Bicycle saddle design
July 8, 2004 5:47 AM   Subscribe

I've recently started riding bicycle, and really enjoy it, but I have a problem with the seat. What possible reason is there for the saddle design, which puts undue pressure on the perineum? Has anybody had success with alternatives? Come inside for additional questioning, and speculation.

There's been research published since at least 1977, showing evidence that the bike saddle design causes reduced blood flow in the groin, at least for males. It has been cited as a cause for erectile dysfunction. And I can't help but think that it might have contributed to Lance Armstrong's problems. Regardless, it is uncomfortable, and can't be good.

So my related questions are:

1. What justification/explanation is there for the traditional saddle design?

2. I initially was going to design and build an alternative, then decided to google and ebay search, and found this thing, which is almost exactly what I was going to make myself. Has anybody used this, or something like it, and care to share their experience?

3. I know that many major mfg's of bike seats have designs with channels or holes that are intended to relieve perineum pressure. But they still have that stupid horn. Do these actually work? Why do they retain the horn?
posted by yesster to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total)
yesster, your link isn't working. Did you mean this?
posted by biffa at 5:59 AM on July 8, 2004

Hmmm, that looks interesting, too. But I meant this.
posted by yesster at 6:04 AM on July 8, 2004

There was just an article in the NYT on "serious" bike riding, which presents the claim that the traditional bike seat is the only way to go for serious riding. Reg. required, and the discussion of seats is on the second page.] According to the folks they quote, the seat is only supposed to support your "ischial tuberosities" (the two bones as the bottom of your pelvis), since you're really only supposed to bear about 1/3 of your weight on the seat. 1/3 is supposed to be borne by your feet, and 1/3 of your weight is supposed to on your arms.


Well, I've got one of those new "comfort" bikes, and it's got a gel seat about six inches wide, and it's just great. It still has the horn (which doesn't really make sense on a seat like this), but the fact that it's all gel makes that not such a big deal. I can ride it on family rides for a couple of hours, without getting that disturbing tingling and numbness that I would get on "traditional" seats.

posted by LairBob at 6:27 AM on July 8, 2004

Specialized has a nice Body Geometry line that seems to address some of your concerns.
posted by the fire you left me at 6:45 AM on July 8, 2004

". . . the seat is only supposed to support your "ischial tuberosities"he two bones at the bottom of your pelvis) . . ."

If that were true, then there would be no reason to include the horn, since the horn doesn't support those bones.

That's why the seat I linked to makes sense to me --- find the area of the body that you want to be the interface with the bike seat, and provide a nicely padded support for just that interface.

Anyway . . . in my searches online, I've come across some ridiculously narrow bike seats. They're so narrow and long that it looks like they're intended to mate with your ass crack. And squish your scrotum. ("Lift and separate", anyone?).

So it looks as though the more "serious" you are about biking, the more you have to be willing to damage the most intimate of your intimates. I don't understand why this is so acceptable.
posted by yesster at 6:48 AM on July 8, 2004

If that were true, then there would be no reason to include the horn, since the horn doesn't support those bones.

I always thought the horn was there to keep you from falling off the seat. When going around a curve the thighs squeeze against it to support the rider.

If it's a serious problem for you there's always a recumbant bike.
posted by bondcliff at 6:57 AM on July 8, 2004

Hard saddles really are better, but they do take a considerable amount of time getting used to. I would be in severe pain if I did a century on a "soft" saddle. I've done centuries every day or so for two weeks straight on a hard saddle without any injury.

Soft saddles are ok for rides of 20 to 30 minutes, but beyond that you risk saddle sores, chaffing and brusing of the soft tissues. Hard saddles are designed to minimize contact with your soft fleshy bits, to prevent friction and brusing impact, but maximize firm contact with the bike.

Contact on a hard saddle should come on those two inside bottom edges of your pelvis, your "sit bones" . You can feel them at the back of your perneium, two knobs of bone at the bottom of your butt cheeks about hand-width apart. That's what you want in contact with the saddle.

