Today we’re going to talk about some issues with saddles, and a few things that are causing unnecessary pain for people. I’ll start by saying that I’m not The King of Saddles. I don’t have all the answers, and there are other smart people out there to pay attention to – folks like the gang at 51 Speedshop (Mat Steinmetz, Dave Ripley, and Ben Waite), Phil Casanta at HyperCat Racing, Nate Koch at Long Beach Bike Fit, the good folks at ERO Sports, Jonathan Blyer of Acme Bicycle Co, and Slowtwitch’s own Dan Empfield.
Second opinions are important with saddles. I say that because my advice may not work for you – and I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. You CAN find a seat that you like. What I aim to do with this article is shed some light on a couple issues that deserve more discussion, and I think could help some of you. I’ve been a long-time ‘saddle guy’ – having worked in the saddle business for many years, performed a lot of bike fits for the past 15 years, and ridden a ton of seats myself. I’m hyper geeky and detail-oriented with measuring saddles and evaluating them. I’m not perfect, but I have had success with getting people on saddles that make them happy.
Final disclaimer: Perhaps the biggest problem I see with some people is that they have unreasonable expectations for saddle comfort. A bicycle saddle – ANY bicycle saddle – is a relatively small area to support your weight. Humans are made for walking, standing, running, squatting, jumping, etc (which is to say – we’re not purpose-built to ride bikes). I’d like to point out the fact that there are ZERO bicycle saddles that will be as comfortable as a bean bag chair. Also, we mustn’t forget that saddle comfort can be highly influenced by things like your body position, the quality of your padded bike shorts, whether you use chamois cream, your posture, your hygiene, and so on.
Purpose and Key Point
I’m going to lay out my key point first, and then deconstruct from there.
There’s a general misconception that if you’re a “high performance athlete” – or at least an aspiring one – you should ride a saddle that is A) narrow, and B) firm. Padding is for wussies. Narrow seats look cooler and will make you faster. If you were a real man, you’d ride a narrow full-carbon seat with no padding at all. Wimp!
If it isn’t obvious, I think this is a bunch of baloney. In fact, I’ve had the most success in recent years putting people on just the opposite type of saddle. Let’s be clear – there is a limit. If the seat is way too wide, you’re going to hit your legs on the sides of the seat as you pedal. That can be annoying (or painful). If the seat is marshmallow-soft, you might get some extra chafing, and there’s even more likelihood of reducing blood flow to your genitals or causing extra pressure on perineum/soft tissue (regardless of gender, because your body sinks down in to the padding too much). For purposes of this discussion, I’m putting the upper limit of width somewhere in the neighborhood of 175mm for “performance” riding. Padding is unfortunately a lot more subjective, so for now I’ll just say that you shouldn’t assume that the firmest seat is the best one for you (especially if you’re riding a nose-less saddle, one with a large cutout, or something that otherwise doesn’t follow the traditional saddle design).
You might counter that the top professionals tend to use saddles that are narrow and firm. You’re right. A lot of them do. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. For starters, they have a much better power-to-weight ratio than you. In other words, they don’t have as much weight on the saddle and they push down with their legs harder, so their butts don’t need as much saddle padding. They also value performance over anything, and many are willing to trade a little bit of saddle surface area (i.e. choose a narrower saddle) for extra freedom-of-movement for their legs. You wouldn’t drive an F1 car around on the street, and a pro’s choices aren’t necessarily what you should mimic. Finally, I have witnessed more acceptance of padding and width among top pros in recent years.
In general, I see two persistent problems among average cyclists and triathletes: 1) a failure to adjust the position of an existing seat before abandoning it, and 2) being too afraid to try a seat that has more rear-end width or padding because it isn’t cool enough. These aren’t a guarantee to solve all of your problems – I’m just offering a nudge to challenge your assumptions.
Above image © Specialized
I should mention that this isn’t all YOUR (the consumers’) fault. Too many manufacturers cater their marketing to support these assumptions. Many times they just don’t offer more width or padding in any of the top-end models – or a choice in width or padding at all. This has fed the conventional wisdom, and it hasn’t done us any favors. Some companies have ONE triathlon saddle SKU. This is our tri saddle! Here it is! Somehow it is supposed to work for all of us?
The key take-home is this: Don’t assume you know what level of padding is best for you. Don’t assume that you know the width that is best for you. I can look back to reviews I’ve written just a few short years ago that wouldn’t read the same if I rewrote them today from scratch. My experience has changed. It wasn’t until the last 2-3 years that I really tried any saddles beyond about 130 – 135mm wide, or beyond a “very firm” level of padding. Only after opening my own mind did I start offering wider and softer saddles to other people, and I started to see some problems vanish.
Breaking It Down
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to clarify what exactly we’re talking about when we discuss saddle width. I see too many people saying they need a “wide” or “narrow” saddle, without specifying whether they’re talking about the front, middle, or rear of the saddle. I can’t tell you how many bike fits I’ve done where people assume that they need a narrow front of the saddle, but they actually just needed to position the seat correctly. Or they think they want a wider rear of the seat, and they just need more padding. You can fill in the blank with many other situations.
