22 May, 2017

The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Comfortable Bike Saddle

How to diagnose saddle pain, find your sit bone measurement, and find a comfortable bike seat.

Disclosure: This article may link to affiliate sites/feature complimentary products for review purposes.
serfas variant comfortable saddle

Measured on the special sit-o-meter pad, matched with a saddle, riding high on the marketing hype “light and comfortable,” I had just made my wallet $200 skinnier. Satisfied that I had finally bought that one true seat. The one that I could count on to be with me when the miles grew long. And, most importantly, the one saddle that would end all my discomfort. For good.

Ten miles into my first ride, and I could no longer sit. No drop in weight or fancy new look was making up for the hot spots that special saddle was throwing. I cursed it and blamed it and wished it had never come to me. But so do all who live to see such times. Except, the saddle wasn’t actually to blame.

 

IS YOUR SADDLE REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE?

Plenty of marketing pitches will promise you the world’s most comfy saddle, and this might be completely true of many. If you’ve bounced from one seat to another and just haven’t quite landed on one that fits well, the problem might not be the saddle at all. I’m here to tell you the truth about finding the perfect fitting saddle, and it’s missing all the hype (well, maybe it’s still got some of the hype–just not all of the hype). Here are a few things to check before chucking the new seat:

 

Shorts in a Bunch?

I’ve tried my fair share of bib shorts, and I can tell you that some chamois are just not that good. First things first, make sure you’re riding in a decent pair of cycling shorts.

Personally, I like gel pads–they don’t seem to bunch or permanently depress the way that foam layers do. Of course, this isn’t true of all gel chamois or all foam chamois, so I’ve got a few recommendations:

Castelli Mondiale, Voler’s Caliber, Assos’ T.Cento_S7 (legit name, right?), and Santini’s Interactive 3.0 are all shorts I’ve personally tried (in the women’s versions, of course) and loved.

Some of these are expensive, but If you’re gonna invest in anything, grab a really decent pair of shorts. In my experience, you’ll want to fork over at least $100 for some solid bibs (or look for closeout deals like these here. There’s no shame in the clearance aisle). Look for good reviews from several riders, and be prepared to try a couple pair.

 

Level with Me

Start with your saddle at dead level. If that means you need to bring out some tools then do it. Remember, don’t do this while your bike is on a trainer or a work stand (live, learn, reposition).

Keep the level on your saddle until you’ve got the rails all properly tightened down to make sure that it didn’t tilt in the process.

Once you’ve found a comfy saddle, you can play with the positioning. But it’s also a good idea to make sure you’re sitting on the bike properly by getting a basic bike fit done by your LBS. Make sure they’ve got the height, fore, aft, etc. set for you before you hate on your current saddle.

Getting a bike fit will also highlight the importance of being in the right riding position on the bike. Keeping your back flat, arms at a nice 90-degree bend, and making certain you’re not over or under-extending your legs will be key to really understanding whether it’s your saddle that’s hurting you or your position.

 

IT DOES TAKE TIME TO BREAK IN

While some saddles just won’t fit you or your riding style, even the best fitting saddle needs some miles to break in–for that matter, so does your rear end. If your body isn’t used to riding, you’ll have a toughening up period before really any saddle feels comfortable.

Although every person is different, generally you’ll notice less soreness after a ride and more flexibility in your position on the bike.

Getting past this toughening up period is crucial. You won’t find a great saddle until you’re through it. Once you’re tough as metal, you’ll get a good idea of where you’re feeling pressure points, how you’re sitting improperly, or where the real pain is coming from.

Of course, the second part of this is breaking in a saddle. It takes about 1,000 miles for most saddles to break in properly.

One. Thousand. Miles.

Commitment is a thing, folks.

 

brooks cambium c13 carbon comfortable saddle

FIGURE OUT WHAT SADDLE FEATURES YOU HATE

Let’s face it. We’re all different. What works for 14 random people on a cycling forum may or may not work for you. So, first, it’s important to take stock of what you don’t like. Take a ride around on your current saddle, and note the areas you’re feeling the most pain.

  1. Where is the pressure?
  2. Do you feel like you’re in serious pain, or is it just discomfort?
  3. Have you been getting saddle sores? If so, where?
  4. Are you feeling pain or badly chafing your thighs?

