Do You Have the Right Bike Seat?

A primer on how to identify the perfect saddle. (Hint: it's not easy.)

The human derriere comes in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, and fortunately, so do bike seats. The majority of cyclists, however, settle for standard-issue saddles—whatever comes with their bike—which sooner or later can turn into a real pain in the gluteus maximus.

“Sales people aren’t in the habit of telling people that the saddle is an important part of the bike to choose carefully,” said Stephanie Edman, a licensed massage therapist and bicycle fitter with Sweetpea Bicycles in Portland, OR.

There are a surprising number of myths cyclists and non-cyclists seem to believe about saddles. Edman says she’s encountered plenty of cyclists who think choosing is as easy as giving a saddle the “thumb test”—pushing into the padding as if that will guarantee good fit.

“Don’t trust the thumb test,” Edman says. A too-soft saddle, she maintains, is as murderous on the body as a too-soft mattress.

Unfortunately there isn’t any foolproof method to buying the “right” saddle when you are at the bike shop. The best advice is to try before you buy, and by “try” we mean give a saddle a real go by racking up double-digit test-ride miles.

Stephanie Edman shows off a WTB Devo saddle that works well for both sexes

Saddles have become more of a focal area for cyclists due to the collection of studies finding that serious riders, men and women, can suffer numbness, tingling, and loss of sexual function from saddles that are incorrectly positioned or sized.

Men tend to have slightly less trouble with standard saddles, Edman said, because of the more angular shape of their pelvises. But she also notes that about 15 percent of men have pelvic structures that make so-called women’s saddles, which tend to be a bit wider and shorter, more comfortable for them.

The reverse is also true. While women have more widely-varied pelvic structures, about 15 percent of women are comfortable on a designated “men’s” model.

Of course, all this in-depth talk of anatomy and saddle types is moot if your nether regions never hurt when riding. If you do get twinges, though, the first step Edman suggests is making adjustments to your existing saddle—tilting the nose up or down, or sliding it fore or aft on its rails, can make a significant difference in comfort.

The next step, if that doesn’t help, is to have a bike fitting, which can run anywhere from $75 to $200 dollars. Not all bike fitters concentrate in-depth on saddles, but they should be able to help a cyclists zero in on which saddles to try.

The width of a saddle’s base is key, as it must accommodate a rider’s sit bones. It’s important to note that sit-bone width doesn’t necessarily correlate to physical size—a large male cyclists might have relatively narrow sit bones, while a petite female rider could well have widely spaced sit bones.

Sit bones are not the only consideration, though. The pelvic shape, and the bones called the pubic rami, as well as the fleshy parts – called the soft tissue—are also important.

“And what woman (or man) really wants to walk into a bike store and start talking to the salesperson about soft tissue?” says Edman, who has a specific entry in her fit questionnaire called “seat happiness,” where a customer is asked to measure overall saddle satisfaction on a 1 to 10 scale. There’s also a tool made by Specialized that’s hilariously called the Ass-o-Meter. It measures sit bones’ width, and in all seriousness, it provides important information for fitters, and will immediately eliminate a number of options—however sit bone width isn’t the only factor to consider in finding an optimal saddle

While it would be nice if one or more brands of saddles were unequivocally the best, an experienced expert will hesitate to highlight any one brand.

Sweetpea Bicycles co-owner Natalie Ramsland strikes down the idea that noseless saddles, or saddles with cutouts, are cure-alls pain problems. Gel saddles, or gel covers, don’t generally provide enough support, she adds, and while Brooks leather saddles do conform to a cyclist’s anatomy, that still doesn’t make them right for everybody.

“There’s just no such thing as sizing up a butt visually, or with a singular measurement, and coming up with something perfect,” says Ramsland. “Bike fitting is an iterative process, not paint-by-numbers. The only way to perfect for you is to test, test, test. Oh yeah, and don’t live with pain.”

Riders in search of a more comfortably fitting saddle are best advised to seek out a shop with a liberal trial-and-exchange policy, and to start putting in some miles to determine which saddle fits best. Once riders identify a saddle that is comfortable on even the longest rides, it’s not uncommon for them to buy the same model for all their bikes, or at least make careful note of the make and model for future purchases.