How to choose a saddle

Saddles are a tricky item to buy. What’s great for me, won’t necessarily be the best saddle for you. Simply put, our butts are different (probably).

That said, it gets pretty hard and expensive to keep trying saddle after saddle at random until you find your dream perch. For this article, we decided to reach out to the saddle experts at Wiggle – these guys know all the saddles and how to choose the right one.

Are you sitting comfortably? By the end of this article you will be!

Pile of Saddles

I have found that when faced with too much choice, it is best to break the problem down and make yourself some selection criteria. Therefore, here are the criteria to lead you to saddle nirvana:

Shape

Shape is arguably the most important factor in saddle selection. The thing that makes saddles so personal is the shape and width of your ischial tuberosities, or sit bones. These bones are what share the weight while riding a bike and therefore they need to be supported and in the correct place on the saddle. There are several aspects of shape that have an impact on fit and comfort:

  • Width – As your sit bones can be different distances apart, then the saddles need to be different widths. Whilst it is possible to use a saddle that is wider than you need, it is very uncomfortable to use one that is narrower. Ones that are too wide won’t hurt in the short run, but have a higher chance of chafing on the insides of your legs. Many saddle models now come in several widths, even the sex specific saddles, with women’s ones being generally wider than the men’s ones.
  • Length – Length is less important than width, but can impact the pressure you feel on soft tissue. It is important if you are going to be in an extreme position, such as a very aggressive aero position on a road bike.
  • Surface contours – Some saddles are completely flat, while others have dips and cutouts. Channels and full cut outs are becoming more common on saddles as they have been proven to lower or remove the pressure on sensitive soft tissue that doesn’t like being squashed.
Saddle selection

These are just some of the saddles I have tried in recent years.

Position on bike

Your position on your bike determines the exact separation, and therefore width, of your sit bones and how much pressure you are putting on them. The more aggressive your position and the further forward you lean, the narrower your saddle will need to be. Similarly, if you are sitting very upright then having a large platform on which to perch your derrière will probably be the most comfortable.

Weight

The main contributor of weight in a saddle is the rails. If you have a lightweight bike, or you are trying to upgrade your saddle to cut weight, then look for rails made from titanium, or even carbon if you are really trying to make an impact on weight.

Fabric

The covering of saddles can impact weight, but it also impacts durability and comfort. Solid leather saddles such as Brooks will last an incredibly long time if cared for. Padded saddles can be covered in leather as well, but they tend to be a little heavier. Synthetics can be bonded rather than stitched, which makes them more durable, smoother and lighter. Some saddles will have quite a rough exterior which is something to think about if you intend to wear jeans or regular clothing as they will inflict a little more wear on your clothing.

Padding

One thing to avoid is the ‘squish test’. This is when you judge how comfortable a saddle is going to be based on pushing your thumb into it, on the belief that a softer saddle is better. This isn’t true. If it fits you, a firm saddle can actually be more comfortable as it will not dig in or chafe.

Other considerations

The guys at Wiggle suggested that for longer rides, padded shorts are helpful. However, feel free to judge this on personal preferences. My commute into central London takes about 45 mins and I have never done it in padded shorts. Most of the time I have not been uncomfortable.

Price will determine the quality of materials and therefore the weight of the saddle. For most commuting duties, a very high end saddle is not necessary, and is more of a target for theft than providing you with any significant benefits. Unless of course it is the only saddle you have found to be comfortable.

Fore and aft position of your saddle is also important, as well as the height of your seat post. Your exact fit on the bike will vary by saddle, but it is worth tinkering around with it, before giving up on a saddle. If you are intending to ride a lot and are experiencing pain, consider getting a bike fit as this can also point you in the right saddle direction.

What next?

Well, this is all well and good I hear you say thanks to my magical blogging super-hearing, but how do I start picking a perch?

Well, if you want to get scientific, then the first thing you want to do is work our how far apart your sit bones are. Many bike shops will have a special mat you can sit on that will allow the distance to be measured. You can DIY this as well with layers of corrugated cardboard, or layers of paper towels (sit on them with a wet bum, peel off the layers until you find the last one with wet dots – measure). Saddle manufacturers also give guidance to the type of rider most suitable to their saddles.

Pressure heat map

Once you know your sit bone width, you can start narrowing down the saddles a little. Obviously, the measurement is going to be taken siting upright, so you could consider a saddle a little narrower than your measurement, but not much.

Start by figuring out what is wrong with your current saddle – is it too flat, too narrow, chaffing the inside of your legs, too plush, not plush enough?  Armed with a critical analysis you can then start looking for a new saddle that has a similar width but with a cutout, or is wider, narrower, thinner, more padded, etc…

Try friends bikes to get an idea of what other saddles feel like. Make a note of the characteristics you like and what saddle it is if you can tell.

If you want to just get on with it and try a new saddle, then Wiggle have a great line of own brand saddles called Cosine, starting at £15, with a flavour to please most people. They will allow you to try something different without breaking the bank. Charge’s Spoon also seems to be a general crowd pleaser and is pretty cheap. Some brands have trial periods so this is also something worth looking for.

Good luck!

What saddle buying advice have you found helpful in the past? Do you have any tips to pass on about how to narrow the crazy selection out there? Let everyone know below!

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8 Responses to How to choose a saddle

  1. TOM 07/04/2016 at 3:53 pm #

    I have 2 touring bikes … was told that I HAVE to have a Brooks saddle. got a B-17 flyer and it was good (but slippery) for 1 season , then it wasn’t good .. something changed ?

