Few items of biking equipment are more personal – or more important – than the saddle. Along with pedals and grips, saddles are one of the key contact points that can make or break your cycling experience, not only with regard to long-distance comfort but also when it comes to long-term health.
A well-designed and well-fitting saddle will not only make epic days in the saddle a breeze but will also ensure the free flow of blood in the perineal and genital area – essential to avoid possible problems in the future.
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Many saddles on the market are designed to cater to specific cycling disciplines – road racing, MTB, touring, BMX etc. – while comfort saddles are designed as ‘all-round’ options for casual or leisure cyclists, with the emphasis being on comfort rather than low weight or high performance.
The type of saddle you choose will largely depend on the type of riding you enjoy. Road or MTB riders will primarily be looking for lightweight performance saddles that casual riders may find initially uncomfortable, while leisure and city riders will appreciate the extra cushioning of a well-cushioned saddle, without being concerned about the weight.
Parts of a saddle
The main part of the saddle is the hull, which for the most part is made of plastic or, in the case of high-end road and MTB racing saddles, carbon fibre. The hull consists of a wider flared rear (called the tail) tapering to a longer, pointed nose. It may be perforated to cut weight and increase flexibility, or also feature anatomical cutouts or pressure channels down the middle, aimed at improving blood flow to sensitive areas.
All but the most minimalist of racing saddles will have some kind of covering over the hull, with leather favoured for comfort and easily-cleaned synthetic fabrics the practical choice. Most saddles feature some kind of padding in between hull and cover, with polyurethane foam being the most common and silicone gel, memory foam and even inflatable air pads available on some models. MTB and Dirt Jump saddles designed for tough conditions will often feature protective plastic or Kevlar scuff patches on high-friction areas such as the back or sides.
Finally the saddle is attached to the seatpost by means of twin metal rains under the hull, whose inherent flexibility also adds to rider comfort by absorbing vibrations. Cro-moly steel (cro-mo) is a popular material for saddle rails, with lighter but more expensive titanium (ti) appearing on higher-end models.
Infinite variations in the human form mean that one rider’s perfect perch could well spell torture to another. A key thing to remember when looking for the holy grail of a perfectly-fitting saddle is that more padding does not necessarily mean more comfort. Far more important is the shape of the saddle’s hull and its fit relative to your anatomy – ideally the width of the saddle’s tail will be matched as closely as possible to the distance between the sit bones, providing perfect pelvic support. Recognising the importance of this, many manufacturers now offer their saddles in a range of widths.
When it comes to finding a saddle that fits, there is no substitute for trying a number of different models. Most riders will go through a number of saddles before finding one that fits, whereas others will transfer a trusted seat from one bike to the next. With new saddles, many riders also swear by a ‘breaking in’ period before giving a perch the thumbs up or down. A saddle that feels uncomfortable out of the box may well fit perfectly a few weeks down the line, or alternatively an instantly-comfortable seat may feel like a pain in the proverbial after a while.
Saddles generally fall under two categories: comfort saddles for city or leisure riding and performance saddles for Road/MTB riding and racing.
Comfort saddles: As the name suggests these are designed with comfort in mind and feature thick, cushioned padding, a wide tail to support the sit bones and in some models, additional suspension in the form of springs.
Performance saddles: This are lightweight and stiff, with minimal padding, a plastic or carbon hull, minimal padding, a leather or synthetic cover and a ‘sharp’, streamlined appearance.
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Saddles for road and MTB riding are typically lightweight, narrow and stiff, with minimal padding. While they may be regarded with horror by non-cyclists, they are also designed with comfort in mind, though this tends to come from shape and fit rather than an excess of padding (remember as well that most serious cyclists will be using them with padded shorts).
MTB and road saddles will share a lot of design characteristics with the former often made of more durable materials and the latter with light weight as the main priority (especially in top-end racing models).
While the most important thing in any saddle is fit – and specifically, how the tail of the saddle supports the sit bones, some manufacturers also offer ‘ergonomic’ saddles aimed at to reducing pressure on your sensitive veins and nerves. These often feature a channel or ‘cut-out’ in the centre of the hull which is claimed to ease pressure on the perineal area, but again this is a matter of personal preference. Some riders may find saddles with such features more comfortable, others may prefer a more traditional hull.
While some road and MTB saddles are virtually interchangeable, others are more tailored to specific disciplines including road racing, MTB trail and Dirt Jump/BMX.
Road racing – Road racing (and XC MTB) saddles tend to be thin, minimalist and lightweight perches with top-end models boasting carbon fibre shells, titanium rails and a bare sprinkling of padding, if any at all. However as we have seen, fit is far more important than padding so there’s no reason why light weight and long-distance comfort can’t go hand in hand.
MTB trail – Cross-country (XC) riders and racers favour light and stiff saddles that are flat in profile and broadly similar to those used by road racers. More general trail riders will often forgive a little extra weight for the extra comfort of a broader and/or more padded saddle, sometimes with a shorter nose for more technical riding. MTB trail saddles will also often feature protective plastic or Kevlar scuff patches on high-friction areas such as the back or sides. Cro-mo rails are common while high-end models may feature lightweight titanium.
BMX/Dirt Jump – BMX and dirt jump (DJ) riders ask little of their saddles – only that they not get in the way. Long-distance pedalling comfort is of little importance as most riders spend more time in the air than in the saddle, so seats tough enough to take to occasional impact and small enough not to be awkward when doing tricks are the order of the day.
For many riders who only use the bike for the daily commute or short spins on the bridleway, a comfort saddle may be just fine.
As the name suggests these are designed with comfort in mind and feature thick, cushioned padding, a wide tail to support the sit bones and in some models, additional suspension in the form of springs. They can be the preferred option of any rider who cycles without the benefit of padded shorts, but bear in mind that all that comfort comes at a cost – comfort saddles will be significantly heavier than performance road and MTB saddles.
Additionally, the wide tail makes for an upright riding position that puts more of your body weight over the saddle and isn’t ideal for long days. And while a soft, deep saddle might feel comfortable at first for a beginner, more contact area is likely to increase heat and discomfort the longer you are riding.
Therefore many riders find that even the most uncomfortable-looking performance saddle is the preferred option over long distances. This makes comfort saddles not ideal if you think you are going to be doing a lot of cycling.
Keep your saddle looking and performance its best with our range of spares and saddle care accessories including saddles covers, maintenance kits and saddle cover treatments.