The main parameters in fitting a hard saddle are width, so your sit bones hit the right parts of the saddle, and the narrowness of the nose, so you don't bang your fleshy bits on every cycle. Probably the most popular saddle in the world is this. Most of the riders on the Tour are probably using some variant of that design. I use a slightly wider one, cause I've got a big ass. The cutouts on the Flite Max are kind of gimmicky. I don't think they do much.
posted by bonehead at 7:13 AM on July 8, 2004

Yesster, you may also like a suspension seatpost such as those made by Post Moderne, which can be fitted to most bikes. Smooths out the rough spots.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:16 AM on July 8, 2004

The nose of the saddle also serves to help steer the bike. When you lean in turns, you push the nose around with your inner thighs. This is how you steer when riding with you hands off the bars.
posted by bonehead at 7:16 AM on July 8, 2004

I have an older version of the Specialized seat that The Fire You Left Me tried to link to above. Mine is on a mountain bike.

I must say it's very comfortable for a couple of reasons, including the elimination of numb nuts and padding in the right places for a boney butt.

It's a shame that Specialized apparently doesn't believe in direct linking to their products.
posted by SteveInMaine at 7:39 AM on July 8, 2004

I've seen bike saddles shaped more like a V than an I. The sit bones rest on either "Arm" of the V and the meaty bits swing freely in between the "arms." I didn't ride on it but for non-serious riders this seems Considerably more comfortable. The theory was that when bikes were first invented the paradigm was from horse saddles, rather than what would actually work best for bike riders, and that the sit-bone resting V-shape is really the best.

But don't ask me. I ride a granny cruiser with a superpadded seat.
posted by pomegranate at 7:43 AM on July 8, 2004

Couple 'o things – the "cycling as cause of erectile dysfunction" study has been attacked as poor science.

Secondly – saddles are shaped as they are so that riders (whether road or mountain) can move fore and aft and side to side as they encounter different terrain and use the saddle as an aid in both steering and balance. The best saddle I've ever ridden (it's a road model, but I used it on my MTB) is the Terry Liberator Ti – quite firm, but comfortable for epic rides. I'm currently riding a Specialized Telluride "body geometry" model that’s quite good.

It takes a few rides to get used to a new saddle, but I can guarantee that if you spend a lot of time on a bike, a well-shaped, firm saddle will be more comfortable than one of those cushy couch models.
posted by jalexei at 8:14 AM on July 8, 2004

yesster, I had a similar problem when I first started cycling. I replaced the seat with one of those Specialized V-shaped seats and kept having problems. Then I realized the seat was tilted at the wrong angle, so the point (i.e., the bottom) of the V was sticking up more than it should. I adjusted the pitch of the seat, and my problems went away.
posted by subgenius at 8:24 AM on July 8, 2004

I've had really good luck with WTB saddles. The first few rides were weird as I got used to the weight distribution, but pretty soon it was serene comfort. For a while, I was concerned that the seat geometry was making my ass bony, but then I realized that it was just that I was riding more and tightening up.
posted by COBRA! at 8:28 AM on July 8, 2004

Then I realized the seat was tilted at the wrong angle, so the point (i.e., the bottom) of the V was sticking up more than it should. I adjusted the pitch of the seat, and my problems went away.

Just wanted to second how much of a difference this can make. A variation of just a few degrees can make it seem like you're on a different seat...
posted by jalexei at 8:40 AM on July 8, 2004

While I was looking for this interesting option (I was thinking of the square RAD seat, but they have apparently gone out of business), I found a page that covers pretty much the whole range of saddles here (no answers, just sort of interesting)

I am of the opinion that your body gets used to a correctly adjusted hard saddle and once it's comfy, you have no problems. (if you want gel to start, get a gel cover so you can remove it when it bothers more than it helps, and pass it on to another friend who's just starting out)
posted by milovoo at 8:49 AM on July 8, 2004

Bonehead and Jalaxei are all over it: the saddle's job isn't solely to serve as a butt-shelf.

I got back on a mountain bike a couple years ago, and found that I was too old (:-) for the saddle it came with; I replaced it with a Schwinn Gel^2 Hollow Point, and I was quite happy with it. it's comfortable enough to ride, and still provides enough control and stay-on-the-bike-ness to be usable.

