Over the years, I’ve experimented with all kinds of different saddles and I know plenty of fellow cyclists that have done the same. I have learnt that there is no one, perfect saddle because we all have different riding positions, different levels of flexibility and variations in our sit bone widths. For me, riding track made it tricky to find the right saddle and get the right (and UCI legal) positon at the same time. Even riding a race as short as the 500mTT can be impacted upon if your comfort isn’t optimal.
In general, there are many different reasons why we get saddle discomfort, and I am sure that it is not necessarily just because you are track cycling. Most of this information is easily found on the internet but let’s have a look at what they are and how we can feel better in the saddle.
Why Do We Get Saddle Discomfort?
Arteries and Nerves of the Pubic Rami
Saddle pain is mostly linked to nerve and artery compression, but can also come in the form of saddle sores. Discomfort is recognised though acute pain, numbness and tingling. If you experience any of these, you’re likely putting excessive pressure on sensitive nerves and arteries running along your pubic rami. Pressure here reduces blood flow, stymieing oxygen delivery to tissues and in turn, may lead to broader medical issues. In general, women are more susceptible to direct perineal pressure given their wider subpubic angle which exposes more of their pubic rami.
Saddle discomfort can be eliminated with a more suitable body position, and/or more appropriate saddle for your needs.
Saddle Sores (see my previous blog!)
These skin irritations are mostly due to the continuous pressure and friction between your skin and bicycle seat, but can also be attributed to hair follicle infections and chafing. You can eliminate saddle sores through a good riding position, a suitable saddle, chamois cream and a good pair of cycling shorts.
Have you had your bike fitted by a professional?
One of the biggest factors in saddle comfort is bike fit and positioning. First, you’ll need to make sure you have the correct saddle height and position in relation to your pedals. If you’re up too high or too far back, the chances are that your optimal saddle won’t be working the way it should.
Next you’ll need to check how your bike fit is dictating your pelvic positioning by going for a ride. Unless you’re riding in a performance position, you’ll find you’ll want to be sitting at the rear of your saddle. That’s the widest, flattest part of the seat, and the best place to support your weight. If you find yourself sitting on the front of your saddle constantly, that’s often a sign that something is wrong with your positioning. This may be based on your bike setup or even your flexibility.
Lower Back Flexibility
People with flexible lower backs tend to be able to rotate their pelvis up, and use their sit bones more effectively. If you’re less flexible, you’ll rotate your pelvis forward and experience pressure on your nerves and arteries. If this is the case, a bike fitter will raise your handlebar height and give you a saddle which can take pressure off your pubic rami. Of course a good flexibility program and stretching routine can always help!
Body Position & Riding Style
Your body position on a bike has a big impact on how you use your saddle. Bicycle saddles are often designed to minimise pressure, resulting in all kinds of different padding types, profiles, curvatures and widths. A good way to determine what position you ride in is to get a friend to take a photo of you while you’re riding along. But in general:
- Comfort/upright body positions require saddles with more padding, more width and a flatter top to support your sit bones
- Performance body positions require saddles that are lightly padded, curved and narrower to support your pubic rami
Sit Bone Width
Everybody has a natural variation in sit bone (or ischial tuberosity) width. If your saddle is too wide for your pelvis, you’ll experienced excessive rubbing. If it’s too narrow, you’ll find your sit bones are not cradled well. In general, the more upright your position is, the wider the saddle you can get away with. You’ll find saddle widths ranging from about 125 to 180mm. If you can measure your sit bones by heading into your LBS and using a sit bone sizing tool or try a few different saddles to get the feel.
Whether your training for a race, triathlon, tour or just commuting on your bike, you’ll most likely find yourself sometimes doing longer rides. A general rule is that the further you ride, the firmer you’ll prefer your saddle. Doing just 80km on a soft gel saddle, you’ll find your sit bones moving about, resulting in undesired chafing, but a firmer density will alleviate movement and the chamois in your bike knicks should provide the comfort you need. I know of one famous cyclist in Anna Meares who used to race on a Brooks saddle as it ticked all the right boxes for her!
This is an interesting and evolving one. Bicycle saddles have a ‘nose’ for both balance and bike control; the benefits of the nose are often most noticeable when descending. Some brands forgo a saddle nose in order to reduce pubic rami pressure such as in time trialling, but the reason they aren’t widespread is because of how important bike control is when riding a bike! For me, when I was TT I couldn’t go past the ISM saddle as it was easy to sit on the rivet and not feel pain (except in the legs!)
But what about women’s saddles?
Women’s saddles are often wider than male offerings, but interestingly the difference between the male and female pelvis isn’t actually that significant. If you compared average pelvic widths for males and females, you’d find a huge overlap. The major differences found in anatomy are almost all soft tissue related.
Cutouts to the saddle nose are generally more important for women who employ a performance position on their bike. This is due to the subpubic angles of their pelvis which are wider in women, making soft tissue compression more of a risk. For me I personally cannot go past the SMP Glider Saddle. I have found this saddle to be the most comfortable and best for positioning on my road and track bikes.
If your bike offers an upright/comfort position, you’ll experience less soft tissue pressure and don’t need to limit yourself to just women’s specific saddles.
Cycling Without Padded Cycling Shorts
Padded cycling shorts are not mandatory, and can certainly be left at home if you set up your touring bike accordingly. You’ll need to employ an upright/comfort body position, putting more of your weight on your sit bones and less on your pubic rami. Couple this with a slightly wider saddle with a bit of give, and chamois-free riding may be possible! Of course the more performance-oriented your position, the more likely you’ll need a set of padded shorts to help you out.
You should now be armed with enough knowledge to make an informed decision on which saddle will suit you. Remember that body position, sit bone width and flexibility will hugely dictate optimal saddle shapes. It may also be necessary to try a few saddles until you get your optimal piece of saddle heaven and Pushy’s has a huge range to choose from. So saddle up and enjoy your ‘comfortable’ ride!
– By Jessica Laws – Pushys sponsored rider