Seats & Saddles

Recumbent bikes have seats. Upright bikes have saddles. They’re not the same thing. Seats support the rider’s entire body weight, saddles support only a portion of the rider’s weight, with the rest supported by the pedals and the handlebars.

It’s difficult to deny the fact that seats are more comfortable than saddles. By their nature, seats distribute the rider’s weight over a larger area than any saddle possibly can, reducing pressure points and encouraging greater blood flow. Unfortunately, seats are only practical on recumbents because their width would interfere with pedaling on an upright bike. The most we can hope for on an upright is to choose a saddle that somewhat mimics the comfort of a recumbent seat while still allowing unfettered pedaling and mobility on the bike.

Seats
Recumbent seats come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Nearly every manufacturer has their own proprietary design, and even within individual manufacturers’ product lines it’s not uncommon to see 2-3 seat designs. Designs include (but are not limited to): hard-shell “Euro” seats (usually made from carbon fiber or fiberglass) seen mostly on reclined racing bikes; “Euromesh” type seats that mimic hard-shell seats but provide more adjustability and better ventilation at the expense of more weight; full mesh seats as seen on the Lightning P-38 and Rotator; and combo foam base/mesh back seats such as those from RANS and Easy Racers.

The most we can hope for on an upright is to choose a saddle that somewhat mimics the comfort of a recumbent seat while still allowing unfettered pedaling and mobility on the bike.

Euro-type seats are narrow with a short seat pan to reduce weight and optimize aerodynamics; they make up for their diminutive size by distributing the rider’s weight evenly up-and-down the spine.

Full mesh seats provide the best ventilation and are usually used on bikes that require a moderate amount of recline.

Combo foam base/mesh back seats are usually used on bikes that require a more upright position. Their foam base acts somewhat like a saddle, though they’re much softer and wider than any saddle. Even still, some people complain about derriere pain (sometimes called “recumbent butt”) with these “lounge chair” seats.

Unlike saddles on upright bikes, recumbent seats are integrated parts of the bikes they’re mounted on and when a person buys a recumbent they’re most likely going to use the seat that came on the bike. Fortunately, most recumbent seats are very comfortable and what works for one person will probably work nearly as well for the next.

Saddles
Saddles look very similar to one another, but their similarities belie the fact that they’re all subtly different in design, material, shape, and size. This is a natural consequence of the fact that saddle fit is hyper-critical to rider comfort on upright bikes. Since such a large portion of the rider’s weight is supported by such a small area, it’s extremely important that the interface between the rider and saddle is perfect. This is why saddle manufacturers offer a such wide variety of models; they’re attempting to provide a good fit for a wide range of different physiques.

A person’s anatomy, combined with bike fit and riding style, all play a role in determining saddle choice. Racers are typically willing to sacrifice comfort for less weight, and they usually prefer narrow saddles for unfettered movement on the bike. Tourists and commuters, on the other hand, usually insist upon comfort at the expense of extra weight, and they generally prefer wider saddles that provide greater support for riding in a more upright posture.

Relatively wide saddles that fully support the sit-bones are best for commuters, tourists, and casual riders. Combined with handlebars that are at a minimum the same height as the saddle, a sufficiently wide saddle places the pressure points on the rider’s sit bones and takes all of the pressure off of the soft tissues of the perineum (the area that most often causes saddle-related problems). A bike set-up this way can be ridden in street clothes without the use of padded shorts, and if the width of the saddle’s support area precisely matches the distance between the rider’s sit-bones, the comfort can approach that of a recumbent with an upright seat.

The Brooks B-67 is the best fit I’ve found for my particular physique. It’s a relatively wide saddle that works well with high handlebars. The width of its main support area perfectly matches my pelvic width. I rode the narrower (and more popular) B-17 for many years and it was a decent fit with drop handlebars. But with a more upright posture, the B-67 fits me even better than the B-17. Of course, my recommendation is meaningless unless the B-67 also happens to fit you. It’s much more important to find the saddle that best interfaces with your body.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of saddle fit. Many people have either resolved themselves to riding in pain, quit riding altogether, or switched to recumbents, simply because they didn’t make the effort to find the saddle that fits their physique. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to try a saddle in a bike shop, so you may have to purchase a number of expensive saddles before you find a good fit; if you’re riding an upright everyday it’ll be money well-spent.

16 Responses to “Seats & Saddles”

  • Rick says:

    I have heard that leather saddles will actually stretch to fit your sit bones. Can you speak to that? It seems like you could much easier find a leather saddle that is right for you if this is true…

  • Perry says:

    The Brooks saddles are nice for sure. Not for everyone but anyone who has PIA problems should try them.

    I will chime in with what led me to recumbents because it is relevant to this post. When I was young, I rode road bikes with bars just below the saddle. I could ride any saddle and be comfy because I was more or less riding over the bike than plopped down on a saddle. I used to get my saddles from the bargain bin. Why spend dough when a cheap one would do.

    As I got older, I needed the bars up higher and that put more weight on my posterior. I tried the sprung Brooks and all sorts of other models but there was just too much weight on those sit bones to be comfy. Rides of 10 miles or more became painful. Age makes your skin thinner and you lose some muscle as well and I believe those to be contributing factors to my discomfort. That’s what finally pushed me over the edge to bents.

    Sorry for derail, Alan.

  • Alan says:

    @Rick

    Hi Rick,

    Leather saddles do eventually stretch a bit to conform to the rider. It’s still very important to determine which model is the right width for your body and bike set-up though. I don’t think they’re necessarily the answer for everyone, though they are quite popular among long-distance tourists which says something.

  • Alan says:

    @Perry

    Thanks much for your input and perspective; it wasn’t a derail at all..

