I noticed her from across the shop. She was mid-thirties and fairly slender. I’d seen her in the shop before, purchasing spare tubes or a new set of tires. But today, she was standing quietly in front of the display rack of road and tri saddles. She’d pick up one saddle, look at it for a bit, only to set it down and pick up another. After a few minutes, I asked her if she needed help.
Her body language told the story. Crossed arms. Downturned eyes. “I need a new saddle. Mine’s uncomfortable,” she said.
Working in a bike shop, I’d seen the same scenario played out time and time again. I get it. It’s personal. A few guys will simply open up and tell you their genitals are numb, or they have chaffing and get the occasional saddle sore, but most people don’t. It’s the cyclist’s taboo. But unless you’re willing to spend literally hundreds of dollars and months of time playing the saddle lottery, you need to have a frank discussion about you and your saddle.
The Terry FLX Road Saddle with carbon rails
Before we get into specifics, I need to remind folks that they should be wearing padded cycling shorts without underwear. And while I admit that at first, riding without underwear seems odd, they tend to stay wet and act as a breeding ground for bacteria. Additionally, underwear are often not tight enough and can move around and bunch, and the seams can lead to chaffing. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way we can start talking about fit.
Weight distribution, saddle height and handlebar height
For starters, no matter what saddle you have, even if it’s the perfect fit for you, will not be comfortable if your weight distribution is wrong. When riding, your body weight is supported by three places: the saddle, the pedals, and handlebars. As such, changes to the saddle height or handlebar height affect where the weight is placed.
As you become a stronger cyclist, you will place more weight on the pedals and therefore less on your hands and saddle. You’ll also find that your saddle height can be raised. This forces your legs straighter and as such, the saddle needs to be moved aft as not to chaffe… you’ll ride more on the front part of the saddle. Tilting the saddle down tends to decrease the pressure on the soft tissue of your crotch (and associated blood vessels and nerves), but applies more pressure to your hands. So, finding the correct saddle angle is a balance.
A good starting saddle height is 80% of your inseam measured in cycling shoes. Be sure to measure your inseam by pressing firmly against your crotch, as it would be if sitting on the saddle. Take the measured value, multiply by 0.80 and this is the saddle height. Adjust the saddle so that the middle (front to back) part of the top of the saddle is this distance from the center of the bottom bracket (where the cranks attach to the bike). Hint: Once you have this height set, mark a line with a Sharpie marker on the seatpost. This will allow you to make precise adjustments to the height in the future should the need arise. If you change saddles, the saddle height may need to be adjusted as saddles vary in height considerably… and differences of 3-5 mm (less than ¼-inch) are noticeable.
The Selle SMP Stratos saddle with a highly curved top
Once the saddle height is set, have a friend ride behind you and watch your hips. If the saddle is too high, you will have to drop your hip to reach the bottom of the pedal stroke. This causes a butt-wiggle motion when viewed from behind and will cause serious chaffing on the inner portion of the thigh.
The angle of the saddle should be flat or just slightly nosed down for road cycling, and a bit more downward if using a triathlon bike. Hint: Using a marker, place a small dot across the two parts of the seat clamp where the angle is set (typically two sets of teeth on a curved surface). This will allow you to readily see how much you adjust the seat angle.
For a given height, women typically have slightly wider hips (and therefore sitbones) than men, and therefore require a slightly wider saddle. Tall people will require a wider saddle than shorter people. Saddles typically range from about 130mm in width up to about 165mm in width. Being 6’5” tall, I ride a 160mm wide saddle (normally designed for women) in order to be comfortable. Most racing saddles are minimalistic and are 130-135mm in width.
If the saddle is too narrow, it will sit between your sitbones and press against soft tissue, causing discomfort. Likewise a saddle that is too wide will chaffe on the inner thigh near the crotch.
There are a lot of nerve endings and blood vessels in the crotch that get pressed against the saddle. As a result, nearly all modern saddles have a depression or a full cut-out to minimize pressure on sensitive areas. I highly recommend a saddle with a cut-out. Men tend to have all the sensitive tissue right along the centerline so a narrow cut-out is fine. However, women tend to have a wider area of soft tissue and often require a wider cutout.
Keep in mind that numbness due to reduced bloodflow goes away in a few minutes. As such, riding out of the saddle for a short period of time can prevent of reverse this issue. However, if you irritate the nerves present, they get inflamed and can cause numbness and irritation for perhaps a week (or longer).
Road vs. Tri Saddles
Road saddles tend to be shorter and have a narrower neck than triathlon saddles. In the tri position, you tend to have a rotated pelvis and a more forward position, so the longer neck helps reduce chaffing. The extra nose width on tri saddles offers a larger area and helps reduce pressure.
I find SMP Saddles (shown above), with highly curved shapes to be extremely well suited for use in the triathlon position, when the pelvis is rotated forward. However, these saddles tend to cause more discomfort in the road position.
Lastly, saddles like the ISM Adamo saddle, which has a large open cut-out and no nose are often very comfortable for triathletes and women cyclists. However, the nose width of the saddle is significantly wider than traditional saddles and takes time to become accustomed.
The ISM Admo saddle has a huge cut-out, no nose, and a wide neck, but isn’t for everyone.