And yes, carry the angle adjustment wrench in your tool bag; try several angles. About 10 degrees up in front seems to suit me, but I suspect it's a personal thing
posted by baylink at 8:56 AM on July 8, 2004

1. Goldstein, the urologist who condemned cycling, was a publicity hound. I don't take him seriously.

2. As others have commented, bike fit is very important, and gets more important the more you ride. Getting the right height, tilt, and forward extension on your saddle takes a lot of fine-tuning. Ride with a multi-tool in your jersey pocket and experiment.

3. I've had friends who tried 3 or 4 conventional saddles before they found one they liked.

4. As others have commented, you're really supposed to be rocked back a little on the saddle. It takes a couple weeks of regular riding to get used to this position, as is true of other aspects of proper bike position -- having the saddle higher and the handlebars lower than you might want, that sort of thing.
posted by adamrice at 9:12 AM on July 8, 2004

(As an aside, also make sure your saddle height is set correctly. There is a formula for it, but I forget what it is. At the wrong height, you'll fubar your knees but badly.)
posted by five fresh fish at 9:45 AM on July 8, 2004

The rule of thumb is that at full extension, with your foot at more or less 90 degrees, your knee should be slightly bent and over, that is plumb, with the pedal axle. That's just a starting point though, individuals can vary.

If your knees hurt, saddle height (and fore-aft position) is one of the first things to look at.
posted by bonehead at 10:10 AM on July 8, 2004


Try a recumbent bike. Much easier on the neck, shoulders, and wrists.

They cost more. They weigh more. They are worth it. You can get a low end one for $300-$400.

Easy Racers or
posted by mecran01 at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2004

Get 'bent and take the whole something-sticking-into-your-crotch thing out of the equation. The comfort is incomparable.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:31 AM on July 8, 2004

On numbness: traditional bike seats, albeit on a poorly-fitted bike, have made my manly unit lose feeling. That's all the damn science I freaking need.
posted by mecran01 at 10:39 AM on July 8, 2004

Much easier on the neck, shoulders, and wrists.

And much tougher on the back, in my (admittedly limited) experience. Plus you can't see over cars, which is the one huge advantage a bike has (in an urban area at least).
posted by jalexei at 11:53 AM on July 8, 2004

Oh, boy. It's the old "cycling makes you impotent" chestnut. Millions of male cycling enthusiasts all over the world who are also parents might disagree...

If you're getting a sore or numb plumbing region on a regular bike, your bike fit is wrong (unless this is your first couple of days on a bike in 20 years, in which case a short conditioning period is to be expected). This is a very common problem, especially amongst newcomers to cycling. It's not their fault. Most bike shops don't have a clue about proper fitting and the bike industry in general promotes poorly fitting bikes because they sell bikes based on the image of the sport. An experienced racer might be comfortable with their saddle two inches or more above their bars, but 99% of the rest of us won't be.

In my experience, almost all men who are uncomfortable are suffering from one (usually more than one) of the following:

* Handlebars too low. Bay far the commonest mistake. Get them up. Replace the stem if necessary. Anything below level with the seat is more than likely too low. For a novice you want them at least an inch above, untill the back muscles develop sufficient support to lower them. Just because Lance has his bars soo low doesn't mean it's right for everyone. This is where fashion and image overrule sense in the bike industry.

* Saddle too far forward. Ignore the "knee over pedal spindle" folklore - it's meaningless. Again, the bike industry doesn't help by selling seatposts with insufficient setback.

* Increase you're reach. Having got your bars up, get them a bit further away from you. The right amount is a personal thing, you have to experiment. The aim, assuming seat position is now correct, is for your arms to be lightly resting on the bars, taking very little body weight. This is closely rrelated to back strength.

* Not enough TITS (time in the saddle). Like anything, everyone wants the technological fix, when there no substitute for a bit of experience and practice.

* Don't believe the magazines. They're written for athletes (and funded by an industry that wants to sell imitations of what Lance rides), not the average human on a bike. Don't believe the kid in the bike shop; he's read too many magazines.

