How to: Choose a saddle

Choosing the wrong saddle can cause discomfort when riding.
Choosing the wrong saddle can cause discomfort when riding.
The Selle Italia Diva is a comfrotable, and very popular, women's saddle.
The Selle Italia Diva is a comfrotable, and very popular, women’s saddle.

In a rush? This may be more useful: Tips to Finding the Perfect Saddle.

Saddle discomfort is the number one cycling complaint from women. The right saddle can turn riding into bliss, so our team have collected a few pointers to show you how to choose a saddle to suit you and your riding.

No piece of bike equipment is so personal and none can ruin your ride like your saddle. Fortunately, the days are gone when when we had to put up with suffering on men’s saddles.

American women’s bike builder Georgina Terry was the first to introduce women’s saddles with cut-aways to relieve pressure on the genital soft tissues. The idea was taken up by almost all saddle makers.

Since then other saddle makers have come up with different designs involving variable density foam and saddle bases with tuned flex. We now have dozens of options in properly shaped, potentially comfortable saddles.

We say potentially, because bums are like fingerprints: every one is different. The only way to find out what works for you is to try a few saddles out.

That’s also easier than it used to be. Some saddle makers have demo programs where you can borrow a saddle from a shop for a while and try it on your own bike, and some switched-on dealers either run their own demo programs or will swap out a saddle if you don’t get on with it.

We’ve also made a buyer’s guide on how to choose a saddle which you can check out here.

What to look for

To find the right sized width saddle, the saddle fit bench will help you out.
To find the right sized width saddle, the saddle fit bench will help you out.

Not all women’s saddles have a distinct cut-away. Some have an area at the nose with softer padding, or drillings in the hull so that it flexes more.

Almost all women’s saddles are wider than men’s though, because a woman’s sit-bones are further apart than a man’s. Some manufacturers provide their dealers with devices that measure the width of the sit bones so you can get an accurately fitted saddle.

When thinking about how to choose a saddle that will provide comfort throughout, it’s very tempting to like the idea of one with lots of squishy gel but these saddles are not as comfortable as they look as well as often being very cheaply made. The gel moves and can pinch and cheap gel often breaks down quickly. Saddles that offer firm support where you need it are better in the long run.

Beyond those basics, you’re into trial and error, though of the 50-plus women’s saddles on the market, some are consistently popular. One shop we know finds that Selle Italia’s Lady Gel-Flowsuits so many women they get very few back on their sale or return program. fizik’s Vitesse is popular with riders who want something a bit narrower and firmer and must be the only woman’s saddle to have spawned a men’s version – it preceded the popular Aliante men’s saddle.

If you’re looking to buy a gel saddle, check out our review of the Selle Italia Diva Gel Flow Saddle.

Recommendations

To get some more ideas of what works and why, we asked TotalWomensCycling’s friends and contributors what they use and why.

1. The bike fitter

The Bontrager Evoke RL WSD is perfect for mountain biking.
The Bontrager Evoke RL WSD is perfect for mountain bikingChris Garrison is media maven at Trek UK, and therefore a bit biased as Trek owns component brand Bontrager. She uses the Bontrager Paradigm RL on the road, and Bontrager Evoke RL WSD on her mountain bike. In both cases. Chris uses the narrow version (Bontrager makes three widths for men and women).

Chris makes an important point about saddles: good ones are highly forgettable. “I don’t notice either of these saddles, meaning they aren’t uncomfortable at all,” she says. “If a saddle just works from the very first ride, and doesn’t feel like a medieval torture device, then it’s a winner.”

As a bike fitter and mechanic, Chris has helped and shown lots of women how to choose a saddle which will enable them to be comfortable on their bikes. “In my experience, women often get a wider saddle than they actually need, from an anatomical perspective. Most women I’ve sized fit the middle width, which is the wide saddle on the men’s side.

“And as I often explain, how you look on the outside does not determine the width of your pelvis, and most importantly, the width of the ischial tuberosities (sit bones), which are what you sit on while riding.

“And when you hold the bars, your pelvis has rotated so that the pressure is actually not on the sit bones, which are designed to be, er, sat on. Instead, it’s on the soft tissue just above it. And that’s why saddle discomfort happens.

“So it’s really getting the support right for that area of the undercarriage that is essential.”

2. The endurance specialist

WTB Deva is good for ling rides, without causing saddle sores.
WTB Deva is good for ling rides, without causing saddle sores.

In 2012, Grace Henderson became only the second woman to complete the South Downs Way double: 200 miles in 30 hours of mountain biking.

“I ride a WTB Deva SLT saddle on all my bikes (mountain and road),” says Grace. “It’s really comfortable – it’s just wide enough at the back without being too wide and ungainly. I’ve done some really long rides on it without any saddle sores. I rode for nearly 31 hours doing the South Downs Double and it was still comfortable at the end.”

