Saddle Quest—Search for the Holy Grail

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Also of interest…

Probably one of the most talked about and controversial bicycle equipment topics is saddles. As one of the three key contact points (hands, butt and feet), this one receives tons of attention. Although I have no statistics to back it up, I’d bet that saddle problems are the #2 reason for a DNF on ultra rides or brevets (next to nutritional/GI issues which may be #1). My objective in this crusade is to find a “plug and play” saddle that provides near instant comfort, yet is suitable for ultra distance events. If I save a little weight over the traditional 500 g Brooks that is OK, but is not a priority.

My sit bones measure 117mm apart (for more on sit bone width visit “Saddle Width Considerations” on page two). I’m 6’4″ and weigh in the range of 180 to 185 lbs. As of 2017, I am 63 years old.

Saddle sores from friction causing serious abrasions were the reason I DNFed on my first 1200km attempt in 2008 (Cascade 1240 Randonnée, 1240 km or 770 miles in four days). I was three days and 600 miles in when I finally had to call it quits. At the post-event breakfast I sat at the “DNF table” — I think all of us at that table or booth were non-finishers. Several of them had finished 1200k’s before, using the same saddle that just caused them to have to drop out. Sometimes, there seems to be no rhyme or reason why saddle problems appear.

One thing for sure, most people can just suffer through a six or eight century ride on nearly any saddle — after all, for some casual cyclists, they only ride maybe one or two century rides a season. But for those of us like myself, that do ultra distances repeatedly, we need to be dialed “just right” on shorter rides — small problems on a century ride can become a show stopper on an ultra distance event. On a 1200k, we cover about 250 to 400km each day, compared to a pro that might put in 150 to 200km per day. Of course, on the Euro pro tours, they ride for nearly 21 days straight. We only ride for four days in a row. But many of us “average & old citizen-class cyclists” ride for 12 to 18 hours on each of those four days, instead of four to six hours each day like the pros. The long saddle time of each day leaves our bodies (& rear end) little recovery time, creating opportunities for things to fall apart. Of course, this is all pale by comparison to solo RAAM riders, that go for 9 to 13 days straight, 16 to 22 hours a day!

So here is my review of road bicycle saddles, in order of use…

Saddle #1 (Fezzari [generic], comfort rating, 4 out of 10) When I first purchased a Fezzari road bike in October of 2007, I rode it for several months using the stock ”skinny vinyl” saddle that come with it. I e-mailed the manufacturer regarding the fact I was never comfortable on rides more than 20 or so miles. Their reply, was “How often are you standing up? This is really important.” That was my first clue…lots of standing to stay comfortable? Something has to change. This model was ridiculously narrow at only 128mm.

Saddle #2 (Koobi prs Alpha, rated 5 out of 10) As a newbie, I had no preconceived ideas of  brands or styles. Upon the recommendation of a local friend, I picked up a used Koobi saddle and mounted it. This was during the late fall of 2007. 2008 was going to be my first complete season of road cycling. The Koobi prs, is their long distance model, which is a padded leather saddle. It was adequate. I did a full series using it in the spring of 2008 (200K, 300K, 400K and 600K), and though I was not super comfortable, I never had to abandon because of a saddle problem — until Cascade 1200 later that summer.  After Cascade, I was barely able to sit long enough to fly home from Seattle to Salt Lake City. I was in bad shape! I had trained all spring and early summer for this event, and although I had the will and energy to finish, I had to quit because of a piece of equipment. Maddening.

