Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sinking Saddles

Just for introduction, I am not Piaw. I am, in fact, female. Given the number of times recently I've been having the same conversation, I thought I'd reiterate it here in the hope that it would be edifying for others as well.

Right up front, let me say that everyone's butt is different. Even more importantly for fitting a saddle, everyone's soft tissue (read: genitalia) is also different. There are, however, certain important similarities that help narrow down the kind of saddle that is likely to be comfortable for you. Several of the guidelines to picking a good saddle are counterintuitive, but work well for me and the women I know.

As a woman, I've had to learn the hard way that few bike stores are inclined to take me seriously (and I greatly treasure those that are). Even those that are are generally staffed by men whose best help on certain female-specific fit issues amounts to the reiteration of something they heard worked for a friend of theirs or (far worse) reading the advertising on the item's packaging. In the case of bike saddles, this often comes down to claims that this will be comfortable for everyone and is the best thing since sliced bread. Having gone through a number of far-too-expensive iterations of this, there are now a few things that I look for in a saddle:

1. Where do my seat bones end up? The right answer here is "on the saddle". I'm not a big person (I wear a size 4-6), but my seat bones are wide enough apart that a narrow saddle means that my seat bones slide right off the sides of the saddle. In the case of a particular narrow saddle (that I rode for years before I learned that pain is an indication of something wrong) my seat bones actually sat on the hard plastic ridge around the edge. On a Brooks B-17, I sit right on the metal rivets. Neither is a sign of many happy miles to come. You can measure the distance between the outsides of your seat bones a few ways, but my favorite is lying on my back, curling my knees to my chest and poking around until I find them. Then it's a relatively simple task to do the measurement. When you compare this measurement to the size of saddles, remember that the seat bones are supposed to go on the saddle, not on the edge, so add at least 10-15mm (depending on saddle design).

2. How hard is it? The right answer here is "way harder than you'd expect". If your thumb sinks into the seatbone portion of the saddle, run away. It's totally counterintuitive, I know, but think about what's going to happen when you ride. You sit on the saddle and your seat bones sink right into that squishiness. Then the next thing that happens is all the soft structures squish into the foam and you're bearing weight on all of them. This is great in a mattress, but not so good in a saddle. You don't just get pain, you get numbness, and then you get that terrible feeling of sensation coming back. I had a saddle once that was so bad in this respect (combined with totally failing test #3) that I took to riding while always standing up. It was great for my legs, but not so good for things like stopping.

3. Is there a ridge where my soft tissue is going to go? My number 1 indication that a saddle is not actually designed for a woman (instead being a crappy, overpriced, pink copy of the men's version) is a big honking ridge in the soft-tissue region. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, look at the (men's) Flite saddle. If you feel any inclination to put your soft tissue on the nose of that saddle, I suspect that you're either a man or a masochist. Many women's saddles (even ones with cutouts) have a less-extreme version of the ridge and no woman I know can tolerate it.

4. How slippery is it? If the saddle is too slippery, it's hard to employ my absolutely favorite fitting technique: tip the saddle nose down. (It's especially fun to do this on saddles for women who are in so much pain that they're considering giving up riding. It helps a lot for nearly everyone.) If you tip the saddle down too far, you'll put too much weight on your hands. Saddle friction helps with this, because it keeps your butt planted on the saddle instead of trying to migrate forward.

How exactly this advice plays out for you depends on what kind of riding you're doing. If you're sitting up on your bike more than I am, then the soft tissue aspect won't be quite as important and you may need a slightly softer saddle. This goes double if you're sitting up pretty far on a tandem. I managed to beat my seat bones up quite thoroughly riding stoker on a road tandem on mountain biking trails, so I'm trying out a slightly softer saddle that I wouldn't let anywhere near my road bike.

My current favorite saddle (for a road rider) that you have some chance of still being able to buy is last year's Specialized Jett: the 155 version is wide enough for my seat bones, it's hard enough to keep the seat bones up in the air and (aided by the cutout) my weight off of my soft tissue, and the little circles of higher-friction material keep my butt planted where I want it to be. I haven't tried out this year's Specialized Jett, but I hear rumours that it's softer and that the white version is more slippery. This isn't a good sign.

My old favorite saddle was my Terry Zero X. Unfortunately, they stopped making the kind I bought several years ago and the new ones are so soft after I break them in that I get an unacceptable amount of soft tissue pressure. Still, Terry saddles are good to try, especially if your handlebars are not lower than your saddle. If you want them to start making harder saddles again, make sure to let them know. Given how people tend to buy based on saddle squishiness, it's important to let manufacturers know that people often ride based on saddle hardness.
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