I had never found a noseless saddle that worked for me. At some level, I didn't believe I ever would. Regardless of any variance in design, I had the same issue with all noseless saddles - I felt like I was falling into space. And, critically, this lack of support manifested itself notably in an inability to produce power at the top end. For easy riding, noseless saddles were a blessing. I tried many, and they were fantastic for just cruising around. But they were no good for racing. And since tri bikes are, fundamentally, race bikes, that was a problem.
Backing up a little bit, I think it's important to establish what exactly I mean when I talk about noseless saddles. The lines of saddle demarcation have been blurred, but, basically, I think there are currently two types of saddles. There are traditional saddles and noseless saddles.
Traditional saddles look more like truly classic saddles - such as a Brooks Swallow; they may have a cutout or they may not, but if they do, it's an auxiliary feature, not the defining feature. This what people who don't ride bikes expect to see on a bike. The Cobb SHC, the Fizik Arione, and most Selle Italia saddles are all examples of traditional saddles. A traditional saddle is designed so that you sit on the saddle.
Then we have the obviously noseless saddles. ISM is the standard bearer here, along with certain COBB saddles like the JOF55 (Just Off the Front) and Randee. When riding these saddles, your most sensitive bits are literally floating in space. Your weight is - if you can manage it - supported (almost) entirely on your sit bones. But many people - especially those who mostly prefer traditional saddles - just can't seem to get the hang of riding these. Specialized's Sitero, as well as Fizik's Tritone and now Mistica, also fall into this category. A noseless saddle is designed so that you sit off the front of the saddle.
One of the biggest issues with noseless saddles is that they are typically relatively wide, often due to limitations of construction - needing to make the saddle structurally sound without the rails joining a single shell. ISM's biggest push over the past several years has been to introduce narrower and narrower saddles. To a large extent, they've succeeded. Pretty much gone are the days where you'd see zip ties pulling the prongs together. ISM acknowledges this implicitly with their line of PN - Performance Narrow - saddles.
In the past, Dan Empfield and I had a third category that we called split-rail saddles. Split rail designs don't have a cutout; rather they are built essentially in two parts. Rather than cutting out a section of the saddle shell, split rail saddles are built more like two completely individual saddles - one for the left side of your 'taint and one for the right side. There are split rail saddles that are, fundamentally, traditional in design - like Selle SMP. And there are split-rail saddles that are fundamentally noseless in design, like most of Dash's saddles. Because of this, we've decided to simplify things down and just stick to the two groups that are more reflective of how you ride the saddle rather than how the saddle is designed/constructed.
For me, overwhelmingly, narrowness trumps everything else. A saddle that is wide is just never going to work for me. For the past decade, most of my riding has been done aboard either a COBB HC170 or SHC, and really only the front 1/2 of those saddles. I loved the narrowness - 35mm at the nose - and flat profile, and I liked enough else about the saddle - the minimal but effective cutout and the deep thigh glides - that I rode it pretty happily. Like many people, I had some issues, but the saddle was more than good enough, especially when paired with a good chamois creme and a good pair of bibs.
However, I was basically committed to a single position on the saddle, though this isn't much of an issue since the aero position pretty much commits you to a single position itself. Like most saddles - and for reasons I still don't fully understand - the saddle gets wider as you move back. The SHC is still fairly narrow - only 127mm at the back - but it's a lot wider than the part of the saddle where I like to sit, which varies between 35-85mm.
This is where Dash does something totally different. Dash saddles are virtually the same width front to back. And they offer them in different widths, with the narrowest width being extremely narrow. It's 55mm at the nose and then right at the very back, at least on the Stage.9, it's still only about 110mm wide. The vast majority of the saddle is between 55 and 85mm wide.
I tested the Dash Stage.9 (in narrow) on my road bike for about 1,000km to figure out how I liked to ride it. In general, road bike fit is a lot more forgiving than tri bike fit is. So I knew if I could figure out the basics of fit on my road bike, it would make it more likely that I could give it an honest go on my tri bike. Interestingly, Weston Snyder of Dash suggested I might prefer the Strike.9 on my road bike, because it flares out in the back more like a traditional saddle. So maybe I am just weird, because that's exactly what I do not want on any bike.
