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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: The Bicycle Saddle – Everything You Need to Know to Fit Yours By Feel… Or At Least Enough to Be Dangerous.
My friends, cycling saddles are the
fourth fifth greatest controversial cycling topic next to whether or not clipless pedals (that’s “clip in” pedals) are even necessary (they’re the greatest invention in the history of the bicycle after the safety bicycle… and maybe derailleurs), tire pressure, integrated brake/shifter levers on road bikes (the second greatest invention in cycling history after the safety bicycle… and maybe derailleurs), and disc brakes. We won’t even get into shocks on mountain bikes, which were thought of as a gimmick by most purists when first introduced.
To go through every single saddle type would take just shy of forever and would probably require a book, so we should probably just skip to the good stuff – the basics, because with a few simple principles, you can set a lot of different saddles to your liking. The impetus to this post was a post I read the other day in which a friend was complaining about classic wide saddle issues; hamstrings (back of legs) hurting, hip pain, inner thigh pain, etc.. He wrote in the post that he’d picked up a Specialized Power saddle and that he hated it… Well, my friends, that’s one of the best saddles made (I bought one for my wife), so that someone hated it made me look a little closer at why. The only thing that made sense is that maybe he hadn’t offset the saddle the required 2.5cm. See, that’s a snub-nosed saddle, so if you install it like a normal saddle, measuring from the nose to the center of the handlebar, you’re going to have your saddle 2.5cm too close to the handlebar and you’ll likely then ride too far back on the saddle – on the wider part of the wings which will hurt the inside of your thighs, hips, and eventually the hamstrings. I only know this because I had a wide saddle on my Trek when I first brought it home, and that’s exactly how the wide saddle hurt me.
Next, let’s look at my wife’s issue. She had her bike fitted (again) recently and had her saddle in the perfect position. Then I upgraded the crank on her, which required a new, wider bottom bracket. Her legs are now 3/4’s of an inch wider each side of the crank so her saddle had to be lowered a couple of millimeters to accommodate the change. In that case, it’s just a matter of lowering the saddle a millimeter at a time until she’s happy.
So, to get to it, most saddle manufacturers won’t make a saddle to hurt people. Their goal is to get as many butts on their device as is possible. For most saddles, it’s just a matter of getting the thing in the right place.
What kind of cyclist are you? The type of cyclist you are will help you figure out what kind of saddle you want to ride, flat, in between, or curved. I’ve got one of each on my race and rain bikes:
While the fit on each saddle is a little different, the method I used for dialing any saddle in is the same: Measurements first, then dial it in by feel. My measurements are, for a standard saddle, 22-1/2″ to 22-3/4″ from the center of the handlebar to the nose of the saddle. So if I was using a Specialized Power saddle, I’d add 2.5 cm to that distance, or exactly 15/16″ (I’d round it to an inch and adjust if necessary). That position, the fore and aft, of the saddle, has to do with how your feet end up over the pedals. Too far back or forward and you lose leverage on the pedals. After that, the saddle height. Mine is, from the top of the pedal with the crank arm low, in line with the seat tube, 36-3/8″ on the nose. Any higher and the pain on my ass and hips (and nether regions) is excruciating. Much lower and I bounce when I pedal and the loss of power from a low saddle is intolerable (same with too far forward, but let’s not get too lost in the weeds).
So I know my measurements and I know where my saddles need to be within a quarter of an inch… the question is, what feels good and what hurts.
For the flatter saddles, like my first example up there, the Selle Italia on the Trek, even with that substantial drop from the saddle to the handlebar, I want that sucker pretty level (it’s actually 1° nose down) or it won’t cradle me right. I end up with too much pressure up front, where pressure simply isn’t acceptable, or I want to slide up to the nose of the saddle if the nose is too low. To complicate matters, I want to be comfortable in three positions; with my hands on the bar top, on the hoods, and in the drops.
For my Specialized Romin, the second saddle, that style is a little trickier to get right, but if you’re less flexible, the saddle will allow you to ride a lot lower than a normal flat saddle will:
Now, for the wavy saddle, I set mine with a 3°, almost 4° nose down. The front half of the saddle isn’t quite level, but it fits perfectly for how I ride:
Again, the idea is for the saddle to cradle me, so if I drop the nose any more than where it’s at, I feel like I’m sliding to the front of the saddle. If I raise the nose, it digs into places that don’t like being dug into…
This leads in to how I set my saddle to get it right. Again, I go with the measurements first. I set the saddle at 36-3/8″ on the nose, then measure from the handlebar to the nose of the saddle. It used to be 22-1/2″ but by a fluke I moved the Trek’s saddle back to 22-3/4″ to get the proper angle of my foot and knee over the spindle (the front of the knee and the end of the crank arm should be plumb to the ground, measured with a 4′ level) and I loved it – I even changed the Venge, just to see if I liked it as much on that bike – I did, but not quite as much, so I split the difference and that’s got me very happy. Then, I check the height again, crank arm low, in line with the seat tube, and measure up the middle of the seat tube to the seat top: 36-3/8″.
Then, with the bike on a trainer, I ride it for ten minutes with my hands on the hoods, so I can get a feel for where my butt is and where it naturally likes to hang out. Then I switch to the drops for ten minutes. Am I sliding to the front of the saddle? If so, I adjust the nose up. Am I feeling too much pressure where I don’t want to feel pressure? Lower the nose a skoche. Then I check riding with my hands on the hoods, though by the time I get saddle dialed in for the hoods and the drops, I’ve never had the bar top come up wrong (but I rarely ride with my hands up there anyway).
