BIKE FITTING FUNDAMENTALS: THE “PERFECT” SADDLE
STEVE AUCHTERLONIE WITH CYCLING PERFORMANCE LAB LLC
The perfect saddle, does it exist? OCA asked me to address this subject for some time because of the importance to the cycling experience. If we are not comfortable on the saddle then it’s impossible to enjoy cycling. Saddles are not cheap so trial and error is expensive. My goal for this article is to provide an easy to follow guidance on how to find your “perfect” saddle.
HA!! This is an impossible task that the cycling industry has struggled to solve. Go to the website for each major saddle manufacturer and survey their “sizing” methods… each one is different. One company’s approach is based on pant size, another’s based on flexibility, and a popular fitter’s approach is to match the saddle width with a client’s measured sit bone width. To add to the confusion, these well-intentioned companies confuse us with many design variations including short vs long lengths, widths from 110mm to 180+mm, cutouts vs channels vs non-cutouts, multiple padding levels, rounded vs flat lateral shapes, flat vs slightly curved vs very curved longitudinal shapes, leather vs synthetic covers, plastic vs carbon frames, metal vs carbon rails, and noses which are narrow vs wide vs non-existent. You get the idea.
Where does one begin if the current saddle is uncomfortable? The poor bike shop salesperson’s worst nightmare is when a customer asks him/her to recommend a saddle. Why? No training coupled with limited options available in the store leads to frustration for everyone. I know. I worked in a bike shop. So then, repeat the first sentence of this paragraph.
Here is my non-guaranteed saddle guidance, based on working with a couple hundred clients on their bike positions and based on my personal experience of riding/racing bikes for 40 years:
STEP 1 – Be realistic and understand what saddle comfort means. The bike saddle will never be your recliner chair, but how fast can you peddle a recliner anyway? The bike saddle is part of a performance machine that requires you to be athletic. Under the best circumstances, long rides in the saddle will not be all smiles and joy while skipping down the flowering meadow. Think about it. Sitting 2+ hours in one position on the recliner isn’t great either. YOU SHOULD NEVER BE IN ACUTE PAIN. However, very low grade, manageable discomfort is typical. Also, like everything else about humans, there is a wide range of saddle pressure sensitivity in the private region. The majority of my clients find the stock saddle that came on their bike acceptable. Of the remaining clients, most find a replacement saddle that improves their comfort experience compared to the stock saddle. There will always be a small percentage of cyclists who make me wonder why they ride a bike due to their heightened sensitivity in their private region… no saddle design improves their comfort.
STEP 2 – Verify your saddle position is correct. What does that mean? Saddle position includes a) seat height, b) saddle setback and c) saddle tilt. A poorly positioned saddle may cause saddle discomfort. The most common problem is a seat height that is too high which causes much greater saddle pressure at the bottom of the pedal stroke. A common symptom is saddle sores. Saddle tilt is the angle of the saddle, either nose up or down or level. Extreme nose up or down positions are problematic.
STEP 3 – Verify your handlebar position is not fighting you. Each of us has a unique and natural athletic position on the bike, whereby the pelvis rotates forward on the saddle allowing the spine to elongate. The variation among us is great and is reflected in our posture on the bike. Some of us sit upright while others are long and low. The handlebar position is measured by a) reach from saddle, b) height relative to saddle (called drop), and c) width of bar. The bar position facilitates our posture on the bike. When the bar position does not match our natural position then there is a “fight” between the bar and the cyclist. This can cause saddle discomfort due to our compensating for an un-relaxed upper body.
STEP 4 – Eliminate saddle designs that don’t match your cycling discipline. Here are a couple examples: a) MTB requires flat saddles to allow movement = eliminate curved saddles; and b) triathlon requires noseless saddles due to the extreme pelvic rotation position = eliminate hard nosed and long nosed saddles.
STEP 5 – Eliminate saddle designs that don’t match your pelvic rotation. Specifically, do you need a cutout or not? It’s hard to argue against a cutout due to the mountain of evidence documenting the improved blood flow in the private region. So, why are there so many non-cutout saddles available and why do the majority of bikes come with non-cutout saddles? I hate to say it but it’s tradition and cycling is stooped in tradition. Main decision points: a) health!! If you rotate your pelvis forward significantly then a cutout design is far, far healthier. Main symptom is numbness in the private zone while riding; b) a very small percentage of you are more uncomfortable on cutout saddles because the narrow rails are “cutting” into your private region; and c) cutout designs provide minimal to no improved blood flow for cyclists who sit very upright with minimal to no pelvic rotation.
STEP 6 – Eliminate saddle designs that are too wide or too narrow. How do you know? Accurately measure your sit bone width. How? The best tool is the Retul pressure map, sit bone measurement device but there are gel devices by Trek and Specialized or, for you DIYers, Google how to use cardboard or flour in a Ziplock bag. The result will be your sit bone width in millimeters. The value ranges from very narrow in the 90s to very wide in the 180s. My experience is that there is NO correlation between your frame type or body size to your sit bone width. Do not make an assumption for sit bone width based on your size. Now, add 30 to your sit bone width to get your “ideal” saddle width. For example, 100 + 30 = 130. Saddles come in standard widths: 110-120 is the narrowest. 130, 143 and 155 are the most common. 168 and greater are the wider options.
Why did I put quotes around “ideal?” Simply, it depends on how forward you rotate your pelvis on the saddle. The sit bone width is the widest, rear section of a bone structure in the private region called the ischium. The relationship of sit bone width to saddle width only makes sense if the cyclist is sitting upright (without their pelvis rotated forward). If the cyclist rotates their pelvis forward then he/she is sitting on a narrower section of the bone structure. Thus, a narrower saddle could be more supportive and comfortable in this lower/longer position. This is all great in theory but here’s my experience working with clients: comfort is subjective. I have wide sit bone clients who are more comfortable on narrow saddles and vice versa. Hey, I never said this was going to make sense.
STEP 7 – Do not make a saddle decision to save weight!!!!! Enough said.
STEP 8 – Eliminate soft saddles if you ride greater than 30 minutes. Just like the bed mattress industry, soft “pillow top” saddles feel great in the store and on the 5 minute test ride. They are miserable to sit on for rides longer than 30 minutes. Why? Just like your back on the mattress, your private zone is composed of bones, muscles and ligaments that need a firm foundation upon which to rest. The soft saddle is squishy and provides no foundation. On a soft saddle, you will find yourself constantly searching for that “spot” to sit upon.
STEP 9 – What’s left? At this point, you should have several saddles to consider and, ideally, you can test ride them. Bike shops have loaner saddles for this purpose. At the Lab, loaner saddles of various designs and sizes are available to fit clients. In addition, the Lab has a fitbike that copies your bike position and allows quick changes of saddles. The client climbs aboard to test ride multiple saddles in a short time frame. In this manner, the client gets a first impression of which saddle feels best. However, a true test ride should be conducted on a typical course and for a typical ride time.
One more key point needs to be made. As stated earlier, our private region is composed of bones, muscles and ligaments. They have adapted to your current saddle and position. Changing the saddle and/or position requires a new adaptation that can take a ride or two to several weeks. So, a true test ride needs to last that period of time. Again, YOU SHOULD NEVER BE IN ACUTE PAIN. However, very low grade, manageable discomfort is typical.
STEP 10 – Buy several when you find the perfect saddle.