Saddle #3 (Selle Anatomica Titanico LD Clydesdale, rated 8 out of 10) After Cascade 1240, several other cyclists simply said “get a Brooks B-17, only $80.00, money back guarantee.” The thought of spending the good part of a summer breaking in a saddle didn’t seem right though. Immediately after returning from this ride, I consulting via e-mail with my friend and mentor, Susan Plonsky (RBA, Ariz. Brevets). She said that several randonneurs have had good luck with the Selle Anatomica saddles. The thought of using an unpadded suspended leather saddle seemed sketchy to me, but I had nothing to lose. I e-mailed Tom Milton (now deceased, died on double-century ride, cardiac arrest?) at Selle Anatomica and he quickly set me up to purchase on wholesale basis, getting me some saddles to try and/or sell. (One of my criteria for purchasing most products is that I must be able to purchase it wholesale, so if I like the product, then I can put on my website eoGEAR. At the time I didn’t have an account set up to purchase Brooks, so I didn’t pursue that brand). When I first sat on the S.A.A. it felt like a couch, compared to other saddles I have used — it was wide and flat and provided something substantial for my sit bones & surrounding tissue — IT JUST FELT GREAT. This saddle required no break in time. It was a truly a plug and play saddle.
It did however have one problem which became immediately apparent. The insides of my legs chafed from the edges of the saddle. Comparing a Selle A.A. saddle to a Brooks, one can see, in the concave curved part of the saddle, that the leather flares outward. Not to be defeated, I fabricated a simple strap using a very thin, but strong piece of nylon webbing which encompassed the entire saddle and compressed the edges of the saddle inward. This fixed the problem and I didn’t have to punch holes in the leather to do the lacing technique that is sometimes used.
I used that saddle for the rest of the summer including 2008 Last Chance (1200km) and had no problems at all. I continued to use the saddle through the summer of 2009 including another 1200k (Gold Rush in Calif.). No problems there either. Meanwhile I e-mailed Mike, the designer at Selle AA about this flaring problem and pointed out that others also had similar issues. I never got a reply on the matter.
My only other complaint with this saddle is that the leather doesn’t wrap over and down on the rear of the saddle as generously as a Brooks, Rivet or Gilles Berthoud). Frequently, when I moved all the way to the back of the saddle — I felt the pressure from the edges of the leather. That really bothered me. But all-in-all, this saddle was doing the trick, that is until the fall of 2009.

 


In October of 2009, I went out to northern California to do the PCH Big Sur 600K (375 miles, which took me about 32 hours). I experienced a new saddle problem during that ride. I received some minor soft tissue damage, which appeared to come from the slots in the saddle center. Perhaps it came from all the hours in the aerobars, which puts much of my weight on the nose of the saddle (I rode most of that event solo). During this brevet, I forgot to relube at the “overnight stop” (which I only stopped and ate) which may have been a contributing factor. Or was the problem from all the standing? I doubt that would make much difference — if anything it would relieve saddle sores.
After this event, I was worried about the long-term success using this saddle and decided to launch a quest to find the ultimate long distance saddle — one that was super comfortable and perhaps lightweight too.

Saddle #4 (Cardiff Cambria, rated 6 out of 10) After the Big Sur 600K I decided to try other saddles — I was in the search for something just a little bit better.  The next spring (2010) I tried out the Cambria. Cardiff is a company that imports saddles, similar to Brooks. The Cambria is very similar to the Brooks Swallow, which is kinda of a leather racing saddle. It is 155mm wide, which is narrower than the width of the Selle A.A. or B-17 which are about 170mm wide. I used it for about two months and then rode a 300K that spring. During that event, I received some major bruising and chafing on my right sit bone, which really didn’t completely heal until later in the summer.

Saddle #5 (Origin 8 Classique Sport, rated 7 out of 10) One of the biggest selling features of the Selle A.A. is the slot down the middle. For me, it is not about leaving room for my “parts,’ but rather, it permits the sit bones to independently pivot (see the video on their site). During the late spring of 2010 I picked up this saddle, which is distributed by J&B, a large U.S. bicycle parts supplier. Origin 8 is their house brand. This saddle was similar in size and weight to a B-17. But this saddle sides were pre-laced…that is the edges were tied together, which of course was one my complaints with the Selle A.A. I used it for about 200–300 miles and decided to cut a slot into it, similar to the Selle A.A or Brooks Imperial. This did seem to make my sit bones a little more comfortable. This saddle was working OK for me as I did several 200Ks, a 400K and I decided to give it the acid test and rode in on 2010 Cascade 1240. It worked great for the first three days and some 600 miles in. No problems. And then, for no apparent reason, on the last day, while making the long and gradual descent off Rainy Pass (it was not rainy that day, so that couldn’t be a performance factor), the right side of my butt became really sore, despite reapplications of chamois cream. Had this not been such an epic event for me (DNFed in 2008), I would have abandoned. In my drop bag was my Selle A.A. saddle, “just in case.” But my drop bag was not nearby so I had to tough it out for the last 120+ miles and finished, but not without a lot of grimacing.
If you carefully look at the under side of the Origin 8 and Cardiff saddles, you will see a mesh or fabric-like backing on the leather. I assume this is to add strength (instead of using a better quality leather?), however I believe that this feature may prevent the leather from conforming or changing shape, like a Brooks or Selle A.A.

