When it comes to cycling there's no 'one size fits all' — something that’s particularly true when it comes to saddles. But, finding the right saddle is crucial, in fact it can transform an ordinary ride into an extraordinary one, so where do you begin?
Support when sitting generally means getting off the soft tissue and onto the bony structural supports that we’re meant to sit on — and that's regardless of whether you're on a bike or a chair.
The sit bones (that's the ischial tuberosities and pubic rami) on our pelvis are designed to keep us comfortable, and contact directly with these areas can prevent the vascular and nerve tissues in-between from being compressed, which is a good thing.
Regardless of whether you think the research about erectile dysfunction was scaremongering or not, it’s not rocket science to know that compressing nerves and blocking blood flow is not great for you.
Meanwhile, women riders will be glad to know that female anatomy is currently one of the biggest drivers in saddle development, with pressure mapping serving a significant resource for understanding the saddle-rider relationship.
There are several companies creating anatomically correct saddles, including Bontrager, Specialized, Selle SMP, Cobb, SMP and SQ Lab. To help you navigate through the choice, here are five bits of essential advice to get you started.
1. Stay off soft tissue
You’ll know immediately when you are sitting on your sits bones and there are saddles that will help. Saddles designed to create good effective seating areas are typically flat in the middle third (side-to-side) and have a centerline cutout.
They’re also offered in multiple widths. Total saddle width is closely correlated to sit-bones width and choosing a saddle that reflects your sit-bones width is the most direct path to proper support.
Some bike shops make finding your sit-bones width easy, depending on the brands they offer. You may have seen the gel pads that you can sit on to give a fairly accurate quantitative value.
You can also go for the DIY measurement approach at home. There are several methods online, including this cardboard one:
1. Cut a strip of corrugated cardboard to the width of a chair seat and place on the chair
2. Now sit on the cardboard with your upper body straight to forward-leaning for a few seconds, then stand up
3. Draw an outline around the two indentions left on the cardboard and find the centrepoint of each, then measure the distance from centre to centre — this is your sit-bones width
With knowledge of this measurement, you can start looking at brand-specific sizes. Here’s a rough guide (but remember to allow for some variation from brand to brand)
|Handlebar position||Sit bone width range = saddle width estimate (mm)|
|Recreational (upright)||70–100 = 145||100–130 = 155||130+ = 155+|
|Sportif (moderate)||70–100 = 130||100–130 = 145||130+ = 155+|
|Aero (aggressive, low)||70–100 = 130||100–130 = 145||130+ = 145/155|
These measurements are just a starting point, not a definitive prescription — remember you will always benefit from having a conversation with the staff in the bike shop.
As the pelvis rolls forward on the saddle, we move from the ischial tuberosities to the pubic rami, which decrease in width as we roll forward. Make sure when you’re trying out a saddle that you try all possible handlebar configurations for your bike (tops, hoods, drops, bar ends, and so on).
2. Sit square
The purpose of getting good sit-bones support is so you can sit squarely on the saddle, trying to get your pelvis as symmetrical as possible, so your legs can operate symmetrically — this takes unnecessary torque effects off the spine.
If our body senses blood-flow blockage or nerve inhibition and attempts to correct it, the pelvis will rotate or shift to one side to find at least one sit bone for support. This leads to sitting asymmetrically, simply because of a lack of proper support.
Unfortunately this adaptation is common and the implications range from chronic low-back pain, sacro-iliac joint pain, compensatory muscular patterns of the legs and even sciatic nerve inflammation.
The good news is it's avoidable.
3. Support a front-end position
Your handlebar position should take into account your flexibility, neck mobility, the type of riding you do and how aggressively you do it. Once these are addressed, your saddle choice should be informed by your desired handlebars, not the other way around.
Your entire back (top to bottom), neck and shoulders should be comfortable. You should not be experiencing numb hands, or be unable to look over your shoulder for approaching vehicles.
Generally speaking, more upright positions benefit from saddle shapes that are on the flatter side, from front-to-back. They make for a consistent platform and provide the most abundant effective seating area.
More aggressive front-end positions typically require a more curved saddle shape from front-to-back, to contour to the shape of the ischial tuberosity to pubic rami transition. This means a flat saddle isn't always the best option. It's also essential that curved saddles have a cutout because they have a smaller effective seating area, so be on the lookout.
4. Create comfort
No new rider in the history of cycling ever looked at a bike saddle and said “Oh, that looks comfortable.” Most new riders think a tractor seat would be ideal, right? Wrong.
We now know good sit-bones support is essential. But we also have to make sure we protect the bones too — they can be bruised, and this is incredibly painful.
First, evaluate your riding terrain — are you riding smooth asphalt in Switzerland or endless mixed terrain in Emporia, Kansas, USA (home of the Dirty Kanza).
Don’t make the mistake of thinking ‘if soft is good, softer is better’, because that’s not the case. Find the least amount of padding you feel you can get away with, and don’t look to extra padded chamois to solve this dilemma. Extra padding on the saddle or the chamois will just bunch between the sit bones, potentially erasing the hard work of getting proper sit-bones support.
Your sit bones will get used to providing support, so a small amount of tenderness (rather than pain) on the first few rides is acceptable
5. Look good
Handlebar tape and saddle colour should match. Seriously. That is all.
When it comes to saddles, then shell, rail and cover materials are all worth evaluating. Also remember, padding can pack down and result in a lack of support. Rails get bent. Shells can crack or break. Covers wear and lead to worn patches on your shorts. In short, saddles become less effective over time, so replace them when needed. Here are a few final final points to think about:
Shells: Shells are typically high-density resin or carbon fibre. Carbon is a stiffer material and you can feel it when driving hard through the pedals during intense efforts. I've lost several carbon-shelled saddles in crashes, so be mindful…
Rails: Rails come in chrome-moly, hollow titanium and carbon fibre. This is typically about aesthetics and weight, and is down to personal preference. My experience is that hollow titanium withstands impacts better than chrome-moly. Carbon is pretty and won’t bend, but it will break. Which one you prefer is up to you and your wallet.
If considering metal rails, it’s worth inspecting your saddle occasionally to see whether or not the rails are straight. Bent rails will twist a saddle and obstruct your ability to sit squarely.
Covers: Covers come in slick and coarse materials. If you like to move around on your saddle a bit, go with a slick cover material.
For time-trialists and triathletes, a more coarse cover will help keep you in place, allowing a more sustained position without sliding around.