After all of that, it’s time for a road test. 18 miles minimum, but I like 25.
This is where I find my saddle height issues. It’s often just a touch too high (dependent on saddle and chamois padding). Over a 20 or 25 mile ride, the sides of my thighs, where the hips come together with the sit bones, if my saddle is too high, I’ll get some pretty intense pain on the sides. If I’ve got the saddle height right, it’s just going to feel like butter. If not, if there’s pain on the sides on the sit bones, I lower the saddle 1mm at a time until I feel “right”. The same goes for the angle of the saddle. A road test will reveal if the saddle is really dialed in to the right level, switching between the hoods and drops. If I feel any pressure when I switch to the drops from the hoods, I lower the saddle nose by 1mm at a time until I can seemlessly go from hoods to drops without pain. This is how I know I’ve got my saddle dialed in.
With the flatter saddle, the process is pretty close to the same, I just have to pay better attention because that happy zone where my butt likes to sit is much smaller.
In the end, to recap, the most important pieces of information I can keep on my bikes are my measurements. 36-3/8″ saddle height, 22-1/2″ to 22-3/4″ from the center of the handlebar to the tip of a standard saddle (I measure any saddle I try to make sure there’s no deviation – if there is, I adjust from there and check my knee/crank arm for plumb with a level). For a curvy saddle, I’m typically 3 to 4° nose down. For a flatter saddle, just 0.5 to 1° nose down. With those numbers, I can get any saddle close. From there, it’s just a tweak here and a tweak there.
One final note that I should have added at the beginning; everything I know about cycling, everything that’s technically correct, anyway, began with getting my bike fit to me by a professional. Everything.
Numbers, contrary to popular mathematical belief, can lie when it comes to cycling and saddle position. Numbers are a great start, but sooner or later you’re going to want to go by feel… And I’ve never subscribed to the notion of “level it and forget it”.
When you’ve got some padding on a saddle, you have a little room for error in the setup when you’re riding 30-40 miles.
Take away most of that padding and jump that mileage up by double or even triple, you better have that saddle right or you’ll be hating life. And your bike. And your shorts. And your saddle.
Now, keep the mileage up and cut the padding in half again. One look at that saddle and you wonder if two pairs of shorts would work…
No two saddles are alike… unless they really are alike. Erm… I’ve got two Specialized Romin saddles, one on the Venge and one on the tandem. I set them both by numbers, then feel. By chance, I had them set side by side one day in the bike room. A simple glance and I noticed they’re on exactly the same plane. I set the saddles next to each other and stepped back for a closer look; same plane.
Over a hundred miles (or 50 on the tandem), the heinie don’t lie.
So, I thought I might take a moment to share with you, my friends, my unscientific method for dialing in a new saddle.
First, as the process goes, the less padding, the better – you get a lot more feedback.
I like to start on a trainer with a new saddle. I’ll be in the saddle most, if not all, of the time so it helps to feel what’s going on. For the new Selle, I matched the tilt from the old saddle after setting the fore/aft. Then I set the height (36-3/8″, to be exact). Then I climbed on with the intention of giving it 45 minutes.
I lasted five. Maybe. I could feel my hips rocking a little bit. Hips rocking means the saddle is too high. I don’t know how that was possible, though. 36-3/8″ should have been dead nu… Um, phrasing. I lowered it a millimeter. The saddle could be a little farther back than the old saddle was, that would require the saddle to be a shade lower…
Another five minutes. I lowered it again. Just a millimeter. Another 20 minutes.
I could feel pressure from the nose of the saddle that kept me from wanting to ride in the drops. It wasn’t outrageously uncomfortable, just a little nag. I lowered the nose a quarter-turn on the front bolt.
And there the saddle stayed for more than a week. I thought I was done. The saddle felt okay, about as good as you’d expect from just one millimeter of padding (not much).
I’ve worn, over the last week, every pair of heavily padded bibs I own and took a few spins on medium padded bibs to make sure the saddle is where I want to it be. Last night, I’m about ten minutes into my ride and something just wasn’t right. The fore/aft position of the saddle was perfect, I’d already lowered the saddle a couple of millimeters so that wasn’t it… I could simply sense something was a little off, a little pressure where there shouldn’t be pressure in front of the sit bones. This calls for a systematic “shotgun” approach. I had a sneaky suspicion I just needed to lower the nose a pinch… I backed out the rear mounting bolt an eighth of a turn and tightened the front bolt the same amount and climbed aboard.
And the angels sang.
Once the pressure was off… um, a very delicate area that doesn’t much like pressure, and the saddle felt like a $400+ saddle should feel like. It’s still stiff, but I wasn’t thinking much about where my butt was on the saddle as I finished my ride, either.
This is why I love breaking a new saddle in on the trainer. Outdoors there are too many distractions and variables. Bumps, rough pavement, in the saddle, out of the saddle… up a hill, down a hill. Accelerate, decelerate, headwind, tailwind, crosswind, traffic, pedestrians… On a trainer, it’s just my butt and that saddle for 45 minutes. I get a lot of good feedback when all I have to distract me is a movie I’ve already seen five times.
And that’s about the done of that. I think. Maybe.