Saddle discomfort can be a real ride killer. Here at TWC we sob internally every time a non-cycling friend tells us: "I went cycling on holiday, the saddle killed me, I decided never to ride again..."
For those who are still struggling, we'd like to present a slightly different option: the ISM.
I’ll begin by admitting a personal interest in ISM. When I completed my first time trial, I got off the bike and promptly told everyone present that I was going to have to make an important decision: bike riding, or sex – my then boyfriend wasn’t too impressed.
I got off the bike and promptly told everyone present that I was going to have to make an important decision: bike riding, or sex – my then boyfriend wasn’t too impressed.
Consequently, I bought a second hand ISM saddle from a friend, and discovered that the two can co-exist, because riding in a forward seated position did not have to equal agony. I've never looked back and recently rode a 100 mile TT with this saddle - without chamois cream.
ISM have a history of supplying to time trial specialists and triathletes - but they make saddles for all disciplines and are looking to grow awareness of that.
I tend to swap the ISM onto my road bike if I've got some big miles planned, for example over a week long riding holiday. The rest of the time, I ride on a Selle Italia SLR Lady Flow, which works well (you'll probably note some similarities between it and the ISM) - but mainly because I only own one ISM. I'll always choose to swap the saddle and put my trust in the ISM over anything else for a mega long ride.
[related_articles] Irritatingly saddle choice is completely personal, we'd never say "this saddle is the one everyone should be using" because there is no such saddle.
However, the good people at ISM have a solution that is quite different to what the vast majority of saddle manufacturers offer. It's so different that people are often put off by the design - so we'd like to explain the science behind these weird looking perches.
Recognised by the World Federation of Sporting Goods
It transpired that 30 per cent of female pro cyclists had undergone corrective surgery due to saddle discomfort
I've already explained that I'm quite an ISM fan. However, I'm one individual rider. Thankfully, the brand have more clout than that.
In fact, when it transpired that 30 per cent of female pro cyclists had undergone corrective surgery, and the women within the Great British cycling team had accumulated 35 days off the bike due to saddle discomfort, the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industries (WFSGI) set up a Saddle Committee, responsible for advising the UCI's regulations – and ISM’s Technical Commander Dave Schindler was appointed as the chairman.
ISM saddles are not women’s or men’s saddles – they are unisex, and Schindler was clear when explaining the stats above regarding pro female cyclists, that the issues affect men and women – but he supposed women were “more happy to talk about it".
So – we understand that the people behind ISM saddles have a pretty serious background in the industry, but how do they work?
How the Saddles Work
ISM saddles look a bit funny – we know. That’s something that stands against them in the cycling industry, with its ‘Velominati rules’ about style and saddles matching handlebars and blah.
The good news is that if you get on with one, you’ll spend most of your time with your bum perched on it, so that shouldn’t really be a barrier.
The way they work is very simple. Traditional saddles, based according to Schindler on the designs for saddles used on horses, force the rider to put some pressure on soft tissue. This can cause numbness, pain, and has been linked to erectile dysfunction in men. In women, over long term abuse, it’s linked to a loss of feeling and sensitivity.
Some saddles feature a cut out or channel to reduce this, and these are pretty popular. However, in the case of the ISM, the saddle supports the pubic bones, eliminating all pressure on the soft tissue. There is no weight placed on anything that does not have a bone structure supporting it.
ISM have carried out studies on the effect of cycling with one of their saddles – and they say that their saddles can allow over 200% blood flow to soft tissue.We were a bit stumped here. 200%? That sounds worryingly close to – well...
Shindler explains how the tests work: “Sensors are attached to the head of the penis or labia [he looks a bit pink in the face here as I nod along scribbling in my notebook]."
"When a person is just standing, comfortably, we call that 100% blood flow – that’s the baseline level."
"In the case of most saddles, when you start pedaling, blood flow goes down. After around 10-16 minutes, it can drop right down to 10%. This is the opposite of what should happen – when people exercise, blood capillaries open, increasing blood flow. If the blood flow is not restricted it will go over 100%, in our case over 200%, because blood flow is increased due to exercise."
So - we can see that the science seems to support the idea.
Of course, what works for every individual is personal - for example, some people sit more 'forward' on the saddle, meaning they're susceptible to soft tissue discomfort which the ISM tackles, whilst others sit 'back' and have different problems. It's impossible to say if an ISM is right for you, without giving one a go.
Prices start at about £70, for the cheapest models. So can you try one without splashing out?
They're not particularly cheap - starting at around £70, and thanks to the huge range, it's hard to work out what's right for you. For 2016, a new letter coding system has been introduced - Schindler gave us a brief explanation:
- PL: Performance Long - good for road and mountain bike riders - the longer saddle allows for more positions and climbing
- PN: Performance Narrow - good for road, time trial and triathlon - narrower saddle allows more clearance for thighs, so arguably better for women
- PS: Performance Short - good for time trial and triathlon and road racing, for people who sit far forward in the saddle and will be putting out all out efforts.
- PR: Performance Recreation is also available - it's the same shape as the PS, with more padding, and a little cheaper thanks to less expensive material used on the rails.
- PM: Performance Mountain - has a sloped rear for clearance
- CF: Comfort Fitness, very different, much wider base, for riding hybrids or city bikes
- CC: Comfort City, as above, but with a sloped front to make getting on and off easier
According to the website, all dealers should have demo saddles - but if they don't, you can order one direct. Education is really important to ISM, and Schindler is working with retailers to try to make sure that set up is carried out properly, so people get the best experience. If it's not offered at a store, there is a set up guide here.
Good luck with your saddle journey. If you're struggling to find the perfect perch - check out this guide to buying a new saddle.