cleaned and lubed, and ready for another go.
My rain bike isn’t one of those ultra-cool aero road bikes. It’s not exactly a lightweight climber, either. It’s just an old Trek that was given a new lease on life. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with riding the bike, too, having rebuilt her from the ground up.
And she still tears it up in a fashion show… after I clean her up and dry behind her gears.
I took this photo of my Trek the other day about a week ago (you’ll need to put your “picky” glasses on for this one):
If you look at the handlebar, it’s raised at the stem just a hair, tilted up ever so slightly. I’ve lived with it that way because I just didn’t think I could ride the bike comfortably if I dropped it that little bit. No kidding, it’s that tight.Sunday morning I looked at that handlebar again, sitting almost exactly like that, and I was weak. I caved. I had to try. Had to. I tilted the bar forward about 2°… like going from 9:00 to 9:01:37, really. I had to do it. It was like a freakin’ splinter in my brain, every time I looked at the bike, sitting all nice and pretty in the corner…
Oh, now that’s right, baby.
After my Sunday afternoon ride, I was pretty sure I was going to have to put it back where I’d started. That was a tough day in the saddle, though, I told myself in a fairly convincing manner… what with that gnarly headwind at the end of the ride. I thought maybe I should give it another go because… dude, it finally looked right. I wouldn’t have to look at my glorious 5200 sitting there, all almost awesome in the corner… Sure enough, Monday proved much better. It was really good, actually, though part of this is my having lost a few pounds (six, actually, since we started riding outside [!!! That’s right, baby!]). Ahem. The rest was because the temp was up a little bit (lighter clothing).
Anyway, now I’m clearly stoked. At this point, I think I can learn to like it.
Then, Tuesday’s evening ride. It started out cold and gloomy, but amazingly, about eight miles into our ride the clouds broke and my Vitamin D meter started registering some adequate intake! Well, maybe not all that much. I only had about 18 square inches of exposed skin because it was only 46° (feels like 40° or 4.4 C). Chuck and I weren’t pedaling all that hard, either. We were just out trying to enjoy some fresh air. We went, in the space of just ten miles, from wanting to simply get our miles in and get out of the cold to looking for ways to extend the ride. I had to laugh, too… we started out slow and easy while we had the tailwind but actually increased our average speed from 16-mph to more than 17 with the headwind all the way home.
In the end, I had just shy of 33 miles and a smile stretched across my face. It was spectacular. On a weekday! We’re going long today. Sunny and 58° with a gentle breeze is the forecast (YES!).
The verdict is, the handlebar stays where it is.
In the United States, one bike stands above all as the winningest bicycle frame in the history of bicycle racing history*; the Trek 5000. First introduced in 1992, the Trek 5000 frame was one of the first production full carbon fiber bicycle frames. In the US, they caught on like a wildfire and hung on until the 5000 was dropped for the Madone after the 2007 run (only the 5000 was available that year). Of course, if you look at that 2007 Madone 5.2, you should see some many characteristics inherited from the 5200. That said, fifteen years is a long time for a frame to hang on.
On one hand, by today’s standards, the frame is not all that impressive. There’s barely any “aero” to it (the front fork is kinda aero), and it’s a little on the squishy side when laying down the serious wattage. On the other hand, with 25 mm tires on a 23 mm carbon fiber rims**, the bike feels like riding a cross between a Corvette and a limousine. With alloy wheels and 24 mm tires, at the right pressure, the ride is almost as good.
There is a trick to this frame, however. In the last few years, it’s become popular to use a wider tire than was used in the good old days. Back in ’99, people were riding 20 and 23 mm tires exclusively. Nowadays, 25, 26 and even 28 mm tires are the new norm. If you’re using 19.5 mm wide alloy wheels, there’s a limit to the tire width you can use in a Trek 5000 frame. Anything more than a 24 mm tire will likely rub the inside of the chainstays when climbing out of the saddle or when leaning the bike into a corner, thus pooching the paint’s polish (or worse). Other than that minor shortcoming, though, the frame is pretty fantastic.
