By Grant Peterson
When Genghis Khan and the other 800-year old Mongolians rode horses in battle, they were isolated enough from the gallop to shoot arrows with half a chance of hitting foes.
Good form and good shot, Genghis!
For a thousand years, Mongolians have been the smoothest riders in the world, the most at home on a horse. Horses are their lives—always have been—and even now they start riding at age two. By five they ride care-free, smooth as Kessler whiskey, one hand on a rein, the other flailing the giddyup switch as they glide over the steppe unaffected by the churning horse legs below.
A Mongolian’s horse is a bit bigger than a pony, and with stout legs to handle the rough-ground galloping without twisting its ankles and knees. To prepare the horse for riding, the rider lays down a woven horsehair pad, made by specialty Mongolian craftsmen. It’s cushy, waterproof, and breathable, and water runs through it like it does through a plastic pot scrubber, so it can’t get soggy like a cowboy blanket.
On top of that goes a saddle that looks wrong but works great. A Mongolian saddle is nothing at all like the long, broad, shallowly dipped saddles favored by the Marlboro Man and John Wayne. Wayne just ambled along with his cows, sitting on the saddle of his Hollywood horse like a topply sack of rice.
The Mongolian saddle evolved for the athletic, Mongolian style riding required to chase down foes and herd wild Mongolian horses on the steppe. This saddle is short, deep, and U-shaped. Wayne wouldn’t have fit. The front part of the U is the pommel, (ancient Latin for fruit or apple), the equivalent of the knobby apple-sized handle on a cowboy saddle (but it has another function too, coming up). The rear of the U is the cantle, an old word for corner. Mongolian riders use short stirrups, which allow them to stand high above the valley of the U, even with bent knees. Their articulated legs tense and relax as needed to soak up some of the bumps, and the big air gap between their crotch and the bottom of the U gives the horse something to bounce up into without banging the plumbing. The high pommel and cantle keep them centered on the horse. If Mongolians rode this way on a cowboy-type saddle, they’d flop forward and flip back. To complete the Mongolian system, they put metal studs on the seat of the saddle — an idea, it’s said, that Genghis Khan came up with to keep his team riding high and smooth and fast.
This isn’t trivia or irrelevant history. If you ride a bicycle on trails, it couldn’t be more relevant.
There are two ways to look at a trail. When speed or stunts are goals, you see the trail as your arena, and the earth’s texture as the enemy. You push your limits, so you armor up with a technologically advanced uni-purpose bike, and wear armored motocross-style clothing just in case. The mountain bike you ride has bump-nullifying mechanicry so you can ride careless and rough and pay less for it. That’s the point of modern mountain bike technology. To most riders it’s a plus, and it that becomes their style.
When travel, exploration, and fun are your goals, you see the trail as an ally that gives you access to beautiful distant places and makes getting there possible and fun.
Can you ride like a Mongolian on a suspended bike and combine the benefits of mechanical and organic suspension to reach some kind of super smooth nirvana? Only hypothetically. While Red Bull acrobats must combine them to even survive their “rides,” but when you or any other traveler rides on trails, it’s more likely you’ll sit lower, stiffen some, and grab the bike harder, while the technology kicks in below you. The bike you ride affects how you ride it. A bike designed for aggressive riding tends to bring that out. You go faster over rougher terrain because that’s what the bike was designed for.
To ride your bike like a Mongolian rides a horse, you need an unsuspended bike. It’s the better teacher because it selects and reinforces good technique, and gives immediate feedback when you’re blowing it.
Down a bumpy trail, stand on the pedals like a Mongolian in stirrups to create a pocket of protected air between saddle and crotch. If the descent is steep, lean a bit back, and squeeze the flared rear of the saddle with your thighs. That flare is like the Mongolian saddle’s cantle, just rotated 90 degrees. Then you can half sit on the saddle not on your crotch, but with your upper inner thighs. By varying the squeezing force with your thighs, and shifting weight from pedals to saddle, you fine-tune the shock absorption. Your flexing legs will soak up some absorb shock. Your bike saddle has no pommel, but the handlebar serves that same purpose. You might as well be a Mongolian.
On a steep descent, it helps to lower the saddle a few inches, push against the handlebar (your pommel), then sit on your thighs and hang your butt low off the back of the saddle — to weight the rear wheel for better braking. You’re playing the bike like an instrument. Your body stays loose and your head stays steady as the bike bounces between the trail and you, the shocks being absorbed by air, thigh fat, and articulating body joints, like a Mongolian on a horse.
When the climb or descent is too steep, don’t see it as a challenge to overcome. Get off and escort your horse up or down it. After a lot of strain riding, nothing feels better than a nice bike-walk. Mongolians walked their horses sometimes, to rest their legs, and you can walk your bike to rest yours. Bike-walking is so underrated.
Grant Peterson is the proprietor of Rivendell Bicycle Works. Rivendell makes bikes for Mongolian-style riding, so you can see why he’s telling you all this. -Ed.
