Leather saddle roundup: All that’s old is new again

From Bicycle Times Issue #36

leather saddles graphicWhat’s old is new again it seems (aren’t hifi stereos and albums grand?), but what never gets old for serious cyclists is the leather saddle. Prior to Avocet developing the first gel saddle in the 1980s, nearly all saddles sold were leather.

While the company that John Boultbee Brooks founded in 1866 had a dominant hold on the leather saddle market for close to 140 years, newcomers like Selle Anatomica and Rivet entered with a modern approach.

Our resident mileage munchers have been riding various leather saddles for the better part of 2015, on various terrain in various weather conditions. While the basic engineering principles apply to most (adjustable tension for dialing in the proper hammock effect, saddle bag loops), our six saddles each take a slightly different approach to supporting your derriere.

And unlike most saddles, ones made of leather need the noses raised up in order to offset the hammock effect, even the harder models. ~ Ed.

Cardiff Mercia

By Adam Newman

CardiffThe Cardiff saddles may sport the classic English silhouette, but they are made in Taiwan, named after the city in Wales and topped with Australian cowhide. Quite an international affair.

The Mercia is the most elegant of the four models in the Cardiff lineup, with beautiful copper-plated rails and rivets. The traditional saddle bag loops are present in the rear as is a small black name badge. I hate to call it a copy but with the three holes in the center of the leather it bears a very, very close resemblance to a classic Brooks. This is no cheap imitation though. The leather seems to be of high quality. The edges are finely trimmed and the underside is covered with a synthetic layer to protect the leather.

These classic leather saddles require you to earn your comfort, and during my testing I didn’t come close to really breaking it in, something Cardiff says takes hundreds of miles. Even after conditioning the leather with Cardiff’s own conditioner the leather remained as firm as a brick. Rapping your knuckles on it elicits a resounding thwack, like on a piece of wood. I wish I could say otherwise but the Cardiff was about as comfortable as wood, too.

The Cardiff saddle looks fantastic and is well-made, and purists may decry my lack of dedication to the cause, but with so many other choices that are comfortable right out the box, I can’t endure months of discomfort en route to saddle satisfaction.

  • Weight: 625 grams
  • Height: 2.5 inches
  • Rail length: 5 inches
  • Cutout slot length: n/a
  • Length: 11 inches
  • Width: 7 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: Hex key and wrench (included)
  • Colors available: Tannic brown, sable black, moss green, white
  • Made in: Taiwan Price: $110, $130
  • cardiffltd.com

Rivet Cycle Works Independence

By Gary Boulanger

rivetRivet founder Debra Banks likes to ride long distances—750-mile brevets are something she gobbles up like others eat M&M’s—and a couple years after her sweetheart and Selle Anatomica founder Tom Milton passed away from a heart attack while riding in 2010, she departed and launched Rivet in Sacramento, California.

The Independence model is named after the 12,095-foot Pass in Colorado, which includes a 19-mile climb. The 12 mm wide embossed rivets add a nice aesthetic—there are several nice touches on this saddle—and the 5.5-inch cutout slot took the edge off immediately. Unlike the others I tested, the Rivet uses injected molded pieces to connect the chromoly rails, cleverly incorporating saddlebag rails. It also uses a treatment to waterproof the leather, with two flaps on each skirt riveted together to keep the saddle tensioned (hence the name of the company). Like the other saddles on test there are nine rivets connecting the leather to the frame.

At three inches, the Rivet Indy was the tallest of the three I tested, so if you’re replacing your saddle consider the height difference. The Indy also needed its nose raised an inch for its sweet spot. Of the three saddles the Rivet Indy took the longest to break in (300 miles), but remember that all leather saddles get better with age and time, something no gel saddle can boast.

  • Weight: 461 grams
  • Height: 3 inches
  • Rail length: 3 inches
  • Cutout slot length: 5.5 inches
  • Length: 11 inches
  • Width: 6.5 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: 4 mm Allen wrench (included)
  • Made in: Taiwan
  • Colors: Black, white, red (tested) burgundy, and limited edition veg-tanned chestnut
  • Price: $195
  • Rivetcycleworks.com

Brooks Imperial B17

By Gary Boulanger

brooksThe catalog copy from 1890 describes the original Brooks Imperial as “sure preventive to all perineal pressure”; I’d say that’s still correct after 125 years.

Reintroduced in 2008 after a long sabbatical, the Imperial shares the same popular dimensions as the top-selling B17. What sets the Imperial apart and adds to its versatility is the 4-and-one-third inch cutout slot and 36 pre-punched holes, 12 of which I’ve held together by laces provided by Brooks. The company calls this “laced skirts for reinforcement,” and for those looking for a tad more stiffness, it works. The frame is chrome plated, and after seven years of use still looks new.

Like most quality leather saddles, the Imperial has a harsh break-in period. But once my sit bones settled into the sweet spot and the nose was raised to its ideal height for my position, I settled in nicely. The Brooks tension spanner is a bit tricky to use, but important to have on hand after the first few months of riding.

Overall, the Imperial has been nearly perfect. There aren’t many bells and whistles; just consider it a journeyman which works well in all conditions.

