A guide to figuring out which is the best for yours.
Though I doubt he was the first to coin the phrase, an old bike shop boss of mine used to say, “There’s an ass for every saddle.”
He’d repeat the phrase jokingly to customers, as it could be taken in the literal form that there was a buyer’s butt for each bike’s seat. But it also doubled as a joke aimed at us employees—that inevitably some jackass would walk through the door dumb enough to buy a bike that we’d never be caught dead on. Almost always, the bikes we minimum-wage-earning lackeys considered uncool promised more comfort than performance. In retrospect, I wonder what was narrower back in those days: our minds or our saddles.
Lightweight saddles were gospel. The lump sum of the industry seemed content to keep saddle widths the same—maybe because the manufacturers only listened to pro athletes about design, or maybe traditional saddle designs do in fact provide comfort to the average cyclist. But, it’d be unfair to omit the masochistic mindset of cycling as a whole when it comes to one of just three contact points on the bike—and the one that bears 70-percent of a rider’s weight.
Cycling has always celebrated pain in the name of performance. Phil Liggett, Tour de France announcer extraordinaire, often describes a racer’s intense effort as “riding the rivet,” meaning so aerodynamically hunched over that the rider was sitting on just the very tip of the saddle nose (where old-school leather saddles were riveted or nailed to hold their leather to the frame). The idea of sitting on the skinniest, hardest protrusion of an already minimalist saddle, and with a metal rivet head sticking up no less, should be a vision of discouragement. Instead, Liggett’s quote became a mantra.
At least partially because of this rampant mindset, I’ve generally accepted that doing what I’ve loved over the past 30-years has come with a tradeoff of numb nuts. But, a solid quarter century after I worked in that shop, the bicycle industry is finally breaking free of ridiculous ideas of saddle shape, and offering high-performance saddles in varying widths. Specifically, it’s the width of riders’ sit bones that matter, which equates to various widths in the tail, leaving the nose of the saddle essentially unchanged.
It’s a relatively simple concept that was adopted early on for women-specific saddles, based on the science that a pelvis with room for child equated to wider sit bones. In an ego-free utopia of unbiased sexuality, the male-dominated bike industry may have given these “women specific” saddles a try, and adopted them decades ago as a smart unisex option. The question is why has it taken so long?
Nowadays, companies like Ergon (see here), Specialized and WTB are offering saddle models in two or three different widths, and bicycle manufacturers are even spec-ing bikes with wider-than-traditional saddles, too. Whereas 125mm-135mm tail widths were the norm, 140mm-145mm is the new average. Specialized, one of the first major brands to introduce wider performance designs, specs most of their bikes with 143mm wide saddles. Even race bred and high performance oriented Yeti Cycles is phasing out its 135mm WTB Volt saddles, and replacing them with 142mm models in 2019.
So, how does one figure out which ass they have, and what saddle to match it with? By measuring our sit bones specifically, of course. There are several pelvic measuring devices out there, but Specialized’s digital version is a common one that you can find at their equally common dealerships. It can sometimes be found in non-Specialized shops, too. The device (Specialized actually calls it an Ass-o-Meter) is basically a foam pad that sit bones leave their impression on long enough to be measured. This is a great place to start for finding a saddle that fits properly. Remember, sit bone width won’t equally match saddle width numbers, as that would put the sit bones at the very edge of the saddle. For instance, WTB suggests their 142mm-wide saddles align well with sit bone measurements up to 130mm. It’s also possible to find a proper fitting saddle through trial and error, too, and companies like WTB provide many shops with test saddles that can be checked out by customers.
Can a saddle be too wide? That’s difficult to answer. My personal, anecdotal experience is, yes, a wider saddle can be an issue, at least while riding off-road. I tried one of the wider options available (150mm). It felt fine while seated, but the extra width, in combination with a very pronounced tail, restricted my ability to move the bike underneath me when out of the saddle. Getting back behind the seat on descents and technical sections was tough. Beyond aggressive mountain biking, however, the chances are slim that a wide saddle will be an issue.
Admittedly, width is only one factor in finding the right saddle. It’d take a book to explain how rider positions in each and every cycling genre affect saddle fit, the differences in softer verses harder saddle shells, the reasons for longer and shorter noses, and the pros and cons of flatter or more concave designs. But, if a saddle is too narrow to support a rider in any seated position, then there’s a strong chance that it’s not the best choice.
Of all the equipment on a bicycle, saddles are by far the most personal and opinionated choice—the seat your friend swears by might feel like straddling a 2×4 to you. Luckily, there are now more options than ever before, along with tools to help navigate through them. But speaking from personal experience, since I have switched over to wider saddles, the numbness I was experiencing while riding has all but disappeared.