Are you sitting comfortable?
Getting the right saddle is vital for comfort and performance, not to mention your ability to procreate, but finding the right one can be proper pain the…
What kind of relationship do you have with your saddle? For some, it’s like an arranged marriage – you simply accept the one that comes with your bike and learn to live with it. Others will change their saddle regularly, always trying something new, like an internet dater in search of the perfect partner.
It’s not always easy to tell whether you’ll get on with a saddle by looks alone (or weight, for that matter), and considering the intimate nature of the relationship between rider and saddle, it’s important to take the time to see if you work well together and feel comfortable after long periods in each other’s company. Especially if you’re thinking of having kids…
Protecting the perineum
Allow us to scaremonger for a moment. In 1997 in the prominent US magazine Bicycling, a famous Boston urologist made a bold claim: ‘There are only two kinds of male cyclists – those who are impotent and those who will be impotent.’ As for female cyclists, the potential damage is similarly worrying. The reason is down to the pressure that saddles exert on the sensitive arteries and nerves that run through your perineum –the area that sits right behind your sexual organs. Crushing them regularly on a narrow seat can lead to permanent damage.
Dr Iain Spears at Teesside University published a paper on the effect of the saddle on the perineum. ‘The problem is that your body isn’t designed to have high loads on your perineum, unlike your foot which has got unique adaptations for high loads of stress,’ he says. ‘Obviously that delicate region of your body doesn’t have that sort of protective mechanism – evolution hasn’t fully equipped us for bike riding. The saddle pushes up the soft tissues of the pubic arch, cutting off circulation. That numbness you feel is a sign of the kind of permanent nerve damage that can lead to sexual dysfunction.’
It’s a scary statement and, after a flurry of scientific studies agreed that the risks of saddle use are real, manufacturers have been increasingly addressing the problem of blood flow in riders’ lower regions. Most visibly, that can be seen in the abundance of saddles with a cut-out or channel down the middle.
The principle behind this channel is fairly straightforward – to remove pressure from the perineum and force stronger parts of your body to offer more support. ‘If you follow your hamstrings up your legs, where they connect to your pelvis, you’ll find the ischial tuberosity. That’s actually designed for load – it’s what you sit on all day,’ says Spears. A hole in the saddle relocates pressure to the ischial tuberosities, better known as the sit bones, with a view to solving the problem of genital numbness. Indeed, some saddles have taken the concept to its natural extreme, such as Selle Italia’s Superflow SLR, which looks to be more hole than saddle.
The cut out saddle seems like an ideal solution to perineum problems, but there
are potential flaws in the concept. Hamish Bingley of Fi’zi:k argues that with a shape that’s adequately moulded, there’s no need for a supplementary cut out: ‘We don’t want to reduce the contact area because in doing so you would, by definition, increase pressure on the part of your backside that’s going to go down on the saddle.’
Fi’zi:k isn’t alone in that view. Yannick Christiaens, product manager at Forza saddles, says, ‘In some of the pressure tests we’ve done, some of our competitors located holes or cut-outs in areas where there was no pressure. So it was odd to remove material there as you decrease the surface area, meaning you will get higher peak pressures somewhere else – that will hurt over time.’ As a result Forza only offers cut-outs for women’s saddles. ‘Our lady line of saddles has a cut out, as that’s more an issue of friction in that area,’ says Christiaens.
Interestingly, many saddles actually have the structural design of a cut-out, but cover it with the external fabric of the saddle, leaving no visible hole. That offers potentially softer spots but without entirely removing the support that a mild level of surface contact offers. It means that you can’t always judge perineum protection from looks alone.
Another solution to shifting the weight over to the sit bones is to remove the nose of the saddle altogether. Several manufacturers create saddles with no nose, such as ISM, which has created a range of saddles with two prongs where the nose would be, and Dash, whose Strike.9 saddle has a blunt butt in place of a nose. The design has been tried on and off for decades, but has most recently been supported by the findings of a comically named study called Cutting Off Your Nose To Save Your Penis, published in the Journal Of Sexual Medicine. That said, the study was based on a sample group of patrolling police officers, so the significance for race riders may be a little more complex.
A final area where many would seek a better level of relief would be through extra padding. Unfortunately, though, the picture isn’t clear here either. Excess padding can actually exacerbate the problem, says Forza’s Christiaens:‘We focus on optimising material distribution to ensure different densities in different parts of the saddle depending on where support is needed, or else the saddle can mould around the sit bones rather than assert pressure against them, putting pressure back on the perineum.’
That’s a view shared by both Fi’zi:k and Prologo. Salvatore Truglio of Prologo says, ‘We design multiple density padding to provide softer padding in some places or firm support in others. That means we can share the pressure all over the saddle’s surface to avoid pressure peaks in the
pelvic area, improving blood flow.’
What that means, then, is that prodding a saddle for softness is likely to offer little insight into comfort or protection for your nether regions. And there’s another negative, according to Adrian Timmis, ex-pro, coach and bike fitter with Cadence Sport. ‘You don’t want something that’s going to compress or bend too much because you’re going to end up losing leg extension and losing power,’ he says.
There may be no quick fix for perineum pain and numbness from the saddle, but looking at the wider picture can be more useful in addressing the troubles.
‘It’s a whole dynamic system,’ Spears says. ‘Obviously the more weight on your handlebars and on the pedals the less will be applied to the perineum.’ Which is
where a good bike fitter comes in.