There is one more caveat, and that is that not all saddle brands measure the same. More specifically, anything that’s “nose-less” (ISM, some Cobb, Dash, Fizik Tritone, Specialized Sitero, etc) will measure differently than a traditional seat with a nose. Say your nose-less saddle is 3 inches shorter than a traditional seat (i.e. it’s missing the front 3 inches). There’s a good chance that this will put the total length under the UCI’s minimum of 240mm. To combat this, some noseless saddles have extra material added to the back end – which you are never intended to sit on. Yet… some of these seats have their maximum width way back there on this non-seating area. This means that the actual effective maximum width is less than advertised by the manufacturer. If the seat says that it’s 130mm wide, but that 130mm is so far back that your body never touches it, it’s not really 130mm. Seats get narrower towards the front, so the max width that you feel might only be 110 or 120mm.
Above image © Cobb
Does that mean that these saddles are not for you? Absolutely not. The point is that you must always test and feel the saddle for yourself, to ensure that you’re feeling supported where you need it, and there isn’t any undue rubbing pressure anywhere else. The modern saddle world has a huge mix of traditional, noseless, and “tweener” saddles, and you mustn’t treat them all equally.
Choosing Your (Rear) Saddle Width
So, how does one go about picking a saddle width? Where do you start?
This could be a series of articles by itself. I’m going to give you the short version, if you’ll trust me just a little bit. More and more manufacturers suggest that you measure the width of your ischial tuberosities (a.k.a. sitz bones, or sit bones). There are various tools to measure this, or you can even get an X-Ray if you really want to be a Super Nerd.
After many years, I think this is a fine way to go (but not the only way). You need to start somewhere, especially if you’re new to the sport. Rarely do I see this method put someone way off the mark. I suggest having the widest point of the saddle be at least equal in width to your sit bones, or a little bit wider (1-3 centimeters, give or take). If there’s no access to a measurement tool, I’ll simply ask, “Can you feel support under your sit bones? Does that feel good to you?” Of course, we first discuss what sit bones actually are, and typically have them try several seats. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than randomly picking a seat based on rumors or the latest Holiday Gift Guide from major magazines.
If your seat is narrower than your sit bones, that isn’t always the end of the world – I just find that it typically leads to decreased comfort for a lot of people. On a nose-less saddle or something close to this wheelhouse (such as Dash, ISM, SMP, and some Cobb products), you will end up with more pressure on your ischiopubic rami, which are the next two bones in immediately next to your sit bones. They’re connected right to the sit bones and angle inwards to form your pubic arch. This added pressure to these bones doesn’t seem to bother some people, but others can’t stand it – and it can lead to tenderness and saddle sores. If you consistently ride a lot, you can typically train your body to “toughen up” to this, at least to some degree. With traditional-style saddles (i.e. with a narrow nose), you will also put more pressure on your perineum. Translation: It’ll squash your taint more.
Above image © ISM
There’s also an idea that for a triathlon or time trial bike, you shouldn’t ride a seat that’s very wide out back. It’s all about being narrow, aero, and minimal… including the saddle, right? The argument is that when you reach down to grab those aerobars, your hips rotate forward, so you reduce or remove the weight from the sit bones. Therefore, we don’t need any support under those sit bones. This is a “yes and no” situation. Yes, most people do rotate their hips forward to some degree on an aerobar-laden bike compared to a road bike. Yes, doing so will reduce the amount of weight put on the sit bones. However, it’s a resounding “No!” as to whether this means we should remove the support under the sit bones entirely – at least in my opinion and experience. In fact, I propose the opposite. Because we’re reducing the weight placed there, we should definitely keep the support there – to take whatever load we can off of the pubic rami or more tender parts. Some people lack flexibility or have a posture that keeps their hips rotated far back no matter how low their aerobars are.
Above image © BiSaddle
How do you know if your saddle is too wide? The main consequence is that your legs rub the sides of the saddle as it transitions from front-to-back. This can be tricky, because you can trigger a false alarm if the seat is positioned wrong. If that seat is too far forward, you’re pushing the widest parts of the saddle forward – causing more (potential) rubbing as you pedal. The best way to combat this is simple: scoot around on the seat as you’re testing it… you might find that the width is perfect, but the seat is just in the wrong location under you (bring those wrenches with you to adjust)! You’re looking for a place where you have freedom-of-movement in your primary position, with enough support out back.
Choosing A Front Saddle Width
This has become a heated area of debate, and I’m only going to give the highlights. With traditional nosed saddles, the “nose” area is largely not used for anything. Some people say they use it to steer with their legs. Some time trialists will perch out and ride right on it. Mostly, though, it’s just there because of tradition.
With the introduction of noseless-type saddles, front saddle width becomes much more complicated. The number one problem is that the manufacturers’ instructions were not clear in the early years, and too many consumers and fitters didn’t install them properly. When Average Joe went to install his nose-less saddle, he measured his old road saddle to have a distance of 55cm from the nose of the seat to the handlebar. In order to recreate the same position, he installed his noseless seat in the same place – 55cm from the front of the seat to the handlebar. He’s recreating the same position, right? Wrong.
