A Brooks leather saddle consists of a thick piece of animal hide attached with rivets to a metal frame.
During the early twentieth century, when Raleigh was the biggest British bike manufacturer, Brooks was the biggest name in bicycle saddles. At that time, leather, steel and copper were the most economical workable materials for saddle construction.
Brooks gained an enviable reputation for making saddles that were comfortable for day-long bike rides. As a result they are still the first choice of many cycle tourists. Today, Brooks leather saddles are made to a similar design as they were a century ago, at the factory in Smithwick, England.
A typical Brooks
The images here show a typical Brooks saddle for a touring bike. In this example, the leather is attached with small copper rivets and the frame incorporates saddlebag loops. This model dates from the 1970s. Of note is the stippled top, visible in the first photo, which makes for a less slidey top.
Click the images for larger versions.
There is a wide range of Brooks saddles with various features. Some models have a cut-out in the centre to relieve pressure at this point. The top of the range models have larger rivets to secure the leather top to the metal.
Buyers can choose between sprung and rigid saddle frames.
Some Brooks saddles can be laced, allowing the user to limit the amount of sideways flex which alters the tension in the leather top. Lacing the sides tightly results in a firmer saddle.
Today, Brooks also offers saddles with titanium frames, which, due to the inherent flexibility of this material, offer a more comfortable ride, as well as a small weight saving over steel.
Brooks also offers an organic leather option and a pre-aged leather option that, they say, needs less breaking in.
With their Cambium model, Brooks have replaced the leather top with cloth and rubber and created an aluminium frame. Unlike the rest of the Brooks range, the Cambium is made in Italy.
As with any saddle, the most important thing to check is that a Brooks saddle fits you. Different bikes require a different width of saddle. For instance, a modern road bike, with its relatively long top and long stem, will have the rider leaning forward to reach the handlebars. As a result, the front portion of the rider’s sit bones will make contact with the saddle, and since the front of the pelvis is narrower, this bike will require a relatively narrow saddle. Conversely, on a city bike designed for an upright riding posture, a wider saddle will fit better.
Brooks saddles are made relatively wide. They are a lot wider than many bike saddles designed for the longer, sportier bikes of today. There are, however, narrower versions of the popular models, such as the Brooks B17 Narrow. There are also road bike specific models, most notably the Brooks Swift and the Brooks Swallow.
Due to the construction of Brooks saddles, they all have arched tops. If you know you prefer a saddle with a flat top, you may have to look elsewhere to find something that suits you.
Breaking in a Brooks leather saddle
Cycling forums are full of comments about the need to ‘break in’ a Brooks saddle in order for it to be comfortable, some cyclists suggesting that this process could take up to 1,000 miles. I have ridden Brooks saddles that became more comfortable as the leather softened, stretched and changed shape. However, I also own a Brooks saddle that was comfortable from day one, which I attribute to it being the correct width, not too wide.
Care of a Brooks leather saddle
Brooks sell a leather dressing called Proofide, which is a blend of tallow, cod oil, vegetable oil, paraffin wax, beeswax and citronella oil. Brooks say that Proofide “should be used several times during the ‘breaking-in’ period and every 3-6 months thereafter.” According to the company, the product “keeps the leather supple” and is formulated “to condition, preserve and shower-proof” the saddle. In practice, Proofide helps prevent a leather saddle from drying out and cracking. Proofide can also be bought in bike shops.
Leather saddles should never be left in the rain as water can soften them excessively and cause them to stretch out of shape when they are next ridden. For this reason, a waterproof saddle cover should be used if parking the bike in the rain. A plastic bag works just as well as the branded cover sold by Brooks, and makes the bike look less appealing to thieves.
Mudguards are a good idea on any utility bike, but on a bike with a Brooks leather saddle they dramatically extend the saddle’s life, by keeping the underneath of the leather dry.
If a leather saddle gets wet, it should be kept uncovered in a ventilated room and not ridden until it is dry. If there is insufficient ventilation in the room, mould will begin to grow on the surface of the leather, but this can be wiped off with a moist cloth.
Tips for buying a used Brooks leather saddle
Used Brooks saddles frequently come up for sale on online marketplaces such as Ebay. Before deciding to buy, study the photos and read the description carefully. Here’s what to look out for.
Problems to avoid
The following problems may make a second-hand Brooks less usable.
- Splitting of the leather around the rivets, especially at the saddles widest points. This can lead to premature sagging of the leather top.
- Rust on the metal frame – ask for photos of the underneath if they’re not included in the listing.
- Shoe polish on the leather. Saddles are not meant to be treated with shoe polish.
- A top that dips in the centre when viewed from the front, like a hammock – the leather has stretched
- A saddle that has stretched unevenly, with one side depressed, i.e. it looks lop-sided. This results from an uneven riding style and may make the less comfortable for another user (i.e. you). This is visible from the front.
- Excessive flaring of the sides. This makes the saddle wider than it should be and can lead to chafing of the cyclist’s thighs. Flaring is visible from above.
- Cracking or crazing of the leather. This happens on saddles that have not been properly maintained and it allows the saddle to absorb water and stretch more than it should.
The following things affect only the appearance of a Brooks saddle and not its performance.
- Scratches or scuffs to the surface of the leather. While they might be unsightly, shallow scratches and abrasions can be sealed with Proofide.
- Uneven colouring. The leather may be lighter at the saddle’s nose and back. This is where some of the tanning has rubbed off.
- Discoloration on the saddle rails. When a saddle has been fitted to a bike, the seatpost clamp can darken the metal. This is OK as long as the rails are still straight and smooth.
- Chrome dullness. Chromed steel can be polished.
The current range of Brooks saddles can be seen at the Brooks website.
Back to the main article on saddles.