Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Blazing Saddles

I'm compelled finally to open that old can of worms that is the subject of saddles. I'm often asked for recommendations of "comfortable" saddles, since I spend so much time sitting in them. My stock answer is that you have to find the one that suits your own anatomy best, but the unhappy truth is that rather than ever finding the "perfect fit", I think you really just find the least painful compromise, and become hardened to the discomfort (rule #5!).

It's very difficult to talk about something as personal - and entirely subjective - as the saddle, but I feel that a lot of stuff about positioning - which accounts for 90% of saddle problems - gets misunderstood, and that though most battle-hardened cyclists ridicule the aspirations to finding a "comfortable" option, there are many things that those-of-us-who-have-been-there can share to make the search a little less agonising or interminable.

Firstly, the position of the saddle relative to the way you fit on the bike is crucial. Secondly, it can't be tilted in any way that unbalances you, or encourages undue movement or sliding around. Your butt must be perfectly "anchored" in the saddle.

A completely horizontal saddle is the place to start.

Between the 3 contact points feet, butt and hands, it's the relative position of feet and butt that must be dialed in first. If you get that relationship right, then you are stable, balanced, and free to move the position of the hands around to gain better control or aerodynamics. A good test is to ride in the drops and then take your hands off the bars without sitting up or moving otherwise. If you can do this without sliding forward or losing balance, then you probably have that part right.

Once you get position sorted, it's just a question of getting a saddle that supports your sit-bones in an "invisible" way - so nothing rubs or chafes, or puts pressure unevenly. Though often the brunt of much mirth among the non-cycling community, those rigid little "ass-torturers" are actually specifically designed to support the static bits, while allowing the moving bits full range-of-motion.

The bigger the saddle is, the less likely you're going to get that invisibility. Large, soft and well-padded saddles might be relatively comfortable for cycling to the shops and back, but if you're going to spend a couple of hours in the saddle, all that surface area is going to start getting in the way of movement.

From Andy Pruitt, Ed.D., who's done extensive research on saddles as the director of Colorado's Boulder Center for Sports Medicine:

"Saddles with a cutout in the nose work best for about 80 percent of riders by shifting pressure away from soft tissue and toward the ischial tuberosities (sit bones). Solid-nose saddles still work best for some, particularly cyclists who naturally sit crooked on their seats. If your bike fits properly overall the seat can be pretty damn hard. Some padding is needed to help disperse that focused pressure point over a slightly bigger area. But when you sit on overly thick padding, it can deform and migrate to places where you don't want pressure, like between the sit bones."

There are so many saddle shapes and sizes on the market, that it's impossible to say exactly where the search should start. A lot of the bigger and more progressive saddle producers have fitting systems that can measure the position of your sit bones, and make assessments based on your flexibility and seated position, but this will give you only a ballpark to start in. The rest is trial and error. Expect lots of error.

Selle Italia's "flow" options for open saddle profiles - spoilt for choice?

I have tried a lot of saddles in my time. I think the first one that I decided I could live with was Selle Italia's iconic Flite, which was very popular back in the 1990s, and has still survived in production until now. I then moved into triathlon and time trials, which require a riding position that rolls your pelvis forward a lot, and thus requires some different considerations, so I got into some of the soft-nosed options that were being developed for the growing tri market. It never really seemed to work for me and I was back on standard saddles pretty quickly. In the interminable interim I probably tried most shapes and sizes.

The classic 1990 version of the Flite/

The body, of course, changes over time. Quite apart from the obvious aging process, changes in your body fat percentage will definitely affect the place where you sit down more than most other bits of your body. So you might find one saddle working for a while, but as you lose weight it starts to put pressure on different bits, causing bruises, chafing or numbness.

At some point I decided that the wave shape of saddle worked best for me. Saddles are mostly either flat or have a wave which kind of pre-selects the seated "centre" of the saddle for you. Flat saddles suit those who like to move quite far forward on the saddle when going hard in the drops, while the wave shape tends to suit climbers who like to push back for more leverage on hills. I eventually decided though, that the standard full-surface saddle design didn't suit me as I was getting a certain numbness, which indicated that some crucial blood flow was being impeded. All saddles I choose now need to have an open "flow" section along the centre.

In recent years I have championed the SMP saddles with their pronounced wave shape and downward pointing beak tips. These work quite well for me as they have a wider open channel down the centre of the saddle that supports the blood flow in my nether regions a little better than many others. These are available in harder to softer versions, and wider or narrower too. The pronounced wave shape does force you into one specific placement on the saddle though, so not recommended for those that like to shift around, and the shape discourages riding in a low drop position since the wave crest at the front is quite high.

I've gone through a few of these to try and get the best option, and so far I like the Composit model best: basic leather-type covering but no padding. I even tried the Carbon model, which has no covering at all. Super-light of course, but I found that I slide around on the polished surface of this one too easily which is disconcerting and gives me less control.

Another one that I have found works quite well for me is the Specialized Romin. This has a wave shape, but much less pronounced, and the shell of the saddle is flatter, though it still has the open cut-out section down the middle. Better for lower frontal positions without the pronounced lump of the SMP at the front. It comes in 3 widths, and any Specialized dealer has the equipment to determine which is for you. I went through 2 of these though, which both broke in the saddle shell in the exact same place - on the left side at the front of the open channel (see photo below). Specialized replaced the first one but refused to help me with the second. I'd say these are a bit fragile, so if you're heavier than 60kg and expect a few bumps in the road, look elsewhere. These were both the Romin Pro: the carbon-railed top-end version.

The Romin Pro saddle's weak point

Because I like the shape of this saddle, I recently got hold of a second-hand, more basic version of it, the Evo Expert Gel, just to give it one last chance. The shell is the same material, so it may be just wishful thinking on my part, but there is a bit more foam-padding, so this might give it the cushioning to withstand whatever my ass is doing to it. Watch this space for an update on that.

A similarly shaped saddle is the San Marco Aspide. I'm currently giving this saddle a road test. It comes in 132mm or 142mm widths (narrow or wide), and open or closed (with or without the central cutout). Also a wave shape, but with a little less at the back, so the wave is even more understated. Again, this is a work in progress (aren't they all...) so no definitive verdict yet.

The company ISM have come up with a radical redesign of the saddle  which cuts the nose off, thus avoiding the compression on tender parts that the front of standard saddles are accused of. This design is particularly appropriate for riders of time-trial bikes with their extreme horizontal-torso requirement, though I know some road cyclists who also love them. Again, it's what works for you. I have this saddle on my TT bike, and though I did try it on a road bike for a while, it really only offers one position, which if you tend to ride on varied terrain, can be extremely limiting.

The ISM nose-less design - a big hit with triathletes.

Whatever your choice, you'll probably end up changing again after a while, unless of course you really do find the perfect saddle which is......dare I say it, comfortable!

If you do, please let me know!

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