To set the saddle up, I measured where my existing Cobb SHC was about 55mm wide; it's approximately 25mm back from the nose. So I set the nose of the Dash up relative to my cockpit 25mm further back. This is far less than what most fitters recommend for noseless saddles like the ISMs, where it's typically 30-60mm of setback. But that's because they are so wide. Noseless saddles go behind your butt; but the Dash goes a bit more between your legs, more like a traditional saddle.
Next thing to set up was saddle pitch. Dash recommends that the rails be set level. The shell has a slight contour, and after much experimentation - starting with the front 1/3 of the saddle being level and eventually making the middle 1/3 of the saddle level, I found happiness with the rails set at 1deg up, which translates into the nose - really front 1/3 of the saddle - being about 0.5-1deg nose down. This gave me enough support but also allowed me to anteriorly rotate my pelvis. My junk was, ever so slightly, out in space, un-pressured in any way. Most smartphones have a built in level that works extremely well for this purpose.
Lastly, I had to set saddle height. You may think it should be the same. But you'd be wrong. As I was. The reason, as I know from doing bike fits, is that as people anteriorly rotate their pelvis, they typically need to raise their saddle because where they are effectively sitting on the saddle shifts forward (along with some other changes), causing their seat height to effectively drop. In my case, I run the Stage.9 3-4mm higher than I ran my SHC/HC170. That is a massive change in saddle height. Even 1mm is a big change in saddle height. But it's all because I rotated more forward. I could tell this on my road bike because I found myself riding in the drops way more often. And on my TT bike, I could tell because I could actually put out more power in the aero position. Something like a LEOMO could help quantify this, but it's pretty easy to feel.
The Stage.9's profile allows you to make full use of the saddle front-to-back, but the split-rail design means you must sit in the center (side-to-side) of the saddle. This took some getting used to, as I - like many people - sat just off to one side or the other of most saddles. But over time, I got used to it. And it eliminated a single hotspot that had always turned into a small saddle sore if I rode enough. There was more pressure in the spots where the slender cover contacted my 'taint, which is less comfortable than on the SHC, simply because there is less surface area to distribute your weight on. But I found that I sat much more square and, especially when riding hard and there's less weight on your saddle anyway, that issue disappeared. It's not quite as comfortable as a noseless saddle when riding easy, but it's even better than a traditional saddle (for me) when riding hard.
The cutout of the saddle runs the full length until the very front and back of the saddle, but the nose is blunt and drops away, so it could maybe be classified as a tweener as opposed to a purely noseless saddle. Your most sensitive bits are off in space, but only barely. Interestingly, figuring out how to ride this saddle made me completely reevaluate certain other saddles, something that I'll talk about in subsequent reviews. I found the COBB JOF to be unrideable for hard riding until riding the Dash made me reconsider how I had been riding it. I eventually set it up much further forward, and I liked it a lot more, though its overall shape is less good for me; it's much more like Dash's Strike.9 than the Stage.9 as the JOF55 also flares in the back.
All Dash saddles are custom made in Colorado. Whether or not they work for you, I will say that I think they are the most beautiful saddles I've ever seen. They have a hand-laid carbon shell, hand stitched and virtually unlimitedly customizable microtex covers, and two-, three-, or four-layer foam. Plus three widths. And a wide range of subtly different designs. All this beauty comes at a price though, as Dash saddles are also just about the most expensive saddles on the market, running about $465 for most models, and even more in the case of their TT.9, which allows for direct mounting of a water bottle to the back.
They do offer two stock models - choice of all three widths but not of colors and they use a heavier foam - for only $229. And they have one totally traditional saddle - the Slate.7, which is beautifully made and very light but not particularly interesting.
The biggest issue - besides price - is that all Dash saddles come with 7mm round carbon-kevlar rails that they recommend torquing to only 5-7Nm. The problem here is that many rail clamps - especially single bolt designs that are prevalent on aero seat posts - simply do not hold at the torque. Most single bolt posts have torque specs of 12-15Nm.
