Choosing a Saddle for Touring
A comfortable bike saddle can be one of the most important ingredients to an enjoyable bike tour or extended ride. That is to say, an uncomfortable saddle can turn an otherwise enjoyable day into a marathon pain-fest with saddle sores and tenderness in your “sensitive areas” for days to follow. In this post I will share what I have learned about saddles and will let you know what has worked for us. I hope that this information is useful in your search for a saddle but please remember that everyone’s body is shaped differently and it will likely take some trial and error to find a saddle that works well for you.
Finding a saddle that fits
One of the most important things to look for in a saddle is sit bone placement. A good saddle will put weight only on your sit bones allowing the soft tissue in between and in front of your sit bones to float free of pressure. The first step to finding a saddle that will work for you is to find one that fits your sit bone width. Many bike shops will have a sit bone measurement tool. This complex apparatus generally consists of a piece of gel foam that you sit on for a minute or so that will hold an imprint of your sit bones for a few seconds after you get up. An alternative is to take the measurement yourself by laying on your back lifting your knees to a “biking angle” and using a piece of string and a ruler to measure the distance between the center of each sit bone.
Many saddles come in different sizes (e.g. 130, 143 and 155 mm) that measure the width of the saddle itself. You will want to take your sit bone measurement and add 10-20mm to determine the best saddle width. Keep in mind that it is generally better to have a saddle that is slightly too wide than one that is slightly too narrow. A narrow saddle can leave your sit bones collapsing on the outside and put the brunt of the weight on your perineum, ouch!
Differences between men’s and women’s saddles
Women’s saddles are characteristically wider to accommodate for women’s wider hips and often have shorter noses. In my experience nose length has not been an issue either way and I know several men who use women’s saddles and women who use men’s. The gender divide here is not set in stone.
Many of the newer saddles have large cut out areas down the center of the saddle and others also have an open area between the sit bones. These “cut outs” are designed to relieve pressure on the genitals and perineum and in my experience are a god-send. A good thing to look out for when examining saddle cut outs is how they compress with weight. Try pushing on the saddle with your thumbs right at the cut out and notice whether the pressure makes the saddle material bend and fill in the open space or whether the compression leaves the space free. In the end, the right cut out for you will depend on your body and you may have to try riding on several saddles before you find one that works.
Not too soft, please!
A common mistake in saddle selection is to assume that a softer saddle will be more comfortable for a longer ride. In fact usually the opposite is true. Softer saddles often compress under your weight adding pressure to your soft areas as your sit bones sink into the saddle. For the inexperienced rider going on short rides (no more than a few miles) soft saddles and can be appropriate, but for any sort of long distance riding you will want to investigate other options. It may seem counterintuitive, but the added pressure will actually reduce your blood flow causing more discomfort in the end. In addition, saddles that are too soft will also create saddle sores due to friction. How hard is hard enough will depend again on your preferences. Keep in mind that if you are new to long distance riding you will need to give your sit bones time to adapt to bearing weight on a saddle. This can take some time and there will be some discomfort but the important thing to remember is to work at it slowly.
What about Brooks saddles?
Brooks saddles are exceedingly popular among touring cyclists and have developed somewhat of a tribal following. In my experience Brooks are more popular among men than women (though women do rant about them on occasion as well). Having never owned a Brooks myself I can’t attest to their comfort when touring. For me the biggest reason to go with something other than Brooks was that Brooks saddles form to one person’s rear end. Since we were striving for a tandem set-up that allowed us to switch positions without making adjustments, the Brooks was impractical. In addition, I can’t imagine long-distance comfort without a cut out. Again, everyone’s body is different and just because the chorus sings Brooks doesn’t mean that is what will work for you.
How do I find the right saddle without blowing my budget?
Retail saddle options will vary by location, but my best suggestion is to find a bike shop that has a generous return policy that will let you take a saddle for a longer ride and return it if it doesn’t work for you. This often means sticking to larger retail outlets before you zero in on what you want. Performance Bike and REI both have excellent return policies and for the most part will let you return a lightly used saddle if it doesn’t work for you. In addition a good bike shop should not be opposed to you throwing a saddle on your bike and taking it for a spin around the block. In most cases this will enable you to narrow your choices between the most comfortable saddles available. Some bike stores also have a testing station, which would enable you to ride on a stationary bike with a test saddle to assess comfort and fit.
What saddles do you recommend?
In our quest for saddles we zeroed in on the Specialized line. Briana liked their generously sized cut outs and three size choices in each style. In the end we put a pair of Specialized Jetts on the tandem and Briana picked up a Specialized Avatar (similar shape, slightly softer) for her commute bike. What Kyle liked most about the Specialized line of saddles was their relatively flat sit bone surface, which allows for us both to ride comfortably. For his daily commute he got a reasonably priced Forté T1 Tri saddle. It was narrow enough to accommodate his sit bones and soft enough to be comfortable without a chamois. As these saddles age we will update with information on durability but a few hundred miles in and we are quite satisfied.