Saddle Theory: Part I

We're going to be writing about saddles a lot during the first part of 2012. Why? Because it's a contact point. If you're a devoted Slowtwitcher you've sat for my haranguing on contact points for years now. I'll continue to pester you, because there is no more important element to bike fit, bike comfort, bike speed and, in general, happiness aboard your bike, than the successful resolution of contact point problems.

I write this because the other elements that contribute to speed are phantom unless and until the very real problems that attend contact points are solved. You can have the greatest bike position in the world on paper, but that position is theoretical, rather than real, if you have to keep exiting that position to solve a contact point problem.

By "exiting" the position I'm talking about riding, on level ground, with your hands on the pursuits, because your tender regions are not comfortable on the saddle. Or the aerobar pads for that matter (they're contact points as well). In this case, your real aero position is the one you're in when your hands are on your pursuits.

By "contact points" I mean those points where your body contacts the bike. Whether you're running, bike riding, surfing, skiing, having sex, sleeping, riding a horse, drinking a beer or driving your car, contact point comfort is critical.

Saddle design and materials have changed a lot during the time I've been a cyclist. When I started cycling I rode saddles made by Brooks, Selle Royal, or Selle Italia, and we were sitting on, at the time, leather. The leather upper was attached to the rails with rivets, and when you hear Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwin refer to a cyclist as riding "on the rivet", this expression is meant to create the image of a rider's trunk on the nose of the saddle, positioned right atop that front rivet.

Let's explore that theme for a moment. This is important, and as you continue to read articles here on Slowtwitch, over the next weeks and months, we're going to roll out some theories and applications that refer back to what's good, what's portable, what's educational about the traditional way cyclists have ridden their bikes.

Above you see a picture of a terrific saddle. It is a Selle San Marco Aspide racing model, and it's a great road race saddle. I used a picture of this saddle because it contains features often abandoned by today's saddle designers. Have you ever wondered why saddles are made the way they are? This saddle provides us a lesson.

In particular, I want to call attention to the shape of this saddle. As you'll note, it's lipped up in the back, there's a trough about a quarter of the way forward from the back, then the saddle raises toward the nose, and then declines in front, at its forward terminus. Why?

In road race (as opposed to tri) bike fit we sometimes refer to the "neutral" position, and by that most of us mean seated, hands-on-hoods. The rider is seated on the saddle forward of a seated pure climbing position, with hands on the hoods, and rearward of the "on the rivet" position. He's sitting in the trough.

When the road pitches up, the rider moves slightly back on the saddle (when the rider is seated, and not climbing out of the saddle), and he often will place his hands on the "tops" and by this I'm referring to the part of a road handlebar that's perpendicular to the direction the bike is traveling (the "tops" are the part of the bar that emanate from the stem, before the handlebar makes a turn forward).

When the rider is seated climbing, he sits slightly further arrears, his hands may grab the handlebar on the tops, his torso may be very slightly more upright (vertical) than when he's riding with his hands on the hoods. His hip angle is probably pretty similar to when he's riding in the neutral position (hands on the hoods) or, for that matter, on the drops. As he moves aft on the saddle to sit on its back, or forward to sit "on the rivet", the profile of his back usually changes accordingly.

In fact, it may well be that hip angle is a "driver" that causes the rider to move fore and aft on the saddle: He may be unconsciously attempting to preserve his hip angle as he rides with his back flatter (more aero) or less flat (while climbing).

In the image above, note that there are two saddle aspects shown. There is a saddle in profile (from the side), the way it would probably be positioned for most riders when the bike is sitting on flat, level ground. Below that is an image of that same saddle, the way it would appear if the bike were riding up a 7 percent grade. Note that the "lip" on the back of the saddle isn't curving up now. It's level.

If you will stipulate with me that a rider will move slightly to the back of the saddle, with his torso slightly more upright, and place his hands on the tops, when he's seated-climbing, then you see the point of this lip on the back of the saddle. It's not to push off of when riding on the flats. No. It's to place under the rider a saddle that's level to the horizon when climbing a hill. This, so that the rider won't have to keep pulling himself forward in order to stay on the saddle.

Now, to be sure, there are many saddle companies today that don't make their saddles like this any longer. The Fi'zi:k Arione is flatter in profile. Many riders love this saddle. However, Fi'zi:k also acknowledges the dynamic described above, and the Aliante shell pays homage to the traditional saddle shape. The Antares range of saddles is positioned in between the two.

Fi'zi:k , however, has a different theory as to why saddles are made as they are. Fi'zi:k says that the lipped-up back is for people who are less flexible, and the more flexible we are the more we gravitate to saddles with a flatter profile, front-to-back.

They're the saddle makers. They're the experts. They've got the science to which to point that verifies and even drives their theories. I can offer none of the above. Nevertheless, I'm sticking to the narrative I've described above as it seems patently apparent to me, in the fifth decade as a spectator and participant in the sport of cycling.

Then there's that slight rise toward the nose. What's the point of that? In my view, its utility is twofold: to help create the "cradle" that supports the trunk while it's in the neutral position; and to normalize for leg length when the rider is on the rivet.

Back, though, to Fi'zi:k for a moment and I don't want to pick on this fine company. I love its saddles, and to be sure these saddles have bent the trajectory of most saddle makers. Selle Italia was certainly the driver of new saddle design during the decade of the 80s (Turbo) and the 90s (Flite). Both of these saddles feature the shell shape I've been describing. But the SLR—a more recent design—is perfectly flat across the top. And I think the Flite itself has gotten a bit flatter over the years. I suspect the Fi'zi:k Arione has impacted the design of saddle companies in recent years, Selle Italia included.

Specialized—a company that has really made a name in road saddles—has not abandoned the traditional shell shape. While its saddles may have a flatter profile than those in generations past, the traditional silhouette is still evident in popular saddles like the Romin and Toupé. Likewise Bontrager and its popular and well-conceived Team Issue saddles.

Most triathletes have both road race bikes and tri bikes by the time they've been in the sport a few years. This is due to the high usage of road race bikes in training by triathletes (for a variety of reasons). Road specific saddle shape and comfort is therefore of interest to us. However, this is the extent of my discussion of road saddle shapes in profile. Whether the students of saddle design agree or disagree with my points above, I've made them. The points above illustrate that saddles have historically formed this series of elevational sweeps, front to rear, and I've described why those sweeps are important, according to my recollection and experience. But this is specific to road (and, maybe, to MTB). I make the above points to contrast the difference between road and tri saddles. In point of fact, the points made above about road—and the various places fore/aft on the saddle on which road racers sit—do not apply to tri.

While there are compelling reasons why road saddles have been made as they have over the generations that saddles have featured this traditional shape—and I agree and buy into the thought behind, and execution of, traditional road race saddle design (and I choose this saddle design when I ride my road race bike)—triathlon saddles do not and should not mimic this shape. Indeed, one of the very reasons Fi'zi:k's Arione shell was used so effectively for triathlon is because of its front-to-rear flatness.

In part-2 of this series, I'll describe why a flat aspect is critical to tri saddles, and we'll also explore split shell saddles, snub-nosed saddles and the like.