Why do cyclists insist on razor-sharp rock hard saddles then walk about in padded shorts? Why not just a nice padded saddle?
By: Drew Greaves
I’ve often wondered, why do cyclists insist on using rock hard saddles instead of a nice, padded saddle? After all, they look quite miserable to sit on for any period of time, so how in the world can cyclists not only tolerate riding on them for long periods of time, but also enjoy it?
Well, I did some digging, and I learned that saddle comfort is primarily about the shape and fit of the saddle rather than the amount of padding a saddle has. In fact, on many bikes, lower-profile saddles (i.e. less padded saddles) often end up being more comfortable than softer ones with more cushion because less-padded saddles typically put the body in a better position for cycling. Sitting in the proper position then ensures that you don’t pinch any nerves or irritate any other sensitive areas.
THE SADDLE-BODY INTERACTION
The key to saddle comfort is proper weight distribution. Because there isn’t much surface area to sit on (even on the biggest, most padded saddles), it’s important to make every square inch count. This is why bicycle saddles are designed to take advantage of the rider’s “sit bones.”
“Sit bones,” of course, is the everyday term for the part of the body that should contact your saddle. The anatomical term is the ischial tuberosities, which are the bony projections that you can find and feel in the middle of the glute muscle. The sit bones are the main point of contact between your body and the saddle. This is why bike saddles are widest at the back and why the sides often curve downward.
Ultimately, you’ll want to find a saddle that, when you sit on it, you feel your weight coming down on the sit bones. The sit bones provide a very stable and insensitive point of contact between your body and the saddle.
It’s also important to keep in mind exactly what you’re asking of your body when you sit on the saddle. You’re essentially supporting more than half of your body weight on an area that, when you think about it, is really small! It also doesn’t have any back support. So, all there is to support your weight is an area not much wider than your hand is long!
But the reason that cyclists can tolerate sitting on such small saddles for long periods of time is because the sit bones don’t get irritated by the body weight that they’re supporting. On the other hand, if your saddle doesn’t contact your sit bones in quite the right way, you’ll end up placing most if not all of your weight on the soft tissue in that area, such as the perineum, which is a recipe for discomfort at the least and nerve damage at the most!
PLUSH V. FIRM SADDLES
Once I learned that the most important part of saddle comfort was fit, and the factors that went into finding a good fit, I began to realize exactly why cyclists tend to use hard, low-profile saddles instead of plush, cushioned ones.
Remember that saddle comfort is all about support. If your body weight isn’t supported on the saddle properly, then you could have the most cushioned saddle ever made and still not be comfortable riding on it. This is the problem with overly-plush saddles. There’s so much cushion that it prevents your body weight from resting on the sit bones like it’s supposed to. Instead, you’ll tend to “float” around on the saddle without ever finding the right position. In other words, all that cushion gets in the way!
On the other hand, even though low-profile saddles don’t look comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, they do a much better job of allowing the body to support itself. By providing nothing more than a stable platform, harder saddles do all they need to do by, basically, staying out of the way and allowing the body to take care of itself as it’s designed to do!
DIFFERENT SADDLES FOR DIFFERENT RIDING STYLES
If you set out to do your own research into bicycle saddles, be prepared for information overload! Perhaps predictably, there are hundreds of different models to choose from made by dozens of different manufacturers for all kinds of riding styles.
But boiled down, I learned that, as a general rule, the faster a bike is designed to go, the harder the saddle will be. It turns out this is largely for the reasons we’ve already talked about earlier; it’s all about position on the bike.
Bikes that are designed to go fast like road bikes and hybrid bikes tend to place the rider in a lower, more aggressive position, with more of the rider’s weight distributed toward the front of the bike. This causes the rider’s pelvis to tilt forward, which, without the proper saddle, will cause the rider to place too much weight on sensitive soft tissue instead of the sit bones. But with the proper hard, low-profile saddle, the saddle will pretty much stay out of the way and allow the body to do its work.
On the other hand, comfort bikes like cruisers are designed to place the rider in a more upright position. In many cases, saddles with a bit more cushion can be more comfortable on these types of bikes. But interestingly, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a harder saddle would be any less comfortable on a cruiser than on a road bike! Rather, many manufacturers spec their comfort bikes with plush saddles because it’s what people think they need to be comfortable on the bike. But you and I now know that isn’t always the case!
The choice of a saddle often involves lots of trial and error. It sure did for me! I went through at least five different saddles on my favorite bike before I found one that is finally the right shape for my body. But once you find the right one, you’ll never want to ride anything different. I know I won’t—I now have that saddle on three different bikes, and I plan to keep using it as long as I can!
I hope you’ve found this post helpful in learning a little about why cyclists tend to use hard saddles over plush ones. The right saddle can be the difference between loving and hating cycling, and I hope you can now find the perfect saddle to make your time on your bike a bit more enjoyable.
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