Saddle Quest—The Search for the Holy Grail, part 2
(part 1 is here)
Other Comfort Factors
Long ago, I switched from a 23c to a 25c tire and inflate them only to 100 PSI for the softest ride possible (I’m 6′ 4″ and weigh around 185 pounds — a wider tire is recommended for “heavy” cyclists like me).
Early in the 2010 season, I upgraded from a half aluminum, half carbon bike to a full carbon bike. There was a little difference in comfort.
I have tried several brands of shorts and bibs, including Canari, Bellwether, Craft & Airus. Frankly, there wasn’t much comfort difference. The important thing is to find a pair of shorts or bibs that are tight fitting and, if you are using shorts, remembering to pull them up during a ride, so you don’t get folds in the fabric or chamois.
Sit bone width. Mine are 117mm apart (with an arched back, sitting upright). This is another part of the saddle comfort equation. According to Specialized, your individual width is important, as they have made that part of their marketing campaign. By the way, most Specialized saddles appear to utilize a “flat” shape. Read more about this later on this page.
Salves or chamois creams are another factor in comfort. Andy Pruitt, in his book “Andy Pruitt’s Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists” suggests using petroleum-based lubes as they have more staying power (p. 90). That would point towards Vaseline, Bag Balm or Lantiseptic (Lantiseptic “Skin Protectant” is thicker and contains 50% lanolin, whereas their “Therapeutic Cream” is slightly runnier and contains 37% lanolin). Lately, in 2011, I have been using Bag Balm, applying it both on my chamois and skin for use during rides. If I have redness or any skin irritation after a ride I apply some Lantiseptic cream (after showering) — it is designed to treat diaper rash or incontinence. Also check out this article from the Coach Levi site (Levi Bloom, not Leipheimer).
LLI or Leg length inequality. When I had severe saddle sores, it was always on the same side. I finally went to a physical therapist and determined that one leg was 10-15mm shorter than the other (due to an old traumatic non-cycling injury and consequent surgery to my ankle). Shimming up my shoe a little (about 1/2 to 1/3 of the inequality), between the cleat and shoe bottom, has helped reduce the rocking motion and chafing, which may have been a contributing factor to my saddle sores.
Shorts or Bibs. They are designed to worn sans-underwear. The seams of underwear can chafe. The extra layer can create additional, unwanted heat build up. Try to remember to pull them up tight into your crotch…or else use bibs instead. Shorts need to hug your body tight — be sure your fit is correct and not too baggy. Each model of the Craft line ALL have a slightly stretchy chamois (some brands only have selected models that stretch). That feature made sense to me and has worked for me for the past two seasons (Craft is also used by the Schleck brothers). One new brand-x model of shorts I tested proved to very painful, and upon further review, the chamois was simply a bad design.
Other Choices If I could find a ProLink Genuine Gel with the Fi’zi:k saddle feature called Twin Flex, I might be set. (But then isn’t that why unpadded leather saddles work? The leather flexes and eventually gives, whereas synthetic materials do not give. In fact, the foams or gels break down over time, but not the rigid frames causing the saddle to appear more stiff). Twin Flex is a flexible side panel that gives, or “breaks in” over time, providing a custom fit similar to an unpadded leather saddle (more Twin Flex info here, or better yet, visit this article from Bicycling Magazine). Fi’zi:k offers three saddles series — the original flat shaped narrow 132mm-wide Arione, the curved 142mm-wide Aliante and the newest series, the flat 142mm Antares. Ironically, only their top end Antares model has Twin Flex, whereas the narrower Arione series all have it. Logically the wider the saddle (Antares), the more the need for this feature. I would hope that over time they will offer Wing Flex on more of their Antares models. Also, I’m a bit afraid of their top end model, the Antares 00 (a mere 135 grams) as it is SO lightweight, that the padding might be too minimal for my pointed sit bones and, for ultra distance cycling, there might be a durability problem with the carbon rails.
