How to Choose the Ideal Bike Saddle for Your Needs
If you're looking for help choosing a new bike seat, you're probably looking for a seat that hurts less than the one you have, or maybe you're trying to replace a worn-out saddle that you love but is no longer available. Either way, you really want to get it right, but where to start? There are so many choices, so many bold claims.
Unfortunately, saddle recommendations from others might not help, because we're all different shapes and sizes, and ride differently. A bike saddle that feels great for one rider can be intolerable for another.
That means there's no substitute for riding on a bike saddle for a while to be sure it is the right one for you. Where you can find a shortcut is in narrowing down the many choices to just the models that you can be sure will be suited for your needs.
Here are some tips to help you identify what features are most important for your comfort in the saddle, so you can quickly find the ideal seat for your anatomy and riding style.
The myth of sit-bone spacing, and how saddle width really comes into play
After matching hundreds of thousands of cyclists to bike saddles that deliver outstanding comfort, we have learned a few things. One important realization is that exact measurements of sit bone spacing are not that helpful in real world riding conditions.
We're not saying the width of your bike seat doesn't matter, but the exact spacing of your sit bones is not as important as you may have been told. Here's why:
Sit bone spacing is measured as the distance between centers of the ischial tuberosities, the bony bits in your butt that contact whatever you sit on. This can only be a starting point, because cycling is dynamic – you are shifting your posture all the time, moving both forward and backward, and using your torso, which rotates your hips and shifts your weight on and off your sit bones, and your soft tissue areas further forward.
During your ride, you might strain on a climb, launch a sprint, position for cornering control on a descent, brace for a headwind, ease off to coast down a hill, navigate tricky turns and obstacles, and lean back to catch your breath. You are moving around on your saddle all the time, and different parts of your undercarriage are carrying your weight through different contact points on the saddle, all the time you are riding.
To complicate matters, many female bike riders find themselves on bikes with long top tubes that require an uncomfortable stretch to the handlebars. Forget the rear, this puts extra pressure on the front of the saddle against soft tissues that weren’t designed for that purpose.
Our bike saddles are designed with all this in mind. There's a correct width saddle for most riders, but it's not based on an exact dimension, it's a range that gives each individual cyclist the support and relief they need through a range of shifts in position.
For this reason, our saddles fall into a few broad groups where a balance of width, profile, shape, and padding all combine to make it really comfortable for a group of riders with common characteristics.
So put away the foil and corrugated cardboard. Instead, the following questions will guide you toward your ideal saddle: the one that fits you, and is suited to the type of cycling you enjoy.
Questions to think about when choosing a bike saddle
Start with your gender
The perfect saddle for your needs is decided more by your gender, age, riding position than any other factors. Those considerations will narrow down the options for width, shape and cushioning a lot.
Many manufacturers put a lot of focus on sit bone spacing, often with quite small variations sold as the "right size" for a specific anatomical measurement.
In fact, there isn't that much variation between most people. Most guys fall into a fairly small range of measurements, most women fall into a fairly small range that's somewhat wider. A small number of people are wider than the typical range, and a small number are narrower. For this reason, some guys are more comfortable on a wider saddle, some women need a narrower saddle, and some people need something in between.
If you already know you need a narrower or wider saddle, or one in between, you can start there. As you might expect, the women's saddles are wider, men's saddles are narrower, and unisex saddles fall right in between. Otherwise choose the category for your gender and start narrowing down further with the following questions.
What is your go-to riding position?
Once you have the right width range, your riding posture and the range of positions you go through on a typical ride is the next consideration.
Generally, a more upright position means less fore and aft movement, more weight on the sit bones more consistently, and so a wider platform is best, and the rear of the saddle plays a bigger part in your overall comfort.
An aero posture lets you reduce wind resistance by lowering your torso. Road cyclists use this more aggressive position a lot, along with others who like to push themselves to ride faster. Time trial specialists and triathletes rarely come out of an extreme aero position. This rotates the hips forward, with less weight on the sit bones and a lot more pressure on the forward soft tissue, often on the middle or even nose of the saddle.
In between those extremes is the slightly forward position, used by many people who ride for pleasure or endurance. In this position you will have some aero advantage, but you're not riding for high speed. You will most likely move on the saddle as you transition from one effort to another, so your comfort depends on adequate support toward the rear of the saddle, as well as the profile and padding of the center and nose of the seat.
