Learn from the bike industry’s leading experts as they discuss the history, technology, and key features of a bicycle seat.
Injuries and pain caused by cycling with the wrong saddle for your body and ride style are much more common than you ever imagined. So, with spring around the corner, you might consider saddle shopping. Here’s how to go about it.
Abby Santurbane, saddle expert and Liv/giant Global Category Manager has been with Giant for more than five years and involved in the cycling industry for more than 15 years. “I started working at a bike shop when I was 15 and totally fell in love with the sport,” Abby says. “In college, I raced the Indiana University Little 500, which fueled a passion for racing. I moved out to California after college to pursue my dream of racing at the pro level, which I did for a number of years before finding my job at Giant.” Read on for Abby’s professional take on the importance of women’s-specific bike seats and choosing the right saddle for you.
Our next expert, Alessandro Matteucci, runs a popular Brooklyn-based coaching business (italianschoolofcycling.com) and is a rep for Italian bike brand, Albabici, which makes Selle SMP saddles. “Women are even more sensitive to the saddle issue,” he says. “Finding the proper model is the equivalent of fitting a very tight glove: The same rider cannot sit comfortably with several different models. The width, relating to the distance between the sitting bones, is only one of the factors, since the shape is what guarantees the contouring of the saddle against the bones.”
Also lending her expertise is Paula Dyba, who has been the saddle developer for the past decade at Terry Bicycles, a women’s-specific brand that’s known for designing bike seats for the female anatomy. “I’ve been with Terry Bicycles for 20 years, which is a very long time,” she says, jokingly. “When I first started, I spoke to a lot of people over the phone about things I can’t even believe and I won’t even say out loud.” Luckily, Paula got to have a hand in developing solutions for them. In this article, she narrates a history of saddle design and offers advice that your female parts will thank you for taking.
HERE’S YOUR SIGN
“If a woman is absolutely new to cycling there will be some discomfort—tenderness in the soft tissue and on the sit bones,” Abby says. “A little discomfort is okay because that will likely subside in a short period of time; but, if a woman stops riding or is hesitant to ride due to severe bruising or chafing, it means the saddle or her overall fit is not right for her.”
BEFORE GOING SADDLE SHOPPING
“Shopping for the right saddle can be a process,” Abby says. “At times, a woman may strike gold and find the exact right saddle from the get-go. Other women aren’t so lucky.”
“Number one: Do no harm. That’s the biblical approach [to choosing a saddle],” Paula says. “You’ve got to be comfortable.”
First, a rider should consult with the fit professional at her local bike shop to ensure that she isn’t experiencing discomfort with her saddle due to a fit issue elsewhere. “There are countless variables that could be at play—perhaps a rider’s seat height is too high or the stem length could be too long,” Abby says. “In short, an improper fit on your bike can lead to issues with your saddle.”
Alessandro agrees. “Women should choose a saddle in the context of a bike fitting; seat height, fore and aft position, and reach affect the rotation of the hips and therefore the point of contact for the sitting bones [hereafter, referred to as sit bones].”
When you are ready to start shopping, go to the bike shop equipped with some complaints about your current saddle and knowledge of the type of bike you’re currently riding or will be riding. Also do your best to identify your most vulnerable places in the saddle, where you’re most and least comfortable. “I think it’s always good to do a little homework before you go,” Paula adds. “Look saddles up online, read some reviews, and go in and talk to the bike shop about what their customers seem to respond best to riding.”
Go in prepared to test ride a saddle, too. A lot of shops allow and encourage you to try their demo saddles. “You don’t have to buy it and feel like you dropped a hundred bucks and don’t like it,” Paula assures.
DAWN OF THE CUTAWAY
When Paula started at Terry Bicycles, the company was getting calls from women and men with serious issues—sores and numbness, in particular. “They wanted to keep riding so it was difficult to not have a solution for them,” Paula says.
About then, Miyata—a Japanese company that had been making saddles with cutaways—went out of business, and their customers called Terry Bicycles. “There was a tiny following but they were really vocal,” Paula says.
So they worked with a manufacturer on the concept of a saddle with a hole all the way through it, and they developed it: a regular saddle in most ways but with an opening in the middle. “We can’t take credit for that design,” Paula says, since Miyata made something like it first. “We took it to Interbike, and all the dealers were laughing, ‘Oh my god! It’s like a toilet seat!’”
But there was instant customer acceptance of that saddle. “They saw it and knew it would work for them. It didn’t work for everybody but it worked for a lot of people,” Paula says.
“This feature [the big opening in the middle] is to virtually eliminate any pressure to the perineum [the area with the most delicate tissues],” Alessandro says. “All women are very sensitive to the pressure in that area, but, even more, mothers who have delivered their babies naturally and could have scar issue that is prone to getting irritated.”
Though many brands have played around with the size of the cutaway, the really important things are the placement (in terms of fore and aft) and flexibility. “You need a certain amount of variability so it’s not a static environment where you’re stuck in one position,” Paula says. “You want comfort no matter your position.”