Timmis reckons the wider fit of the bike is often to blame for discomfort: ‘People blame the saddle for a lot of things, but the level of comfort is often just as dependent on the position of the handlebars and brake levers.’
Usually people are too quick to jump to the conclusion that the saddle is at fault, he says. ‘If I was to somehow change the position of your handlebars while you ride, you would probably begin to feel uncomfortable on the saddle. But generally you won’t blame the handlebars for that, you’ll blame the saddle, which is not addressing the real problem.’
Protecting your privates isn’t just about the type of saddle and the bike set-up, but also about how much you move around on the bike. Spears argues that it’s an issue of compression and duration together.
‘If you’re not pushing hard on your pedals and not changing position on the saddle or standing up, that will create more strain on the perineum. It’s not down to compression alone – it’s how long that’s happening for and whether your body gets a bit of respite.’
Movement, then, can be one solution to perineum trouble, but the type of movement you make while you pedal will also play a big part in what kind of saddle you need.
Suiting the shape
Scary sexual problems aside, the saddle is pivotal to the dynamics of riding. If a saddle causes you to move too much, or restricts your freedom of movement, it can cause referred stresses in other parts of the body.
Manufacturers now design saddles with various riding styles in mind. Some riders will move their pelvis more than others during the pedal stroke, while some will ride with a more curved spine than others. Those variables affect the type of saddle needed for that rider. Several brands offer saddle designs specific to each rider type, with an entirely custom approach to the buying process.
Fi’zi:k, for example, has a three-tier system in which it categorises riders as ‘snakes’, ‘chameleons’ or ‘bulls’, with the former being more spinally flexible and the latter less flexible. PRO has an uncannily similar categorisation with its Falcon, Turnix and Griffon saddles, which also take flexibility and hip movement into account.
Both approaches rest on the basic rule that a deep, curved saddle will lock a rider into position more than a flat saddle, which conversely will enable a rider to move freely over the saddle. PRO focuses more on side-to-side hip movements, but the principle of a curved saddle restricting and a flat saddle being freer remains central to the range.
‘It’s important to get the right shape,’ says Fi’zi:k’s Bingley. ‘If you are, say, more on the “bull” end of the spectrum and you’re on an Arione, that’s wrong for you as you’re not supported when rotating your hips. If you’re at the “snake” end of the spectrum, the Arione should be comfortable but you might find it a bit restrictive, because you’d be sat in the pocket of the saddle, and there isn’t the freedom to move up and down.’
That said, it’s difficult to prescribe saddles accurately based on hip movement, as much of it still comes down to personal preference. ‘Some people don’t like a shaped saddle, as even when you think you’ve got it in the right place it often still feels like there’s too much pressure on the nose,’ Timmis argues. What’s more, the shape of the saddle doesn’t tell the entire story. The position of the saddle, both on the rails and in terms of angle, will play a big part in finding a good position.
Timmis explains his approach: ‘When I fit a saddle I always start with it horizontal – I’d never advise someone to tilt the nose up. If the saddle does need to be pointed down, the nose should not be below the middle of the saddle’s depth [from top of the saddle to bottom of the rails] as you’re going to slide forward and lose leg extension. It will also cause you to constantly shuffle back, which will cause a lot of discomfort.’
So it seems that your choice of saddle could come down to what kind of rider you are and how much you move about on the saddle. But that now throws up a whole new set of questions because, according to some experts, the whole job of a saddle is to stop you moving around and lock you into your most efficient position.
In a position of power
‘If you think logically about your position, you were measured on the bike so you have the correct knee angle and the correct biomechanical efficiency,’ says Christiaens of Forza. ‘But if the saddle shape allows you to move too easily to the front end, you can lose that ideal mechanical position that was fitted for you. So that’s what we wanted to accomplish with our shape – to maintain
your position whatever your riding style is.’
Partly that static position can be achieved by correct bike fit, but the shape, padding and material of your saddle are also factors. Pro riders sometimes add grippy patches to their saddles to lock in their position on time-trials or long climbs. Saddle manufacturer Prologo has advanced the concept with its Nago Evo road saddle (see p23), which is topped with its rubber ‘octopus sucker’ CPC technology to hold the rider firmly in place.
The thinking is sound. Borut Fonda, biomechanical researcher at Birmingham University, explains that sustaining power is often reliant on a solid contact with the saddle: ‘The fit of the saddle is important as it’s one of only three contact points with the bike. It comes down to something called open and closed kinetic chains. A closed kinetic chain means the body is in contact with the platform where power is applied; an open kinetic chain is when one part of
the body is not in contact with the machine or the ground [jumping, for example].’
If you’re sliding around on the saddle, you can’t properly transfer power through that contact point with the bike, which will affect performance and can transfer strain to other parts of the body. Fonda says, ‘If a saddle isn’t supporting you, your lower back and arms have to work to stabilise your position and close the chain. They can’t deliver power, which will increase oxygen consumption, reduce the efficiency of pedalling, and increase strain on vertebrae and joints.’
This theory is long-established in time-trial saddles, and it could be that we see
more of their design elements finding their way into road saddles in the future, as manufacturers look for more ways to offer performance benefits as well as comfort.
Ultimately, when it comes to finding your perfect partner, there’s more to consider than whether your saddle matches your bar tape. As with dating, no one can tell you which saddle you will get on with best – you simply have to spend time with them to see if you are compatible. And, as with all relationships, you should be wary of picking up something you found online.