These seats are all short – missing anywhere from 2 – 8 centimeters of nose (1 – 3 inches). That means that the front of the seat should be positioned 2 – 8 centimeters further to the rear than the nose of a traditional seat (so that "nose"-to-bar distance will increase). If you do not make this adjustment, you’re putting too much saddle width too far forward. The front of the seat will feel too wide, bothering your inner thighs, adductors, or crotch. Put another way, it’s not that the nose of the seat is too wide – it’s that there IS NO NOSE at all, and you’ve put another part of the seat in its place.
Above image © Shimano
If we can get that part of the saddle setup solved, choosing a front width is easy. In general, you want the seat wide enough to support you, without causing inner thigh or adductor irritation. This can be subjective, and influenced by things like rider position/posture, how lean (or not) you are, and personal preference. The side-to-side roundness of the saddle can also influence how this feels. If you find that a wide and flat seat is bothering you, I find that a more rounded shape can help.
Padding is subjective, and there’s no secret formula. Nor is there agreement among manufacturers on what should be considered firm or soft. If you insist on riding a traditional-style nosed seat, the conventional wisdom of “firmer is better” is relatively true. Just the other day I was riding a soft traditional seat on a borrowed bike, and I could feel all sorts of pressure in bad places.
It’s when we venture in to the world of nose-less and anatomical saddles that the padding story changes. If you remove the saddle nose, you take pressure off your soft stuff, but you also reduce overall surface area on which to sit (putting more pressure on the remaining area – your ischial tuberosities and pubic rami). Also, these areas don’t have much tissue covering them. A little extra padding can go along way in terms of comfort.
Takeaways and Examples
Let’s do a quick recap. First, sit bone width is a decent place to start when trying to find a new saddle (that is, for finding a comfortable rear width of the saddle). Keep in mind that not all saddles are created equal in terms of where that max width occurs, so I suggest adding a couple centimeters of width to your sit bone measurement – just to be sure you have sufficient support. If the seat feels too wide, it may be too far forward. If it feels like there isn’t enough seat under you, it might be too far back. Check these before assuming that a saddle isn’t right for you. If you’re confident the fore-aft adjustment is good, we can then start playing with saddle width to give you full support, without rubbing your legs on the sides of the seat. For padding, do not be afraid to try a seat that you think is too soft or too firm – you might find that you actually enjoy it. Don’t assume that your favorite pro rider or best friend’s saddle has anything to do with the saddle YOU should ride. I haven’t mentioned seat height yet, but err on the low side (and read THIS article by our own Jordan Rapp to find out why). I see many more saddles that are too high rather than too low. Higher generally means more risk for injury and more pressure on your crotch.
I’ll give a few specific examples. I just got done testing out an SMP T1 saddle, which measures a whopping 164mm out back. This is the widest performance-oriented saddle I’ve ever used and I don’t think it gets enough attention, especially among women and long-course triathletes. I’ve also used their T2, which is their more “standard” triathlon seat, at 156mm. If I was racing short-course triathlon, time trials, or other all-out efforts, I would likely pick the T2. For long course, the T1. Both saddles feature a nice level of padding that’s not-too-firm, not-too-soft. We’ll have more info coming soon on these and other SMP saddles.
Above image © SMP
I’ve also just taken delivery of a saddle that’s new-to-me, but that’s been on the market for several years, called the BiSaddle. This unique saddle offers adjustable width both front and rear – something I haven’t seen anywhere else. They also offer angled wedges to change the roundness of the top profile. The coolest part is that you can adjust the left and right sides independently, which could help those with a leg length discrepancy, injury, or asymmetry. Could this be the solution for folks that are picky in front and rear width, and want a “custom” saddle?
Above image © BiSaddle
There are others out there. Specialized offers saddles in 155 and 168mm widths, and at least two levels of padding. Cobb’s Max seems to be a favorite for many, and I’ve seen many happy folks aboard it. Ditto with the ISM PR 3.0 – my go-to ISM model for your average age group triathlete. Shimano’s PRO brand has some new offerings, including an updated Aerofuel with a larger recessed area. I might have missed your brand, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong – I’m mentioning the products that I have the most experience and success with, and those companies that I’ve successfully dialogued with.
At the end of the day, your saddle has to be right for you. You might be perfectly suited for a narrow, firm saddle. All I’m offering is a gentle nudge to consider that there are other options out there, and if you have persistent problems, it might be time to think outside the box. In recent years I’ve put more and more people on seats with more padding and rear width than they “think” they need, and only a precious few have ended up reverting back to a narrower, firmer seat.
Several women have commented that we should be covering womens'-specific saddle issues in greater depth. For the sake of clarity, this article targets all triathlon and cycling participants, regardless of gender. In short, while the external sexual anatomy differs between men and women, the fundamental design of the hips, pelvis, and genital nerves/arteries does not. Women do tend to have wider hips than men, and a greater Q angle. Generally speaking, I see women tend to prefer slightly wider saddles than men, making the advice offered in this article even more salient for women as a whole. That said, it does not mean that if you're a women that you will end up preferring a wide saddle - highlighting the importance of proper installation, a good bike fit, and the need to try several different saddles.