Words: Aixe Djelal
A cushy, couch-like saddle ought to be the most comfortable option for a commuter bicycle, right? My Trek Soho came with a well-padded Bontrager saddle, but it always seemed a little wide. In the past year or two the padding started squishing down like a worn out mattress. I’d been curious about harder, narrower saddles for a while, but I refuse to wear padded shorts in order to tolerate a less forgiving saddle. A seat resembling a La-Z-Boy recliner seemed less annoying than wearing a diaper-like garment on my brief, six-mile commute to downtown Portland, Oregon. But I wasn’t sure how to go about choosing a new saddle on my own.
I heard that a local bike shop, Gladys Bikes, has a “try before you buy” saddle library to let customers check out a saddle a week for $25. That sounded great, but the shop is far enough from my normal route that I knew I wouldn’t get there once a week. I visited the shop to check out the options, and I learned about Saddle Therapy, a fitting consultation service rather like speed dating. In exchange for $30, I could spend 30 minutes trying out one saddle after another on my own bike in the shop.
One rainy morning, I went to Gladys Bikes and met with owner Leah Benson. We talked about my riding habits and what I disliked about my saddle. Then we got down to the business of measurement and trying out new saddles. First off, Leah swapped out my saddle for a measurement and assessment tool, a pressure sensitive saddle called the Liv/Giant Dynamic Fit System that measures your ischial tuberosities (sit bones) and shows the angle at which you ride. My bike didn’t fit in the trainer, so Leah held the bars and front wheel steady while I hopped on and pedaled backwards for a few seconds.
The assessment saddle revealed that I ride aggressively, leaning forward. This surprised Leah, since my bicycle is a commuter with fairly straight, raised bars. People with more upright bikes normally sit with more pressure on the back of their sit bones. She thought my small bicycle frame was a little on the long side for my height, and that I compensate by leaning forward. Since I don’t spend a lot of time sitting back on my saddle, Leah suggested I try narrower models.
All the saddles I tried were of high quality, including a lightly padded Terry Falcon X with a cutaway, a Rivet Independence leather saddle with a long horn and a cutaway and a Brooks Cambium C17s. The Terry Falcon X was like a narrower, less padded version of my outgoing Bontrager— it was neutrally comfortable, but I’m the odd human who relishes dramatic change. The Brooks Cambium C17s had a fantastic outline, but felt a little bit hard. The Rivet Independence was so long I could hardly pedal, and it reminded me of something a health goth would use to ride around a dungeon.
I purchased the Brooks Cambium because it had a comfortable outline, it was beautiful to behold and that great canvas texture kept me from sliding around. I knew it was hard, but I shrugged and figured I would adapt to it.
After one painful week, I returned the beautiful Brooks. Despite its good looks, textured surface and excellent outline, the top contours and hardness miserably mashed my undercarriage. I had been seduced by the shock of the new, the beautiful design and the persuasive marketing video narrated by a man with a glorious accent who sounded like he probably knew a lot about fine Scotch.
Back at Gladys Bikes, the staff suggested that this time I ride around the block on a few different saddles. Accelerating, stopping and cornering while moving forward on a street surface is a very different experience than sitting on a bike in a trainer, or having someone hold the bars. Riding in real life allowed me to focus on how the saddle felt in real conditions.
This time I tried a Selle Anatomica Titanico leather saddle with a cutaway, a Terry Butterfly and the Terry Falcon X again. The Selle Anatomica was too big and disconcertingly hard yet springy, the Terry Butterfly was too wide in the back and the Terry Falcon X felt so natural I almost didn’t notice it. I ultimately chose the Terry Falcon X for its neutral feel, its narrow outline, its slight padding and its well-placed cutaway. It isn’t as gorgeous as the Brooks Cambium, but it doesn’t feel like a punch in the crotch either.
I’ve been riding the Terry Falcon X for a while now and I’m completely delighted with it. The break-in period was about 10 miles and I’ve hardly thought about the saddle since. I have noticed that my pedal stroke is more efficient on flat roads and climbing hills, and I’m more comfortable in the saddle for a longer period of time than I ever was on my big squishy saddle. I’ve crossed paths with several cyclists who swear by their Brooks Cambium C17, and I’m only slightly jealous that it works for them.
Treat Your Tush
Some useful lessons from my saddle selection experience.
ONE: If your local bike shop will let you check out a saddle for a few days, do it. The more time you can spend in the saddle, the more likely you will know whether it works for your body and riding habits.
TWO: Trying out a saddle on a trainer or while someone holds up your bike might not be enough. At a minimum, ride around the block. Cornering, stopping and accelerating in real life on a street surface are good initial indicators of whether a saddle is right for you.
THREE: Your expert fitter can guide you, but ultimately you are the only person who knows what feels right. The same saddle can be dreamy for one cyclist, but viciously uncomfortable for another.
FOUR: A saddle that feels neutral is probably better than a saddle that you really notice when you ride.
FIVE: Don’t be seduced by visual design. The most important function of a saddle is comfort and performance while riding. Your ass, not your eyeballs, goes on the saddle.