 



Unpadded, tensioned leather saddles (Brooks & S.A.A.) appear to have a rounded or semi-curved shape across the top. Read more about saddle shapes below.

 



Saddle #6 (Selle Italia Turbomatic, rated 7 out of 10 for comfort, 10 out of 10 for style, finish quality and aesthetics) I see many, many randonneurs use lightweight “racing” saddles. They seem to get through all the “unreasonable ultra” miles OK. Most unpadded leather saddles weigh about 450 to 525 grams. I’m guessing the extra weight is because of the long steel suspension frame. Most “modern day” racing saddles weigh between 150 to 300 grams. In randonneuring, comfort is more important than a little extra weight. But what IF I could find a so-called racing saddle that was just as comfortable, weighed less, and had little break in period, why not use it? After much deliberation, I decided to try some lightweight models from Selle Italia. The Selle Italia (S.I.) Turbo was a very popular model for 15 years. In 2010, they reintroduced the Turbomatic, a curved shape saddle. It is the widest saddle offered by S.I. at 153m. My rationing was “wide is good” for randonneuring as the narrowest Brooks (the Swift) is 150mm wide.

 

Saddle Shapes

Flat shape on the left and curved shape on the right. The $64,000 question is “which is best for you?”

Curved versus Flat Most saddle manufacturers offer two kinds of saddles — those that have a flat shape and those that have a curved shape (see photo and also visit this site for more info).

Apparently my “back of the leg thigh rub” issue must not be an isolated case. Selle Italia, for the 2011 season, is introducing the SLR “Monolink” edition with a new design feature called Friction Free (FF) (click for larger image to read text). Note how the concave part of the saddle is more pronounced on this model.

A curved saddle is supposed to be used by a cyclist that stays in one position most of the time and doesn’t shift around a lot. I shift around lot to stay comfortable, especially on 12+ hour rides. My thinking was that with a curved saddle, I’ll be comfortable by staying in one spot. The leather finish on this saddle is very nice with few seams…just a smooth perch. I used the curved Turbomatic saddle for several months doing shorter training rides, two 200Ks and a double-century ride for a total of perhaps 500 miles. This saddle was never “just right” for me. This particular curved saddle didn’t give my sit bones enough support so most of my weight ended up elsewhere. I never had any chafing or sit bone issues — instead I had soreness in the perineum (crotch) after three or four hours of riding. See my review of the saddle #14 for more on this topic.

Saddle #7 (Selle Italia SLK Gel Flow, no fair score) Another friend of mine used this model on the 2010 Cascade 1240 (since then, he & his wife have added some Selle A.A. saddles to their selection). I sat on it one time. Ouch. I didn’t even take it outside for ride. It is 135mm wide and has a flat shape. Was it the width or what lack of padding? I think it was simply the lack of surface area to plant my butt. The nose also had little padding which could be problematic when using aerobars for hours on end as I tend to do.

