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.
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.
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 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.