Since I spend about half my miles using aerobars (most of my training is solo), perhaps a time trial saddle might be better. The problem with most TT saddles is width. I’m not sure they will offer my sit bones and surrounding tissue enough support.
Another option I’m looking at is a relatively new unpadded leather saddle series from the French company Gilles Berthoud. They offer pre-softened saddles featuring a unique design with a removable, replaceable leather. These models use Polycarbonate components on part of the frame, which may negate the stiffness of the steel frame. Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly, published a glowing review of one of their new saddles in the Spring 2009 issue of his magazine.
Update as of December 2010 Maybe I should get a Brooks and call it good. That has been the rando gold standard for years. I was told by a seasoned randonneuring friend that you can pre-soften your Brooks by warming it in the oven with mink oil slathered all over it. He says that contrary to popular belief, this will not ruin the saddle. He ought to know, as he has a Swift on each of his four or five Chro-moly road bikes. And he has been riding a lot longer than I. Another method of softening a tensioned leather saddle is found at this blog page by the legendary Lon Haldeman.
But then, on the other hand, one can read online reviews, that even after extensive mileage, some will say something like “the B-17 simply didn’t do the Brooks magic as expected.”
Hmmm….the story continues. It is now the winter of 2010. All the long rides of the season are over (in Utah anyway) — except for the obligatory monthly 200K to keep my RUSA R-12 award alive. By the end of 2010 I will have rode about 8,200 miles. I tried out seven saddles this year. It was tough adjusting to some of them — I have no intention of running that many saddles in 2011.
Meanwhile, the snow is falling in Utah and the rando ski season will be here shortly, with cycling taking a back seat (pun intended) to skiing. No indoor trainer for me this year — just too boring. Cross country ski work-outs will be my primary cardio activity of choice.
Saddle #11 (Fi’zi:k Arione Tri2 Saddle, rating of 8 out of 10) I have heard some much good about Fizik saddles that I had to try one out. I decided on their time-trial or triathlon saddle, having never used a TT saddle. This model was heavenly on shorter training rides, but on a 200K in February 2011, a ride that had a mixture of climbing and flats, it had some issues. At the end of the day I got some long red lines from the edges of the saddle on my legs and buttocks. The plentiful padding on this model was a dream while in the aero position, but for climbing or when sitting upright, when drafting, it was just too narrow, despite having a “flat” rear profile (Fizik Arione specs [claimed] for the record: 199 g, with a max. width of 132mm).
Saddle Width Considerations
Use of the above TT saddle proved one thing for me…Specialized Bicycles are onto something in regards to saddle width. They market different saddle widths according to your sit bone width and riding style. See their “at home” guide on how to measure your sit bones. I have measured mine several times, using a piece of cardboard (which I find works better than the foam pad recommended by Specialized in the prior link) and have found them to be 117mm apart. This is perhaps a little on the narrow side for most male cyclists. According to Specialized I should be using a saddle 143mm wide, unless I ride in an upright comfort position, then I should be on a 155mm wide saddle. This website/PDF file, called Cheek to Cheek, suggests a slightly narrower approach, by recommending you add 10 to 20mm to your sit bones to get your recommended saddle width. Adding 20mm to my width of 117m = 137mm. Looking at the above photo of the 132mm-wide saddle, you can see that leaves little room for any rear-end soft tissue to rest.