Like many riders, Grace was unsure on how to chose a saddle perfect for her and had a bit of a journey before finding her ideal saddle. “I tried a Bontrager WSD saddle but it wasn’t the right shape for me and I found it was too hard at the front,” she says.

“I tried a Charge Ladle but again not comfortable. I also tried a Madison Prima Ladies saddle on my road bike but it was like an instrument of torture so that didn’t last long.

“Pretty much once I tried the Deva and found it comfy, I’ve gradually upgraded so it’s on all my bikes.

“A saddle is such a personal choice that what defines a good one isn’t really a question of design or quality – one woman’s torture device is another’s fluffy pillow.

“Having said that, my preference is for a quite expensive saddle which is well-designed and high-quality and the ones I rejected were all cheaper so maybe you do get what you pay for!”

3. The racer

Fizik's Arione is a favourite for being strong and reliable.
Fizik’s Arione is a favourite for being strong and reliable.

Claire Beaumont, the brand manager at famous London bike shop Condor Cycles is unusual in going for men’s saddles. She rides the Fizik Arione CX and Fizik Aliante Delta. “I don’t think you need a ‘womens’ saddle I think you need a good fit,” she says. (Condor has a saddle test program, incidentally.)

Claire’s saddles of choice are “fairly light, don’t look too bulky on my bike and ‘gumby’, and they’re comfortable when fitted correctly via a bike fit,” she says. “They are strong and reliable. I have had one on my bike for several years whereas the plastic cracked on my Specialized saddle.”

But it’s not all practicality. “Fizik have a range colour options to match my bike and tie in an overall look,” says Claire. “And they are easily available. Some women’s saddles you have to hunt high and low for.”

On her way to choosing the fizik seats Claire tried a Specialized women’s (“too much saddle, different sitting position to other saddles and took some getting used to”) and two men’s saddles, the Selle Italia Turbo and Flite (“very good saddle; don’t like the design”).

“I’d like to try the Brooks saddles on my around town bike,” Claire says, “but I think they don’t look ‘racey’ enough and I don’t think I could handle the few hours riding needed to break them in.”

4. The downhiller

The Charge Spoon is a popular value for money saddle. The women's pecific version, the Ladle, a comfortable saddle great for fixie bikes.
The Charge Spoon is a popular value for money saddle. The women’s pecific version, the Ladle, a comfortable saddle great for fixie bikes.

Susan Greenwood also uses men’s saddles, but stresses the importance of shorts in getting comfortable on the bike. “I am a firm believer in proper women’s specific padded shorts that work with your specific ass,” she says. “Get this right, along with a realistic understanding of your riding style and you can cope with most saddles.”

Check out our 8 Essential Things to Think About When Buying Cycling Shorts for more information on how to increase comfort on the bike.

Susan uses a Charge Spoon on her fixie – “It looks good, is sturdy and is very comfortable despite not having much padding,” she says – and a WTB Silverado on her downhill bike.

“To be honest I’m never sat on it for long so haven’t ever really needed to change it or discover whether or not it was uncomfortable,” she says of the WTB seat.

On her cross-country mountain bike, Susan uses an SDG iFly. She says, “It’s bloody amazing when worn with properly fitting cycle shorts – Shebeest do the best chick ones. It’s carbon, light, quick adjustable. Has to go with the compatible carbon seat post. I’m very happy with this set up.

“I chose it because a) it was white(!) and because I was keen for something that would make me ride fast. It isn’t the most comfortable for long, long rides but that kinda suits my style as I’m out the saddle a fair bit anyway. Also I think I have quite narrow sit bones so can take a quite aggressive saddle whereas a lot of women find them uncomfortable.”

“In terms of how many did I try? Well not many. I find it’s too expensive to keep buying them to try. I do a bit of research and I know what my ass and spine can cope with!”

5. The all-rounder

Juliet Elliott, editor of Coven magazine, is a sponsored rider for Charge bikes. It’s not too surprising that she uses a Charge saddle, but she goes for the men’s Spoon rather than the women’s Ladle. “It’s cheap and basic but comfortable with a clean design which works for multiple kinds of riding,” she says.

For longer rides, Juliet uses the popular Selle Italia Diva Lady Gel saddle. “It’s really comfortable for long rides, with a deep cut out and gel padding and it’s slightly wider at the back to accommodate a lady’s wider hip bones,” she says.

Juliet has also been on a saddle voyage of discovery over the years. “I’ve tried a fair few saddles, notably most of the Selle Italia and Specialized ranges,” she says. “I found the Specialized saddles I tested a little too firm for my personal tastes, wasn’t willing to spend so long breaking in an admittedly beautiful Brooks. Classics like the Selle San Marco Rolls and the Vintage Concor also look great but are somewhat uncomfortable.”

6. The crossover athlete

A former elite rower turned cyclist, Felicity Hawksley writes for several women’s sports websites and blogs, where she also mentions sport occasionally.