* Bike too small. All the above often arrives at the conclusion that the bike is overall too small. The saddle can't be moved back enough, the bars can't be moved up and away enough. Industry fashions again have much to answer for. Look at the bikes promoted today and compare with the positions and frame sizes used in the 70s, say.

Cushy, padded seats are a deception. They look comfy when you poke them with your finger in the shop. That's not the same force that your backside is putting on them. That foam /gel/whatever this season's marketing speak calls it is not good enough to support you. Underneath it is a molded plastic hard support with no flex. That's what you're really going to be sitting on, while the squishy stuff is just a good source of chafing. What you really need is a slightly flexible but firm support. They're heavier than plastic, look old-fashioned, look harder than they really are, aren't fashionable, so the magazines, bike makers and shops hate them, and they're surrounded by all sorts of ridiculous myth and rumour, but leather saddles work.

As for the nose, it's essential. It keeps your unsupported floppy bits supported. Without it, they'd be flopping about and you'd get very sore from chafing very soon. You need some support down there, just not as much as directly under your sit-bones. And what what said above about needing it for control, too.

Recumbents are a way to avoid having to think about all this, of course, but can introduce fit problems of their own. They're great fun, although suffer from the same overblown hype that the rest of the industry indulges in. Try to climb a big hill on one, transport on in or on your car, ride one in the rain with a puddle in your lap or carry a camping load on one and you might have second thoughts about them.

Copious volumes have been written about the subtle and non-obvious relationship between feet, backside and hands in fitting a bike. The problem is that every author is biased to a particular type of cycling, be it racing, touring, distance, sprinting, commuting, whatever. In the end, we all have our own biases and style to take into account. Here's some better articles, in my opinion:

Peter Jon White's How To Fit a Bicycle
A good general intro for new or returning cyclists at Rivendell Bicycle Works.
The Myth of KOPS
An article suggesting that the current trend for "cutaway" saddles might not be a good solution, amongst other things.
posted by normy at 12:10 PM on July 8, 2004 [2 favorites]

Why do I only ever spot all the typos after posting? Sorry 'bout that.
posted by normy at 12:14 PM on July 8, 2004

For days out (rather than commuting) I bought a nice pair of shorts (they're actually made by Shimano, I got them on sale); they're lightweight and baggy, have a sewn-in liner made of some stretchy/gauzey material that keeps them in position, and importantly they have chamois leather pads sewn into the backside and up the crotch, which help a lot. I have no experience with gel pads, but the chammy copes very well with sweat, and seems to cushion very well.
posted by carter at 12:44 PM on July 8, 2004

... stretchy/gauzey material that helps keeps things in position ...
posted by carter at 12:46 PM on July 8, 2004

Bonehead's advice is not bone headed. That Flight Ti saddle is the greatest. You can probably find a much better price too. You do not want a cushy saddle or you will get saddle sores. After enough riding, several months for me, your ass accommodates and it feels very comfortable. As you get stronger and ride harder more of your weight will be supported on your feet which also helps relieve you aching tush. In the meantime, stand up and pedal every now and then to get a little relief. Good shorts also help. I like Pearl Izumi's better shorts. They have a great pad, although they don't wear well and some people find they bind at the side of the crotch. Plan on spending about as much on good shorts as on a good saddle, especially for bib shorts which many find more comfortable. I think that a synthetic chamois beats a leather one. For heated discussion on the topic look up the chamois and leather on the Google group archives of
posted by caddis at 4:29 PM on July 8, 2004

"Recumbents are a way to avoid having to think about all this, of course, but can introduce fit problems of their own. They're great fun, although suffer from the same overblown hype that the rest of the industry indulges in. Try to climb a big hill on one, transport on in or on your car, ride one in the rain with a puddle in your lap or carry a camping load on one and you might have second thoughts about them."

Recumbents are heavier, unless you want to spend a lot of money. They use different muscles, and you aren't going to climb well without putting in a lot of practice and learning to spin, something many upright riders "avoid having to think about." The benefits are probably best felt after riding long distances, when you will just not hurt as much. You can also blow out your knees if you don't spin, because when you push off the pedals you aren't lifted off the seat, but rather into the back of the seat. Many bent tour-ers use those Yak trailers, but there are bents that can hang a lot of gear.