Saddle #12 (Prologo Kappa, rating 8 out of 10) In January of 2011, I purchased a used a cyclocross bike for training on both pavement and dirt roads. A brand of saddle came with this Cannondale bike that I had never heard of…Prologo. I set it aside, thinking it was a cheapy plastic vinyl model which wouldn’t breath. After doing some research, I realized that model was indeed made from Microfiber and although it was comparatively cheap ($70) it was VERY comfortable. The Kappa is classified as a “recreational” saddle by Prologo. Probably the most interesting feature to me was the way this brand presented their saddle line on their website. They have three, instead of two shapes. They offer round and flat shaped models like most manufacturers and, this is what interested me, a “semi-round” series of saddles. And their semi-round models come in different widths too. The Kappa was 141mm wide semi-round model, which according to Specialized website, is about the ideal width for me. I used the Kappa for a few half-day training rides including some off road stuff, and then in March I did a 200K with it. For the first time in over a year, I did NOT fill the pressure from the edges of my saddle on my right upper leg. My sit bones were a little tender, but otherwise the saddle worked. Prior to this, I used one “round-shaped” saddle, the S.I. Turbomatic. I never could get that model to work as it just didn’t seem to have enough padding. Although I didn’t have sit bone or chafing issues, after 70 or 80 miles, I had VERY sore soft tissue problems. This led me to believe that I needed a flat saddle and not a curved saddle, so for the next several months I focused on finding a flat saddle that might work for me…until I discovered the Prologo brand.
Saddle #13 (Prologo Nago EVO 141mm-wide model, rating of 7.5 out of 10) After having pretty good luck with the Prologo Kappa “semi-round” model, I immediately opened an account with the U.S. Prologo distributor and brought in several models to sell on my site, including a few of their demo models. The Nago EVO is classified as a semi-round model and I used it for 200+ miles, but the edges of my legs chafed again. Upon further examination, this model visually, is really more of a flat shape than a round or semi-round shape.
Saddle #14 (Prologo Scratch Pro 143mm-wide model, rating of 8.5 out of 10) After resisting round-shaped saddles, I gave in and tried this model. I had a “Buy and Try” model with a steel rail and mounted it up. At first I was worried, thinking it would be repeat of the Selle-Italia Turbomatic — which was a major soft tissue aching problem. My first impression is that my weight was being evenly distributed through ALL my different parts, not just my sit bones. While sitting upright, I found there was a small amount pressure in the center or soft tissue area — but no more than when I’m in my aerobars out on the nose of the saddle. My sit bones seemed well supported too. My legs had plenty of clearance, due to the ESD (Easy Stroke Design) feature. I tried this model on a 200K and it worked flawlessly. A few weeks later, in May of 2011, I used it on a 400K (250 miles) and although I still had some minor redness from chafing, found it to be one of the most comfortable saddle I have ever used. The Scratch Pro has a significantly more padding in the nose than the Prologo EVO, so that time in the drops are while using aerobars was comfortable. In fact, one of their selling features is a graduated density foam, with softer foam on the front nose, increasing the firmness towards the back of the saddle where one’s sit bones apply pressure. I have a 600K and a 1200K coming up, and that will be real test.
I also tried a Fizik Aliante Gamma on a trainer. It is a round saddle with a very similar shape to the Scratch Pro. It is about the same width, at 142mm wide and 265mm long. The overall shape looks and felt similar to the Scratch Pro, but frankly, it seemed just too short after using the Scratch Pro, which is 278mm long. The Scratch Pro seemed to offer more room to move around, especially when using aero bars which puts me out on the nose of the saddle. Theoretically, a round saddle is supposed to keep you in one position, but I found the shape and length of the Scratch Pro enabled me to move around a little to stay comfortable and to occasionally redistribute my weight. If you like the Fizik Aliante, you may LOVE the 143-mm Prologo Scratch Pro. Many of the Prologo saddles, including the low-end Kappa, feature hidden cut outs in the structure of the saddle on the underneath side, which yields a little relief to the soft tissue are WITHOUT the annoying holes found on some models. This is very similar to the Fizik “Twin Flex” feature.
It appears Prologo has hit the mark. They offer a fairly wide, yet round-topped saddle (Scratch Pro is wider than the classic, round-shaped and very popular Selle Italia Flite model which is only 131mm wide). Yet the Scratch Pro 143 model is longer than the Fizik Aliante. After trying the S.I. “curved” Turbomatic last year, I abandoned the idea of using a curved saddle, as this model really don’t offer much of a flat platform for my sit bones. So it took quit a while, after trying many other saddles, before I was willing to revisit the curved saddle idea.