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.
We just returned from a week at Press Camp in Park City, Utah, where several companies announced new stuff for model year 2017. Smith, Ryders Eyewear and Fabric all caught our eye with their new helmets, sunglasses, saddles and tools. Keep reading to check out the new gear. Reviews of many of these items will be coming soon!
Smith Route Helmet
Smith’s first road helmet, the Overtake, was launched a few years ago to much attention for its unique looks, use of multiple new protection technologies and its steep price tag. Now, Smith has added the Route, a lower-cost road/adventure/whatever lid that will retail for $150 without MIPS and $180 with MIPS. The Route is available now in nine colors, including white, black, orange and camo print, among others.
The Route still features a comfortable, 360-degree fit system and the striking green honeycomb protection lining from Koroyd. Instead of full coverage, the Koroyd (a rather expensive material designed to reduce skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries) is strategically placed where crash impacts are most likely to occur. Light and camera mounts aren’t included, because whatever you already have should work at the top of the helmet, where there is no Koroyd blocking the vents.
Also available is the Rover, a mountain bike helmet that is roughly the same thing but with a detachable visor included. Pricing is the same for the Rover.
Ryders Eyewear with antiFOG Lenses
As soon as I hear a claim like “these lenses will never fog,” my B.S. antennae goes up. But I received a pair to wear during Press Camp and, low and behold, Ryders antiFOG lenses actually work. They carried me through several steamy rides. I look forward to testing them this winter while fatbiking and commuting with a balaclava.
Ryders Eyewear started out as a family-run mountain bike sunglasses company and is now owned by one of the most high-tech lens manufacturers in the world. That gives the company access to some pretty impressive technologies, including the military-grade anti-fog treatment it adapted for its cycling lenses. Ryders elected not to polarize all of its riding lenses because it believes some glare is useful, allowing you to see things like ice patches and puddles.
Some frames will feature rimless tops, which are intended to provide unobstructed views from a crouched, looking-up position, as well as ventilation. Rims on the bottom can also help protect your face in the event of a crash. Sunglasses with antiFOG lenses start at $79 for clear up to about $150 for lenses packed with multiple technologies (too many to explain here; you can still get polarization if you want it).
Just know that the antiFOG seems to function as claimed and the glasses are very comfortable. Many models feature adjustable nose pieces and low-profile stems that work well with a wide variety of helmets.
Fabric is a UK-based company that makes saddles, grips, bar tape, tools and pumps. The unique thing about Fabric saddles are the way they are built: a one-piece waterproof microfiber top with foam padding is vacuum bonded (heated and pressed) to a one-piece, flexible nylon base. There are no nasty adhesives or side stitching that could compress the padding and eventually come apart. Water and dirt can’t get in and foam won’t pop out if the saddle is slashed in an accident. The saddles are supposed to feel the same for their entire lifetime.
The new Line saddle features an ergonomic relief channel that is not completely open (Fabric is thinking of its UK brethren who ride in rain often). The Line is 270 mm long and comes in two widths: 134 and 142 mm, eight color options and three rails (cromo, titanium and carbon). The Line weighs between 183 grams and 250 grams. Prices range from $70 to $100. We have one for test and will report back, soon.
The Fabric Cell saddle is not new, but it’s still rarely seen. Developed using sneaker technology (think high-end, springy running shoes), the Cell is an air-sprung saddle that deforms in a linear fashion to better support your bottom. It’s supposed to be super-comfortable even when riding without a padded chamois. It has a weatherproof TPU cover and comes in six colors. Weight is 355 grams, length is 282 mm and width is 155 mm. Price is $80.
Fabric Chamber Multitool
Bike tools with interchangeable bits often have tiny pieces that are easy to loose and hard to handle with sweaty fingers. The Fabric Chamber tool helps by offering 13 tool bits with extra leverage, including a ratchet function. Screwed into the chamber are six, double-ended bits and an 8 mm over-bit. Thirteen functions are included: 2 mm, 2.5 mm, 3 mm, 4 mm, 5 mm, 6 mm, 8 mm, SL3, SL5, PH1, PH2, T10, T25.
The bits can be used at different lengths in the chamber head, increasing access to the many hard to reach areas on a bicycle. The compact shape is snag-free and easy to carry. Its 162 gram weight feels a bit heavy, but no more so than standard multi-tools. Retail is $60.
Full disclosure, Press Camp is not a standard bike industry event, which often involves camping or at least staying in a sub-par hotel with questionable sheets and discolored bath water. Press Camp is held at a swanky ski resort with very crisp white sheets and fabulous meals. We were well taken care of.
Hand-crafted leather meets modern technology creates a saddle that goes the distance in comfort with uncompromising durability. And dang, they look good too!
Each saddle from Rivet Cycle Works is handcrafted by our expert leather whisperer ensuring excellent quality in each saddle.
Because we are distance cyclists, we do research and development every time we go out for a ride. We know what works and we put that knowledge into our saddles. You will feel the difference, in style.