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If you’ve ridden a bike, you know that the saddle is one of the most important factors when it comes to comfort. The wrong saddle can lead to a very sore rear end, or worse, chafing and saddle sores. But how do you choose a bike saddle that is right for you?
With so many different shapes, sizes, materials, padding thickness, and so on, it can be confusing and overwhelming to pick out a bike seat. Which one will provide the most comfort for your derrière, but also ward off chafing and still allow you to charge up those steep climbs efficiently?
I’ve tried and tested a number of bike saddles over the years and while saddle selection is definitely personal and subjective, I have learned a few things about how to choose the right bike saddle for your ride style (mountain biking vs road), body shape (particularly men’s vs women’s), and other factors.
If you’re looking for a comfy and functional saddle, read on to learn how to choose the right one for you!
The Importance of Choosing the right bike saddle
It’s easy to overlook the importance of choosing the right bike saddle. Bikes usually come with a saddle already installed, so it’s easy to just say “That one is fine” and ride away.
But if you think about it, the saddle is the primary point of contact between you – the rider – and the bicycle, so its fit, shape, and material significantly affect your comfort and performance during a ride.
This is true for every type of rider whether you’re a leisurely pedaler, a long-distance cycling, a mountain biker, or an adventure bikepacker. The right saddle can be the determining factor between a fun ride and a painful one.
Here are a few reasons to spend a bit more time looking for your perfect saddle:
- Comfort is paramount in cycling. A poorly fitting saddle can cause major discomfort on rides and even lead to issues off the bike. For example, a saddle that is too hard, too soft, or not the right shape can lead to chafing, lower back pain, or even chronic conditions over time like recurring saddle sores. Moreover, an ill-fitting saddle can lead to an improper riding position, causing muscle strain and inefficient pedaling.
- The right saddle can enhance performance. A saddle that fits well allows you – the cyclist – to efficiently transfer power from your legs to the pedals. It helps maintain optimal posture, allowing for better control and stability, especially during long rides or through challenging terrain.
- A well-fitting saddle can prevent nerve compression. A well-fitted saddle distributes weight evenly across the sit bones, reducing pressure on soft tissue and preventing numbness or other nerve-related issues. This is especially important for riders who spend a lot of time in the saddle, like endurance cyclists, long-distance bikepackers, or bicycler tourers.
- A comfortable seat contributes to the overall enjoyment of your ride! If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve experienced some discomfort on the bike and you know how that can minimize the joy of the ride. Even if the landscapes are stunning or the singletrack world-class, when discomfort down there is present, the fun stops. Therefore, investing time in choosing the right saddle can significantly enhance the joy of your rides.
Anatomy of a Bike Saddle
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to choose a bike saddle, let’s take a look at the anatomy of one.
The cut-out on bicycle saddles, also sometimes referred to as a channel or groove, is a design feature intended to alleviate pressure in the perineal area (the region between the sit bones).
This area is rich in nerves and blood vessels and prolonged pressure from sitting in the saddle for long rides can lead to discomfort and numbness, particularly for women.
The cut-out can be a full hole or just a depression running along the centerline of the saddle, depending on the design. It helps distribute the rider’s weight onto the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), which are more suited to bear weight than soft tissue.
The nose of a bicycle saddle is the forward-pointing structure. It plays an important role in bike control. Experienced riders can use the nose to help control the bike’s side-to-side movement. It also allows you to shift your weight forward when climbing steep hills or sprinting.
However, the nose of the saddle can also be a source of discomfort as it can put pressure on the perineal area. To address this, many modern saddles are designed with a narrower, softer, or more tapered nose, and some even feature a cut-out or a relief channel along the full length of the nose.
The rails of a bicycle saddle are the two bars or rods on the underside of the saddle that connect it to the bike’s seat post. These rails run from the front to the back of the saddle, parallel to each other, and serve a few essential functions.
- Attachment: The rails are the primary point of attachment for the saddle to the rest of the bike. They fit into the clamp located on the top of the seat post.
