My Saddle Search Commences

I’ve decided to embark on a search for new saddles. For moi. All of a sudden it seems like my tush needs something different, and not just for tri, but for road. Why? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s just me. I reference that hardy grand tour rider Ronald Reagan: “I didn’t move away from my saddles; my saddles moved away from me.”

You would think road bike saddles should be easy, right? Not like tri saddles, which remain a problem for so many Slowtwitchers. But road saddles, we all can ride just about everything. Or so I used to think.

Part of the reason road is not as easy as it used to be is that saddles got kind of weird when we all weren't looking. I thought we had it pretty good, but Specialized made the Power saddle and it became a hit, and then just about every saddle company decided this was the way to make a road saddle. Specialized, PRO, CADEX, Easton, Bontrager, Fizik, Prologo all had to make them. I haven’t ridden all of them, but those I have ridden are a little problematic for me in a couple of ways, which I will explain. (Below is the SLR Boost Gravel Superflow, the saddle I’m currently riding.)

But a little history first, perhaps? When I began cycling it was pretty easy. Brooks. It turns out leather is a pretty good material for road saddles. Then came the Sella Italia Turbo. That saddle was modern in its day but the saddle that really changed everything up was Selle Italia’s Flite. That was a sexy saddle. The Flite worked not only because it was pleasing to my eye, but because it was an exercise in taking everything away from the saddle that didn’t need to be there, while preserving everything in a saddle that you did still need. That last part is the key.

Selle Italia followed this up with the SLR, which was even more minimalist. It was so thin you could shave with it.

Yes it worked, but it stretched credulity on how much you could leave out of a saddle and have it still support you. It was the teenie weenie bikini of bike saddles: barely enough coverage.

In some of my “here is my own rig” photo essays you’ll note some pretty ratty saddles, as in, new frame, new groupset, new wheels and tires, and a saddle from 10 or 15 years ago. This is because I’ve been recycling my old saddles that work. It became apparent to me that I was going to have to prepare myself for the future. I couldn’t continue to live (ride) in the past.

The saddles I had been recirculating were Selle Italias: versions of the Flite and the SLR. One thing: these new versions tended to have a little more padding than some of the original versions. Funny thing, padding is a feature. It works. For some reason, it’s become de rigeur to carry your padding around in your shorts (thicker chamois pad) instead of on the saddle. Pardon the segue, but why is it we need to carry stuff on our person? Why hasn’t top tube storage made it to road bikes? Why is it better to carry my food on my jersey pocket than on the bike?

I acquired 4 new Selle Italias, since these are the saddles I have been riding: two of the new SLR variety, and 2 of the Flite variety. Each saddles is made in a standard and wide flange width. And no, I have no arrangement with Selle Italia. I forked over Slowman dough and bought them. (Below is the the Flite Boost Gravel Superflow.)

As with the other articles I’m writing on my new road bike build, it’s the process of selection that I want to share. What my imperatives were, and are, in a saddle.

The first thing about road saddles (and me) is that I use the whole saddle. As opposed to tri, where there is one dominant position, in road there are probably a half-dozen, with several of these in common use: seated, upright, hands on tops (mostly for climbing). Seated, hands on hoods. Seated, hands on drops. Standing, hands on hoods. Standing, hands on drops (sprinting). When I’m riding with hands on the hoods, arms straight and elbows almost locked, that’s my just-riding-along position. But there’s a discrete second posture, when my elbows are more bent, back flatter, I’ve moved up on the saddle, shortening my cockpit. When I do that it’s because I’m working harder; riding a higher cadence; riding with more urgency; often but not always on an ascent. In both of these bent-elbow postures I’m toward the nose of the saddle, sort of in the pocket of the saddle. When I’m really riding hard, really digging in, well, you may have heard that term riding “on the rivet” refers to the front rivet of an old Brooks leather saddle.

One reason I have a hard time with short saddles is that I can’t ride as far forward as I used to during that posture just described. Saddles that used to be 27cm long are now often more like 24cm long or shorter yet. This is one imperative of mine: a road saddle must be there for all the road positions, and it’s hard for that to be the case on a 24cm-long saddle.

