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Of the three contact points between you and your bicycle – saddle (seat), pedals, and handlebars – the saddle is the most critical for your comfort. It can sometimes be the most difficult to properly fit as well. For all the reasons people try and then give up biking, the number one is probably discomfort while riding. This can be traced back to either improper fit (wrong size bike, or incorrect saddle and/or handlebar positioning) or a poorly chosen saddle. I’m going to go over fit very briefly, then cover saddles in depth a bit more.
Proper fit for urban cycling is comprised of several components. The first is sufficient standover clearance. When you are off the seat, you should be able to place both feet flat on the ground, without contacting the top tube of the frame. (Keep in mind that for road or mountain bike racing, standover may be compromised in favor of other variables) A general rule of thumb is one inch of clearance for road bikes, two for mountain bikes. Modern frame designs with sloping or curved top tubes have muddied the waters a bit, so it’s best to look at standover in combination with reach. Reach is simply the distance from the saddle to the handlebars. It’s possible to move the handlebars closer or farther by changing the stem length, but that will also affect handling. If you find yourself swapping for a stem that’s longer or shorter than the current one by 30mm, there’s a possibility that the frame size is too large or small for you. Of course, before the final stem selection is made, the saddle needs to be properly adjusted. Saddle adjustments include fore and aft, up and down, plus the tilt of the nose. Height is critical for proper leg extension too, without over-extension. Fore and aft puts you in the most efficient position over the pedals. Tilt takes pressure off your tender bits. Once poor fit has been ruled out and corrected, it’s time to start shopping for saddles.
First thing to keep in mind that width and padding are misleading. Your “sit bones” are the two bones that bear all the pressure when you’re seated. A heavily padded saddle can place extra pressure on the tissue between them as you sink into it. Too wide, and you may experience chafing. Too narrow, and you’ll end up supporting your weight with the tissue between your sit bones, rather than the bones themselves. Complicating matters is the fact that a larger person can have narrower sit bones than a skinnier person. Physical size alone is not a reliable indicator of width of sit bones. The folks at Specialized have come up with their Body Geometry Saddle Fit System, which makes measuring your sit bone width as easy as sitting on the simple device and measuring the distance between the impressions left in it. Once you know the distance between your sit bones, they offer saddles in various widths to accommodate your needs. Armed with that information, there are several other brands you may want to consider as well. In the next installment, I’ll be listing some saddles that are known for their attention to fit and comfort. The list should not be considered all-inclusive, nor should it be considered an endorsement. Choosing the proper saddle is a very personal issue – what works for me may not work for you.