What makes a saddle comfortable? It has to be the right shape for the cyclist. A good shape for one cyclist won’t necessarily be good for another.
It’s not about padding
Sitting on a saddle is not like sitting on a sofa. The saddle needs to support your sit bones in the position you cycle in, without chafing against your thighs or anywhere else. This is why shape is more important that softness. Padding makes a sofa comfortable, it doesn’t necessarily make a saddle comfortable – the opposite could be true if the padding restricts circulation.
One aspect of saddle shape is width. Cyclists with narrow sit bones will generally require a narrow saddle. In addition to this, the more aggressive the riding position, the narrower the saddle will need to be.
Specialized Body Geometry – saddle fit system
Lots of research has been done into saddle fit. As a result, the bike company Specialized have made a saddle fit system which is available in some bike shops. It consists of a memory foam mat which the user sits on, allowing them to measure the width of their sit bones. A chart then provides the correct saddle width according to the type of bike they ride (which affects their riding posture). I’ve used it and I think it’s a very simple idea that could help a lot of people avoid buying the wrong width saddle. I am not connected to Specialized in any way, I just like the idea of a saddle fit system.
- You can watch a 30-second video showing the saddle fit system on YouTube.
- You can read another review of the system at the Tandem Bicycling website.
Some branches of Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Operative in the UK also have a pressure mat for measuring sit bone width, and a single-use DIY pressure mat can be made from corrugated cardboard.
Saddles with a centre groove
Another source of discomfort is numbness caused by restricted blood flow. Saddle makers have gone some way to avoiding this by designing saddles with a central groove or even a cut out hole. Relieving pressure at the centre of the saddle can promote circulation.
The standard bike saddle is made of plastic and vinyl. This material is adequate on a transport bike and, of course, it is zero maintenance and waterproof. However, if the idea of a leather saddle appeals to you, you may like to read my article on Brooks saddles, here.
People are different: saddle fit is personal
It’s difficult to recommend ‘a good saddle’, since what is good for one person may not be good for another. That’s why, when I have found saddles that are comfortable for me, I have kept them and when I’ve got a new bike, I’ve put my saddle on it.
Adjusting saddle height
The saddle needs to adjusted correctly to make cycling comfortable. There’s a nice article at the British Cycling website explaining how to determine proper saddle height for utility cycling. Here’s what it says:
Setting the correct saddle height is probably the most important aspect of bike setup for ensuring comfortable and efficient cycling. Too low and you’ll feel cramped…
With a friend holding the bike, sit on the saddle and place the balls of your feet on the pedals. With the pedal at the bottom of the pedal stroke (six o’clock), there should be a slight bend in your knee. You shouldn’t feel as though you are having to stretch but your leg should feel extended and not cramped.
The article, called ‘Getting Your Ride Position Right’, is at the British Cycling website. Here’s the link.
Adjusting the fore and aft position of a saddle
The article from British Cycling goes on to deal with horizontal adjustment of the saddle. It recommends a saddle position that places the rider’s knee over the pedal spindle. In practice, this involves supporting the bike, putting the cranks horizontal and using a plumb line to check the position of the front-most knee relative to the pedal. All of this comes after setting the saddle height.
There’s an interesting article on bike fit, which deals with saddle fore and aft position, at Peter White’s website. Peter recommends a method based on the cyclist’s ability to maintain their torso position without holding the handlebar. He describes first moving the saddle backwards to find the most comfortable seated position and then moving it forward to find a more powerful position for climbing hills out of the saddle:
For starters, I like to put the saddle in the forward most position that allows the rider to lift his hands off of the handlebar and maintain the torso position without strain. You should not feel like you’re about to fall forward when you lift off the handlebar. If it makes no difference to your back muscles whether you have your hands on the bars or not, you know that you aren’t using your arms to support your upper body…
But to get power to the pedals while out of the saddle, it helps to have the handlebars well forward of the cranks… So you need to find the best compromise between a comfortable seated position and reach to the handlebar, and a forward handlebar position for those times when you need to stand…
As you move the saddle forward from that balanced position, you’ll have more and more weight supported by your arms, but you’ll be able to position the handlebars further forward for more power…
If you can’t move your saddle forward enough or backward enough for the fit you want, don’t despair. Different saddles position the rails further ahead than others, giving more or less saddle offset [and] seatposts are available with the clamps in different positions…
In practice, the ‘knee over pedal spindle’ method, as advocated by British Cycling, is the easiest of these two methods to use at home, so it seems a good starting point, and Peter White’s method seems useful for making adjustments thereafter.