The Different Types of Bike SaddlesPublished on 05/13/2023 · 9 min readBicycle saddles can be comfortable — or they can be a torture chamber. Here’s how to find the right one for your behind.
The San Marco Rolls saddle. All photos by Jacob Cummings
Which Bike Seat Is Most Comfortable?
This question is tricky to answer. There are too many different anatomical needs between individual cyclists that no one saddle can provide. This includes sit-bone width, riding style, the gender of the rider, and what angle their pelvis contacts the saddle. However, it is possible to answer this question: which bike seat is most comfortable for you? The easiest answer to that is often going to be which saddle most effectively mirrors the shape and dimensions of your rear, giving you the most pressure displacement possible.
Here’s some news that may give you peace knowing you are not alone with your discomfort: Regardless of anatomy, most saddles you purchase are going to cause some aches or pain at some point. So cyclists need to find the seat that’s going to eliminate the risk of real injury while providing the most comfort for as long as possible.
Whether you’re mountain biking the trails in your backyard, crushing the pedals in a peloton of road racers, or just meandering past your local bike shop on your way to get some groceries, this guide will attempt to help you find the most comfortable bike seat.
There are two common myths about bike saddles that might seem counterintuitive because they can seem like the opposite would mean less support and no padding.
Misconception: Softer Is Better
You might see advice saying a heavily cushioned saddle will become more uncomfortable the longer you ride it. Saddles with a lot of cushion might also lack enough structure to support a consistent pedaling experience; possibly resulting in knee and joint injuries. This advice is true for me but isn’t for everyone. It’s worth finding out for yourself if you agree.
Misconception: Wider Is Comfier
A saddle that is wider than it needs to be can provide challenges to comfort and lead to injury. Finding the proper width of a saddle to match your sit bones is critical for providing you with a platform to rest on (we will cover how to find the right size later.)
Saddles’ Effect on the Body
There’s an old saying, “If the saddle sucks, the bike sucks.” If your bike is causing numbness of any kind–whether it’s in your soft tissues or down to your toes – you will end up not having fun on your bike or hurting yourself. One of the most important things you can upgrade on a bicycle is installing a saddle that accurately mirrors the nuanced shape of your bottom.
A well-fitted saddle regardless is going to cause some pressure on the pelvis. Despite this pressure, there are a number of painful symptoms that all cyclists should avoid with proper fit and adjustment of the seat.
Discomfort is one thing, but numbness is dangerous. It means you could be pinching a nerve or cutting off blood flow to parts of your body. Any numbness you might be experiencing needs to be addressed immediately. Get your bike fitted for you by a professional!
Other injuries you might experience are common among cyclists. This may include hot spots on your sit bones where your pelvis rests most heavily on the bike saddle. These pains can include bruises to your soft tissue areas, chafing, and sores on the surface of your skin.
The muscles in your rear and nearby areas will do their best to adjust to whatever bike seat you choose. It’s important to note that various riding positions will develop different muscle groups. Switching from a different style of bike might feel like starting over again.
Your saddle contacts your body where there is a lot of blood flowing between your soft tissues, legs, and abdomen. If the saddle fits incorrectly, it might limit blood flow and cause numbness. Fortunately, there’s a lot of saddle research and technology designed to make sure riders maintain blood flow during their bike rides. Some of these features include gel padding, memory foam, cutaway sections for the female anatomy, or suspension to reduce vibration and hard impacts.
Fit and Sizing
Fitting a saddle is always going to be the most time-intensive and laborious process of finding a comfortable saddle. You never really know if a saddle fits you well until you’ve put some miles on it and seen how your body is adapting. The more saddles you try and get miles on, the more familiar with your preferences you will become. Generally, you want to look for something that doesn’t feel too pressured on any single body part.
If you have access to corrugated cardboard, a ruler, or measuring tape, then you can use this tool on the Specialized website to identify the width of the saddle that will most likely support your sit bones.
Deciding What Type of Cushioning You Want
Cushioning options for bike seats run the spectrum of two extremes from completely non-existent and narrow with a hard carbon fiber or plastic surface, to full-width couch-chair gel and memory foam wrapped in Italian leather atop metal springs to absorb bumps.
Because of their long-term durability and consistent dense padding, gels are some of the most commonly featured options for bike saddles. Some seats use gel across the entire surface of the saddle while others use it in focused areas like right where the sit bones contact the saddle. A well-made gel saddle can last a long time if it’s treated and stored properly.
