What’s in a Seat? - Cycling Magazine

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Wednesday 28 June 2017

What’s in a Seat?

What’s in a Seat?

Bicycle saddles (or seats) may seem deceptively simple, but because so much is literally riding on it, it’s one of the most important and personal items on your bike. Your booty and your groin are at stake, so finding the right fit is key.
Let’s take shoes for example. You wouldn’t walk around in the wrong size shoes—your feet would soon be covered in blisters. Nor would you put on dress shoes to go for a jog. Serious runners use footwear that can help support their stride and help their muscles work most efficiently, and they make sure the size is right. The same is true for the seat on your bike. Unfortunately, there are almost as many types and styles of saddles on the market as there are shoes—and not all of them are designed to be used for the longer miles that most road cyclists will be putting in. Trickier still, although there are ways to measure the length, width, and arch of your foot, that’s not the case with a bike seat—it’s mostly left to trial and error.

The shape of a road saddle may seem a little odd but is actually quite brilliant. Most saddles have a triangular shape with two long rails running beneath it that connect to your seatpost. Since your goal is to spin your legs at 90 to 100 rotations per minute, this narrow design leaves your muscles room to move freely. The slightly wider rear of the saddle is suspended over the rails, creating a hammock-like support system for your pelvis that has some give in it to help absorb the bumps in the road while allowing air to flow beneath your seat. The forward bending of your torso in a road bike position allows you to spread your body weight between your hands and feet as well, so the saddles on road bikes tend to be longer and more narrow than other more upright styles of bikes because they aren’t taking as much of your weight and what they are supporting is contacting on a slightly different angle.
If you sat down on a hard bench or stair, you’d likely start to feel sore on the two bumps that protrude from your bottom, commonly referred to as your “sit bones.” On a bicycle seat, these are the points that make the most contact with your bike saddle. When the saddle properly fits you, those points will bear most of the weight so that the delicate soft tissues between them don’t get compressed—which is one of the leading causes of discomfort.
Speaking of which, the nose (or front end) of the saddle is there to help with balance and control of the bike. It does its job well, but it is also the place where most cyclists get pain, numbness, or irritation because it’s right where all the soft tissue compresses. To alleviate this problem, many saddles are designed with a long depressed section in the middle to create more room. Others go so far as to make a long oval hole or a channel cutout so that there’s little to interfere with your soft bits.
As far as thickness goes, new riders will often gravitate to a more padded saddle, thinking it will prevent soreness. Not so. Because your thighs need room for movement, a lot of padding can cause chafing and irritation. If you think back to our example of sitting on a hard stair or bench, imagine putting a piece of nice, squishy foam beneath you. Sounds nice, but because you likely weigh 120-plus pounds, after a few minutes your bones have sunk back to the cement and the padding will have worked itself between your sit bones, compressing all your vulnerable soft tissue—exactly what you want to avoid.
There are saddles specifically designed for both men and women, but because of the wide range of variation in the human anatomy, there is often crossover. In general, men’s pelvises are shallower from front to back (which gives them more room to rotate their pelvis forward and tilt toward the handlebars) and the space between their sit bones is smaller. Front to back, women’s pelvises are deeper and more bowl shaped and their sit bones are spread farther apart. Because of this, men’s saddles are usually designed to be more narrow and longer than women’s.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for seat fitting—but this is also where an experienced bicycle fitter can earn every penny. By looking at your pedal stroke and hearing you describe how you’re feeling and where your pain is, he can make educated recommendations. Professional bicycle fitters are also usually the most well versed in what saddles are available on the market—and which work the best—because they are constantly getting feedback on saddle fit.
Finally, a little reality check. If this is your first time riding a bike in a long while, your booty is going to be sore. No saddle will fix this, but a saddle that fits will become so comfortable that it will eventually feel like it disappears beneath you. Your muscles surrounding and beneath your sit bones will need to build up strength and resistance. It will probably be quite a few rides before your bum is in compliance with what you’re asking of it. Start with short rides—no more than 5 to 15 miles. Over a few weeks’ or months’ time, work up to riding an hour. Try to ride at least twice a week or each ride will be like starting from scratch. Be patient, and shortly enough saddle soreness will usually dissipate.
If after a good amount of riding the discomfort hasn’t disappeared (or seems to be getting worse the longer you’re in the saddle), you’ll need to start looking for a new seat. Any reputable shop should have a 30-day return policy on its saddles so you have time to get a few rides of at least an hour in and decide if it’s working for you. If it’s not right, bring it back and try another. It might take a few attempts, but your derrière will thank you for it. In the end you won’t really know if a saddle is right for you until you spend time riding it.

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