The bottom line is: Choose a saddle with a relief cut away. “It’s such a critical and wonderful comfort feature that we put it in everything now, just about,” Paula says.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A WOMEN’S SADDLE
We women are physiologically and anatomically different from men. Men are very sensitive but their discomfort tends to be more toward the back of the saddle. Women tend to have more front-of-saddle discomfort, so the saddle should relieve that area as much as possible. “The concept here for women is that your weight is supported by your sit bones and not by your soft tissue area,” Paula says. The aim is to get all the weight and pressure off your tissues but not have a saddle that’s so soft that you sink into it and have even pressure everywhere.
“When I first started with the company, Georgina [the founder of Terry Bicycles] had the only women’s sports saddle in the market,” Paula remembers. “She’s really sensitive to the issues women were facing. Women were riding bikes that were way too big for them; they were so stretched out that it put more pressure on them.” Women complained about discomfort at the front of the saddle, so Georgina cut a hole in the plastic at the bottom of the saddle to release pressure in the front. “A lot of people were made more comfortable by that seemingly insignificant change,” Paula says.
Now, the brand’s most popular women’s saddle to date is the Butterfly. “It’s fairly wide,” Paula says. The reason being that the difference between men and women’s sit bones, in general, are about a half inch. Women’s are half and inch wider. A woman’s pelvis is also more U-shaped and the placement of the cutaway is the key to making it more comfortable.
Also an important factor in determining the correct saddle is finding the angle of your pelvis while you are riding. “This is referred to as pelvic tilt,” Abby says. For the most part, women fall into one of two categories—upright pelvic tilt and forward pelvic tilt. Evaluating overall flexibility is the easiest way to determine which type of pelvic tilt you have. “If you are naturally very flexible—for example, you can touch your nose to your knees when you reach down to touch your toes—then you most likely have an upright pelvic tilt when riding a bike. If you are less flexible—for example, you may be able to touch your toes but don’t bend in half like a pretzel—then you most likely have a forward pelvic tilt when riding a bike,” Abby explains.
The upright pelvic tilt group makes the most contact with the saddle on their sit bones and the forward pelvic tilt group will make more contact with the pelvic bone. If you have an upright tilt, you’ll need a saddle with increased padding where the sit bones make contact with the saddle. If your pelvis has a forward tilt, your ideal saddle has a wider and deeper central depression to make room for soft tissue and to decrease the possibility for chafing.
Your clothing matters, too. “It is important to find a comfortable chamois with the right amount of padding,” Abby says. “Ultimately, choosing a saddle and shorts that work comfortably can require some trial and error and an understanding that every woman is different.”
HOW BIKE TYPE FACTORS INTO SADDLE CHOICE
“The type of bike affects the choice of saddle,” Alessandro says, “because ultimately the rider’s position could be different.”
Simply put, Paula says, “If you’re on a comfort bike, you will need a wider rear [portion of the saddle]. More hardcore riders like a narrower saddle and one that allows them to feel the road easier and move around, fore and aft. Mountain bikers really need a narrower rear so they can move back.”
There are saddle choices for every ride style and each is different. For example, Terry Bicycles has 15 unique models. Alessandro says SMP, the brand he reps, has around 17 different saddles, and Liv/giant also has several models, though their brand philosophy is a bit different.
“Liv/giant’s research shows that, for the most part, a woman’s pelvis is in a very similar position no matter what bike she is riding,” Abby explains. “The exception is a triathlete who may be in an extreme aero position for long periods of time. In general, the saddle that is the most comfortable for a woman on her road bike will also be the best choice for her mountain bike, commuter, and town bike.”
Bicycle seats are made from a variety of materials but the amount of foam you need depends on how much you ride and how much you stand up when riding. Distance riders will probably need a decent amount of foam. “A little gel on top is a good option for super long distances, too, if you’re not a weight nazi.”
But, don’t equate having more material with happier private parts. “A big saddle doesn’t mean a comfortable saddle,” Paula clarifies. “A lot of cushion can feel good for about 20 minutes. But then you sink into it and will start to squirm.”
Shoot for a seat with a supportive rear, a relieved front, and a narrow enough mid-section that you’re not getting into a chafing situation and not feeling like you’re being spread apart. “On super narrow saddles you can get the impression that there’s something trying to separate your sit bones,” Paula says. “A little bit of a recession in the middle gives women a platform of stability and support. That too, tends to the best environment.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Saddle testing is worth the effort,” Paula says. “Don’t get discouraged. The right saddle will become the one you won’t even remember after the ride.”
Most of all, keep in mind is that each woman is unique and every rider’s fit is different. If you are experiencing long-term pain, bruising, or severe chaffing it’s time to find another saddle. “It is like playing Goldilocks,” Abby says. “Don’t settle until you find the fit that is ‘just right.’”
This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Spring 2014 issue.