What's your next birthday?
No, we're not being cheeky: When it comes to choosing a bike seat, your age matters more as you pass the 50th birthday milestone, or thereabouts. Our bodies change as we age, with differences in skin thickness, connective tissue, sensitivity, and so on. You may find that a saddle that used to be comfortable, may no longer be so. More padding, gel, and generous cutaway profile can all become very important to the comfort of mature and senior cyclists.
What kind of terrain and riding do you do most often?
The terrain you ride mostly, and the length or frequency of your typical rides go hand in hand. It makes sense: the more bumps and jolts you encounter, and the longer you ride, the more cushioning you will need for comfort.
Although a paved country road in good condition may give you a bump-free surface to glide along for miles, a different one with pot holes, ridges, and fracturing asphalt can be just as bumpy and shocking to the rear as a mountain bike trail. Only riding indoors guarantees a smooth ride every time, but that said, the kind of surfaces and trails you plan on riding will determine how much padding and shock absorption you will need.
Terrain and the type of riding you do also affects the choice of saddle shape. For example, MTB riders who are moving out of the saddle a lot, and even move behind it for descents, need a profile that doesn't catch on shorts or get in the way of moving around.
How long do you ride, and how often?
The amount of time you spend in the saddle may have a big impact on the padding you need, though it works both ways – you might find as you ride more your under parts become less sensitive. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it's often the cyclist who rides less frequently and doesn't go as far who needs the most saddle cushioning.
If you often ride more than a couple of hours in a day you may appreciate a thicker layer of padding, or opt for a saddle with a gel layer, which offers an extra level of shock absorption.
What discomfort or saddle pain issues are you dealing with now?
The point where you feel discomfort, and the type of discomfort both come into play. If you are sensitive further forward, or experience numbness from perineal pressure, a profile with a larger relief channel and lower nose will help. If you feel pain primarily on your sit bones, or sciatic pain, a larger, more padded rear platform will help.
Riders who suffer from chafing on the inner thighs can look for a ‘T’ shaped saddle with a narrower nose, but may actually find more relief by upgrading their bike shorts. It’s important that they fit well and there isn’t excess fabric or padding bunching through the crotch. A premium chamois that reduces bulk (like Terry’s Flex Air with soft wings) can help with improved moisture control and a tapered edge profile. Higher compression fabric can reduce chafing contact between thighs and saddle. Together these may do more to reduce chafing than the shape of the saddle.
We recommend specific saddle models to help with particular sensitivities. Our Saddle Selector is a great way to narrow down to options that help with specific pain and sensitivity issues.
Do you need the lightest weight bike saddle possible?
For some, total weight is a big deciding factor in choosing a bicycle saddle. For others, not so much. If overall lightweight construction is important for you, you may want to look for saddles featuring carbon, manganese or titanium rails, and with minimal padding and construction.
Are the materials used in your bike seat important to you?
Leather has been a traditional saddle covering because of its workability, durability, looks, and the comfort due to its flexibility and breathability. Modern materials allow non-leather coverings to perform just about as well, and that is a deciding factor for many riders.
Our Saddle Selector gives you a short cut to matching specific saddle models to your requirements. The Selector will lead you through the questions above, and filter the available saddle models following your selections. You get a recommendation of the perfect saddle for your needs. Try it here.
For a more personal touch, our customer service reps are a wonderful resource to help you narrow down the many bike seat options. They have decades of experience and extensive product knowledge to guide you to your ideal bike saddle. Call 800-289-8379, or reach out here.
A guide to important features of comfortable bike saddles
What shape bike seat will work best for me?
When thinking about saddle shapes, we're mostly concerned with the outline of the saddle when viewed from above.
Broadly, bike saddles tend to be either more pear shaped, or more 'T' shaped. The difference is the shape at the point where the nose of the saddle flares out to create the wider platform at the rear of the saddle. 'T' shaped saddles don't widen much until closer to the rear. This makes it possible to use more positions along the length of the saddle, which is often an advantage for aggressive/aero, or performance riding.