- Adjustment: They allow for adjustments to the saddle’s position. You can move the saddle forward or backward along the rails to adjust the distance between the saddle and the handlebars, and you can also change the saddle’s angle or tilt.
- Shock Absorption: Depending on the material they’re made of, the rails can provide some degree of shock absorption. The rails can flex slightly under load, which helps to soften the impact of bumps and vibrations from the road or trail.
The choice of rail material can have a significant impact on both the weight and cost of the saddle. Carbon fiber rails are typically lighter but also more expensive than steel or aluminum rails.
The padding on a bicycle saddle is the cushioning material that’s used to provide comfort and support. It’s located between the outer cover of the saddle and the saddle shell (the hard base of the saddle), and its main role is to absorb some of the shocks from the road or trail, and to provide a softer surface to sit on.
The type and amount of padding can vary widely from saddle to saddle. Some saddles, like those designed for racing or high-performance cycling, may have very minimal padding to save weight and to provide better power transfer.
On the other hand, saddles designed for more casual or comfort-oriented cycling may have more generous padding to provide a plush, comfortable feel.
The most common types of padding used in bike saddles are foam and gel.
- Foam padding comes in various densities; higher-density foam is firmer and doesn’t compress as easily, making it more suited to long rides, while lower-density foam is softer and more comfortable for shorter rides.
- Gel padding conforms well to your body shape and provides a high level of comfort, although it can be a bit heavier than foam.
It’s important to note that more padding doesn’t necessarily mean more comfort on longer rides. Too much padding can actually cause pressure and chafing as you sink into the saddle and it pushes up into your soft tissues.
The covering is the outermost layer of the saddle that comes into contact with the rider. It is typically made from materials like leather, synthetic leather, or fabric, and it stretches over the padding and the shell (the hard base of the saddle).
The choice of covering material can greatly influence the saddle’s characteristics, including its durability, comfort, weight, and even its friction against your cycling shorts.
- Leather: This is a traditional material used in some high-end and touring saddles. It’s highly durable and can mold to the rider’s shape over time, offering a personalized fit. However, it requires more maintenance and can be heavier than synthetic materials.
- Synthetic: Many modern saddles use synthetic covers such as vinyl or synthetic leather. These materials are typically more weather-resistant, require less maintenance, and can be lighter than leather. However, they don’t mold to the rider’s shape like leather can.
- Fabric: Some saddles, particularly those designed for off-road or mountain biking, might use a fabric cover for added grip.
Regardless of the material, a good saddle cover should be smooth and free from seams or other elements that could cause chafing or discomfort during a ride.
The shell is the hard, rigid structure that gives the saddle its shape. It forms the foundation of the saddle and supports the rider’s weight while cycling.
Typically, the shell is made of plastic, carbon fiber, or occasionally, metal. These materials are chosen for their ability to combine strength and flexibility.
- Plastic: Often used in more affordable saddles, plastic shells offer a good balance of flexibility and durability. They can withstand the stresses of cycling while providing a degree of comfort through their flex.
- Carbon Fiber: Used in high-end, performance-oriented saddles, carbon fiber is both extremely light and strong. It allows for very thin, finely-tuned shapes that can provide comfort and performance benefits. However, these benefits come at a higher cost compared to plastic.
- Metal: Less common, metal shells can be found on some vintage or specialty saddles. They are extremely durable but may lack the comfort and weight advantages of plastic or carbon fiber.
On top of the shell, manufacturers add padding (foam or gel – see above) to provide cushioning, and then a cover (leather, synthetic material, or fabric) to provide a durable and comfortable surface for the rider.
The shape of the shell plays a big role in determining the overall comfort and performance of the saddle. Different riders will prefer different shapes, and finding the right one can involve some trial and error.
Factors such as the width and length of the saddle, the presence of a cut-out or channel, and the overall profile (flat or curved) are largely determined by the design of the shell.
Types of Bike Saddles
If you’re new to the cycling world, you may be surprised at how many different types of bicycle saddles there are.
