Along with choosing a bike size and shape that suits your needs, choosing the right saddle will improve ride comfort and make cycling more enjoyable.
The old High Nelly bicycles had great big spring-loaded saddles, which moved with you with every rotation of the pedals and which soaked up the shocks from potholes very well. With great improvements in our roads, component materials, bicycle shock-absorbers and the need to reduce overall bicycle weight, rigid or semi-rigid saddles have become the norm. However, the interaction between saddle and cyclist remains a highly complex phenomenon incorporating rider weight, body geometry, and riding position, among other factors.
The body in Sitting
If sitting on a hard, flat chair, the upper body’s weight is concentrated on the ‘ischial tuberosities’ – the fancy name for the pelvis bones which you can feel clearly if you sit on your hands. Depending on the person, they are normally about 10 to 13 cm apart, which is about the width of the conventional modern saddle. Unlike the wider High Nelly saddle, most modern saddles support the ischias and the area between them, but not the whole bottom. A person of larger build or with a wider distance between the thighs will need a wider saddle, while a slender person often finds a narrower saddle more comfortable. Similarly, a heavier person may feel the need for a fuller saddle to distribute their body weight.
To complicate matters, riding position dictates whether the bulk of a person’s weight is borne by the saddle or is more evenly distributed between handlebars, seat and pedals. Some bicycles (such as city cruisers) are designed to be ridden with the rider’s torso upright and with hands light on the handlebars, while a racing bike is normally ridden with the body hunched over and the head down, especially by those with flexible spines. Note that BMX saddles, for example, are slim and unobtrusive, as BMX riders normally ride standing up to allow their legs to absorb the shock of jumps and other stunts, and riders need to be able to swing their legs off quickly and easily.
Soft or hard?
Just because a saddle feels soft and comfortable in the shop doesn’t mean it will still feel that way after 100 km. While many saddles are now made with soft foam padding or gel inserts, the extra ‘give’ they offer can lead to chafing over time, while smoother, harder saddles can often be more comfortable to cycle over long distances. At any rate, saddle shape is always a more important factor for comfort than softness.
A cutaway saddle (or one with a central pressure-relieving channel) is often a very good idea for a racing or touring bike, as the curved spinal position means the body’s most sensitive areas may be pressed against the saddle for long periods. In extreme cases, this can lead to discomfort and even injury to either male or female cyclists. A cutaway also allows air to circulate and sweat to evaporate, which can reduce friction between shorts and saddle or shorts and skin, improving comfort.
The best way to find the right saddle for you is to try different models on different bikes at your local bike shop, or to take a certain saddle for a test-ride on your bike. And if a friend offers you to take their bike for a spin to try it out, don’t say ‘no’!!! It might have the saddle you’ve been looking for!