There are dozens of components on a mountain bike. Only two of them touch the ground, and as riders, we are affixed to five: a grip on each side of the handlebars, a pedal on either side of the bike, and one saddle. How important have these components become to you?
The more time we spend in the saddle, typically, the more we realize how important the right saddle is. Its width should match our own and the style of the saddle should match our own style of riding, much like tires do.
One often overlooked area though is the saddle angle. Is the saddle slid forward or back? Tilted up or down? Though these adjustments are seemingly minor, they can make a big difference in comfort and performance.
To learn the ins and outs, and ups and downs of saddle shape and saddle angle, we got in touch with Charles Van Atta of the Denver Fit Loft. Van Atta has been mountain biking since the 90s and fitting bikes since the 2000s.
First: Find the right saddle
Van Atta insists the first place to start is selecting the right saddle.
“I do think you want to make sure your sit bones are being supported so that you feel that saddle pressure mostly at the back and very little in the middle,” he says. “So a lot of mountain bikes, they’re going to tend to try to give you a pretty skinny saddle. That’s not right for everybody.”
Often, saddles are too narrow for women and won’t adequately fit wider sit bones. Males can of course be affected too and everyone should ensure their saddle is wide enough so there’s not too much pressure on your perineum and weight is distributed onto the sit bones. Something wide enough for the rider with a relief section or groove from the nose to the tail of the saddle will usually work well. The saddle should allow the rider to reach the front of the bike with the hips pushed rearward and a straight back.
“The last thing I want to see in a bike fit is somebody sitting on the bike and just bowing their back forward to reach the bars,” says Van Atta.
He notes that the saddle should be a few centimeters wider than your sit bones. Many bike shops these days can measure your sit bones and have saddle demo programs too. It’s also possible to get a saddle that’s too wide, which will interfere with full leg extension from the hips.
Pay attention to the saddle shape too. Is it flat from side to side or is it more round? Flatter saddles can work better for endurance riders and cross-country bikes with a more forward position, while rounder shapes help when the pelvis is more upright. Van Atta adds that rounder saddles can feel more narrow, but also easier on the sit bones or upper hamstrings. Much of the interaction will depend on the exact shape of the rider and saddle however.
Finding the right angle depends on the bike and saddle shape
When Van Atta thinks about the proper position; being able to pivot your hips, and having the right amount of pressure through the saddle, it’s usually at a level saddle, or with the nose pointed down a few degrees.
Van Atta says, “you want to feel as you cruise along in relatively flat terrain, that you’re not drifting forward, out of the saddle, onto the nose of the saddle.” Tilting the saddle forward can contribute to too much pressure on the hands and grips so watch out for that. The bike saddle angle can also be dependent on the saddle profile as some shapes dip in the middle from front to back. With a rise in the nose of the saddle, people may not feel themselves drifting toward the bars as much as they would on a flatter saddle.
Then, there’s the type of bike. Someone with an aggressive, forward position found on cross-country bikes might want more of a downward nose tilt on their saddle, than someone with a really steep seat angle on an enduro bike where the climbing position is more relaxed. In that case a rearward saddle tilt might feel more comfortable. Both bikes have vastly different geometry which affects the angle of rider’s hips.
As far as moving the saddle forward or rearward, he says it’s about optimizing pedaling position which can change by cadence.
“My goal is to have the rider seated comfortably on their sitbones with a neutral plumb line during the bike fitting. I know they will move back sometimes to pedal with increased leverage (mashing), or sometimes sit more forward for balance or increased spin rate.”
One of the benefits Van Atta sees of the more aggressive geometry that has developed in recent years are steeper seat tube angles. These tend to give riders more room for their knees within the bike.
What to avoid
Van Atta sees a few common mistakes with saddle position. Often, mountain bikers have their dropper or seat post too high and there is not enough of a bend in the knee, which can result in discomfort in the saddle, a loss of pedaling efficiency, and tougher handling on rocky climbs. Also, make sure your saddle isn’t too far rearward on its rails, where a rider may suffer a loss in pedaling power again.
Lastly, your friends’ saddle recommendations are about as valid as recommending the size clothing you should wear. While a certain saddle may work for your friend, your bodies are very different.
“If you’re looking for someone to go on a date with and your friend only recommends the people they like, that may not work out well, right? It’s kind of the same way with saddles,” says Van Atta. “I need to know what fits me personally, not what other people like.”