You’ve got upgradeitis. You know you can have more fun on the bike and are looking to maximize the potential of your trusty steed, but where to start? What is the single most important upgrade for your bike to make the ride more productive or enjoyable?
Hikers and backpackers will tell you the number one priority is getting the proper footwear—after all, the feet take quite a pounding. For bikers, what receives the lion’s share of discomfort? Not the feet, since turning cranks is a low impact activity. No, for bikers, it’s something else entirely. How do I say this without getting too personal? If you’re sensitive, you best turn away for the rest of this paragraph. It’s your butt. You know, your bottom, derriere, backside, rear, trunk, caboose, rump, rumpus, booty, keister. It’s your ass—be nice to it!
When I bought my first real mountain bike in 2000, it came with a sweet saddle—or so I thought. It was a Selle Italia with custom maple leaf corners to match the signature maple leaves painted on the frame of my new Rocky Mountain Oxygen Race. Selle Italia is a respected name in saddles with a full line and 12 years ago, $1,250 was a lot of coin to drop on a hardtail, so I figured all was good to go. Not so. That thing hurt, especially for any ride longer than about an hour. I figured It was all my fault—new rider, poor technique, etc. Again, not so as I proved when I replaced it with a new WTB saddle that was the perfect fit for me.
How did I make such a good choice? Let me be clear here–this is not an endorsement of one manufacturer over another–just an attempt to explain that each butt is unique. In my case, the WTB saddle simply fit better and your experience will vary, which is the main takeaway of this entire article.
Anatomy of a bike saddle
The basic saddle may be divided into four parts: shell, padding, cover, and rails. Shells are generally some sort of hard plastic, but carbon fiber is becoming more popular. Padding is the squishy part between the shell and the cover; padding thicknesses will vary. Covers may be all leather, synthetic material, or some combination of leather with reinforced Kevlar corners. Rails are usually come sort of alloy, with pure titanium occupying the higher end of the performance and cost spectrum. All these choices involve tradeoffs which I will discuss next.
So, now that you know the anatomy of a saddle, it’s time to pick the bike saddle appropriate for your intended use and your own body shape.
In terms of usage, you’ll be faced with a few tradeoffs, chief among these being comfort vs. weight. A broader profile and more padding will provide more comfort but will also add weight. If you’re really intent on shedding grams, then you can expect to get less cush for your tush. If you’re a competitive racer, saving every gram may be worth giving up a good deal of comfort. Cross country racers spend a lot of time out of the saddle and their races are generally short, so it’s worth the tradeoff to save every gram. For the ultimate in weight savings, you can even get a carbon fiber shell with titanium rails and no padding whatsoever. Endurance racers should look more to the comfort end of the spectrum. If you’re strictly a recreational racer, then you want to look for the most comfortable saddle your budget will allow. Most saddles lie somewhere in between, providing a good level of comfort at a reasonable weight.
There are other ways to save weight which we can all enjoy, without compromising comfort. A pure leather cover is generally lightest, but Kevlar reinforced corners will provide greater durability with only a slight weight penalty. The rails are another area where durability may be a concern, but the key tradeoff here is cost vs. weight. Pure titanium rails may double the price of a similarly constructed saddle with CroMoly rails. Whether this is worth the cost is up to the buyer.
Saddle shape and fit
Deciding on your required features and level of performance is the easy part. Getting the best fit may be a little more challenging. The basic saddle shape can be important. As previously noted, a broad, chair-like saddle would be most comfortable, but these are usually limited to comfort bikes and rarely appear on mountain bikes. Instead, long, thin saddles have real applicability on the trails. For the racers, the narrow profile, in addition to saving weight, also allows for easier, more efficient pedaling. For the more technically oriented, the narrow saddle is also easier to slide behind for those sudden technical descents; getting your sit bones hung up on the corners of your saddle is a great recipe for an endo.
It looks like part of that saddle is missing!With regard to mountain bike saddles, less is definitely more, and I’m not just talking about saving weight. The location of sit bones and nearby arteries is a perfect storm for cutting off circulation and making for a miserable ride. Most high-end saddles incorporate some sort of groove or even a complete hole through the entire saddle. This groove is strategically placed to alleviate pressure in sensitive nether regions. It really doesn’t look like it would work, but it does.
Baby’s Got Back
Of course, those sensitive nether regions are not the same for men and women. Many women will want to restrict their searches to women’s specific saddles. Unfortunately, the variety of choices, which is quite overwhelming for men, is somewhat limited in women’s specific saddles. Terry has developed a reputation for providing a good range of quality women’s saddles that actually assist in providing comfort for the feminine physique.
Can I try before I buy?
Well, sometimes. A few manufacturers actually provide dealers with demo saddles. Check with your local bike shop to see if this is the case for any of the lines they carry. If not, you’re going to have to do your best just by trying other bikes. Take a test ride on a bike, demo a bike, borrow your buddy’s bike. Find what shape and style is comfortable to you and then try to buy either that same saddle or one built and shaped like it. Unfortunately, the variety of saddles available as stock equipment on new bikes is fairly narrow, so you may have to extrapolate a bit based on what is available to you. Many local bike shops will also have a liberal return policy and will let you switch to another saddle if you absolutely can’t make peace with the one you purchased.
Since derriere dimensions are such a personal thing, the following aren’t so much recommendations as starting points for your saddle search.
Comfort-oriented MTB saddles
Performance-oriented MTB saddles
Race-oriented MTB saddles
Downhill/Freeride/Dirt Jump saddles
Women’s MTB saddles
In the end, it’s all about your rear end. Treat it nice with a quality saddle and you will reap the benefits with longer, faster, more comfortable rides!