Saddle #8 (Selle Italia Max Flite Gel Flow, rated 6 out of 10) According to the Selle Italia website video, this saddle is “for those looking for comfort and not counting grams.” That is for me! It is a flat shaped saddle and is claimed to be 150mm wide (measured at 146mm). I tried this saddle for maybe a month or so and put about 300 or so miles on it. I will have to agree with  Competitive Cyclist, where they reviewed the Selle Italia SLR Gel Flow saddle, which is similar in design to the Max Flite. They said “Do the cutouts work? To us, we doubted they would because while there wouldn’t be any pressure on the body where the hole was situated, but potentially, there would be more pressure on the body along the sides of the hole. Same body weight, less surface area supporting that weight, thus more pressure.” I couldn’t agree with them more as I experienced pressure along the edges of the cutouts. This was particularly true for me while using aerobars, perched out on the nose of the saddle.
By the way, the nose width of this saddle, measured 60mm from the end (that is about where I end up when in the aero tuck position, is 40.9mm).

Saddle #9 (Selle Italia Prolink Genuine Gel, rated 8 out of 10) OK, this whole saddle experiment is getting old. And expensive, even with wholesale pricing.

This model looks promising. It is reasonably wide, advertised to be 144mm (mine measured at 146mm) and has a nice FLAT surface area with NO cutout to cause pressure points (it does have a subtle recessed channel which is a nice compromise). The claimed weight is 260 grams. Their website said “this is the perfect saddle for those looking for comfort and not the lightest saddle.” It does have a subtle concave surface running down the middle, which might provide some relief for those that need it. This model uses Selle Italia’s patented graduated thickness silicon gel.
So far I have used this model for about 45 days and rode on one 200K. The 200K had almost 8,000 feet of climbing which means I was using my sit bones a lot. This saddle worked fine in that department, at least for that “short” distance. How is it when I’m in the drops or while using aerobars? Fantastic. The very flat, gel padded nose is a dream. So what’s the hitch? Occasionally, on long training rides of two to three hours, I got some minor chafing at the back of my right leg (at the point where the bottom of my butt cheek meets my upper leg). I have tilted the saddle up, down and made it level with little change. Right now it is 4-degrees pointed down (my saddle is about 4–5cm above the pads on my aerobars). Recently, I rotated the saddle to the right a little which I thought would alleviate this problem. On a recent 52-mile training ride it seemed OK. Frankly, I really can’t do a true evaluation until I do a long ride of 300K (190 miles) or more, which won’t be until the spring of 2011. By the way, the nose width of this saddle, measured 60mm from the end (that is about where I end up when in the aero tuck position, is a nice 41.5 millimeters wide).
As is often the case with these lightweight saddles, this model is getting discontinued (the nice thing about a traditional leather “Brooks” or similar tensioned saddle is that you can always find that same model again, when yours wears out.)

Saddle #10 (Selle Italia Max Flite Genuine Gel, rating of 8.5 out of 10) The S.I. description of this saddle: “The differentiated-thickness padding and the ample support area are a guarantee of absolute comfort.” This is a discontinued model, but I did find a new one from a wholesaler and used it during part of the winter of 2010 and 2011 . I did a 200K in early December and another in January. It worked pretty good, but I still got minor pressure on the back of my thighs.  (Max Flite specs for the record: 318 g, nose width, 60mm from the end is 40.5mm with a width of 147mm [150mm claimed]).

 

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3 Responses to “Saddle Quest—Search for the Holy Grail”

  1. Glen 21 November 2010 at 8:14 am Permalink

    Great info….Hmmmm…perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and get the B-17! Had major butt problems that were showstoppers until I got the B-17, and the problems were resolved……true it takes a while to break in but it is well worth the effort and it costs nothing to break in.

  2. bill pye 21 November 2010 at 8:32 am Permalink

    Hi

    I ride only leather saddles gave up on anything else. I don’t have seat problems It is the least of my worries on brevets.

    I started with Brooks but have switched to Ideale’s.

    I was lucky enough to buy a new Ideale before they folded. It was a great saddle but was lost when my locked bike was stolen in Montreal. Montreal is the capital of car theft in North America and probably for Bike Theft as well.

    You can order the bike you want stolen.

    Anyway back to seats the Ideale’s I have now I found second hand. Once they form to my butt it is like riding a barcalounger. Try one see what you think.

    Bill