Visibility problems depend on the type of recumbent. There are racers that hug the ground, for example. Of course, if you are slightly reclined you are generally seeing more of the road, more comfortably, than riding a "wedgy" and staring at the six inches in front of your tire. That said, there are some urban commuting routes where it makes a lot more sense to ride a mountain bike with slicks. Or take the light rail.

I like my cheap bent, but that doesn't mean I won't get a suspended mtb for the dirt trails in my area.

A recumbent is just one tool in the bucket, not the solution to every problem. My wrists would hurt even on properly fitted uprights. I am freakishly tall and have no rear end.

a faired bent. very dry. Here.
posted by mecran01 at 5:07 PM on July 8, 2004

The benefits are probably best felt after riding long distances, when you will just not hurt as much.

I think we'll just have to agree to disagree, mecran01. I've ridden both and wouldn't consider a recumbent for a century or randonee in anything but the flatest country. They are more comfortable on the flat, in cooler weather. On longer rides in hillier country, I've found them more tiring. It's not a spinning thing, it's a weight thing. For what it's worth, I rarely find myself hurting on a long ride on my regular bike, because it fits properly. Tired, sure, but not hurting. Nor staring at the road in front of the front wheel - I've no aspirations to the arse-in-the-air time-trial aesthetic.

Faired recumbents are wonderfully fast, great fun, expensive, can be hell in hot weather, and unless you have a dedicated storage space, regrettably impractical for many uses. I guess the thing about recumbents that puts me slightly on edge is that their riders are often so evangelical about them. As if they solve every possible cycling scenario, and it just ain't so.

I am freakishly tall and have no rear end.

Then I'm not surprised you have fit problems. Most bike makers simply don't bother catering to either ends of the height spectrum. No surprise that most custom framebuilders get a good portion of their business from very tall and very short people. Making a too small off the shelf bike fit a taller rider can sometimes be done, within limits, but rarely as satisfactorily as getting the frame right in the first place.

just one tool in the bucket

Amen. The great thing about cycling is that you can have a different, well made bike for every use you care for, for less than the cost of a single car. Everyone's different and in the end all that matters is people find what they like and ride more.
posted by normy at 5:52 PM on July 8, 2004

mecran01, could you clarify "learning to spin" please? What is "spinning?"
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:01 PM on July 8, 2004

Spinning is getting your pedals spinning fast. A good cadence is about 90 rpm. Lance Armstrong spins even faster and it seems to work for him. When climbing gets tough many riders just stand for a little extra oomph, and it also gets a few different muscles involved. This is not an option on a bent. The other way to keep from getting bogged down when climbing is to get into a really low gear and spin your pedals fast. The natural tendency is to slow your cadence when climbing even though you might have downshifted a few gears. You are more efficient generally if you keep your cadence high while climbing.
posted by caddis at 6:39 PM on July 8, 2004

I always hit these bike related posts late... but I'll add my thoughts.

After buying a road bike earlier this year to supplement mt biking the seat thing was kind of a troublesome topic. If you ask about seats in any bike related forum (my fav being you’ll get 50 different answers from 50 different people. Simple answer everyone's butt is different so it's ultimately a matter of personal preference. Your best bet is to find a local bike shop that may have some second hand saddles or some OEM models they've taken off of floor models that you might be able to take for a test ride.

Your main issue is finding one that supports your sit bones the best. Too narrow and you'll be resting on soft tissue, too wide and you'll probably be rubbing your inner thighs which will lead to discomfort. Also reading up on proper bike fit will pay off huge when you finally get your bike dialed in, these problems just melt away and it'll feel great.

I went through 4 saddles before I settled on a leather Brooks. Took some time to break in but I can hardly feel it during rides now.
posted by asterisk at 7:42 PM on July 8, 2004

Oh, god, let's emphasize what caddis just said.

Nothing pains me more than watching some dummy ruin his knees because he's riding uphill and doesn't have the common good sense to shift gears.


[looks at own knees. sighs.]
posted by five fresh fish at 7:58 PM on July 8, 2004

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