Between a sofa and a plank: the search for the bike saddle of my dreams

Aka mister goldilocks goes to the bike store. Again.

My bike saddle of choice: Selle Italia SLR Max Gel FlowWhen riding long distances any point of contact between you and the bike can cause grief. I think the most difficult to sort out is the saddle. Unlike shoes, pedals and gloves there’s no easy answer. Everything I’ve ever read about choosing a saddle has the phrase “it’s personal” in the first 30 words or so.

Well, it is personal. You’re talking about a part of the body that we don’t (generally) show in public and we don’t talk about with strangers. In the hope of making the search easier for you dear reader, I’m going to overshare.

I have been road biking since 2000 and I’ve been through three saddles on one road bike, two on my commuter, and three on my winter bike. None has ever worn out. In all cases I’ve gotten frustrated with discomfort of some kind and gone out and bought a new one.

My philosophy had been “buy the most expensive one you can find that looks like it might work.” Because a lot of times in cycling kit and components, you get what you pay for.

In last year though, I’ve come to question that assumption. Saddles are expensive for a number of reasons. And that reason might not be “because it’s the perfect one for you.” You need to find the right saddle for your body and for the riding you’re planning to do. You could be in luck. That might not be the $600 sliver of vinyl-covered carbon fibre on titanium rails.I bought a new road bike in June 2014. It came with a Fizik Aliante on aluminum rails. It’s a respectable saddle, 140mm wide, with a bit of a scoop front to back, and a smooth vinyl cover.

But after my first few hundred kilometres on the bike. I experienced skin pinching in my crotch. Usually after about an hour in the saddle. And after a while my perineum and genitals would go numb.

I decided to blame the saddle. It’s fairly padded. Too padded I thought. Needs replacement. Pinching and perineal numbness aren’t as bad as saddle sores or bruising — other experiences I’ve had on other saddles — but still, the bike was a big investment. I wanted it to be perfect.

With saddles, though, there can be multiple explanations for problems you experience. And since nothing can get around the fact that you’re resting most of your body weight on something with about the same surface area as a peanut butter sandwich, even if you find the Goldilocks saddle, your discomfort may continue.

So I looked for other solutions too this time. But first, what can go wrong.

Perineal numbness

I’m not going to reiterate the low-to-no evidence internet science around cycling and male infertility. But having numb genitals and perineum is weird and uncomfortable. It eats away at your energy levels. A lot of manufacturers have designed saddles with a cut-out to relieve the pressure on the perineum. Unfortunately, Fizik isn’t one of them. They make a series of saddle with a sort of trench the walls of which are deep foam pads on the ‘wings’ of the saddle. And I may yet try this one, but the only other Fizik model I sampled was an Antares. It seemed to have the same perineal numbness issues as the Aliante. I tried it while the bike was firmly attached to the trainer so I cannot attest to how the padding helps with the rock and roll of the road.

But going numb isn’t necessarily about a lack of a cutout. It could be because your saddle is too narrow and you’re resting more weight than necessary on your perineum, because the seat is missing your sit bones.

Skin pinching

Too much padding can cause this – the saddle ‘grabs’ loose flesh around your crotch as you sink into it. But it could also be your clothing. Bunching material can cause that pinching feeling.

I’ve lost a bunch of weight in the last two years. So there’s a bit more loose skin in my crotch than there might have been a few years back, and I’m in my late 40s so my skin in general is not as taught as it once was. When I got my new bike, I started feeling this pinching where legs met perineum. Naturally I blamed the saddle. It had more padding than I was used to so I theorized that the padding was causing the pinchies. The first saddle I sampled, the Fizik Antares 00 was certainly designed to remedy that excess of padding issue. It’s pretty much a shapely vinyl covered slab of carbon fibre. Pinching was better but still a factor.

I noticed that how bad it was depended on what shorts I was wearing. I tried a cheap old pair of shorts that I had bought too small four years back. No pinching.

It seemed a lot of my cycling kit – bib shorts included – was suddenly too big for me. Oh darn. New kit. Quelle drag. The newer, right-sized shorts and tights I have now don’t give me the pinching feeling, but the other contact issues persisted. Even with the spiffiest shorts I could find.

Bike saddle sores

Aka chaffing. Skin rubbed raw against shorts/tights and saddle. It gets really fun when the sore opens and gets infected. Loose cloth and seams on bike shorts can cause saddle sores. This is why road riders wear lycra. If I could, I would paint my crotch with some kind of rubber or vinyl sealant to take all the abrasion from the many hours of pedalling. But I can’t so something that barely moves against my skin but slides easily up and down the sides of the saddle instead is the best I can do.

Some saddles come with grippy insets so that you can hold your position more easily. I think these would work well for people doing short intense riding like time trials or criteriums. They want to make sure every fractional watt goes into pushing pedal, not pushing their butt back and forth on their saddle. I have avoided these sorts of saddles since discovering that the grippy bit can contribute pretty seriously to abrasion. My first cool looking, pricey saddle had a grippy bit and by the end of two days of century riding I had raw blisters on my ass that made sitting on anything quite painful for several days.

