How to choose the right saddle fit

Riding a bike is only fun when it’s comfortable. Therefore it’s important you pay attention to your contact points. Your feet, your hands and your bum. In this article we’ll dig into saddle fit in detail so you understand how they work. We’ll also see why a correct fit matters and choosing the correct one for you.

A comfortable saddle is crucial for occasional leisure riders all the way upto top level pro’s who spend in excess of 20 hours a week on theirs. It’s a crucial contact point with some ‘delicate’ areas of your body to consider and look after.

Lets start by talking about how a saddle works, why different types of riding require different saddle shapes, why women’s saddles are a class of their own and the construction and features of a saddle. I will also dispel some myths around saddles, including what not to do with yours to achieve comfort. Finally, I’ll walk you through how to choose the best bike seat, including my tips on how to determine what shape and size of saddle you need.

But before we do, let me just highlight a couple of caveats to bear in mind throughout this discussion.

Caveat #1 – Everyone has some discomfort some of the time.

If you are new to cycling or had an extended period of time off. Even if you know the saddle fits you like a glove, your behind ‘forgets’ what its like to sit on one and you will have to endure some discomfort until your bum and the saddle get to know each other again. A few rides is enough normally.

Caveat #2 – There is only one of you

You are a unique specimen. Only one of you exists therefore just like your fingerprints, your behind, it’s shape and size are unique to you. Unless you 3D print a bespoke saddle, trying to match a saddle intended for, effectively, similar shaped derrieres can sometimes lead to some shapes intended for you not being as comfortable as others.

Saddle fit matters (a lot)

Lets be honest, incorrect saddle fit can vary from a mild niggle to a debilitatingly painful seat at the dinner table. Our individual body shapes and sizes are only part of the puzzle when choosing a saddle. Your riding style, the type of cycling you do and your level of flexibility will affect your decision too.

Do a quick search online and there are so many brands and models available. And with a cost attached to what you go for, it can be a daunting exercise making sure your investment in ride comfort is a sound one.

Correct saddle fit is pretty straightforward. You are trying to achieve no discomfort when you ride regardless of where or how long. And thats it

Mythbuster #1 – Saddles are always uncomfortable

Wrong! It’s a common myth that bike saddles are inherently uncomfortable which sadly puts some people off. The truth is (see Caveat #1 above) there is always some discomfort initially then you get used to sitting on it and away you go! #painfree

If pain persists (weeks), the saddle doesn’t fit and there is nothing you can do to change that other than changing the saddle itself.

How should a saddle work

When you sit down on anything. A chair, a bench, the floor. It is your sit bones at the lowest point in the pelvis that support your body’s weight, and these are absolutely crucial for saddle fit.

pelvis sit bones

Additionally when in your riding position, the perineal area for men and the pubic bone arch for women may also rest on the saddle. These areas of your anatomy can hold a small amount of weight but pressure reduction here is critical to avoid numbness and pain.

Sit bone widths in humans vary, and therefore saddle manufacturers often produce models in a range of widths. Also, women generally have a wider pelvis than men (childbirth) and therfore have wider sit bones and require a wider saddle.

A saddle thats too narrow can force your sit bones out and cause undue pressure. An aching feeling is common. Go too wide and you risk chafing and soreness.

How are women’s saddles different?

It’s true that some women are fine on unisex saddles. We are all unique remember! but a lot of women prefer a women’s specific saddle too. They have slightly different shapes, including central grooves or a cut-out, as well as different densities and areas of padding specific to women’s anatomy. They are supportive where they need to be. Sit bones and pressure relief around softer tissue areas.

Why do some saddles have a cut out?

Central grooves or cut-outs are a common sight on saddles now. They help to reduce soft tissue pressure in the genital area for riders but can also help to reduce the pressure on the perineal area (men) or the pubic bone arch (women). A bit of trial and error may be required here to determine how big a cut out or groove you need.

Saddle type differences

Differences between saddles for different disciplines relate mostly to riding position, which not only depends on what type of bike you’re riding but also how you ride it.