    Now I’ve found a couple of Italian leather anatomic saddles that work for me , but I don’t know for how long ?

  2. Vivek 07/04/2016 at 8:41 pm #

    I uses http://www.infinitybikeseat.com/seats/n-series-seat, bought them off Kickstarter almost 2 year back and have been using it ever since.

    Feel good, not too bad.

  3. Tom 08/04/2016 at 7:07 am #

    Another Tom, another Brooks saddle post. I’ve had a B-17 Standard for about 5 years, it’s fantastic, very comfortable and I didn’t experience any of the breaking in period some people seem to, it was comfy straight away and just got better.
    The only things to consider with them, is that if you are obsessed with weight they are probably not for you, and also they are a bit of a target for thieves. I had one nicked about six months after getting it, but since then I loop a lock through the rails when locking by bike up.

  4. colin shaw 08/04/2016 at 10:49 am #

    Enjoy your blog. When I began reading your saddle post I’d completely forgotten my machine doesn’t have a saddle. Its a low slung three wheeled (recumbent) lawn chair. So comfy, wear what I want.
    The only thing I don’t love about this rig is the uphill stuff. I’ve ridden mountain passes, flatland prairie, and rolling park land but I’m still a tired old doggie on the climbs. Watch out on the decents though, I’m a ground scorching rocket. Have to pick your line and commit.
    Anyway, enough hanger flying jabber. Keep those informative posts coming and drag your mayor out – if you haven’t already – with his bike to partake at a bike festival or maybe a keg party. Meantime take and good luck with human power business.
    Cheers
    Colin

  5. Francis Parrett 08/04/2016 at 5:03 pm #

    For what it’s worth I have just been through this process after changing from my winter training Tourer with a Selle RoyalGel soft-to-the-thumb-test saddle to my Road bike with an original kit “sportier” saddle. My last Tourer ride was 61 miles in the Surrey Hills and I had no butt, neck or shoulder problems. I then repeated the ride on my Road bike with Endurance Geo and after 4 hours my butt, neck and shoulders wanted to go home. The shoulders and neck were easily cured by the guys at Evans leveling the saddle so it wasn’t tipping me into the bars – obvious I know but just sharing it – and my butt lasted nearer 5 hours but not long enough hence my quest for a new saddle which I have had fitted as normal -NQR for neck again- and then re-leveled flat and it works for 5 hours +. I chose from the Bontrager range because you have 30 days to try it out and return – what a guarantee – so I had no qualms about testing and returning to branch. I got it right 1st time with the Mens Ssr 0.8cm wider but not spongy soft and I don’t feel the ends of the rails sticking into me! I’m 5ft9″ and 58k. I don’t get any chaffing and there is a channel for the undercarriage. I guess the negative is the extra 100g or so of weight which i don’t notice.

  6. becca 08/04/2016 at 11:20 pm #

    Perfect timing. I totally need a new saddle

  7. Dave 10/04/2016 at 6:28 pm #

    My Brompton saddle wore out after about eight years so I bought a Brooks. Wish I had one from the start.

  8. MJ Ray 15/04/2016 at 10:54 am #

    I’ve been looking at this far too much lately and I think there’s two other important aspects to shape which aren’t covered. I suggest one is missing because wiggle and other mainstream bike shops predominantly stock the non-saddle type of saddle… let me explain:

    Older saddle designs are actually saddle-shaped: side-to-side across their middle they curve smoothly downwards both sides, whereas front-to-back they curve very slightly upwards, a less extreme version of a horse saddle shape. This centres the rider on the saddle, although you can still move forwards or backwards a bit as needed (and to move the pressure around your bum on longer rides).

    Leather saddles like the famous Brooks achieve this partly by shaping the leather and partly by how the supports are arranged front and back. Classic anatomic plastic-based saddles like the Concor, Contour, Rolls, Regale, Turbo and I think Unicanitor are basically saddle-shaped too. They don’t bend and adapt like leather, but their shapes will support a wide range of riders.

    A few modern saddles share that saddle-like shape (I think the Charge Spoon does more so than many, which may account for its popularity), but there seems to be a recent fashion of producing perches where the nose falls away (crazy) or it’s a platform side-to-side where it’s basically flat and then drops over a tight corner, relying on padding to cushion against strange pressure lines and causing discomfort for anyone not in the expected shape range.

    Most of the cheaper saddles in a racing-led shop like wiggle seem to be platforms and I don’t understand it – it is because designers feel that saddle-shaped is obvious and boring and doesn’t need as much creativity with padding? You have to search out retro or classic models to get much choice of saddle-shaped saddles at the moment.

    I feel the other key shape characteristic is from T-shape (Brooks Professional I think) to pear-shaped (B66S), which is basically how far forwards the saddle starts narrowing to its nose width. Most leant-forwards riders and some upright ones will prefer a T-shape to keep the saddle clear of the backs of their thighs, whereas others will prefer pear-shapes. I feel that the B17’s shape is fairly popular because it’s on the fringe of being pear-shaped but able to have its sides beaten nearer to T-shape as it’s broken in, so it suits a fairly broad range of riders.

    So, for friction-related damage to the edge of the bum or tops of thigh backs, I’d consider looking for something more T-shaped. If it’s problems elsewhere on the tops of your things, I’d consider looking for something more saddle-shaped. If the problems are more centrally (if you know what I mean), I’d consider going the other way.

    I suggest that measuring width is still the most important aspect, but saddle v platform and T v pear are much more important than superficial things like fabric – you can nearly always recover a saddle, but most of us can’t reshape plastic easily.

    Hope that helps someone!

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