    Best,
    Alan

  • Roland Smith says:

    With regard to recumbent seats, let me stress that the most important issue with choosing a recumbent is finding a seat that fits you well. This pertains to both the form of the seat and the position, in the sense that you should be able to get your feet down easily. Except for extreme lowracers, most seats are adjustable in angle.

    My first ‘bent was an Optima condor largely because the large Optima hardshell fits me like a glove. If the fit is not completely right, you can often add some filler foam to the seat cover to make it fit well. With a little of that, the seat of my Challenge Hurricane now fits me perfectly as well. These hardshell seats may look narrow, but they are actually very comfortable while giving you a good feel for the bike.

    The fact that no saddle is as comfortable as a good seat was a major reason for me to choose recumbents as my daily transport.

  • Mary Buckwalter says:

    For upright riding, the best seat for me is the Rans Crank Forward. It reminds me of a mini padded tractor seat – now that’s comfort. I think women have more seat issues than men and this seat is certainly a godsend for me. Btw, I also ride a trike and a SWB recumbent (V-Rex). I have no experience on a Brooks saddle, but they sure are lovely to look at.

  • Val says:

    Among saddles, Brooks (or any other leather saddle) are some of the best, mainly because of their ability to conform to the individual. The basic principle is to find the model that supports the rider’s sit bones, with essentailly no contact anywhere else, and then ride. It should feel good to start with, and will feel better and better as time goes by. With any other saddle, it is extremely important to find one that not only fits perfectly, but gives the proper balance of support and padding. The only way to do this is to sit on them, preferably on a stationary bike that will allow pedalling for a bit. If a shop does not provide an opportunity for this, try to find another shop that does. Thsi is a tremendously important issue for riders, and it is in a shop’s best interest to make the selection process as easy and effective as possible. When I had my shop, we had a stationary bike set up specifically for saddle tryouts, and customers would sometimes spend up to an hour comparing befroe deciding. This may seem excessive in order to sell a $30.00 saddle, but it is not escessive in order to make someone love riding their bike. If they love riding it, they’ll be back.

  • Spokes says:

    My experience selecting a proper saddle taught me the importance of experimenting with position a fair bit before rejecting or accepting a saddle. And give a saddle a fair ride before making a final choice. It took me some time and miles to settle on a Brooks B67, now after several hundred miles I wouldn’t want to be on anything else…it just “fits”.

  • Dale says:

    What about the Selle An-Atomica saddle?

    Does anyone have experience with their saddles? If so, please give us your humble opinion(s).

  • Alan says:

    @Dale

    I have a Selle An-Atomica Titanico on my Brompton S. The shape is nearly identical to a Brooks B17 but the leather is much softer, like a well-worn B17. With the soft leather and slot it’s very “hammocky”. I find it very comfortable on the Brompton, though I find it a little narrow for my LHT with its more upright position. They’re well-made saddles and a nice alternative to the B17 for someone that doesn’t want to go through the process of breaking-in a Brooks. Again, the most important thing is to get a good fit, regardless of brand.

  • jason says:

    Whats really bad is when your favorite saddle is one that is not made anymore, or if you don’t know what kind it is… I have on that has been gorilla glued back together(leather to foam), and I never ride on it cause I don’t want to wear it out. It’s over thirty years old.

    Got a Champion flyer and like it a lot, its on my main bike. other than the creaking its very nice for long, long miles. There was a “Fat tire festival” here last weekend and some guys with about six grand in 2 MTB’s on top of the Navigator were looking at the brooks, asking about it, and when I told them that it can take about 500 miles to break one in they were flabbergasted, asking if I realy had that many miles on it, told them the real # was more like 2800 they could not believe it, them when I told them I got it last April they freaked out. Didn’t tell them that the Miyata 1000 its on only cost me 20 bucks(before tires ,brake pads and cables). that might have made them totaly lose interest.

    I think that I might look into the new saddles at Velo Orange, they look cool, and while not a Brooks, seem to be well thought out, apparently they were designed by a rider over a three year period.

  • Alan says:

    @Jason

    Hey Jason,

    You might want to hold off on purchasing a VO saddle for now – it appears they’re having some quality control issues:

    http://velo-orange.blogspot.com/2008/07/vo-saddle-problems.html

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Pete riehl says:

    Competitive Cyclist has a saddle demo program where you can have 10 saddles shipped to you to try out. You ride them all then buy your favorite. It certainly saves a lot of expense. I have ridden Brooks B 17 specials for 30 years. They have been my favorite up until I tried the Selle an Atomica. It is more comfortable immediately than my old Brooks. The LD cutout has reduced the pressure and it really is apparent when you switch back to see how the B 17 feels. I couldn’t wait to take it off and I never thought I would feel that way. The adjustability of the Selle lets you fine tune the fit.

  • meli says:

    my brooks saddle is freaking amazing, no breaking in period, yes Irode 40 miles the first ride pre-proofide application only with my cute chamois tights and off I went. no soreness nothing. absoutleyl happy with it . so in love. and very happy the fact that I got my Brooks, women specific saddle,. Yes! they make Women specific, (ihad no clue) how rad is that. They have the S in the model name. Mine is “Team Professional S Chrome”. Completely in love

  • andy parmentier says:

    my friend refers to his leather saddle as “birkenstock for his butt” i did’nt read everything here, or the comments, just wanted to get a few thoughts down. i really like the rans crank forward seat. just superb. my cobra seat is great-body english is important for riding no hands fun. unicycle saddles can be sheer torture devices. i’m getting an “air saddle”.

  • John says:

    Is anyone aware of any recumbent seats made of leather? I’m a designer and have been giving some thought to how it could be accomplished, especially with exotic hides that could add some much needed class to that aspect of those bikes.

 
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