Saddle Swap: Guide to a Good Fit

So far I’ve had three bike saddles and they’ve all ended in duct tape. I can’t tell you what brand they were because I have no idea. Brand, style, quality — these are not the subtleties of cycling that tend to capture my attention. If the bike has something you can sit on, then that’s the saddle; if the wheels roll, then it’s totally rideable. When the saddle starts to rip apart, you just duct tape it back together and keep going. 

This practice has gotten me many thousands of miles on wild and winding routes around the world. It’s also gotten me saddle sores, chafing, and some very tender moments in very tender places.

I’ve now been touring independently for about 14 years, and I just recently got a bike saddle that actually feels comfortable (a used Selle Anatomica gifted by my friend Dave — thanks Dave!). I’ve logged about 800 miles on it, and so far the difference is really shocking. It actually doesn’t hurt when I ride! This has been such a pleasant revelation that it’s inspired a heartfelt curiosity about what makes a bike saddle comfortable. The following are some of the things I now know (and that I wish I had known sooner) about choosing a bike saddle.

How Does a Bike Saddle Work?

Chairs are comfortable when they are big and wide and cushy. You can plop yourself into one and just hang out there for however long you want. Maybe you’ll shift your weight one way or another, but motion is ultimately limited. The point of a chair is to hold you in a sedentary position.

Bikes, however, are meant to move you. When you push the pedals, the bike rolls forward; if you stop doing this, the bike eventually falls over. Bikes are designed to support active motion in a way that chairs are not. A well-fitting bicycle does this by balancing you equally on three points of contact: hands, butt, and feet. A good saddle is comfortable when it positions you correctly on your sit bones, allows space for sensitive soft tissues, and provides room for your legs to move freely without chafing.

Different riding positions and riding styles require your body to move in different ways. A road cyclist riding pavement sits differently on a saddle than a mountain biker shredding singletrack. These differences in position and riding style translate to different angles of pressure on the sit bones and pelvic area. Bike saddles made for touring, racing, and mountain biking are designed differently to accommodate this.

Bodies also come in all shapes and sizes, and this is where the type of body you have can be an important factor in saddle design and selection. Often, female bodies have wider sit bones that also extend at a wider angle than males bodies do. This affects the way sit bones rest on a bike saddle. Bike saddles that are designed specifically for female bodies tend to be slightly wider because of this. They may also have wider cutouts in the center to provide extra room for the soft tissues of the vulva.

One important thing to remember is that statistical differences in body type do not apply to every individual. Men are statistically taller than women, but we all know some men who are shorter and some women who are taller. Pelvic bone structure is also variable, regardless of sex. The most important part of the equation is how the saddle feels to you as an individual.

What Is Normal Pain?

After reading lots of articles about crotch anatomy and asking lots of cyclists how their butts feel, I now know that saddle pain is an extremely common complaint among cyclists! Lots and lots of people struggle to find a bike saddle that is comfortable for them. And even when cycling feels uncomfortable, lots of folks just assume that this is normal for cycling.

If you are new to riding, if you are breaking in a new saddle, or if you are pedaling long, hard days, some amount of discomfort is normal. Your butt has to adjust to the contour of the saddle, and the saddle has to adjust to the contour of your butt (this is particularly the case for leather saddles, which mold to your body’s shape over time). You may feel a little bit sore while you ride or after you dismount. But this feeling should go away and get better over time. Even though cycling can sometimes hurt, it should never hurt you. It should never cause severe pain or actual damage to your nether regions, and if it does, that is a problem you can fix.

Some of the most common complaints by women for saddle-related pain are saddle sores, chafing, painful swelling of the vulva, and extreme soreness of the sit bones. Even though these issues are common, they are also fixable, so they really shouldn’t be considered “normal” pain.

So if cycling actually is hurting you, what can you do to fix this? Your three main considerations will be the overall fit of your bike, the clothes and creams you put on your body, and the type of saddle you ride.

Bike Fit

If your bike doesn’t fit you correctly, no saddle will fit you correctly either. The first step in troubleshooting saddle pain is learning how to adjust your bike yourself, or getting it fit in a bike shop. This doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out hundreds of dollars for a professional fitting service. It just means having some experienced eyes take a look at what you’ve got to make sure you’re hitting some basic adjustment ratios.

Clothes and Creams

Sometimes chafing, saddle sores, and a certain amount of soreness can be prevented with padded shorts and/or chamois cream. These are relatively easy fixes that can go a long way. Bike shorts are most effective when they fit you snugly and are worn as your primary layer. You can layer something over them, but not under them — this means no underwear!