Pear shaped saddles are a better choice for riders who are more upright, or vary their riding position less, as the wider mid-section creates an overall larger platform under the sit bones.
How does a bike seat's profile affect performance and comfort?
A bike saddle's profile can be viewed from end to end and side to side.
A flat saddle lets the rider move around more easily, so if your riding style is more active this may be helpful.
One slight advantage of a saddle that has a crowned top side to side, is that it can give you a finer sense of control using your body weight. That’s helpful if you like to ride aggressively while cornering, in criterium races for example. The trade-off is that a curved top saddle can feel like it's pushing your sit bones apart, so exact width is more important and there’s less flexibility with position.
Similarly, an elevated saddle profile front to back tends to hold the rider in one place.
Our saddles are designed to be as flat as possible from side to side, with the additional relief channel down the middle to remove upward pressure against soft tissues. Some of our saddles feature a slightly elevated rear section, which gives you a platform to push against for more power while climbing.
What should I look for in bike saddle padding?
More padding means more shock absorption, but there are some things to bear in mind.
First, cushioning is not the same thing as softness. A saddle with lots of thick, soft padding might seem like it would be more comfortable, but the reality is that all that squishy foam puts equal pressure everywhere, including where you don't want it. Soft saddles also make chafing and saddle sores more likely. After a few minutes a saddle like that can be torture. What you need is the right amount of foam or gel padding in the right places.
Our saddles are tuned and engineered with different densities of foam in different places, to give you exactly the support you need, without uncomfortable pressure points. The profile of the padding is actually just as important as the amount, and when that's dialed in for a particular use, not much padding is required at all.
Bike saddles for elite riders, time trial specialists, and racing bikes, will generally be much lighter weight, with minimal padding. That doesn't have to mean they are uncomfortable. We offer several lightly padded saddles for performance cycling, where the foam densities and flex are engineered to give the necessary support and relief with good weight savings.
Look for the addition of gel to provide a higher level of shock absorption. If you ride high mileage or over uneven terrain, gel can be a real help, and can make a saddle work better for an older rider.
How does a cutaway make a bike seat more comfortable?
Terry pioneered and patented the cutaway channel in the center of the bicycle saddle, an idea that won raving fans very quickly and has been widely used ever since.
This innovation relieves pressure on soft tissue and the perineal area, a big benefit for most riders. It's particularly valuable for riders who experience numbness and pain in the central soft tissue region. Our cutaways are shaped a little differently for our various saddle models.
The presence of a cutaway is not automatically going to be comfortable on its own. The densities of foam and the contoured shaping of the cutaway are all very important in striking an ideal balance between support and relief. Our saddle design team has decades of experience in dialing in those specifications for outstanding real-world comfort.
What kind of rail material is best for a bike saddle?
The saddle rails connect to the clamping mechanism on the seat post of the bike, and provide a way for the saddle to slide forward or backward to achieve correct bike fit.
The rails need to strike a balance between strength, durability, and weight, so they will vary according to the intended use of the saddle.
- Steel rails are super-strong and durable, cheaper but heavier.
- Various steel alloys preserve most of the strength with lighter weight, at more expense.
- Titanium and Ti alloys have great strength and are very light weight, but at more expense.
- Carbon fiber rails reduce weight to a minimum, with some sacrifice of durability, and with more expense. They may ‘give’ a little, for a softer ride. A seat post or adapter specifically designed to work with carbon rails may be required.
The biggest difference between metal and carbon parts is that failure develops slowly and visibly in metal, which tends to slowly crack and deform before breaking. Failure of carbon fiber parts tends to happen all at once, which can happen without warning and have dramatic results. This means it’s important to pair a carbon rail saddle with a recommended seat post. The difference is in the profiles and ends of the clamping parts. If in doubt, ask your friendly local bike shop.
What should I look for in the cover of a bike saddle?
The leather cover has been a traditional saddle covering as long as there have been bikes, because it is durable, flexible, breathable, and easy to work with. Now, synthetic materials can deliver comparable performance without relying on animal products. We offer good bike seat alternatives for people pursuing vegan options.
If you will leave your bike out in the weather a lot, parked while you are at work or shopping, for example, a waterproof covering will be very important. Look for our Duratek covers, and avoid covers with perforations for ventilation or decoration.