Bicycle Saddle Odyssey – Hunting for the Right Bicycle Saddle during the Pandemic
Purchasing a bicycle saddle and a mattress have more in common then you may think. On top of that, the lockdown is a poor consultant. To learn how to find a saddle that really fits you without trying it out and without professional advice, read on!
“No hour in life spent in the saddle is ever lost,” opined Winston Churchill once, making reference to horseback riding. That quote can also be well applied to cycling – provided you have a comfortable saddle! If your saddle doesn’t fit you, even five minutes on your bike can be hell. Of all times, right during the Austrian lockdown and in the middle of the pandemic, I desperately needed to get a new bicycle saddle. Due to the closure of all specialist bicycle shops, I had to rely exclusively on forum tips, online reviews and myself to choose the right saddle.
Which saddle is the right one?
And how do I find out all on my own?
What lying down is in the mattress studio – test riding is in the bicycle business.
The range of saddles available has become as broad as that in the mattress business. In both cases, you can be way off the mark with your selection if you don’t try the product before you make a purchase. What lying down is in the mattress studio is test riding in the bicycle business. The widest saddle is not always automatically the most comfortable, and the deepest indentation in a cut-out saddle doesn’t always provide the best distribution of pressure. The most important starting point for finding the optimal saddle is always: Measuring the distance between your sit bones! Excuse me, what?
DIY measurement of the distance between your sit bones:
This requires two pieces of corrugated cardboard (DIN A4), a ruler, pencil, chair with a straight, firm surface and 5 minutes of your time:
Place the corrugated cardboard (DIN A4) on a flat surface – ideally at the height of a comfortable chair.
- Stand in front of the cardboard, then sit down on the centre of it.
- Arch your back and place your feet on the tips of the toes – this makes the sit bones stand out more so they leave a clearer mark on the cardboard.
- Inhale. Exhale. Stand up!
- Draw a circle around the indentations on the cardboard with a pencil and make an X at the deepest point.
- Measure the distance between the Xs using a ruler.
- Repeat the procedure and compare the results!
Say goodbye to your prejudices: Bum size and gender
When determining the right saddle size, it’s not the volume of your bum that counts, but the bone structures that apply pressure to the saddle. For petite people, the ischial tuberosities may be further apart and therefore a wider saddle may be necessary. For stocky people, on the other hand, the distance between the sit bones can be very small. The same applies for men and women: For anatomical reasons, women tend to have a wider sit bone distance. But the distinction between men’s and women’s saddles is still not always relevant – however, under certain circumstances, it can make sense.
When selecting the right saddle, you must first take a look at yourself and then at your bicycle:
1/ Saddle width: Know the distance between your sit bones!
If you don’t know your saddle size, first conduct a sit bone analysis. You can do this at your specialised dealer or just as well at home with a soft piece of cardboard. In both cases, the measurement will only take a few minutes and is worth its weight in gold!
2/ Padding: Know your type of riding!
The saddle padding is an important criterion for city bikes and commuter bikes – typical bikes for riding to work – because when on your way to go shopping, to a café or the office, you will typically not be wearing cycling shorts with built-in padding. As an alternative, you can also equip your saddle with a gel cover to provide the necessary comfort.
3/ Saddle shape: Know your riding position!
The shape and width of the saddle are strongly dependent on the position in which you sit on the bicycle. The more upright the seated position, the broader the saddle base needs to be. On a road bike, for example, the forward lean of the body position is very marked. Consequently, the pressure on the ischial tuberosities is not as great – and the saddle can be narrower. The saddle shape should definitely relieve pressure on sensitive areas such as the pubic bone and the ischial tuberosities, but also nerve and blood pathways.
4/ The right saddle position
Adjusting the saddle position is just as important as the saddle itself. For orientation you can remember that the sit bone support should be horizontal. If the tip of the saddle is pointed downwards too much, you will tend to slide forwards. Your hands will apply more pressure to the handlebars so you can maintain your position on the saddle. This saddle position can lead to strain of the shoulder and neck area during longer rides – meaning longer than five kilometres at a shot. If the saddle is tilted upwards too much, i.e. the tip of the saddle points towards the sky, pressure is increased on sensitive areas of the pelvic floor.
What are “saddle zones”?
Recent years have seen an increase in saddle models featuring different saddle zones. What the 7-zone cold foam mattress promises also applies to the zone concept in saddle design: The different saddle zones offer support and relief for the different contact zones as needed. “Memory foam” – a viscoelastic layer that adapts to the shape of the body – is also a familiar feature provided by both saddle and mattress manufacturers.
5/ The right saddle height
What you can observe time and again in urban traffic is that saddles are set too low. With the constant stops and starts, many find a lower setting makes it easier to get back on the saddle. This supposed convenience, however, takes its toll in the form of knee pain or a saddle that just hits you wrong and on which you slide back and forth for lack of comfort, unable to find a good position. If the saddle is set too high, the hips rock back and forth sideways while pedalling. An absolute no go, as this saddle position can lead to hip problems.
At specialised bicycle dealers, a test ride under real conditions is standard practice. The shop experts can work wonders with minimalistic changes of your saddle position. Sometimes you also have to acknowledge that the saddle is not going to solve the comfort problem on your bike – instead, it’s the bike that simply doesn’t suit your physique.
Lockdown mispurchases: Mattresses and saddles
By the way, this is what happened to me not only with my bicycle saddle, but also with my mattress: In an emergency I bought a mattress during the lockdown – entirely without lying down on it first. Heavenly bliss? No way! I suffered through two nights, but that was it. The beast had to go back.
Fortunately, I was also able to return the first saddle I bought during the lockdown – it just didn’t fit me. Now I not only know my sit bone distance, but thanks to the points above, I also have a saddle that provides heavenly comfort and equally heavenly riding pleasure!