Don’t let your butt suffer any more. Here’s how to find your perfect saddle.
Q HOW DO I KNOW WHICH SADDLE TO BUY? THERE SEEM TO BE SO MANY DIFFERENT THEORIES, AND SO MANY OPTIONS AVAILABLE. SNAKES, BULLS, SLITS, HOLES, GELS. CAN YOU GIVE US THE LOWDOWN ON THE LOW DOWN, SO TO SPEAK?
– James, Newlands
A SADDLE SIZES, SHAPES, CUT- OUTS AND OTHER FEATURES HAVE PROLIFERATED GREATLY IN THE LAST DECADE, and the number of choices available is making it increasingly confusing for both consumers and shop owners.
In addition, a number of different manufacturers have different techniques and systems to ‘ fit’ the end users to their saddles.
Before we look at the different systems and options, let’s start by understanding what a saddle needs to do. A saddle is designed to support your pelvis in a stable position, while still allowing you to move your legs in a great enough range to exert force on the pedals. As luck would have it, we have two conveniently positioned bony points under our pelvis that we can use as supports. These are popularly called our sit-bones, and are the primary points of contact for the saddle.
When we sit, most of the pressure is applied on these bones, with a little bit also being exerted at the front of the pelvis – which acts to triangulate the forces applied, so that the pelvis is prevented from rotating forwards and backwards during each pedal stroke. Think of a tripod, with two of the legs being the sit- bones and the third being the pelvis.
This is why the general shape of saddles has remained unchanged for almost 100 years, as it conforms to the requirements of this triangular support, while leaving room for the thighs to move up and down the sides of the saddle.
For most men, the width of the sit-bones is very similar, which is why most brands and saddle models remained constant for decades. With the increased popularity of cycling, it became viable to cater for individuals who fell outside the average. As a result, different saddle widths became available.
In addition to this, manufacturers added increasing numbers of features to lure customers to their products: different saddle profiles (round to flat), firmer or softer shells and padding, gel inserts, cut-outs, etc. Although some of these features may add value, they won’t fundamentally change whether a saddle works for you or not.
SO HOW DO I CHOOSE THE RIGHT SADDLE FOR MY BUTT?
Initially, saddle sizing and fitting focused on measuring the width of the individual’s sit-bones. This requires sitting on memory foam or gel, and measuring the width of the indents made by the sit-bones. A chart is then used to identify an appropriate saddle width.
However, this is only half of the equation. The above system would work fine if sit-bones were round; unfortunately, they are elongated (like the hulls on a catamaran), and also not parallel. They converge towards the front. As a result, the forward and rearward rolling
of your pelvis will narrow or widen (respectively) the space between the sit-bones’ contact points.
To address this, a few manufacturers have come up with techniques to determine which pelvic position an individual will adopt when on the bike, and then use this to suggest the correct saddle size.
But these techniques make the assumption that a more flexible individual will adopt a more aggressive riding position by tilting the pelvis forward, therefore requiring a narrower saddle. This is incorrect.
Although a more flexible spine will allow the individual to reach further forward more easily, it does not determine the position of the pelvis. Given the same bike fit, a more flexible individual will adopt a more upright pelvis, simply because they can reach the bar more easily and won’t require the pelvis to rotate forward.
SO HOW DO I GET THE RIGHT FIT?
Completing the bike fitting before choosing the saddle is the key. Once the bike has been fitted, the position of the pelvis can be measured using a digital inclinometer. The individual can then be seated on a saddle-sizer in the same pelvic position (at the same pelvic angle) that they adopt on their bike. Only then should the correct saddle width be calculated. Once saddle width has been established, additional factors such as padding thickness, profile, covering and other features can be decided on, based on experience.
Dr Jeroen Swart is a sports physician and exercise physiologist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.