A road cyclist competing in a road race is likely to have a much more aggressive position compared to a road cyclist on a long-distance tour, for example. This position dictates the rider’s hip angle, which will affect how the pelvis interacts with the saddle, and hence what shape is best. More ‘aggressive positions or bending further forward will mean a tighter hip angle. Flatter, longer saddles tend to work best here.

hip angle position on a bike
Your riding position affects your hip angle. – Thomas McDaniel / Immediate Media

Saddles with a curved profile are often favoured by riders in a more upright endurance position with a hip angle more open. These are commonly used by gravel riders, commuters or trail riders.

Additionally, aside from the shape of the seat itself, you may find that some saddle shapes have features designed to reduce vibration, such as flexible wings where sit bones rest.

Further Reading

Saddle anatomy 101. What do I get if I spend more?

1. Shell

The shell of the saddle is the hard seat base that determines its basic shape. A combination of the material and shape will dictate how much it will flex when seated on it.

Cheaper saddles will be made from a type of plastic, or maybe a fibre-reinforced polymer. More expensive saddles will have a carbon-fibre shell. Carbon fibre shells tend to be lighter and stronger than their plastic of polymer counterparts and why they are more expensive to buy.

Oxford Saddle SA953

2. Rails

The rails of the saddle run underneath the shell and are connected either end of the saddle. Around midway a horizontal section of the rail is where the seat is clamped to a seatpost. The horizontal section is usually long enough to allow adjustment of the saddle forwards and backwards in the clamp. Some saddle rails have marks that denote the clamp limits.

Cheaper saddles have steel or cro-mo alloy rails, while mid-range and top-end saddles tend to opt for manganese alloys, titanium or carbon-fibre. The quality of the rails material are one of the main determinants of a saddle’s price, and can also offer significant weight savings as you spend more.

TIP: For carbon rail saddles, check compatibility with your seat clamp as they may have oval-shaped rails instead of round.

Oxford Saddle SA956

3. Cover / Padding

The cover is the outermost layer of the saddle and is the material part you actually sit on which encloses the padding. Saddle covers are made from a variety of materials including real leather but more commonly they are synthetic with a variety of surface embelishments to try and inhibit you from slipping when seated.

While thick, soft padding may seem like the obvious solution for comfort, over the course of a ride (and time) this compresses, deforming around your anatomy, and can end up putting pressure on the soft tissue areas.

Saddle manufacturers use pressure mapping to determine where to place padding, which can range from simple foam to gel, or even memory foam. More expensive saddles will use better materials and will be better placed.

Cheaper saddles tend to focus more on padding. Most will have some padding, but there are riders who are happy on a hard, padding-free seats because the shape is so suited to their anatomy. These are definitely not for everyone, but reinforces the importance of saddles with correct size and shape to get the comfort you want.

Cube Natural Fit Nuance Saddle 11556

4. Channels and cut-out’s

Many saddles on the market now feature pressure-relieving channels down the centre or oblong holes called cut-outs. The theory behind them is to relieve soft tissue pressure and to improve blood flow to reduce numbness. Something to consider if you suffer from this when riding. If you don’t get numb you can use these types of saddle too. It comes down to what works for you and personal preference.


How to choose the right saddle for you

The number of makes and model of saddle on the market is vast. Finding the right one for you is a challenge but worth taking a bit of time to get right like any other contact point on the bike.

Here’s how I would go about choosing the right saddle for your needs.

1. What kind of riding are you doing?

Ask yourself the question. Even for the same person, the requirements from a saddle will differ for different types of riding. For example, you don’t tend to find the saddle on a road bike for racing crits be the same as the saddle on an MTB. Considering this will help you determine roughly what shape of saddle to go for. Saddles tend to be classed by discipline so I would recommend you use a saddle for what the brand or manufacturer intends.

If you’re a road rider who slides forward during efforts, a saddle with a flat profile and wide, flat nose might be best. If you sit a bit more upright on your bike (Leisure, Commuting, MTB) and don’t move around too much, something slightly wider with a curved profile might offer more comfort.

