Saturday, January 24, 2009

Beginner's Page #4 Bicycle Seats and the Quest for Comfort

In past beginners’ pages, it has been easy to laugh at oneself over not knowing how to air up a tire or the initial trauma of wearing spandex shorts. But the current topic is a serious matter. Since a 130mm gel and air cushion combination chamois in bicycle shorts hasn't yet been developed, we have to search for comfort elsewhere. And where would you search for seat comfort other than a bicycle seat. Keeping comfortable on the seat or keeping the seat comfortable is an on-going quest. To prove my point, raise your hand if you have more than one saddle per bike in the garage. If you raised your hand, this article probably isn’t for you as you have already ridden for more than an hour on a torture device that feels like a narrow concrete brick designed in secret by mad scientists working for Wyeth Pharmaceutical. (For the younger generation, Wyeth makes Preparation H)

Before we get too far into the quest, it is time to bore you with trivia. I titled the article as being about bicycle seats. This was so I could communicate with the masses about the subject. Remember the confusion of a clipless pedal having clips and the clip pedal didn’t have clip capability? Well, a bicycle seat is not a seat; technically, the bicycle seat is called a saddle. A “seat” is something you sit on, and is designed to bear essentially your entire weight For example, recumbent bicycles have "seats," but conventional upright bicycles have saddles. A saddle is intended to carry some, but not all of your weight. The rest of your weight is mainly carried by your legs, and some by your hands and arms. So, purists insist that a bicycle has a saddle--not a seat.

Historically, the first bicycles had "saddles" probably by analogy to horses. A horse has a saddle, thus a bicycle has a saddle. But that was long ago. A reasonable distinction is that one sits on a seat but straddles a saddle. From this, the racing bicycle seat should be called a saddle but most of the alternative seats should be called seats. I don’t know who is on first, but I sit on a saddle since there is no way I would put all my weight on that concrete block.

The quest for comfort is not gender specific. I call it a quest as a quest is a journey towards a goal used in mythology and literature as a plot. The objects of a quest require great exertion by the hero and the overcoming of many obstacles. The quest for bicycle saddle comfort is not gender specific so both the hero and heroine are looking for relief. Only if one hasn’t sat in the saddle for hours at a time will one be wondering, "Relief from what?"

Both men and women suffer from a “num bum”. There are many, many, many problems that can be experienced from sitting in the saddle for long periods, but since this series is really to interest the beginner in riding more frequently and longer distances, to dwell on soreness, chafing, numbness, circulation impairment, medical problems for men, bruising, rawness, and such perhaps is counterproductive.

So how do you avoid the problems, obtain the perfect saddle, and live happily ever after? If there were an easy answer, this would be two sentences long. “Men, buy Perfecto Brand saddle. Women, buy Perfecta Brand saddle.” But the perfect saddle is a quest, a mythological story, a literary goal.

As Paul Harvey would say, “Page Two--Begin the Quest”. Since there is no such thing as a perfect saddle, the best one can do is to try to make an informed search. Every person is different; and a friend may swear by a certain saddle; and you get it and swear at it. So unfortunately you can not just buy the same thing your friend or hero/heroine uses and live happily ever after.

So here are some pointers to make an informed guess as to which saddle is going to hurt the least. Experts say (to me an expert is someone who is able to sit on a saddle for over five hours and can go above a 15 MPH average) first make sure your bicycle is a correct fit for you. If the top tube is too long and you have to bend over to the point that your chest is on the top tube and only your finger nails are latched onto the handlebar, you will never be comfortable in a saddle. So make sure you have the correctly sized bike.

Thank goodness most saddles are black so we do not have to worry about color coordinating our saddles, but they do come in different widths. Yep, some are more narrow or wide than others so you have to know your butt size. Experts--not I--say that generally women need a wider seat than men. They quickly explain that it has to do with child bearing capabilities more than anything else. What I am talking about is the width of your SIT BONES, not our relative butt width. The science of determining what size of saddle you need is to lie on your back with your knees bent and feel your sit bones. Preferably you do this alone unless required to do it during a Truth or Dare game, and then an audience is OK. But (no pun intended) seriously, feel for the outside edges of the bony prominences in your rear end. Then measure the distance between your sit bones starting at the outside edge of one and measuring to the outside edge of the other. (See what I was talking about with women needing a wider seat?) Write this number down and bring it with you when you go shopping. Then see if Randy or Justin can keep a straight face when you tell them you have a 5-8 inch butt. But if you want to impress them, convert the measurement into millimeters. A saddle will frequently show the width such as 155 mm or 175 mm.
Now that you have the correct bike size and correct saddle width, you can start showing out, like looking down a gun barrel when deciding to buy a rifle or not. You hold the saddle in you hands and look down upon it. From the nose to the rear the saddle shouldn’t flair too gradually or it will cause chafing. The nose should be narrow and abruptly widen at the back. This is called saddle transition. Then look at it from the side. Saddles may be concave or flat. Concave saddles may cause increased pressure of the sit bones when riding in an aero position whereas flatter saddles allow more adjustment without drastic changes in pressure. All this is looking at the saddle profile. Throw these terms around while shopping and act like you know what you are doing. You are still going to have a 50/50 chance of getting a comfortable saddle without regard to its being concave, convex, or flat. Why am I negative? Watch the riders on the Tour de France. They are the best riders, have the best equipment, have expert trainers, yet they too rise out of the saddle letting circulation get back into their “bottoms.” If there were a perfect saddle, they would be using it.

But wait, there are more considerations. While you are looking at the saddle transition and saddle profile, see if the saddle has a groove down the center. If so, you snap your finger and say “Groovy, man”. Meaning, in the late 1990’s, manufacturers began producing saddles with holes or channels in the middle of the saddle to reduce pressure in areas besides the sit bones. Note that the position of the cutout is different in men’s and women’s saddle, so make sure you get the right one. Now for the good news and bad news. Good news: Some studies have shown that saddle cutouts can improve oxygen supply to the genitals. Bad news: Some studies have shown little difference between saddles with or without cutouts.

I can attest to the above findings. I have used concave, convex, flat, grooved, gelled and high name recognition saddles, and my bottom has slept right through some tours with beautiful country sides and scenery. Problem is it is not a blissful sleep. There is the tossing and turning, rolling to one side or the other--just a miserable sleep. I am waiting for the Sleep Number Mattress Company to go into bike saddle production and manufacture a Sit Number Saddle. Then if my bottom continues to go to sleep, I can just turn the saddle to a “54” and enjoy my bike ride.
So, Beginners, come on out and join us on the rides even if it hurts. Remember, it only hurts for a little while--then you go numb.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post. I've been struggling with my seat. I've gone through 3. This last one cost me $75.00.