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by Jim Langley

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Pity the poor bicycle seat. Few products in the history of sports have taken such a bum rap. Prostate problems. Numbness. Boils. Infections. Chafing. Even impotency! You name the malady and it’s likely been blamed on the pedaler’s perch, the cyclist’s throne, the bike saddle.

Some criticism is justified because any reasonable person might assume that if you buy a good bike, you get a good seat. In fact, you might not even give the seat a second thought and start logging big miles immediately. And, if you develop pain and discomfort, you might cling to the notion that it can’t be the seat and simply keep riding, figuring that if you pedal enough, the aches and pains will disappear. If you’re lucky, that might happen. But, it could also be a bad mistake — the type of oversight that could cause many of the problems mentioned above.

Unfortunately, bike seats are not that simple. A seat is a bit like a pair of shoes. The same way you’d buy a certain sneaker for a particular foot and sport, you must purchase a saddle that fits your body and your style of riding. What’s more, and this is absolutely crucial for problem-free cycling, the seat must be expertly adjusted to fit your body (see sidebar below, or read my step-by-step bicycle fitting guide). Often, a perfectly adequate seat will feel awful and cause trouble simply because it’s not set correctly.

The Science of bicycle seats

Your seat must fit your type of riding and your body. The faster you ride, the more likely it is you’ll want a narrow, racing-style seat.

This is because, a fast-riding position on a bike shifts you forward placing more weight on the hands and feet and reducing a lot of the weight on the seat. Also, as you pedal more vigorously, you spin faster and you don’t want interference from the sides of the seat.

As you ride more casually, however, such as on a cruiser bike with wide backswept handlebars, most of your weight is planted directly on the seat. Plus you don’t pedal quickly at all.

These factors make a wide, heavily padded saddle ideal to support your weight and provide cushioning.

Equally important, most manufacturers offer their popular seat models in both men’s and women’s versions and there are significant differences.

Because male and female pelvises differ (women’s are wider), it’s usually a good idea for men to start with men’s saddle models and women with women’s (though not always: women sometimes do fine on men’s seats). The men's is a bit longer and narrower while the women's is a bit shorter and wider.

Next, the seat must fit your particular anatomy. You can sometimes see how you fit a seat if you sit on it for a while then get off and immediately look closely at the back of the seat top.

If a saddle is right for your body, its rear will support your sit bones (the ischial tuberosities - those two protrusions that bug you when you sit on a hard bench). These bones will form dents in certain types of seats. If the seat is correct for your anatomy, the depressions will be centered on the pads of the seat on either side.

While the rear of the seat supports your sit bones, the front (nose) of the seat is designed to help you control the bike with your thighs and support some body weight.

The problem with the nose of the bicycle seat is that it bothers many riders, both women and men. This is the part of the seat that’s most likely to compress nerves, irritate soft tissue, cause chafing and generally abuse the body. Fortunately, there are plenty of seat models currently available that address the issue with various innovations.

Certain models incorporate a channel or groove centered down the length of the seat. Others use a hole or long slot in the front.
Seats with channels and holes are often called Cutaway seats.

Some seats feature soft foam or gel in the nose and softened bases beneath to reduce the stiffness. These are usually called Gel seats.

The important thing to know is that if you find the seat’s nose a problem, there are models designed to remove the intrusion. Try a few until you find the model that works for you.

Five Steps to Perfect Seat Adjustment
  1. Level and center the seat. Level the seat and center the seat rails in the seatpost clamp (the rails are on the bottom of the seat and how most seatposts hold onto seats).
  2. Get the seat height right. Wearing cycling clothing, put the bike in a trainer or position yourself in a doorway so you can hold yourself up while pedaling. Have a friend sit behind you and watch as you pedal backwards. Raise the seat until when you pedal backwards with your heels on the pedals, your legs are completely extended at the bottom of the stroke. If you have to rock your hips to reach the pedals the seat is too high.
  3. Mark the seatpost so you’ll be able to refind this starting seat height if the post slips or you take it out to ship the bike, etc.
  4. Find the proper fore/aft seat position by placing the bike on a trainer (the bike must be level with the ground) and pedaling a while to warm up the muscles. Stop pedaling with one foot at 3 o’clock. Have your assistant level the crankarm and the pedal. Maintain that position while your helper holds a plumb line (a thread with a nut on the end works fine) against the indentation just beneath the bone that’s below your kneecap. Adjust the seat fore and aft on the rails until the plumb line bisects the pedal axle.
  5. Get the seat angle right. If the nose of the seat bothers you, tip the seat down 1 to 3 degrees. Don’t overdo it because a tipped seat will cause your body to shift forward putting added pressure on the knees and preventing the seat from supporting your weight adequately. If the nose bothers you enough that you want to tip is excessively, try different seat designs.
Fun Seat Sites