2. Consider your anatomy

Given that men and women are so anatomically different, most brands make women’s-specific saddles to accommodate this. There are a few women out there who are perfectly comfortable on a unisex saddle but most women tend to go for a womens specific one.

3. Saddle width and shape

Your saddle is designed to support your sit bones, and as we’re all different, many saddles come in different shapes and widths.

Excluding the cheapest, some mid-tier and upward saddle manufacturers have their own fit system to help you find the right saddle in its range. This is usually used to determine your sit bone width and use this to match you to a suitable model in their range.

Decent retailers will have a device to measure the distance between your sit bones without being intrusive: usually a gel or memory foam pad that you sit on, so your sit bones leave an impression that can then be measured. More advanced saddle fits use measuring calipers.

DIY sit bone measurement

If you can’t find a shop with these advanced tools though, don’t be dismayed, you can take this measurement at home using a piece of aluminium foil.

  1. Place a sheet of foil on carpeted stairs. This is so your sit bones can compress the foil into the carpet. Hard wood stairs won’t work.
  2. Sit down and pick up you feet off the ground so your sit bones sink into the foil and carpet.
  3. When you stand up there should be two depressions left by your sit bones.
  4. Measure the distance between the centres of the depressions in mm.
  5. Add 25 to 30mm to find your ideal saddle width.

4. Test rides are best

In conjunction with saddle-fit systems, many shops may have a fleet of test saddles you can fit to take for a test ride. This is hands down the best way to find your most comfortable saddle. Look out for any initial discomfort, numbness and any pressure on soft tissue areas. The saddle should fit so that you don’t notice that you are sat on it!

If you can take a demo saddle away for a few rides, great but if you can’t it’s best to spend at least an hour riding it because it will take your body time to adjust as well as giving longer-term niggles time to manifest themselves too.

Other options aside from test saddles are schemes where you can try the saddle for an extended period of time and return it if you’re not satisfied. These will be brand specific though.

a selection of test saddles by Selle Italia

5. How much money do you have to spend?

The amount you spend on a saddle depends on the materials used. More money will mean a lighter, stronger saddle with a better chance of getting the fit right. Cheaper saddles tend to focus on padding more than shape for comfort. Without a fit-system to help you, cheaper saddles may require a bit more trial and error to get right.

Entry-level saddles with polymer shells and alloy rails can be very reasonably priced, and the weight difference won’t add up to much in the context of a whole bike. Other features such as a cut-outs or grooves tend to add a layer of complexity to manufacture of it so will probably inflate the price a bit.

How can I make my saddle more comfortable?

Moving your saddle forwards or backwards on its rails (within the safety limits shown) will affect your reach to the bars and how you are positioned on the bike. Move it back and you will be stretched out a bit more tightening your hip angle. Moving it forward will open your hips and but will make your quads work a bit harder. Some riders that get back ache on a ride can be helped by moving the saddle forwards or backwards, up and down.

A level saddle is comfortable for most and how it’s designed to be fitted, although some riders can benefit from a slight tilt of the nose downwards which can help releive some soft-tissue pressure. However, too much tilt and you might find you are always slipping forward and having to push yourself back which, in turn, puts additional pressure on your hands and wrists. Saddle height is important too.

saddle adjustment

If you really want to dial in comfort and efficiency, a professional bike fit is a great idea. These often incorporate specific attention to saddle shape, size and fit too. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a bit of padding in your shorts too. Either a pad built into the short or a padded liner.

Mythbuster #2 – Padded gel saddle covers will help

Wrong! Although it might seem like a cheap way to make your saddle more comfortable, covers will most likely have the opposite effect. My advice is don’t do it. Use the money towards a better fitting saddle instead.

Ultimately, remember that your saddle should be totally comfortable for hours on end. No aches, no pains, no chafing just miles of painless pedalling. By experimenting with different models and positions and narrowing down your options with a sit bone width measurement, you’re sure to find the perfect match for your bum and your bike.

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