They come in all shapes and sizes, each designed to suit different riding styles, anatomies, and preferences.
Here are some common types of bicycle saddles:
- Road Bike Saddles: These saddles are typically long, narrow, and lightweight, designed for efficiency and speed. They have minimal padding to allow for better power transfer and reduced chafing on long rides. The narrow nose helps to minimize thigh rub during the pedal stroke.
- Mountain Bike Saddles: Mountain bike saddles are often somewhat wider and padded more than road bike saddles, designed for the frequent position changes that are typical in off-road riding. They also usually have a durable cover material to withstand the rough and tumble of trail riding.
- Comfort Saddles: As the name suggests, these are designed for cyclists who prioritize comfort over speed or performance. They are often wider and more padded than other types of saddles and are typically used on cruiser bikes or leisurely rides. Some have features like springs for extra shock absorption.
- Women’s Saddles: Women typically have wider sit bones than men, so saddles designed specifically for women tend to be wider at the back. They may also have a cut-out or channel to relieve pressure on soft tissue. It’s important to note, though, that many men find “women’s” saddles comfortable and vice versa — comfort is very individual!
- Gel Saddles: These saddles feature gel padding for enhanced comfort, conforming to the body and absorbing shock. They can be a good choice for casual riders, but some long-distance riders find that the extra padding can lead to chafing on longer rides.
- Performance Saddles: These saddles are designed with an emphasis on performance and efficiency, often featuring minimal padding and lightweight materials like carbon fiber. They can be found in both road and mountain bike versions and are typically quite pricey.
- Cut-out or Relief Channel Saddles: These saddles feature a hole or groove in the middle to relieve pressure on the perineal area. They can be found in designs catering to all types of riding and are becoming increasingly popular due to their added comfort.
- Leather Saddles: Often found on touring or vintage bikes, these saddles are known for their durability and the ability to mold to a rider’s shape over time, offering a customized fit.
It’s important to remember that the “right” saddle largely depends on personal preference, ride style, and anatomy. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa!
Bicycle saddles come in all shapes and sizes!
How to Choose a Bike Saddle in 8 Steps
Choosing the right bike saddle can be fairly involved depending on how much discomfort you experience when riding.
While the process can be somewhat personal and subjective, here are some general steps you can take:
1. Determine your riding style
Different types of riding call for different kinds of saddles. Road cyclists typically prefer narrow and lightweight saddles for better pedal efficiency and less chafing.
On the other hand, mountain bikers tend to want a more robust and padded saddle to cope with rough terrain.
Casual or commuting riders might prioritize comfort and choose wider and more padded saddles for a comfier ride.
2. Measure your sit bone width
The width of your saddle should correspond with the width of your sit bones, which are the bony parts of your butt that bear your weight when you’re sitting.
Bike shops often have devices that can measure your sit bone width or you can do it at home. Get a piece of tin foil or cardboard and sit on a carpeted step. Then measure the distance between the two deepest depressions.
Generally, a saddle should be just wide enough to support your sit bones.
3. Consider Saddle Shape
Saddle shape, including aspects like the curvature of the saddle and the length and width of the nose, can greatly affect comfort.
Some riders prefer a flat saddle, while others might prefer a rounder or curved one. Similarly, some might prefer a long, narrow nose, while others might want a shorter, wider one.
If you can, try out a few different saddles to see what you prefer. Below are two very different saddle shapes to give you an idea of the variety that is available.
4. Evaluate Padding
More padding doesn’t always mean more comfort, especially on longer rides. While a plush saddle might feel comfortable initially, too much padding can cause pressure and chafing over time.
The right amount of padding largely depends on the type of riding you do. Casual riders can usually get away with more padding while more serious riders will want something with a firmer surface.
5. Try Out Different Saddles
Many brands have saddle guarantee programs that allow you to return the saddle within a certain time period if it’s not the one for you.
Some bike shops also have a saddle demo program, which is a great way to find a saddle that feels comfortable to you.
Remember, what works for one person might not work for another!