Selle San Marco
Selle Italia
Selle Royal
Trico Sports
Terry Bicycles seats

Modern Marvels
Try one of these seats if you’re unhappy with conventional models:

The Seat
Derri-Air Saddles
Spiderflex Saddle
Nexride Saddles
The Moon Saddle
Carbon Comfort Saddle
ISM Seat
Spongy Wonder (below)

The Spongy Wonder MK9
The Spongy Wonder MK9

Real Seat (below)

The Real Seat!
The Real Seat is a lawn chair for your bike
(click pic to enlarge).

It Came From Outer Space

1898 Safety Poise pneumatic
Inspired by a commode?

1892 Bunker pneumatic
All the rage a century ago

1898 Bray’s Moveable
Should include a seatbelt

1894 Bartlett pneumatic
Excellent airflow: ahhh

1966 Dan Henry hammock
Look closely: it’s comprised of a stem, handlebars and a fabric sling. Make one yourself!

ALSO: Learn all about seat design and what will work for you in Joshua Cohen's new book:
Finding the Perfect Bicycle Seat

The first book of its kind

And here’s the Nexride Noseless Pro
Click to zoom

Not a random design

A lot of people look at the typical narrow bike seat found on a modern road or mountain bike and wonder what demented individual designed such an obvious torture device. That’s an understandable reaction but it overlooks the fact that the modern bicycle saddle is a sophisticated invention that took about 150 years to develop.

From the earliest days of cycling, inventors realized that having a comfortable saddle was key and they experimented wildly (see illustrations) to come up with sweet seats. As the bicycle changed in design, saddles changed and the typical seat found on today’s bikes is a product of that evolution.

Though the modern seat looks odd and maybe even uncomfortable, it’s actually quite clever. The long narrow shape allows cyclists to spin their legs at high rpms. A wider platform would interfere with pumping thighs. The back of the seat is just broad enough to support the pelvis and just padded enough to absorb impacts without adding weight.

Because the saddle top is suspended on rails beneath the seat, there’s give in the seat top that helps suck up bumps, and air can pass beneath the seat helping to cool you a little. Plus, the long top allows you to scoot forward or back to shift the pedaling position and to adjust body weight when needed to control the bike or simply for a change to rest tired butt muscles. What’s amazing is that all these features are available in something that can weigh less than 200 grams, last 10,000 miles and cost less than a good meal.

Use it, don’t abuse it

So, just because a cycling seat may look scary, don’t assume it’s a stinker. First, adjust it properly and try it. Don’t hit the road and/or trail in jeans or ordinary shorts, though. Why? Because clothing such as jeans and many types of shorts have seams in the crotch area. Sitting on top of these seams puts pressure on the sensitive tissues in the groin area causing pain and numbness. Instead, purchase cycling shorts, which include padding (called the “chamois”) and are seam free in the crotch area. Underwear is not worn with cycling shorts either because, you guessed it, underwear also contains seams.

Now that you’ve got your cycling shorts, you need a couple of riding tips to protect your body. Don’t just head out and mindlessly pedal along. That concentrates the pressure on the contact points, the handlebars, pedals and seat. The key to comfort is moving around regularly to shift the pressure (this goes for your hands and feet, too). Standing occasionally such as when you’re climbing, relieves the pressure on the seat and gets a whole new set of muscles working.

And any time you’re rolling over bumpy terrain, take the weight off the saddle by lifting your body slightly with your knees so that you’re in a jockey’s position on the bike. In this riding position, the seat won’t be able to slam into your groin or transfer impacts from the wheels if your run into ruts, rocks and holes.

