Cycling shorts + The Right Saddle + Chamois Cream = Saddle Nirvana
To those of us who have made the choice to immerse ourselves in everything cycling, either recreationally, as our occupation, or both, there are a few things that we learn along the way that allow us to achieve a certain level of expertise.
This includes the ability to avoid wearing a helmet backwards, know the foods that melt in a jersey pocket on hot days, and most importantly: how to achieve saddle nirvana. We’ve asked Chris Garrison to share her saddle wisdom.
The trouble with saddles on bikes is that they aren’t comfortable lounge chairs or park benches. They are skinny, narrow objects that seem more appropriate for use on Survivor, to test the staying power of some castaway and eliminate the weak.
The other difficulty, as I tell people during my ladies’ nights, ‘asses’ (I’m a Yank) are like snowflakes; no two are alike. Because of this, as an ‘expert in my field’, questions about women’s bicycle saddles are usually the most difficult for me to answer. After all, I want people to like me, and considering how hard the right saddle is to find, this is dangerous territory for my ego.
Let me also add, one thing that should be avoided when trying to find the right saddle for you, is to take the advice of trusted friends. You may have a riding mate who has given you great advice about a variety of subjects over the years, and one day you are out riding and happen to mention that you are having trouble getting comfortable on your seat. Nothing will cause trust issues faster than having a friend suggest that the perfect saddle for her will also work wonders for your undercarriage. This is how friendships come to a rapid and mentally violent end. With tears.
What you won’t read here is that a specific saddle is definitely the one you must have. Such a thing doesn’t exist. I’ve come up with some guidance, that will at the very least, get you on the way to finding the right saddle for you, and that’s my saddle comfort equation.
There are three variables in the women’s bicycle saddle comfort equation:
1. Cycling shorts
2. The saddle itself
3. The miracle substance that is chamois cream.
The first two are quite variable themselves. There are as many makes and models of saddles and shorts as there are types of hair product and bras and just like those things, there is some trial and error involved to find out which ones are right for you. The third, chamois cream, is simple. It’s one of those things you either use, or don’t and after this, hopefully you’ll at least try it.
1. Cycling shorts
While there is generally a lot of trepidation for someone to wear lycra shorts, it seems like a completely alien concept, you don’t have to wear them by themselves. Wearing cycling shorts under any other garment of clothing is perfectly acceptable, and you will gain all of the benefits from their use.
What you never want to do (and I’m talking to you again, Reluctant Cyclist) is wear underwear under your cycling shorts. Never. No pants. Ever. At all. It’s bad. Don’t do it, unless you are trying them on in a store. That’s the only time it’s ok to wear pants under lycra.
Here’s why: Cycling shorts are a technical piece of equipment. Their job is to make you comfortable when you ride, and to protect you. The material in the chamois is chosen by clothing manufacturers for many reasons, including things like wicking properties and antibacterial coatings. This material can’t do its job for you if you put something between it, and your skin. Like pants. You are essentially setting yourself up to be sitting on a Petri dish. Let the chamois do its job for you and leave the pants at home.
Every rider, no matter what their experience or the distance they ride, can benefit from wearing cycling shorts. Don’t feel like your version of cycling isn’t worthy of them. It is. Finding the right shorts for you is, as I mentioned, one of the areas in the equation that is a bit trial and error. Like most clothes, there will be some brands that fit you better than others, and sometimes you have to try a couple of types before you find what works.
Things to look for when shopping for shorts: make sure there is no seam running down the centre of the chamois (pad). A centre seam is one quick and dirty way to get chaffed. Chafing is bad. Avoid things that will cause it.
Count the number of panels of fabric in the shorts. The panels are the individual pieces of material that are sewn together to make the garment. More panels equal more comfort. Fewer panels mean that each piece of material has to stretch more in order to wrap itself around you. This is what it feels like to be a sausage.
2. The Right Saddle
The saddle is definitely the hardest part of the saddle comfort equation to get right. There are so many kinds, some with cutouts in the middle, some without. Some that are very wide, some that are skinny. It’s a big quagmire to try and work through in order to find the right saddle for you. There’s also the potential that your existing saddle is ok, but not in the right position on the bike.
Sometimes a simple adjustment is all you need in order to be more comfortable. Saddle comfort has everything to do with anatomy. When you sit in a chair, you are resting on the part of your pelvis that is commonly referred to as your sit bones. These are a wider part of your pelvis that has the benefit of your gluteus maximus around it to help distribute the weight. When you sit on a bike seat, you don’t use this same anatomy. The way you’re positioned means that you are putting pressure on the pubic arch, which isn’t designed to bear huge amounts of weight, and is surrounded by delicate soft tissue.
This is where things go wrong with saddles. It is possible to support this area of the pelvis, providing that you put the support offered by the saddle where your anatomy needs it to be. When it’s not in the right place, discomfort happens.
Most women wrongly assume that they need a wide saddle. In many cases, this is due to the perception you have of yourself. Your outside is not a reflection of your inside, so don’t assume that how you are built on the outside is the same as how your pelvis measures. In my years of fitting women to saddles, I can tell you that most women need a much narrower saddle than they think they do. It is vital that you get measured for a saddle. Fortunately, this doesn’t involve any nudity.
Most stores have some sort of saddle measuring device. The company I work for makes one that uses memory foam to create an impression of your sit bones. From there, I’m able to determine how wide a saddle you need, and can then point you to one of the three widths we make. This sort of arrangement is becoming the norm in the industry, rather than the exception.
Most independent bike retailers will have some fashion of saddle measuring device or another. Start with them. You might be surprised to learn that you need something narrower than you think.
3. Chamois Cream
The easiest variable in the saddle comfort equation is chamois cream. This will take the level of protection offered by the saddle, and increase it, like it’s on steroids. Chamois cream isn’t like a lotion. It’s designed to be absorbed much slower and is generally not petroleum based. Petroleum products will prevent your skin from breathing and who wants to sit on an oil slick?
The thing about chamois cream is that it feels weird when you first use it. If you accept this, then it will be much easier to get beyond the ‘wet diaper’ feeling, and enjoy the benefits of its use. Just don’t put it on in the presence of another person. The expression on your face when you apply it to your warm skin isn’t one you want another person to see.
There you have it. The saddle comfort equation. It’s not perfect, but it will put you on a path to being more comfortable on your seat.
If you are one of the lucky few who aren’t experiencing any issues in the ‘soft tissue area’ when you ride, then practice a policy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, if you are one of the hundreds of women I’ve spoken to who have issues with the saddle, then hopefully you’ll be on your way to finding your happy place.
Like this? You’ll find these useful too:
How to Choose the Perfect Saddle
Beginners: Setting the Angle of Your Saddle