Nail Your Saddle Shape & Get More Power In Your Pedals!
Cyclists are suckers for tradition. We’re also suckers for aesthetics. And we’re really suckers for aesthetic traditions, which is why socks should hit the right height, why caps should loft just so, and why, for decades, many of us accepted riding with numb junk because saddles were supposed to look long and lean, much like the pro road racers perched upon them.
We know better now – at least about the saddles. Seats come in dozens of shapes and sizes to support your weight without crushing your undercarriage. But the right saddle isn’t just about comfort; it
will also improve bike control, minimise overuse injuries, and put more power into your pedal stroke.
“Your saddle is essential for proprioceptive feedback when you ride,” says Dr Sonja Stilp, a spine and sports specialist based in Boulder, US. “It’s the part of the bike that makes you feel one with the bike, that tells you where your body is in space as you corner, descend and climb. If that connection is impaired, your performance will suffer.”
So will your power output, because your saddle is where you plant yourself to generate force through the pedals. “A powerful pedal stroke depends on the optimum firing of your muscles, which depends on proper alignment of your hips, knees, and ankles. Your position on your saddle dictates that,” Stilp says. Your seat also has to allow you to change position for climbing, sprinting, and descending.
Of course, riders can – and do – adjust to ill-suited saddles, but often at a price, Stilp says. “Riders will assume poor riding posture to adapt to a saddle, even sometimes sitting crooked on the bike.”
This poor posture can cause muscle imbalances that lead to pain and injury in the shoulders, wrists and neck from weight shifted too far forward; or the hips, knees, and back from a faulty bike position, Stilp explains. When people don’t like to ride long, it’s often because they’re on the wrong saddle, she says. I learned that the hard way when I raced the seven-day BC Bike Race years back. I flew to the race with a new bike. The saddle had proved to be fine for my first few short test rides, but it was much less fine for four- to five-hour days. By stage four, I had rubbed a raw outline of the saddle into my nether regions as I forced myself into the positions required for max power and control over technical terrain.
Yes, it was as uncomfortable as it sounds. Fortunately, I (and saddle design) have come a long way since then. There are shapes, widths, and designs to accommodate every cyclist and how they ride, says integrative physiologist Garrett Getter, product manager for saddles, grips and tapes at Specialized Bicycle Components. “It’s well worth the time and effort to test different saddles to find one that supports your sit bones and soft tissues so you can maximise muscle recruitment and ride your best for as long as you want to ride,” he says.
And it’ll help you with the best cycling tradition of all: loving every ride.
HOW TO FIND YOUR PERFECT PERCH
The distance from tip to tail determines how much room you have to move forward and back, which relates to your riding style.
Long Nose: If you like a multitude of positions, from the rivet to the rear, this provides the most places to sit.
Short Nose: Most people sit on the back third of a saddle, so short-nosed shapes eliminate unused real estate and take pressure off soft tissues when you tilt forward into an aggressive position. Mountainbike saddles often have shorter noses so that you don’t hook your shorts.
Noseless: Time triallists and triathletes barely need a nose, as they assume extreme aerodynamic positions for extended periods.
Your soft tissues will always bear some weight, but they shouldn’t be supporting so much that you get numb.
Cut: Some saddles are equipped with channels or cutouts to relieve pressure. This is a personal preference: some riders like a generous cut-out; others find this causes issues such as swelling, and they prefer more subtle soft-tissue support.
Cushion: Padding is a very personal preference; but generally, more aggressive saddles have less padding, and comfort saddles have more. Many riders find that a good chamois with a less-padded saddle is more comfortable for the long haul than the opposite.
The surface of your saddle can be flapjack-flat or wavy. What you’ll like best largely depends on your preferred riding positions.
Flat: A level top is good if you like to move around; if you ride in a more upright position; or if you’re so flexible, your sit bones remain in the right spot even when you’re in the drops.
Waved: These saddles are higher in the rear, dip in the middle, and flatten or dip at the nose. They cradle your anatomy and can provide extra support if your pelvis tips forward as your torso drops.
WIDTH AND TAPER
Saddles are generally sold based on width, the measurement across the area that supports your sit bones. A too-narrow or too-wide saddle will put pressure and/or rub where you don’t want it to, and disrupt your pedal stroke. Equally important is how the saddle tapers from rear to front. The outline has to match your anatomy and how you ride.
Teardrop: This traditional shape is wide in the back and tapers at the nose, which minimises thigh rub.
Linear: This shape has less taper and tends to be shorter – you have a solid perch under your pelvis, but not much up front. This is good for aggressive riding, but thigh rub can be an issue if it’s not a good match.
Straight: Noseless saddles often feature minimum tapering. Because you’re sitting so far forward, you don’t have to worry about thigh clearance.
Even if your saddle is spot on, your buns might be tender after a big ride if you’re new to the sport. That early soreness is caused by pressure on the muscles surrounding your sit bones. It’ll fade after a couple of weeks as those muscles get stronger and denser, so stick with it.
3 STANDOUT SADDLES
1 / SPECIALIZED WOMEN’S POWER MIMIC SADDLE
A flexible ‘hammock’ in the cut-out prevents softtissue swelling.
2 / SELLE SMP DYNAMIC SADDLE
The raised back cradles you to reduce pressure.
3 / FABRIC SCOOP PRO TEAM FLAT
Super-light, at 198 grams, but still comfy.