How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Saddle

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.

My first saddle--looks nice, and came on a nice bike, but it definitely wasn't nice to my sensitive spot!

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.

Saddle features

WTB helps you narrow your search by classifying saddles along the weight vs. comfort continuum. Most avid mountain bikers will opt for the middle of the spectrum (performance)

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.

The FSA K-Force Light saddle is all carbon and titanium--blingy, fast and expensive, but not best for most of us recreational riders

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

Specialized Riva
WTB Speed V

Performance-oriented MTB saddles

Fi’zi:k Gobi XM K:IUM
Selle Italia Flite
SDG Formula MT
Specialized Henge Comp or Henge Expert
WTB Laser V

Race-oriented MTB saddles

Fi’zi:k Tundra 00
Selle Italia SLR
Specialized Phenom pro
WTB Rocket V
WTB Silverado

Downhill/Freeride/Dirt Jump saddles

Funn Launch II
SDG I-Fly Storm
SDG I-Sky

Women’s MTB saddles

Fi’zi:k Vesta
Selle Italia Diva
Specialized Ariel
Terry Butterfly Ti Gel
Terry Liberator Race
WTB Speed She
WTB Deva

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!

15 thoughts on “How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Saddle

  1. I tried one of the carbon/Ti rail saddles and wow, that thing killed me! I wound up saying the heck with the weight loss and went back to a more cushioned saddle. I think the fact that I felt better on the bike made up for the reduction in weight! I would definitely agree with the second paragraph, that since the saddle is one the main parts of contact, finding one that is comfortable is hugely important.

  2. Have a box full of saddles. the most comfortable saddle I ever used was a WTB race saddle. Used it for an 8 hr. race. Unfrotunely it beat up some rather important nerves, and arteries. Am now useing saddles with large cutouts, comfortable enough for 3-4 hr rides.

  3. Great read. I always love learning more about the components I relay on. I’ve never really given much thought to getting a new saddle, as you noted demoing is difficult, because I dislike buying without being able to try it on/out.

  4. Good article skibum … … So let’s get even more personal since you brought it up. I’ve got a pretty skinny boney tush (to go along with my skinny legs). If I’m sitting on some bleachers at a ballgame, it’s pretty much bone on wood. I weight about 165-170 and do a lot of all day all mountain type rides. Can anyone lead me in some direction to get started on considering a saddle??? Maybe two or three suggestions. I’m guessing that I’m probably looking for some cush but am a bit concerned about weight. My son is the opposite of me. His lower half is as thick as an ox. He’s got a lot of padding and big legs. He is a powerful rider. Like me, he does a lot of all day all mountain type rides. Any suggestions for him???

  5. Good article. One thing I would like to add. If your lower back hurts, check for a bent rail. I had a slight bend for a few months before noticing the slight bend in the rail. My back though, noticed it.

  6. Guys should not pass over Terry because of their reputation for female-specific saddles. Terry’s saddles for men are pretty nice too! After recommendations from several riding buddies (with various body types/shapes), I put a Fly Cromoly on my commuter HT, and it’s the most comfortable saddle I have ever used. I’m also putting a Fly Ti on my Niner EMD9 build.

  7. it’s not all just a magic fit. if you sit on a bag of flour (or memory foam) you can measure the distance of your sit bones. some saddles, like speshi and selle italia smp have a variety of saddles in different widths.

    as per the latter, the perinium is the soft area of vessels and nerves that your sit bones protect when seated. that is, until you sit on a saddle, which can be akin to sitting on a 2×4. there are a variety of saddles with center channels to cut-outs. some are more effective than others, but all are better than none, imho. i have been using a selle italia smp and find it gives better relief than my previous saddle, that is a popular channel style seat, which was way better than a standard fizik i had for years. unless you go with a noseless saddle like ism ademo typhoon or peak, there is still the nose issue on climbs. my advice is to shift your butt so your sit bone, not your perinium, is on the nose. maybe not the best power transfer, but remember, the perinium is a delicate region protected by the channel of the sit bones and was never meant to receive the pressure it can from a saddle.

  8. Very interesting article. I’ve not given a lot of thought to saddles because I usually wear padded speedo style underwear. When I don’t I really notice the lack of padding though.

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