Riding a road bike shouldn’t be uncomfortable, yet many people continue to stick with their current saddle, despite consistent discomfort.
Bike saddles come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. This is for good reason as everyone’s different, so one person’s leather arm chair is another person’s rusty razor blade.
Before you start contemplating a new saddle, you should make sure you know how to set the correct saddle height. We’d also recommend a professional bike fit, as this will determine your flexibility and ideal riding position, which are important considerations when choosing a saddle to meet your needs. Factors like saddle angle should also be covered in a bike fit.
The different features of saddles
The rails of a saddle are a frame on the underside, which the seat-post of your bike clamps on to. Most modern bikes conform to the same standard, so any reputable saddle will fit any reputable bike.
Rails are one of the main areas that affect saddle price. Entry-level saddles have steel rails, these then move up to manganese, titanium and then carbon.
As you move through the materials, they get lighter and more expensive. Carbon rails are the most expensive and lightest. Carbon and titanium are also slightly more forgiving than steel too, allowing for more comfort. The important thing to remember is that the basic steel railed model will often have the same shape as the top end carbon railed version.
A common misconception is that more padding equals a comfier saddle. If this were the case the people who spend the most time on bikes, Tour de France riders, would be using very padded saddles.
The reality is that padding deforms and creates more contact, so on longer rides it can be less comfortable. Thick, soft padding may initially seem like a good idea to alleviate saddle discomfort, but often a squishy saddle will just compress down under the sit bones and push up in the middle, creating pressure spots in other areas.
Can a saddle be too firm though? Some riders (male and female) ride bare carbon saddles and get along fine. This isn’t for everyone, but it does highlight that far more important than padding is shape. To maximise comfort you should aim to get a saddle that is the right shape for your style of riding and sit bones.
Shape is the most important aspect of saddle comfort. Saddles come in a plethora of different shapes, designed to support different riders and different styles of riding.
Narrower, flatter saddles such as the Fizik Arione tend to suit more aggressive riders with a lower position (such as Bradley Wiggins). The Specialized Romin is another example.
A slightly wider saddle with a curved profile, such as this Fabric Scoop, is often the choice of riders who sit more upright. The Fizik Aliante and Specialized Toupé are also examples of saddles designed for a more upright position.
Should you not get along with either of these saddle types, there are many more. The Essax Shark saddle is a more exotic design, but there is a huge variety out there.
Sit bone width
Many bike shops have what we like to call ‘Bum-ometers’ (we just made that up). These are devices that you can sit on and feature a memory foam. Your sit bones leave an impression in foam, the width of which can be measured.
A general rule of thumb is that the saddle width should be sit bone width +2cm. Specialized and Bontrager both produce devices like this to measure your sit bones and these are often available to try in your local bike shop.
Alternatively, if you don’t have access to a bum-ometer you could always improvise with some Playdoh and a sheet of paper… Another important thing to remember is that a bigger bum doesn’t necessarily mean you have bigger sit bones!
Specialized offer their saddles in three different widths, which is very useful if you have wide sit bones.
So you’ve measured your sit bones, you’re happy that your saddle is flat enough and the padding is good, but you still feel discomfort. The solution? You may need a cut-out.
Saddles are available in a range of cut-outs and relief channels that come in different sizes. The best way to see if you’ll benefit is to try one. Cut-outs and channels can relieve stress on soft tissues in your delicate areas. If you repeatedly experience discomfort this might be for you.
Some bike saddles feature relief channels. This is an alternative to a full cut-out and is very popular with some people. Is it bad to have a cut-out if you don’t need one? Many people who don’t need a cut-out comfortably ride saddles with cut-outs with no problems. However, some people find that cut-outs can increase pressure at the edges, or pinch delicate skin.
Statistically, women typically have sit bones that are 1cm wider than men. This may explain why lots of women have issues with finding a comfortable saddle. Although women-specific saddles exist, there is no reason that you should exclude non-female specific saddles from your search.
Time trial saddles
Riding in a time trial position requires most riders to be ‘on the rivet’. This can mean the rider has a forward rotated pelvis, with the sit bones typically up, off the saddle surface.
Consequently the pubic bone and other soft tissues become weight bearing. Triathletes and time trialists tend to favour special saddles that have effectively had the nose chopped off, such as the Fizik Tritone.
This also enables pro-riders to set the saddle further forward on the rails, as there is a current (arguably outdated) UCI rule that limits how far forward the nose of the saddle can go.
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How to choose
Where possible, always try before you buy.
Check the returns policy before you purchase a saddle. Some companies will allow you to try buy a saddle and swap it for another if you are not happy with it within 30 days. This is very useful for trying a few out.
Other companies such as Fizik offer test saddles, which are often stocked by bike shops. The saddles are bright yellow and can be borrowed for a refundable deposit. If you decide you like it, you can buy a brand new one.
Remember: changing your saddle can change your saddle height. If you get a new saddle, it is worth reassessing your saddle height.
Hopefully it goes without saying, but when you try a saddle don’t wear a pair of jeans! Also factor in that a good quality, properly fitting pair of cycling specific shorts is important to saddle comfort.