  • Weight: 507 grams
  • Height: 2.25 inches
  • Rail length: 2.25 inches
  • Cutout slot length: 4.75 inches
  • Length: 10.7 inches
  • Width: 6.5 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: Brooks spanner wrench (included)
  • Made in: Great Britain
  • Colors: Black (tested), honey, brown
  • Price: $135
  • Brooksengland.com

Selle Anatomica X

By Gary Boulanger

selle anatomicaIn 2007, Tom Milton launched Selle Anatomica as a competitor to Brooks, which had been purchased by the Italian group Selle Royal in 2002. Milton’s design included a nearly 8-inch slot, and riders responded in the positive immediately.

Known for its length and long slotted cutout, the Selle Anatomica X also boasts some of the most generous setback of any saddle I’ve ridden in 25 years (I measured about five inches of saddle behind the end of the rail, compared to 3.5 on the Brooks and a little less than 3 inches on the Rivet).

I initially used this saddle on my repurposed Ibis Hakkalügi after I inflamed my sciatic nerve last fall, and it allowed me to ride again after four painful weeks off the bike. That gargantuan 7.75-inch cutout slot was the real hero for me, allowing enough give to pedal back into shape as I healed. Rails are made from 4130 chromoly, and the frame also includes saddlebag loops.

I like the subtle embossed ‘X’ on the rear, and the break-in period was by far the shortest of my three on test. The Watershed leather is also waterproof, so fear not hearty tourists! Just make sure to keep your 6 mm Allen key on hand to dial in the right tension for your comfort level the first month of riding.

  • Weight: 487 grams
  • Height: 2.5 inches
  • Rail length: 2.75 inches
  • Cutout slot length: 7.75 inches
  • Length: 11.5 inches
  • Width: 6.5 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: 6 mm Allen wrench (not included)
  • Made in: u.S.A.
  • Colors: Black (tested), graphite, mahogany, vintage, red, white
  • Price: $159
  • Selleanatomica.com

Fyxation Coachman

By Eric McKeegan

fyxationThe Coachman is a sporty-looking saddle, although at six inches wide, it isn’t as narrow as its profile suggests. Like the Cardiff, it is built from Australian cowhide in Taiwan, The saddle isn’t waterproof, but there is nylon laminated to the bottom of the leather, which should help keep rain and mud from the rear tire from soaking in.

I bit the bullet and forced myself to break in this saddle over the course of a three day tour. Let’s just say I was glad to have a quality chamois. I could tell the shape was good for me, and once I got the angle correct and the tension dialed it, it was an acceptable place to spend the day.

I wasn’t sold on it as an everyday saddle until I happened to grab the bike it was installed on to ride to the store in street clothes. Low and behold, it had broken in and I was perfectly comfortable for the short trip. I’m still up in the air if I’d pick this saddle over a more standard padded saddle for a long tour, but I do know this saddle is mighty cool looking. And some days, we all want to look cool.

  • Weight: 545 grams
  • Height: 2.75 inches
  • Rail length: 3 inches
  • Cutout slot length: n/a
  • Length: 11.5 inches
  • Width: 6 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: hex key and wrench (included)
  • Colors available: Brown
  • Made in: Taiwan Price: $100
  • fyxation.com

Velo Orange Model 3 Touring

By Eric McKeegan

velo orangeThose looking closely might notice more than a strong resemblance between this saddle and the Cardiff Mercia in Adam’s review. That is because the Cardiff and Velo orange saddle (and the Fyxation) are built in the same factory.

The Model 3 uses a pebbled finish on the leather and chrome on all the steel hardware. There are a pair of holes on each side of the saddle that are laced together underneath, a nice touch to keep future issues with the sides flaring out at bay.

Much like Adam with the Cardiff, I noticed the Model 3 is very firm. Unlike Adam, I have some history with this saddle (on a Velo Orange bike I reviewed  a year or two ago) and found it much more to my liking out of the box. I didn’t get as many miles on this saddle as the Fyxation, and it hasn’t settled in as a “ride without a chamois” saddle yet, but it is getting there.

A solid nose up posture is helpful, as is a seatpost with a lot of offset. Too little offset and I ended up sitting on the metal brace at the back of the saddle, which is very, very uncomfortable. Overall, it seems like a decent competitor to the B17 in size and intended use.

  • Weight: 565 grams
  • Height: 2.75 inches
  • Rail length: 3 inches
  • Cutout slot length: n/a
  • Length: 11 inches
  • Width: 7 inches
  • Saddlebag loops? Yes
  • Adjustment tool: hex key and wrench (included)
  • Colors available: Brown, black, honey
  • Made in: Taiwan
  • Price: $95
  • Velo-orange.com

leather saddle careKEEP IT IN SHAPE

Proper care for your leather saddle includes letting a wet saddle air dry versus using a hair dryer. If a tour is going to be an especially wet one, get a cover for it. Follow the instructions on how much tightening is necessary and when, and be sure to use an appropriate saddle treatment as directed (Brooks Proofide, Obenhauf’s Saddle Goop). A popular saying among leather saddle users is “ride ‘til it’s dry, then you apply.”

KEEP IT SAFE

Worried about someone stealing your prized leather saddle? Here’s some advice from Rivendell Bicycle Works, one of the top-selling companies of leather saddles since 1994: “Use a saddle cover, even a plastic bag, to disguise it. Lock it to the frame with a chain. Use pitlocks. And maybe best of all: Write your name on it or otherwise ruin its resale value, using a woodburner tool or a Sharpie.”

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