In my case, with great reticence (especially given that I've snapped rails - albeit titanium ones - during a race), I tightened them very slowly to 12Nm. The rails appear undamaged and carbon tends - unlike aluminum or titanium - to fail rather dramatically and instantaneously. Nevertheless, this is a source of some anxiety for me. Weston Snyder of Dash says that the rails can take more than 5-7Nm, but they want customers to err on the side of caution and to contact them first.
Weston wrote in response to my concerns,
I typically tell people with the high torque clamp setups to disassemble and apply a grit compound on the internal contacts of the clamp to keep things from slipping. The majority of the posts hold at 7-8nm if you do that. It really shouldn't have issues at those torque values as long as the clamp is clean and doesn't have sharp edges digging in. We list the lower value to keep people from going crazy with it without talking to us first.
Typically, composites fail dramatically, not due to fatigue like metal rails. And the addition of kevlar does toughen things up, a smart choice for something like saddle rails. I see no evidence of damage to the rails despite torquing them to 12Nm, though I did do it slowly and also checked the clamps very carefully for any rough edges. Make sure you do not have any grit, sharp edges, or anything that could apply localized pressure to the rails when you are tightening them.
In all honesty, I thought the Dash would be an interesting saddle, but I didn't expect to love it. While it has some flaws - I'd like a flatter profile, for one, and I'd really like steel rails for another; it is overall the most comfortable saddle I've ever used. I think the split doesn't need to be quite so wide, and I'd be interested to see how a saddle that was as narrow overall, but with a slightly less wide split might fare in terms of being a bit more comfy at lower effort. But overall, I'm now convinced that this is the saddle design that I never knew I needed. Some of this may just be as I'm older, I'm less tolerant of minor issues. I don't know. I just know that the Dash Stage.9 has changed the way that I think about saddle design, and it's the saddle that I expect to be on all of my bikes going forward.
The Stage.9 is going to move off of my tri bike and back onto my road bike. Dash has agreed to send me a TT.9, which features integrated water bottle bosses for a behind-the-saddle bottle cage, to put on my tri bike. The TT.9 cuts off the back of the Stage.9, but that part of the saddle is pretty much useless on a tri bike anyway.
Saddles are extremely individual, and the Dash is extremely expensive for something that you may not like. I'd love to see them simplify their design a bit; they are extremely light, but unnecessarily so. While I don't want to see them give up a lot of what makes them special - Made in USA, unbelievable meticulous manufacturing, I also think this ought to be a more popular design than it is, and that's entirely because of price and, I think, rail design. A fiber-reinforced plastic shell with steel rails would still be a great saddle. But it could be sold for probably 50% less. Maybe more. And I think that would result in a lot more Dash fans.
Whatever direction they choose to take their business, the price is entirely justified if it works for you. Unfortunately, it's just a big risk to take. I loved the Dash, but that doesn't mean you will. But if what I've said resonates with your own experience, it's worth looking around for a fitter that has one to try. And fitters, if you don't currently have at least one or two Dash saddles for your customers to try, you're missing out. Simply put, this is a great saddle with an intelligent and truly different design. I'm glad I did.
Epilogue: Since initially writing this review, I recorded my best power output at a 70.3 race at the recent Santa Rosa Ironman 70.3. What was especially noticeable was how comfortable I was staying down in the aerobars and riding hard late in the ride, something I credit in large part to my use of the Dash.
[Disclosure: Dash provided a saddle to me for this review free of charge and has agreed to provide me with an additional saddle for personal use once it became clear that I enjoyed riding the saddle. I have no professional or business relationship with Dash, was not compensated for this review, and will not benefit in any way as a result of any sales of Dash saddles that might result from this review.]
[Ed. note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the price for the stock saddles as $265. It is $229. We have corrected this above and regret the error. Further, Dash does offer their stock saddles in all three widths; we have corrected this above and regret the error.]