I’ve put upwards of 45,000 miles on my 5200 frame and I bought it January of 2012 and it’s still going strong and beautiful. I can only imagine how many miles it had on it before I got my hands on it, but it was a lot. I’ve got a friend who has the same frame, 2003, who has more than 130,000 miles on his. The word “durable” doesn’t do the Trek 5000 family of frames justice.
*The history of bicycle racing history… the redundancy was for comedic affect. I’m sorry you missed it.
** 25 mm tires on 23 mm rims vs. 25 mm tires on 19.5 mm rims: If the two paragraphs dealing with tire and rim widths were confusing, please allow me to explain. When a 25 mm tire is placed on a 19.5 mm rim, the tire resembles a light bulb – it’ll go wide at the sides before rounding out. That same tire on a 23 mm wide rim, will just be round. It’s that light bulb-ing effect that will cause the tire to hit the inside of the chainstays when sideways force is applied to the wheel. Therefore, with a wider rim (23 mm) the same 25 mm tire will work where it wouldn’t with a narrow (standard) 19.5 mm rim. The only trick left for that will be the brakes. My 1999 Ultegra brakes wouldn’t open up wide enough to accept the wider 23 mm hoops. I ended up opting for Shimano 105 (7000 series) brake calipers so I could use my older alloy wheels or my carbon fiber wheels (as long as I swapped out the brake pads).
The obvious answer to that most important question; should a grown man take the time to wax and polish a bicycle?
No, of course not, because your bike is likely powder coated, it won’t need to be waxed. Also, if you own a matte finish, such as the one on my Specialized, without question, no.
However, should you just happen to own a badass vintage bike that was stripped, painted, and shot with enough clear coat your Floridian grandma would be comfortable in Siberia, then the no-brainer is yes…
Sometimes you have to see just how deep you can make that black look.
Technically, two weeks from, today we’ll be finishing up with dinner on day three, look toward the final 72 miles. I’m stoked for this year’s tour, in fact, I can hardly contain myself. For the last four years, I could never really relax on the ride. I was always waiting for the call that something went horribly wrong with my company and I’d have to rush back. It was miserable. I couldn’t get away. Until this year… so, finally, I get to do this ride free from the mental torture I put myself through (for no good reason). I’m looking forward to just being in the moment with my friends.
I just finished getting the Trek ready to go. Notice the wheels:
I made room for the carbon fiber wheels by picking up a new set of 105 brakes, brand new BR-R7000 Shimano 105 brake calipers, they’re fantastic:
Now the bike is completely blacked out… and as an added bonus, it stops A LOT better.
Now, technically all of this happened just in the nick of time. The idea for the Trek was to leave the alloy wheels on it, then swap them out for my good wheels for the tours I take it on, Midwest, our up north road trip, DALMAC, but while cleaning the alloy wheels up after the new calipers went on, I found a hairline crack at one of the spoke holes in the rear wheel. Eventually that wheel would have failed. For the time being it’s holding its true, but the hoop will have to be replaced.
Before yesterday, the Trek would have been sidelined till I could get a new rim. Instead, I just swapped out the brake pads, slid on the good wheels from the Venge, and I’m ready for today’s Assenmacher 100 and DALMAC in a week-and-a-half.
I never thought I’d be able to get that old 5200 to where it is today. She’s come a looooooooooong way from the good old days.
Now, if I had a dollar for every time I wrote here that the Trek was finally done, I’d have… um, carry the one… ten bucks. The point is, I’m there. Again. So I’m not going to write the words again. I’ll just say I’m excited for where the bike is. Again.
For me, it started as a shop loner and has been transformed into a personalized work of mechanical art. Lance never had it as good as mine is today when he won the TdF on his. To me, that’s kinda neat.