I have used this saddle now for several 200Ks, a 300K, 400K and a 600K. My only complaint is that I get some mild chafing — on the insides of my legs. It is something I don’t notice until after the ride and then the visual redness proves that something is not perfect. Perhaps I just need a different chamois creme or need to reapply more often. No sit bone issues with this model however.
May 2011 note: Noticeably absent is a test of the new, carefully crafted Gilles Berthoud unpadded, tensioned leather saddles. During the winter of 2011, I brought in a batch of them to sell on my website, but at the time, they were backordered on the titanium models, so I held off testing one until they come into stock in the U.S. Meanwhile, I discovered Prologo. If the Prologo Scratch Pro doesn’t work out, then a Gilles Berthoud leather saddle with titanium rail, which I now have stock on, will be put to the test.
Saddle #15 (Gilles Berthoud Aravis, rating of 9 out of 10) During June of 2011, I rode my toughest 600K to date — a Grand Canyon brevet in northern Arizona. I suffered some of the worst saddle sores I have had in along time, but I did finish (barely). But there was a reason, which was improper chamois lube…read the last paragraph of this blog report for more detail. Consequently, with time running out before my longest event of the season, a 1200K in Colorado, I decided to give in and try a Gilles Berthoud saddle. I deliberated choose a Gilles Berthoud saddle instead of a Brooks, because my “tech winnie” attitude said that the polycarbonate frame and replaceable leather cover would be a better choice. This was something that Brooks does not offer — my gut instinct told me that GB had come up with a better mousetrap. I choose the 156mm wider “touring” version, because as I flipped over the saddle, I noticed that with the Galibier racing model, my sit bones (110mm apart) would be sitting on the rear part of the frame and not in the soft leather portion of this saddle.
With some hesitation I took this $300 saddle and did what every saddle maker says not to do: coat it with oil. I used a mink oil pre-softening technique as recommended by Lon Haldeman (GB saddles are supposedly pre-softended, but frankly I can’t tell the difference between a new “factory softened” GB and a new Brooks). Within four days I was off and running with a new comfortable saddle that gave me plenty of support for my sit bones. My biggest worry turned out to be a non-issue — using this unpadded saddle in the aero position. I dare say, it was more comfortable than nearly every plastic racing saddle I had tested. This saddle has some flaring on the sides, although not near as much as the Selle An-Atomica. That worried me, as that was my biggest complaint regarding that model. I even made a custom compression strap to “pull in” the side of the saddle, just in case this became an issue on my 1200K. It never became a problem and I never used the strap for the rest of the summer.
This saddle performed without any problems for the rest of the summer, including my 1200K in Colorado. I rode in very cold and sometimes rainy conditions in Colorado and then also a double-century in the 95F+ heat of the Utah desert and the saddle worked perfect. For me it was much more comfortable than the Selle An-Atomica, which was the most comfortable tensioned leather saddle I had used so far. I’m one that doesn’t need a recessed channel or slit down the middle. While switching to the GB saddle, I also starting using Lantiseptic Skin Protectant. And just recently, I have discovered an even better product called Okole Stuff made by Enduro Stuff, which I now carry on my online store. Look for another blog post on this subject some day.
2013 Update: For some unknown reason, the edges of this saddle starting chafing the insides of my thighs (what’s new?). I trimmed off about 1/4-inch of the leather along the bottom, but it made no difference. So once again, I made an over-the-top compression strap, similar to the model I sell for Selle Anatomica. It helped a lot. I need to grab a photo of this and post it, along with putting such an item for sale on my site.
I did not give the Aravis a 10 out of 10 because of two reasons: One, it is leather and is consequently vulnerable to rain and mud (something plastic saddles are basically immune to) and then reason number two; it is heavier than a plastic saddle (by about 150 grams which is the weight of a half a can of Coke).