6. Consider Gender-Specific Features
Men and women have different anatomies and saddles are often designed accordingly. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and many women find “men’s” saddles comfortable and vice versa.
If you want to compare gender-specific features, women’s saddles are often designed with wider shells to accommodate for wider hips, a larger cut-out or channel for soft-tissue concerns, and more padding.
7. Check the Cut-out or Relief Channel
Some people find that saddles with a cut-out or a relief channel down the center are more comfortable because they reduce pressure on the perineal area.
Personally, I like saddles that have a cut-out for bikepacking trips and long gravel rides.
8. Assess Material and Quality
A well-constructed saddle using high-quality materials will generally last longer and maintain its comfort over time.
I’m always a proponent of spending more money on a quality product than opting for the ‘cheaper’ version that may only last a season.
If it’s your first time shopping around for a saddle, it might take some trial and error to find the one. Even after buying, most saddles allow for adjustments in angle and position, so spend some time fine-tuning these settings for optimal comfort.
If you continue to experience discomfort, it might be worth seeking the advice of a professional bike fitter.
How to Adjust & Break in Your New Saddle
Once you have your new saddle, you’ll need to spend some time adjusting it and breaking it in.
Here’s how you can go about it:
Adjusting Your New Saddle
- Saddle Height: The first step in adjusting your saddle is setting the right height. When you’re sitting on the saddle with one heel on the pedal, your leg should be fully extended at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
- Saddle Angle: Start with the saddle level, then adjust as needed for comfort. A common starting point is a flat or slightly nose-down position. Be cautious about tilting the saddle too far down, as it can put undue pressure on your hands and wrists.
- Saddle Fore/Aft Position: This refers to the saddle’s position along the rails from front to back. A basic rule of thumb is that when your pedal is at the 3 o’clock position, a plumb line dropped from the bony point just below your kneecap should intersect the pedal axle.
Remember, these are starting points, and everyone’s optimal setup can be slightly different. Be prepared to experiment and adjust multiple times until you find the most comfortable setup.
Breaking in Your New Saddle
Depending on the material of your saddle, there may be a “break-in” period where the saddle adjusts to your body shape. This is particularly true for leather saddles, which can be quite firm initially but will mold to your shape over time, providing a custom fit.
Here’s how to break in your new saddle”
- Take short rides: Start with shorter rides and gradually increase the duration. This will give your body time to adjust to the new saddle and vice versa.
- Adjust as needed: After each ride, make small adjustments to the saddle’s position if needed. Over time, you’ll dial in the perfect setup.
- Care for your saddle: Some saddles, particularly leather ones, require care and maintenance to break in properly. This might include applying a specific conditioner or proofing compound.
- Patience: Give your body and the saddle time to adjust to each other. The process can take several rides or even a few weeks, but a properly broken-in saddle can provide unparalleled comfort.
If persistent discomfort or pain occurs even after breaking in the saddle, it’s a good idea to consult a bike fitting professional or consider trying a different saddle. Bike comfort is an important part of any ride and the right saddle is a key part of that.
Tips for Bike Saddle Care and When to Replace
Good saddles can cost upwards of $100 and some are even priced in the multiple hundreds of dollars.
You’ve already spent a lot of time researching and finding the perfect fit, so be sure to take care of your saddle so that it lasts a long time.
Bike Saddle Care
Proper care and maintenance can greatly extend the lifespan of your bike saddle.
Here are some tips:
- Clean regularly: After riding, especially in dirty or wet conditions, give your saddle a quick wipe down to remove any dirt, grime, and sweat. Use a damp cloth and mild soap if necessary, but avoid harsh chemicals or abrasives that could damage the cover material.
- Protect from elements: If your bike is stored outdoors, consider using a saddle cover or storing your bike in a place where it’s protected from rain and sun, both of which can degrade the materials over time.
- Inspect regularly: Check your saddle regularly for signs of wear or damage. Look for cracks in the cover, changes in padding firmness, or loose rails. Catching these issues early can help you avoid more serious problems down the line.
