The quest for the perfect saddle

You'll need to ride at least three or four saddles in order to determine which shapes and designs will work best for you.
The saddle is perhaps the most important component on your bicycle. For many, having the right saddle can be the difference between logging enjoyable miles and suffering through miserable workouts.

Complications associated with incorrect saddle selection range from saddle sores to genital numbness. Unfortunately, methods for choosing an appropriate saddle have been either non-existent or riddled with misinformation. The following tips will help take some of the guesswork out of choosing the saddle that will work best for your own anatomy and cycling application.

There are three main ideas to keep in mind when selecting a saddle:

  • Comfort: The saddle should be comfortable. It should support your sit bones and hips evenly. Choosing a gender-appropriate saddle will help with both comfort and support.

  • Freedom of Movement: The saddle must allow movement without causing excessive rubbing or chafing. Poor fit is most noticeable when the inner thigh rubs against the edge or the flared section of the saddle. This can cause painful saddle sores. Your saddle should allow you to pedal without restriction.

  • Maintain Genital Blood Flow: A properly fit saddle should not cause numbness in the genital region for either male or female riders. Research has shown that sitting on a poorly adjusted bicycle saddle can reduce penile oxygen delivery by 70-80%. Increased compression on the nerves and blood vessels that supply muscle control and blood to the genitals has been sited as the key cause of erectile dysfunction in male cyclists. It is very important that you find a saddle that minimizes or eliminates symptoms of numbness when riding.

There are many different types of saddles on the market. Start to narrow down the selection by first evaluating each saddle based upon these variables:

Saddle width

You need to have a saddle that supports your sit bones. If you lie on your back with your knees bent you can feel your sit bones. Feel for the outside edges of the bony prominences in your rear end. Then, measure the distance between your sit bones starting at the outside edge of one and measuring to the outside edge of the other. Write down this number and bring it with you when you go saddle testing.

You are looking for a saddle that is slightly wider than your sit bones. Take a measurement at the back part of the saddle. Be sure to use the edge of the saddle that is flat or semi-flat for your measurement. You are trying to measure the surface that will actually support your sit bones, not the extra material that wraps around the sides. Specialized even has Body Geometry saddles that come in three different widths so you can find one that fits your body.

Saddle transition

If you view a saddle from above, you will notice the manner in which a saddle transitions from narrow in the nose, to wider at the back. Saddles that flare more gradually tend to cause rubbing at the muscles of the inner thigh. Often riders will sit further forward on these saddles, which can increase pressure on the delicate anatomy between the sit bones and the genitals. Look for a saddle that has a fairly abrupt transition from front to back. This will allow for movement and support with minimal chafing.

Saddle profile

When viewing a saddle from the side, you will notice that it is either saddled (concave) or flat. Saddles with a lot of concavity may feel more supportive and distribute weight better. However, they may cause increased pressure of the sit bones when riding in a more aero position.

Flatter saddles allow more adjustments in position without drastic changes in pressure. Also evaluate the profile of the top of the widest part of the saddle when looking from the front. It can be convex, flat, or concave. The goal is to support the sit bones without putting significant pressure between and forward of them. A saddle that is excessively rounded may put pressure in this area of the sit bones and contribute to numbness.

Cut-outs and gel

In the late 1990s, manufacturers began producing saddles with holes or channels in the middle of the saddle to reduce pressure in the areas between and forward of the sit bones. Many studies on saddle cut-outs have shown that they can improve oxygen supply to the genitals, while others have shown little difference between saddles with and without cutouts.

As I'll discuss later, proper fit plays a large role in preventing genital numbness, whether your saddle has a cutout or not. However, since no studies have shown that there's any harm to riding a saddle with a cutout, they're a good buy for any cyclist. Keep in mind, however, that the position of the cutout is different in mens' and women's saddles, so make sure you're getting the right one.

Gel has also been a method for increasing comfort; however, if used to cover the entire saddle, gel can increase the pressures between and forward of the sit bones, adding to symptoms of numbness. A moderate use of gel, positioned in the saddle where it contacts the sit bones, is most effective.

Now that you have a basis for comparing saddles on the above characteristics, it is time to start riding them.

Test riding

You'll need to ride at least three or four saddles in order to determine which shapes and designs will work best for you. That includes trying different models from the same company. I suggest going to a shop that specializes in bike fitting and/or allows you to try various saddles.

Ride on an indoor trainer first to get a feel for comparing different shapes and designs. Ride in various positions on the bars when you are testing saddles (changes in bar position can change your pelvic position and the pressures at the saddle.) Once you have narrowed down your choices, be sure to ride the saddle on the road before making the final selection. Helpful shops will often allow you to take the saddle home and do a ride or two and still return or exchange it if it just isn't working.

Other factors affecting saddle fit

A number of other factors can dramatically affect the way your saddle feels and functions. Be sure that you have attended to the following items before making final judgment on a saddle:

Bike fit
Proper position of your saddle as well as total bike set-up can affect saddle comfort. Saddle height, fore-aft and tilt, as well as bar position can alter pressures at your saddle. Get a proper fitting before or in conjunction with saddle testing to ensure that a poor fit is not at the root of your saddle problems.

Saddle break-in & replacement
Saddles need to be broken-in. They will usually become a bit more comfortable after a few months of riding. However, if symptoms like numbness or chafing occur in the first few rides, they are likely to get worse rather than better with more use. Saddles also need to be replaced after a year or two of use depending on the materials and the amount of miles you ride. Signs that your saddle needs to be replaced include a decrease in comfort and late onset of chafing or numbness.

Shorts and lubricant
Saddle comfort is also very dependent on the surface that contacts the skin. No saddle will be very comfortable if you wear underwear or neglect to use lubrication. Be sure to wear high quality, cycling-specific shorts that have proper padding for the distances being ridden. For example, triathlon shorts will not provide adequate padding. Underwear should not be worn beneath cycling shorts, as it causes chafing. Chamois creams applied on the padding of your short or to the skin can reduce friction and chafing.

Proper saddle selection is a task that requires time and persistence. Now you have the tools to streamline the process for comparing the salient features of saddle design. Armed with this information, you can confidently begin your quest for the perfect saddle.

Phil Astrachan is a Senior Coach for Carmichael Training Systems who lives in San Francisco. He is also a licensed physical therapist who specializes in the biomechanical evaluation and treatment of endurance athletes including bicycle fit and pedal stroke evaluation.

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