Meanwhile it is now 2012 and the GB Aravis is now a permanent fixture on my carbon-fiber long distance bike. The Prologo Scratch Pro has been on my either my cyclocross aluminum-frame bike or my newly acquired used Seven titanium road bike, which I use primarily for my “during the week” training rides, both off- and on-road. If I could find a used super-cheap GB Galibier, which is their narrow racing model, I would like to give it a try, just to compare. Meanwhile, I’m a happy camper as my right side sit bone/chafing problems are gone and I can focus more on other details of cycling.
Saddle #15 (Gilles Berthoud Galibier, rating of 8 out of 10) As a weight wennie, I decided to break down and pull a new Galibier out of inventory and give it a try. This is their “narrow” racing model. I gave it my usual hot water, mink oil bath first, to break it in. So far I have only done a 200km ride and a bunch of shorter training rides and I like it. This saddle is slightly narrower than the wide “touring” models, measuring to the O.D. of the leather, it is 152mm compared to 156mm for the Aravis . The biggest difference is that the Galibier tapers down faster and offers less real estate for your sit bones—it just feels narrower because of this. This is both good and bad. Bad because you have less space to rest your parts, but good since it is a leaner saddle, it should minimize any “between the legs” chafing issues. Visually, this model looks like Brooks Swallow, which is advertised as a153mm-wide saddle (December 2012 update).
Saddle # 16 (Fizik Kurve Bull, rating of 8 out of 10) During September of 2012 I tried a Fizik Kurve Bull model on a 200K ride with my Seven Axiom SL titanium frame. During the ride, I was comfortable. So comfortable that I set a new personal record…a sub 7-hour time for a solo 200km ride. Afterwards, I did notice some chafing however, so I pulled it. This “plastic” saddle does have a feature called Wing Flex which is supposed to adapt to the ones pedaling stroke. I wonder if it the Wing Flex edges need more miles to break it. This saddle has little padding for ones sit bones, especially when compared to the Prologo Scratch Pro (see above). I may try this model again later on. (2013 update: I been using this on many 200k brevets and have found very comfortable, every since I have shimmed up both of my cleats).
Saddle # 17 & 18 (Rivet Cycle Works Diablo or Independence, 8.5 out of 10). A friend of mine was not happy with his Rivet and loaned me his Diablo, which is their narrow model (fall of 2012). It it advertised as a 155mm wide. The leather seemed much firmer than a Selle An-Atomica, but yet softer than an “out of the box” Gilles Berthoud. I wanted to soften it up so I slapped a bunch of mink oil on it and stuck in a 150F oven for about ten minutes. I rode it on several shorter (2 to 3 hour) training rides, but never got a chance to ride it long. It is a vast improvement over the SAA, but then for me, cut outs have little appeal. This is a good saddle to keep your eye on. All the Rivet models are similar to the Selle-Anatomica but Rivet has solved two problems which SA saddles have always had. They are:
1. The Rivets side flaps are tied together which prevents chafing on the inside of the legs due to the flaring of the saddles edges when it is tightened.
2. The leather panel on the rear crescent wraps well below the top edge, this preventing irritation to your butt cheeks.
I applaud Deb, the head riveter at Rivet, for her thoughtfulness in these design improvements.