OK, embarrassing questions. It’s cool, though. You can keep your answers on a secret piece of paper and then burn it once you’re done.

But knowing what’s hurting and what isn’t will seriously aid your search for the perfect bike seat. Assuming you’ve done all the things suggested in our first article, you can get plenty of information for your next purchase just based on what you hate about your current saddle.

 

WHAT DOES THE PAIN MEAN?

First off, if you’re experiencing weird pain, you should definitely see a doctor. I’m no doctor. I don’t pretend to be a doctor. See your doctor. Disclaimers aside, here are a few keys to finding the right saddle shape for you, based on what’s hurting and what isn’t:

 

Front Saddle Pain:

The Brooks’ Cambium arrives all broken in with a classic shape and flat top

This is generally (not always) caused by a tilted saddle, but it can also be the length and width of the nose. If you adjust the tilt slightly down, you may notice the pain go away–though it may cause other issues.

If you’re experiencing pain here, you might try a seat with a nose that hooks downward or a shorter saddle all together.

If you’re finding your thighs chafing against the sides of the saddle’s nose, it’s likely too wide. Think narrower.

 

Mid-Saddle Pain:

The Fi’zi:k Antares with a center channel and narrow back

Pain in the soft tissue areas? Yah, that sucks. You probably need a channel or a cutout to help alleviate the pressure. If you feel mild discomfort when you’re riding, a channel will likely help that without giving up all forms of support.

If you’re past the point of discomfort, a full cut-out is probably the way to go. This sometimes has a lot to do with how aggressive your position on the bike is, which may also answer the question between needing a full cutout or just a channel–more aggressive generally means more cutout.

To complicate the issue, some riders find that pushing their saddle very slightly off-center to the right or left helps to alleviate mid-saddle pain by helping to better support soft tissue.

 

Rear Saddle Pain

Selle Italia Flite Saddle with a notch and a channel

If you’ve got the right shorts, remembered to stand up on your bike every few miles, and have put in plenty of rides, rear saddle pain might be caused by a few things. First off, you’ll want to make sure that the width of the seat is right for you by measuring your “sit-bones.”

These are those bony bumps that make the deepest depression in your sofa cushions, and, strangely, that’s how they’re often measured. Not on your couch, but on an industry recognized “butt-o-meter” that you sit on and it offers you your size in millimeters.

 

FIND YOUR SIT BONE MEASUREMENT

You can actually do this yourself. I give credit to one of my riding buddies, Steve, for this idea, and it’s seriously brilliant.

Basically, you sit on a piece of thick, corrugated cardboard. Put your feet up on an ottoman or something to give yourself a good imprint. Next, get up and grab a piece of chalk and rub it across the place where you sat. You’ll just need to measure the distance between the two impressions evident in the chalk and add about 30 mm to that number. Boom, you’ve got your sit bone distance. Use this to choose a saddle width.

Choosing the right width should also help with irritation at the thighs–add a feature like flex-wings to allow for more freedom of movement. Finally, you might also look for a channel that runs all the way through the back of the saddle, or one with a notched cutout.

 

GET THE RIGHT SADDLE FOR YOU

OK, you’ve eliminated shapes and features that are lame. You’ve got your list of what will likely work. So what next? Buy a pretty one on sale? Maybe. But first, I definitely recommend checking with your LBS to see if they have a test saddle program.

Often, for a small deposit, they’ll let you try out a bike seat for a week or two. If you don’t like that one, swap it to test another one until you find your favorite. It’s like a checklist for how awesome you are at knowing yourself.

Barring that, I’ve got a few recommendations for you.

MY TOP 3 RECOMMENDED ROAD BIKE SADDLES

I’ve tried a heck of a lot of bike seats, and I’ve got three that totally crush the competition in terms of broad appeal. They are the Brooks Cambium C13, Serfas Variant, and the Meld 3D Custom. Click on those links for full reviews and pricing/buying info.

All right. That’s it. Now here’s hoping for happy riding.

About Bek 291 Articles
SLO Cyclist's chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek makes sure everything runs smoothly around here. She's also the one who reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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