How to Choose Bike Saddles

 Close up of a mountain bike saddle

Is your bike seat (more properly known as a saddle) uncomfortable? Comfort is a common issue, especially among new cyclists, and one option is to get a new saddle that’s better suited to you. This article gives you the basics on how to make a smart saddle purchase.


Shop bike saddles.


How to Make Your Bike Seat More Comfortable

Before shopping for a new saddle, consider these possibilities first:

Your saddle may be too high. This can cause you to shift your weight from side to side, a movement that often results in irritation to the your sensitive perineal area (see below). See the REI Expert Advice Fitting Your Bike article for fit information.

Your saddle’s angle may need fine-tuning. Saddles are adjustable via the seat clamp right under the saddle. Loosen the screw and the saddle will tilt forward and back. Even a slight change in the tilt of the saddle can relieve pressure. If your saddle is flat and you experience discomfort, try a slight forward tilt.

Your riding style may need adjusting. Lots of bumps or long days in the saddle can lead to perineum compression. To alleviate this:

  • Stand up briefly on your pedals every 10 minutes or so.
  • Stand slightly over bumps, using your legs as shock absorbers.
  • Get a full-suspension bike (best for mountain biking) or a suspension seatpost (found on some recreational and commuting bikes).
  • Switch to a recumbent bike.

Finally, diabetes, being overweight, smoking and hypertension can contribute to perineal numbness. If you're riding to overcome these issues, congratulations!

As with any health matter, if the problem persists, see your doctor.


What's Your Type of Riding?

If you’ve decided you need a new saddle, narrow your choices this way:

Recreational: If you sit upright while pedaling a cruiser, urban or commuter bike and prefer short rides, try a cushioning saddle. Wide with plush padding and/or springs, it sports a short nose and provides plenty of comfort. You can also opt for a seatpost with springs, which will further cushion your ride.

Road: Racing or clocking significant road miles? Look for a performance saddle that’s long, narrow and sports minimal padding. During a ride, very little weight rests on your sit bones, while your tucked position requires as little extraneous material between your legs as possible for maximum power transfer and minimal chafing. New to road riding? Opt for a slightly softer saddle that will keep you comfortable while your body adjusts to hours of spinning.

Mountain: On mountain trails, you alternately stand up on the pedals, perch way back (sometimes just hovering over or even off of your saddle) or crouch down in a tucked position. Because of these varied positions, you’ll want a mountain-specific saddle with padding for your sit bones, a durable cover and a streamlined shape that will aid your movement.

Touring: Long-distance riding demands a performance saddle—or an all-leather saddle (see below)—that falls between a mountain and road saddle. You’ll want plenty of sit-bone cushioning and a fairly long, narrow nose.

Women-specific: With typically wider hips and ischial bones (“perch bones”) and smaller bodies, women generally benefit from women-specific saddles designed to accommodate these anatomical differences.

Look in the left-column on the saddles page to search by the above attributes.


Types of Cushioning

While any cushioned seat will provide comfort for your sit bones, the 2 most common cushioning materials react differently under weight.

Gel cushioning molds to your body and provides the plushest comfort. Most recreational riders prefer this for its superior comfort on casual rides. Its downside is that gel tends to get compacted more quickly than the other option, foam.

Foam cushioning offers a pliable feel that springs back to shape. Road riders favor foam as it provides more support than gel while still delivering comfort. For longer rides, riders over 200 lbs. or riders with well-conditioned sit bones, firmer foam is preferred as it doesn’t compact as quickly as softer foam or gel.

A saddle pad is an optional add-on that can be placed over the saddle for additional cushioning. Though plush and comfortable, its padding is not as contained as is a saddle that’s already padded, so it may migrate where you don’t need or want it. This is not an issue for recreational rides, but it could be for fast rides or for longer distances. If that’s your riding style, a pair of padded bike shorts or underwear may be a better investment.


Why the Center Slit in Some Saddles?

Many bicycle saddles are built to protect your perineum—the area between the sit bones, through which traverse a plethora of nerves and arteries. These saddles reduce or eliminate the material in the middle of the saddle, both relieving pressure on the perineum and providing airflow and comfort during long rides.

Because everyone’s anatomy is different, some riders find great relief with a perineal cutout; others use a saddle that either has a small indentation in the saddle or no accommodation at all. This kind of pressure-relieving design benefits most men and women but is truly a personal preference.

Hard-to-fit riders might even want to consider a split seat: side-by-side cushions on a noseless saddle. REI generally does not carry this type of specialty saddle.


Leather Saddles

Most saddles are made entirely of synthetic materials, from the molded shell to the foam or gel padding and saddle cover. They are lightweight and require little maintenance.

Others substitute a thin leather covering for a synthetic one, but they are otherwise similar in materials used.

But now there’s a new/old kid on the block: leather.

Many riders (road, urban, touring and recreational) have come to appreciate the “earned comfort” and long life of a traditional all-leather saddle. (Mountain bikers generally stick to well-padded saddles to help cushion bumpy terrain.)

The secret to an all-leather saddle's comfort lies in its construction. One piece of top-grain leather is stretched and suspended between the rails of a metal frame. After you ride for about 200 miles, the leather molds to your weight and shape. Like an old baseball glove or a trusty pair of leather hiking boots, the initial period of use includes some discomfort, but the end result “fits like a glove”—and you’ve earned it!

Leather saddles may have perineum cutouts for protection and springs for added comfort. A bonus benefit: With no synthetic padding, the saddle stays cooler—a definite advantage on long, hot rides.

One downside, in addition to break-in time, is that a leather saddle is not waterproof, so it needs to be treated with a leather conditioner on occasion. This protects against moisture and against drying of the leather through UV exposure. Use a saddle cover to prolong the life of your leather saddle when not riding.


Bike Saddle Shopping Tips

Once you've considered your riding style and choice of materials, use the tips to narrow your choice further:

If possible, test ride a saddle. Many stores, even if they don't have the exact saddle you want to test, will have something comparable that you can try. Vary positions, ride quickly and more slowly and hit some bumps.

Inspect the rails. These are the 2 bars that help attach the saddle to the seat post. Most are made of chromoly, which is suitable and affordable for most uses. Performance riders prefer titanium rails—they’re strong, flexible, long-lasting and provide a smooth ride for many seasons.

Consider price. Saddles have a wide price range. In general, prices rise as weight drops and materials improve. This is mostly due to gram-shedding materials such as titanium or performance-oriented leather. If the saddle is hand-built or customized in any way, the price will reflect it.



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