- Care for leather saddles: If you have a leather saddle, it requires special care. Use a leather conditioner or proofing compound to keep the leather supple and water-resistant. Avoid getting the saddle excessively wet, and allow it to dry naturally if it does.
When to Replace Your Bike Saddle
Bike saddles, like most bike components, don’t last forever. Here are some signs that it might be time for a replacement:
- Cover wear and tear: If the cover material is ripped, torn, or excessively worn, it may be time for a new saddle. This can cause discomfort and expose the underlying padding or shell.
- Deformed or broken shell: If the shell of the saddle becomes deformed or breaks, it can greatly affect the saddle’s comfort and performance. In this case, it’s usually best to replace the saddle.
- Excessive padding compression: Over time, the padding in a saddle can compress or lose its cushioning ability. If your saddle isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, even after adjusting the position, it might be due to worn-out padding.
- Loose or broken rails: If the rails that connect the saddle to the bike become loose or break, you’ll need to replace the saddle. Loose rails can make the saddle unstable, while broken rails can render the saddle unusable.
- Persistent discomfort: Sometimes, your saddle may just not be the right fit for you, even if it’s not worn out. If you consistently experience discomfort or pain while riding, it might be worth trying a different saddle.
Popular Bike saddle brands to consider
There are a lot of different reputable bike brands and models to choose from.
Here are a few to consider that are known for their quality, comfort, and innovative design:
- Brooks England: Known for their handcrafted leather saddles, Brooks England has a legacy dating back over 100 years. Their saddles, like the popular B17 model, are renowned for durability and comfort that improves with age as the leather molds to the rider’s anatomy. They also have a repair program, which I appreciate.
- Selle Italia: This Italian brand has a long history of producing innovative and high-quality saddles for all types of riders. Their range spans from performance-oriented models, like the SLR series, to comfort-focused options, like the Diva Gel Superflow.
- Specialized: As a leading bike manufacturer, Specialized also offers a wide range of saddles designed with body geometry science to improve comfort and performance. Models like the Power Saddle or the Phenom have received good reviews.
- Fizik: Fizik is known for their high-performance road bike saddles. They offer a range of saddles to cater to different rider flexibilities and riding styles. The Aliante, Antares, and Arione models are all popular choices.
- WTB: Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB) offers a variety of saddles designed for mountain biking and trail riding. Their Volt saddles are known for their comfort and durability.
- Ergon: Ergon focuses on ergonomic design and has a range of saddles designed to reduce pressure on sensitive areas. Their SM and SMC series are popular among both road cyclists and mountain bikers.
- Selle SMP: Selle SMP saddles are recognizable by their distinctive “beak” shape and central cut-out, designed to reduce pressure. They offer a variety of models to suit different body types and riding styles.
- Terry: Terry specializes in women’s bike saddles, though they offer options for men too. Their saddles are engineered with a focus on comfort for both road cycling and mountain biking. I have the Butterfly Century for long-distance bikepacking trips and the Corta for road riding. Use their saddle selector to find your perfect match.
- Bontrager: As the in-house brand for Trek Bicycles, Bontrager has a range of saddles for a variety of riding styles, from road to mountain biking. The Bontrager Verse is their all-around model for road biking, gravel, and mountain biking. Bontrager also provides an innovative in-store sit bone measurement tool to help you choose the right saddle width.
- SDG Components: Known for their mountain bike saddles, SDG Components offer models like the Bel-Air, which has been a popular choice for decades due to its comfort and versatility.
Shop popular bicycle saddles
If comfort while riding is a high priority for you or you’ve experienced chafing, saddle sores, or other discomfort on the bike, spending some time researching and testing different saddles can really improve your riding experience.
It’s also important to remember that there is no one ‘perfect’ saddle. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. The best thing you can do is narrow down the type of saddle you’re looking for based on your riding style, discomfort issues, body type, etc… and then test out a few saddles to find one that works for you.
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What questions do you have about how to choose a bike saddle? Do you have a favorite? Which one and what do you love about it? Leave a comment below!