Foam padding is commonly used in lower-cost options. I’m not enthusiastic about any saddle that uses memory foam because I don’t find it comfortable and it has low durability.
To say a saddle has “No Padding” is a bit of a misnomer because the way most all saddles are designed provides some form of natural suspension. The flexibility of the saddle’s chassis allows for the seat to bend between the points where it is connected to the rails. For example, I prefer to ride on a Brooks C19 Carved with a cutout. This saddle is incredibly durable as I have known people to get more than 5 years of heavy use before needing to replace it. But, the Brooks C19 gets a lot of remarks from people saying it looks painful and hard. It’s true—it looks aggressive and the surface is indeed devoid of conventional padding like gel or foam, yet many people find these saddles incredibly comfortable for long days on the bike. The design of the saddle is simple and common; it leaves the main seat suspended like a hammock. Because of this, the saddle has almost 2 inches of suspension for absorbing bumps and the cutout feature reduces pressure on soft tissue.
Consider Whether You Want a Center Cutout
No matter what kind of riding you’re into, whether you have female anatomy or not, a saddle with a center cutout is likely going to be healthier for your soft tissue parts. It’s very common for people of all genders and different genitalia to experience numbness because the design of their bike saddle is restricting the flow of blood. Saddles with a hole in the middle of them like the Terry Butterfly are designed to move pressure away from these parts of the body which vastly improves comfort during a bike ride.
There tends to be a stigma that saddles with a cutout are designed only for women, however, this is not true. Anyone can use them, and what’s most comfortable for you is most important. If you haven’t tried a saddle with a cutout, I highly recommend it.
Types of Saddles
Typically with modern road saddles, you will find minimal cushioning and lightweight materials like 3D-printed surfaces, carbon or titanium rails, and large cutouts. Cutouts on road saddles are more common to relieve pressure on the soft tissues.
Mountain Bike Saddles
Often, mountain bike saddles will be the same saddles in other categories. Many people use road saddles for their MTB. However, there are mountain-bike-specific saddles that include heavier-duty materials and high-density cushioning designed to take falls and hits along a trail without destroying the structure of the seat.
A touring saddle will often be the very same saddle as the road bike option, but the touring saddle might have loops or mounts on the back of it, allowing for the easy installation of saddle bags. Otherwise, touring saddles might offer unique features like memory foam or leather and suspension coils. Some might offer rubber bushings along the rails to reduce vibration or impacts during long days.
If your bike has a more upright position, then you will probably want a wider comfort saddle designed to spread as much pressure across your rear as possible. Comfort saddles will almost always use gels and foams in combination with suspension springs. However, there are some saddles available from Brooks that do not have much padding and are still quite comfortable.
Tips to Improve Your Comfort in the Saddle
Maybe you’ve found a saddle that feels great for you, but you’re experiencing friction that’s causing sores under your sit bones or even a rash? Oftentimes small adjustments to the angle and alignment of your saddle are all you need to greatly improve your comfort on the bike. But maybe you’ve done that too and are still experiencing pain? There are a couple more things you can do:
Cycling Shorts and Chamois Cream
Wearing cycling shorts like the Rapha Core Bib is never a bad idea. The chamois holds pressure on your rear and reduces friction while supporting your sit bones. Adding a chamois lotion that is designed to reduce friction can make sure you don’t end the day with raw spots. I recommend Chamois Butt’r because it’s made with simple ingredients.
Make Sure Your Saddle Is Properly Adjusted
A professional fit from a local bike studio will make sure your seat is positioned properly to protect your knees and other joints.
There usually isn’t much that a saddle needs for maintenance once it has been properly installed. Cleaning it after a ride so the debris doesn’t cause corrosion or wear will prolong the life of the saddle. Occasionally the rails might slip on the seatpost clamp—this is rare. All you need to do is tighten the saddle back down. If your saddle is made of leather, it’s important to make sure not to ride your bike in the rain. If the leather saddle gets wet, you will need to have a leather conditioner on hand to keep the materials from cracking as they dry out. Here are some more ideas for saddle care.
I hope you now have an expanded sense of what you might be looking for! The most important thing to take away is that only you know what is most comfortable. No one else can tell you otherwise!
Finding the most comfortable bike seat can be a long journey. For me, it certainly has taken a couple of decades of exploring seats before I found my perfect saddle. You will find yours too. Happy riding!