Saddle Selection

If you’ve checked the adjustment of your bike, experimented with padded shorts and chamois cream, ridden long enough to get used to the normal motion and pressure of cycling, and you still have saddle pain, then it’s time to look at a new saddle.

Hard vs. Soft

If you are experiencing saddle pain, then you may be tempted to go for a saddle that looks softer. But soft saddles may not necessarily prevent saddle pain. Too much cushioning can allow your body to move around more, which causes more chafing. And as your body sinks into the padding, this can put even more pressure on your soft tissues. This is why many saddles designed for long-distance riding are actually quite firm or are only padded in specific places. Saddles that are designed for female bodies may be padded in slightly different places than saddles designed for male bodies.

Center Cutouts

One consideration in saddle design that is especially relevant for female bodies is the presence and width of a center cutout within the saddle itself. This cutout provides extra space for the sensitive tissues of the vulva. Some bodies have a larger vulva (called an outie) and others have a smaller vulva (called an innie). Bodies with an outie vulva are often more sensitive to pressure in that area and may favor a wider center cutout. But this is a highly individual preference — others find that cutouts actually compress those soft tissues even more. You really have to try the saddle to know what works for your own body.

Width

Some bike shops and saddle companies have tools to measure the width of your sit bones. This can help you determine which saddle width will work best for you. Curvier bodies do not necessarily have wider sit bones, so this measurement is not something you would be able to determine just by guessing. In lieu of an exact measurement, do some riding and see where your sit bones feel like they land on the saddle.

Or try this method?

When in Doubt, Lisa Will Help You

There are so many bike saddles on the market that choosing one can be an overwhelming process. This is where Lisa comes in. Because if you don’t know what saddle to choose, Lisa will help you.

This is perhaps the most valuable nugget of information in this entire article. Bike saddle companies want you to feel good riding their saddles. They design different styles of saddles for different styles of riding. They also know you are an individual person with a unique butt. So they often employ real, experienced humans who will talk to you for as long as you want about how your butt relates to their saddles. I personally talked with Lisa from Terry for about 40 minutes on this exact subject, and let me tell you, it was a great conversation.

Terry is a woman-founded cycling company that designs and sells female-bodied-specific bike gear, including saddles. Lisa has been working there for 10 years. She used to train people for 100-mile races; she’s now in her 50s and still loves to ride. She walked me through the saddle selection process to narrow down my options to specific saddles. We chatted at length about soft tissue pain and had quite a few chuckles about underwear. I felt comfortable asking her anything, and this made a huge difference. When you feel comfortable asking specific questions about sensitive areas, you’re probably a lot more likely to find a saddle that actually fits those sensitive areas.

Be Ready to Return It

It’s a good idea to have an expert help you narrow your options in the right direction. But it is a bad idea to expect that the first saddle they recommend will necessarily work for you. It may or it may not.

At some point, saddle selection is a process of guess and check. You have to ride on the thing long enough — Lisa recommends four or five individual bike rides — to get a true feel for what you’re sitting on. This is why it’s so important to buy a new saddle that comes with a return policy. You really won’t know if it works until you try it. At the end of the day, you are still the world’s biggest expert on your own butt.

Some bike shops like Gladys Bikes in Portland even have a saddle library where you can try out any saddle in the library for a week until you find the one that's right for you. 

A Final Note On Duct Tape

When I look back on all the miles I’ve ridden on rickety, beat-up bike saddles, I really wouldn’t change it for the world. At those times in my life, I just needed to go. If I had had to stop and worry about the nuances and expense of new bike gear, it might have stalled or even prevented some of my most favorite trips. I have no regrets about going in the exact way that I went.

However, if I could magically go back in time and give myself one gift from the future, it would definitely be a well-fitting bike saddle!

Saddle Selection Flow Chart

  1. Make sure your bike is adjusted to fit your body.
  2. Try a good pair of padded shorts and/or chamois cream. Throw out your underwear.
  3. Call Lisa (or your local bike shop) and tell her everything. Try out the saddle she recommends.
  4. If the saddle feels good, celebrate with a bike ride. If it doesn’t, send it back and repeat steps four and five until you find what works for you.
  5. Never give up!
     
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Comments

Siobhan April 21, 2020, 9:43 AM

After rotating through several saddles, none of which didn't begin to hurt after a certain number of miles (including one selected after a fitting), I discovered the Selle Anatomica last year on a friend's recommendation, and it's been blissful union.

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