2013 Update: I decided to go ahead and bring in Rivet saddles for sale on my site eoGEAR. I try to give full validation to the products I sell, so that meant putting some serious miles on a Rivet saddle. During the late fall of 2012 I finally got my Seven Axiom Ti frame built up. So for the spring of 2013 I put a Rivet Independence saddle on this frame and used it as my primary road machine. The “Indy” is a lot like the Gilles Berthoud saddles…the rear crescent is made from polycarbonate, which lightens the saddle weight and, it should absorb more of the vibrations from the road. Even after breaking in a Indy with Mink oil (in the oven, not immersed), it seemed slightly firmer than my broken-in GB Aravis. I used this saddle on a few training rides, a 200k, 300k and finally on a 400k (250-mile) ride. After the 300k, I decided to design a nose cover and see how it felt. As you can see by the above photo, the strap covers the front end of the saddle. For me, it was MUCH more comfortable with this in place, as the edges of the slot didn’t dig into my soft tissue as much (first I took an Exacto blade and skived the edges of the saddle slot to no avail). But still, after 250 miles, I found myself standing to relief butt pain, more so than with my GB Aravis saddle. Later that summer, during my annual 1200k (750 miles in 3 days), I used my Ti frame with the GB saddle was also in pain, pointing to the Ti frame as the culprit, not necessary the saddle. What I need to do next is try the Rivet on my more comfortable carbon-fiber frame.
Saddle # 19 (SQLab 611 Active Race, 7 out of 10). The folks that distribute my all-time favorite aerobars, Syntace, now distribute a new brand of saddles called SQLab, also designed in Germany. During the summer of 2013 they sent me a 140mm wide model to try out. Their literature is very good in helping you in selecting the right width. They offer differing widths based on sit-bone dimensions, which is similar to Specialized saddle program. This saddle also features a pivoting (left and right) frame, similar to one my favorite plastic saddles…the Fizik Kurve Bull. The biggest difference between the Bull and Active Race is the Bull is curved, whereas most of the SQLab saddles are flat — very flat. The idea is to put the pressure on your sit bones and not on your soft tissue. But for me…the flatness of this saddle “caught” the edges of my inner thighs, yielding an uncomfortable ride. The rep told me that the 150mm model is actually their most popular model. This model came with three rubberized like inserts, which are used according to your body weight (this is similar to the U.S. saddles Koobi, see my test #2). The SQLab Active also has a slight depression in the center, which I liked much better than a full cut-out hole as is the case with other brands.
Important Update—Leg Length Inequality or LLI
During the winter and spring of 2012, on two separate occasions, my riding partners noted that my right hip was rocking up and down a little. In 2011, I had a physical therapist measure my legs and indicated that my left leg was significantly shorter than my right. This was due to an old mountaineering injury and subsequent surgery on one ankle. This is what the experts called leg length inequality (LLI). I attempted to shim up my cleat on this side, but to no avail as the material I was using kept twisting out. Finally, after hearing these comments from my riding friends, I acquired from a local shoe shop a scrap of material called Top Lift, which I inserted under my left cleat. Much, or most of this rocking motion has now ceased and my rights-side chafing issues are minimal. In summary, much of my “saddle” problems were really a LLI problem. In May of 2012 I got a professional bike with a physical therapist (a topic for a future blog post) and he determined that my bike fit and cleat shimming was spot on. What that tells me is that a suspension leather saddle is more forgiving than a “plastic” type and will compensate for either a bad bike fit or a physical problem like my LLI.
While on a very rainy 400k brevet during a the spring of 2012, I noticed something something that no professional bike fitter picked up on before: that is I have a forefoot varus problem, but only on one side. I was wearing Rainlegs most of the day and the inner side of my Rainlegs (nicker length rain pants), near my knee, was brushing against the top tube of the frame. This is a tell tale sign of varus. Since then, I have added some shims under this cleat and the problem is larger disappeared. This problem, when combined with LLI is most likely the route cause of my “one sided” chafing problems.
What might the future bring in saddle designs?
Currently there are many lightweight, backcountry ski boots and some cycling shoes that are form fitted using heat. Why can’t a synthetic or lightweight plastic saddle be designed using this technique? If someone made one that provided the comfort of my softened up GB Aravis, but as light as a Prologo, it would give it a score of 10 out of 10.
As you can see, I tried many different kinds of saddles. For me, saddle choice made a bigger difference in comfort than did the style of shorts, choice of chamois cream, bike fit or even a different frame material.
When looking for a new saddle or trying to increase your rear end comfort level…