Sit bone abuse and soft tissue damage

Old chamois pads don’t protect against the clatter (or slam bam) of the road. And while some bib shorts can be pricier than some saddles, a new pair can sort you out and look stylish. With a well-shaped and placed chamois, they can spare you much discomfort.

Much more significant in fighting soft tissue damage and bruising, though, is tire pressure. A staff person at the Cyclery suggested riding with less pressure in my tires. This is a sort of religious heresy for road cycling, but it does work. Thanks Rod. And this item argues it won’t harm your performance as the gospel claims.

So if rough rides leave you battered and bruised, definitely drop your tire pressure a bit before dropping cash on a new saddle. In my case though, I needed more help than 70 psi (as opposed to 110psi) could give.

Measure your sit bones

All those skinny riders go so fast. It must be because their saddles are so skinny. Right? I think people like skinny saddles because they permit their massive quadriceps to move up and down without touching the saddle and therefore reduce the chances of chafing. But generally speaking that’s only an issue with the nose of the saddle. More important than the width of the nose is the with of the back part of the saddle. You know, what you actually sit on. I found this video that showed me how to measure my sit bones.

It’s important to do because wider is not necessarily better, especially at the back where anyone’s thighs will be in contact with the saddle throughout their ride. Too wide and you may well get chafing. Too narrow and there’ll be too much pressure on one or other of your sit bones or perineum and that pressure will turn to numbness pain with time or a pothole or both.

Looking for the Goldilocks saddle

So I decided against the Fizik Antares. And with the Aliante back atop my seatpost, outdoor riding season began. And rides got longer. And I spent more time losing contact with my perineum and genitals. So the search continued. I looked at Selle Italia’s vast and varied offerings, figuring that maybe the saddle shape was the issue. Selle Italia tend to more pointy saddles with skinnier noses. And they do cutouts. So I went back to the Cyclery and borrowed a Kit Carbonio Flow. This saddle has a relatively small cutout, and is quite firm. Okay it’s really firm. Not as harsh as the Fizik 00s but it’s a slab.

And it was okay. I rode 100k or so on it and so long as I got out of the saddle every 30 minutes or so, I could abide the ache in my sit bones and the numbness would subside. But, I thought, for that price I would hope for perfection.

So that tester saddle went back to the store.

Maybe, I figured, the Kit Carbonio Flow just didn’t have enough of a cutout. I went to the Selle Italia site again. I found the saddle with what I reckoned was the least padding and the biggest cutout, the Selle Italia SLR Superflow. That must be the one. The Cyclery didn’t have one to test so I just gambled and bought one on Competitive Cyclist. I was zooming in on perfection and figured this would be the one so why not risk it? And it was on sale.

A short, interval session had the sign of promise. No immediate discomfort. No numbness issues.

But then there was Dalmeny. About 100km on rural roads, including some pretty miserable stretches of spiderweb, pothole and trench pavement. And you can’t dodge it all. At a certain point my sit bones were screaming at me. I spent the last 35k standing and gingerly sitting back down every few minutes, trying to park my ass on the saddle some way that didn’t hurt.

I actually skipped a training ride a day later, opting to run instead because I didn’t think I could face getting back on the bike.

Selle Italia Superflow too firm for me

So that was it for the SLR Superflow. Amazingly, Competitive Cyclist took it back at full price, despite the fact that I was so confident it would be the right saddle I’d recycled the packaging. I did pay for return shipping. I know people are down on them for their failed Strava experiment, but I did well by them. I’ve found them to be reliable, forthright and reasonably priced and will order from them again where I can’t find what I need locally.

Back to the internet. I had the width. I knew I liked cutouts. I knew I was not as much of a hardass as I thought. I went back to Selle Italia and found the Max SLR Gel Flow. 140mm, a bigger cutout than the Kit Carbonio Flow and more padding than the SLR Super Flow. And the Cyclery had one. Not a tester mind, but they told me to tape the rails, give it a try and short of some other damage I’d do to make it unsellable, they would take it back.

So I plunked down my debit card and took it home. On the post it went, its alloy rails wrapped in (matching) black electrical tape. The next day I rode 120km on it. Of all the ones I tried this spring it afforded the most comfort. I took a pressure relief break, but I felt I only needed one after about 60km. No pinching. And no bruising. It felt a bit different on my sit bones, but I figured I could get used to ‘different’. The numbness was almost gone.

It went on the bike May 20 and it’s still there. I’ve put at least 1000km on it, including the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour without a single blister or bruise. I still take the odd pressure relief break but today I didn’t feel the need until about 2 hours into my ride. It’s probably not the Goldilocks saddle, but it’s as close, I think, as I’m going to get.

One comment

  1. Been there done that….41yrs old and have tried numerous saddles.

    My latest is the Specialized Romin Evo. The new EVOs have a thinner nose but if you can position yourself in the “groove” it plays out nicely. I’m not a slammed stem rider. so more upright, (if you’re like me) may help.

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