Then there is just the saddle’s width, and a lot of emphasis is placed on this, and that’s good. I would like to ride the narrower of the Flite or SLR saddles I got, and I may, but there is a lot to be said for the wider versions. I’m more supported on the wider versions, but I have more freedom of movement on the narrower. I’m not basing this on a measurement of my sit bones or hips, or because of a pressure mapping device. I put the saddles on my bike and go out and ride them. One alternative to this is to put saddles on a fit bike, in a store, and ride them on a fit bike. especially if that fit bike inclines. Then you have a better sense of what a saddle is going to be like as you’re riding. (We have spent a lot of time writing about this, with the equipment bike fitters would use to best execute this type of demo.)

My saddles need to have some padding. Saddles that are marketed for gravel are a great fit for me for my gravel and my road bike. So far, then, here is where we are: the saddle must be long enough; wide enough but not too wide; and padded. But that’s not all.

I ride the nose and I ride the rear of the saddle, and places in between. It’s simple geometry that when you move forward, the saddle height shortens if your saddle is flat and perfectly level. I rode a Fizik Arione for a while, and it was okay, but this was one thing that I just had to live with. If a saddle had a gentle rise to it as I moved forward, that normalized for saddle height, so much the better. But it’s always hard to find this in a saddle without having that saddle cut off the blood supply to my soft tissue (the dreaded sleepy peepee). Trial and error on this.

I could just take a flat saddle and tilt it slightly, to overcome that saddle height problem. However, I climb a lot, and one thing that bugs me is when I have to hold myself on the saddle to keep from sliding backward during ascents. I want the saddle to hold me in place. But this is another element that’s really touchy, because that lip on the back of the saddle – whatever is holding me in place while riding uphill – can’t thrust me forward when I’m on the flat. One really important part of bike fit is a balanced posture when riding in the neutral position (seated, on the flats, hands on hoods). It’s possible to have all the right fit coordinates on paper – saddle height, saddle setback, handlebar placement in space – and still be ill-fit because the saddle doesn’t support your weight. If, for example, you tilt the saddle nose down, the weight coming down on the hoods increases even though your fit coordinates haven’t changed. See the image below, and you’ll see how today’s Selle Italia Flite series is flat across the top; and the SLR series has that pocket where you sit, and the slight upturn in back, and the slight raise in the nose.

There is one final element to saddle design, a problem that’s cropped up on recent years. If you look at the old Brooks saddle, or the slightly more recent Turbo saddle, up through the Fizik Arione, what you see is a curve where the saddle flanges out. No sharp edges to the flanges. A lot of new saddles just end abruptly at the flange and that feels fine to my tush. For about 20 minutes. And then – especially on a seated ascent – that flange starts to dig in. A lot of folks suffer these days from intermittent high hamstring tendonopathy, and I’m not one of those people who need to assign causality to all bad things that happen. But there are a number of ways my hamstring origins have been insulted in recent years, and the older I get the more I have to watch this part of my anatomy. The abrupt edges to those flanges don’t work for me.

I first tried, the Flite Boost Gravel Superflow, in 135mm width. Good, but not wide enough. Then the same saddle in the 145mm width. It supported me, but the contour along the top was flat, and I just don’t do as well with flat saddles.

Then I tried the SLR Boost Gravel Superflow in the wider-flange version, and it has checked several of my boxes. Wide enough, and it’s padded enough. Flanges taper down rather than abruptly terminating, but I don’t know yet if they taper down enough. The hollow center seems to relieve any pressure on soft tissue that I might’ve suffered. I question whether it’s long enough. There seems to be a position I might not able to access.

As with groupsets, wheels, frame, pedals or anything else, I encourage you to think about your imperatives. List them. what is important to you, in your riding, for your bike, for your body, for your terrain, road surface and then, finally, for your wallet. My wife rides more miles than I do, and she is a big fan of the Infinity saddle. This saddle has a real cult following, and the biggest hurdle to this saddle’s wide acceptance is its non-traditional look. Very few people who ride it say they don’t like it.

The Selle Italia SLR Boost Gravel Superflow is a finalist in my search for my next road and gravel saddle. (Here’s Selle Italia’s page.) As I try more saddles I’ll write about them here.