Six Tips to Defeat the Saddle-Sores Blues
  1. Ride more. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. You’re getting sore because you haven’t ridden enough to condition your body to the seat. Try getting out several times a week for a while and see if the soreness subsides. If not, consider a different seat.
  2. Change your shorts. It’s great that you purchased cycling shorts. But don’t get lazy and wear the same pair over and over without washing them. What would your mother say?! Just think of all that nasty bacteria. It can cause serious saddle sores. Get several pair of shorts so you’ll always have a clean pair to ride in.
  3. Lube your crotch. Yuck! No, seriously: If you apply a body lube such as Chamois Butt’r to the padding in your shorts, it’ll feel oh so good. It cuts down on friction, too, preventing chafing and keeping you cool.
  4. Upgrade to a suspension seatpost. Consider a seatpost with some bounce if you’re taking a beating on rides. Suspension seatposts provide inches of travel and are a nice way to soften the ride and protect your posterior.
  5. Try a future bike. When you can't handle conventional bikes and seats, consider a recumbent. These space-age cycles place you in a reclining position in a lawn-chair-like seat that supports your entire body. For more about these bikes check my article, How to Buy a Bike Part I and my road test of the Easy Racers Ti Rush.
  6. Check your bike fit. A too-high or too-low seat can cause discomfort and pain, as can a seat tipped up or down, or even offset to one side. Heres how to check your bicycle fit.
Seat Types

There are hundreds of seats to select from but they fall into seven broad categories. Keep in mind that there’s crossover between categories and types. For example, Gel seats are available in performance, mountain bike, wide/cushion styles and others. The important thing to understand is that there’s no reason you can’t use any seat for any purpose if it feels good to you.

Seat type Ideal User Features

Racing seat
You ride for fitness and training wearing cycling clothing and maintaining a high pedal rpm and fairly rapid pace. You like to go long, ride centuries and sometimes ride aggressively on and/or off road. You sit in a racey position with your handlebars lower than your seat. Light (sometimes have titanium or carbon rails); minimal padding; narrow shape; pretty stiff top.
Mountain Bike

Mountain bike seat
You ride a lot off road on challenging terrain where your body and bike take a beating. You move around on the seat a lot to apply body English on technical sections, for example sliding way off the back of the seat to safely descend a steep slope or perching on the saddle nose to keep the front wheel down on the steeps. Fairly narrow shape; medium padding to soften blows; light; shaped rear section to ease moving rearward; downward sloped nose for moving forward further; sometimes reinforced on the areas that touch down when you crash. A few models designed for aggressive off-road riding, feature extra length for even more fore/aft body position adjustments when jamming.

(example of a sport type; gel seats come in all varieties)

Gel seat

You find that most normal-padded seats irritate your groin or your sit bones. You suffer from occasional numbness on longer rides. Great cushion through the use of gel, a shock absorbing material that also molds to you for a custom fit; gel adds weight but there are light and heavier gel seats; often slightly wider throughout; flexible top; may feature bumps to support the sit bones. There are many types of gel seats.

Cutaway seat
You’ve tried lots of seats and you can’t find anything that eliminates pain, tingling, numbness and irritation. Especially bothersome is the saddle nose that digs into your groin and soft tissue causing pain and suffering even on short rides. Material is removed from the saddle top to eliminate pressure points; some have actual cutouts (holes or slots) in the top; various models are available: performance, mountain bike, gel); high-tech look.

Wide/cushion seat
You ride in an upright position on a bike where the handlebars are as high or higher than the seat, which puts a lot of your weight on the seat. You don’t pedal very fast or ride very aggressively. You don’t wear cycling clothing. Wide throughout but especially on the back; lots of padding; sometimes springs are built into the underside of the seat; heaviest of all seat types.

Brooks leather saddle
You’re a traditionalist who likes natural bike products and wants a classy looking bicycle. You enjoy longer rides and keep up a fair pace and you want a seat that will break in to fit your body over the miles. You don’t mind taking extra steps to maintain your products but you like them to last a long time. Beautiful; absorbs body heat keeping you cooler; medium weight; breaks in to you over time. Note that leather can be susceptible to water damage (carry a plastic cover and use it whenever it rains) and some saddles may require a break-in period before they becomes comfortable.

The Easy Seat
The Easy Seat
You’ve had prostate surgery or have injuries to the groin area that make it very painful to sit on regular bicycle seats and you’ve tried them all. You ride in an upright position with handlebars higher than the seat and you don’t pedal fast or ride aggressively. You just want to ride again for fun and exercise and are willing to experiment to find a seat, any seat that won’t hurt you. Most unique designs of any seat category; often adjustable or articulated (parts of the seat move with the body); some are expensive; heavier than standard seats; don’t always attach easily to the bike. Sources (more above):
Spongy Wonder
The Seat
Nexride Saddles
The Moon Saddle
Derri-Air Saddles
Spiderflex Saddle


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