“I use the saddle that comes with my Giant compact frame road race bike,” says Felicity. “A racing saddle. Uncomfortable at first, you think, but obviously the thinner the saddle the better over a long distance, especially if like me you have narrow hips and therefore narrow sit bones.”

7. The gear tester

Selle San Marco Aspide Glamour
Selle San Marco Aspide Glamour

Bex Hopkins, editor of late, lamented site shecycles.com says she mainly uses the Specialized Jett saddle in medium or narrow width on both her road and mountain bikes but still found it a struggle in the beginning on how to choose a saddle that was right for her type of riding.

“I like the slender saddle and find there are plenty of positions to add variety during longer rides,” says Bex. “I like a saddle that doesn’t get in the way of my thighs and many wider saddles rub or feel to bulky.

“If I haven’t ridden for a while the sporty nature of the saddle can lead to sore sit bones but after a couple of rides the muscles in my butt toughen up. I find a more padded saddle causes pain up front and I prefer a harder padding with most of my weight on the sit bones.”

Her former job meant Bex was in an unusual position when it came to trialling different seats.

“I have tried, tested, or reviewed over 25 saddles and find those with a concave shape (from nose to tail) or flat profile work best for me. I dislike any saddles with a convex shape across the widest part of the saddle too, I find this pushes my pelvis apart.

“Thin racy saddles like the Selle San Marco Aspide Glamour with cut away sides work best for me.

“Most importantly the position of the saddle can be the difference between a comfy and uncomfy saddle. I find most women’s boyfriends, male SOs or hubbies angle their saddles like they would their own with the nose slightly up or flat. A slight tweak of the nose downwards can solve most problems, and adjusting fore and aft helps too. I can ride pretty much any saddle by tweaking adjustment/position.”

Home page image for this article by pic fix via Flickr.

Like this article on how to choose a saddle? You’ll find these useful too: 

Beginners: Setting the Angle of Your Saddle

Buyers Guide: Women’s Saddles

Saddle Sores: 16 Tips for Avoiding Them

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  1. bev

    Shame about the negative comment re Brooks saddles….I’ve always found them really good..the swallow or b17 (not the big springy ones !). Swallow is great for some women. You don’t necessarily need the ‘womens S’ shape.

    1. Taya

      Have you used a Brooks Colt saddle? I was given one to replace the men’s seat in my road bike but I’m hesitant to use it because if its still uncomfortable after I break it in, I can’t do anything with it. Most of my rides are up to 30km so I want something comfy.

      Has anyone else seen a women’s specific review of the Colt, particularly on a road bike?

      1. bev

        I suggest you just give it a go and see how it feels. Both my Brooks have felt comfortable from the off…but we’re all different shapes and sizes so can’t really generalise ! Even if you use it and then feel it’s not for you Brooks seem to hold their value on Ebay.

    2. H

      Agreed on the Brooks love. I use a Brooks saddle on all of my bikes, I think they’re fab. My first one was black leather and took about 500 miles to break in, but my second was honey leather and was perfect straight out of the box. Can’t even imagine riding 100+ miles on anything else.

  2. bike pixi

    I have a brooks B17 S Imperial (it has the cutout and lacing)on my touring bike and it did not need breaking in (I’ve heard this is a myth for women) but the lacing does mean I can adjust the firmness of it. I’ve done 100kms+ per day for months on end with no need for padded shorts on it. Its not comfortable for an aggressive position however, its hammocky shape means too much pressure at the front.

    On my other bikes I have Fizik all the way with the appropriate saddle for the position I have on the bike. I started with fizik and lucked out that they are good for me.

  3. Toria

    Never had a problem with my Specialized Riva. I’m always in the saddle a lot longer than friends with more expensive models who start complaining and coming out of the saddle after 50 miles…

  4. Meg

    This saddle is on Kickstarter right now and looks really promising. Can’t decide if I want to back it without getting to try it thought! (I have no affiliation with it or Kickstarter, I’m just an addict to the site.) http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1655849966/infinity-seat-revolutionizing-the-bicycle-seat

  5. Froggy

    Hi,
    Yes, a saddle is a very personal thing, yet I found that besides precise width, what works for me is the stiffest saddle possible, and with a non plasticky top (to avoid sweating consequences)… So I end up with 2 different saddles: Selle Italia Lady (non gel – I agree with Jenny) and a great thick leather “Gilles Berthoud” saddle, hand made in France (he has a website)for long distance rides I never needed to break in. Brooks does not work for me. Strangely, even the supposedly racing “Finesse” (which I find too large anyhow) is for me way too “hammocky”, and their B17 (the ones now made) will last 2.000 km before definitely hammocking in, meaning you then have to nose it up to avoid sliding down frontward, with other worse consequences for your tender parts. Lacing does not solve the problem totally.
    Thanks for your dedication and the information posted on your site and yes, please to continue to advocate good women gear (and non bulky chamois! Where are they? When will producers finally understand that chamois are only to avoid chaffing and NOT to compensate for a lousy saddle? etc.).
    Happy riding to all the ladies out there..

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