Being uncomfortable on your saddle can absolutely ruin a ride – so it’s not surprising that an unhappy undercarriage is one of the key reasons women often give for breaking up with their bike.
It honestly doesn’t have to be that way. Whilst the idea of a ‘soul mate’ is disputable, there certainly is a saddle-mate out there for every bum – it’s really just a case of finding it.
The major difficulty when searching for the perfect saddle is you can’t really rely on a friend’s good opinion, positive reviews or the advice of a shop assistant – because everyone is different. Instead, you have to try saddles out to work out what you do and don’t like. Admittedly, this can get expensive – but there are indeed ways of reducing the cost.
Personally, I’m lucky enough to have found my dream saddle – but it took quite a few uncomfortable experiences to get there. Wearing two pairs of shorts and swimming in chamois cream? Been there. Standing up to pedal every mile? Been there. Unable to pee after a ride? Been there too. So, before providing advice, I’m going to share my own journey.
Finding My Perfect Saddle
My first ever saddle came with my Specialized Dolce road bike – and it was a Specialized Jett. At the time, I was riding my bike perhaps two to three times a week, and it lasted me for at least a year fairly comfortably. However, it’s quite padded in the centre, and after some time I found that the padding began to sag. At £50 a pop, I got a good amount of use out if it but it wasn’t to be my ‘forever perch’.
Briefly, I replaced this with a men’s saddle – some piece of equipment I picked up in a bike shop because it was on the shop floor and I had no idea what sort of trials could face a woman riding the wrong saddle.
Since road cyclists are more likely to sit with their pelvis tilted further forward, there is often more pressure placed on soft tissue, and in most cases a female specific saddle is most comfortable. Men and women’s sit bones don’t differ much, other than women being wider on average, but of course when it comes what's going on 'at the front' we're radically different. Most (not all!) women will get on better with a saddle designed for a woman.
Having learned my lesson, I moved on to the Selle Italia Women's Gel Flow - choosing it mainly based on good reviews. This is a highly popular model, that suits a lot of women.
I decided that perhaps the problem was the excess padding – so I went for minimalism next with the racey Specialized Women's Oura Pro, my most expensive saddle splurge yet at over £100. By this point, I was cycling much more regularly and eager to find the perfect pal. I was comfortable until I ramped up the miles on a training camp and again I felt the crush.
All this left me at a loss – until eventually I suffered my worst ever bout of saddle-sabotage – and thankfully the sabotage that led me to find a solution.
Fun fact of the day: The clitoris contains at least 8,000 sensory nerve endings. To put that into perspective, the penis has about 4,000.
Taking up time trialling, I initially raced my road bike, later borrowing a time trial bike from a friend. It was when I learned to lean forwards to get into a more aerodynamic position that the real pain began. All that discomfort I mentioned before? Nothing compared to the wincing agony of that forward bend on a saddle that doesn’t suit. Fun fact of the day: the clitoris contains at least 8,000 sensory nerve endings. To put that into perspective, the penis has about 4,000. According to some scientists somewhere.
I asked a friend for help – and she sold me her second hand ISM Breakaway (now called a PL1.0). Lucky, since these aren’t cheap bought new. The ISM has the front chopped off, relieving all soft tissue pressure for people who tend to sit in a forward position. It's a unisex saddle as none of that pesky gendered tissue is actually making any contact with the saddle. Wahoo! With the ISM I found Saddle Perfection Number One.
I could time trial on this saddle, I could ride all day on this saddle, I could use if for a week long training camp with absolutely no problem.
The only drawback? It’s not that pretty. So, keeping the ISM on my time trial bike, when it was time to furnish a new bike with a new saddle, I decided to look around just to see if there was anything prettier (ohh how fickle!). I knew I needed a saddle that would provide relief when bent over the handlebars, even on a road bike - something with a wide cut-out – which is how I chanced upon the Selle Italia SLR Lady Flow thanks to the wonders of Google Image Search ('women's saddle').
Reviews suggested that all the women who got on with it were those who had the same problems as me. So I bought it, fitted it, and found Perfection Number Two. Like the ISM, I can ride all day, even all day every day of the week (IF my legs will allow!) in comfort on this saddle. And so ends my story.
Finding YOUR Perfect Saddle
It’s all very well and good me finding my perfect saddle – but if you’re still looking for yours, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re reading with a touch of bitterness. I know, been there. Here are some tips to help you find your saddle mate…
1) Check it’s not your shorts
Bad shorts can cause just as much pain as a bad saddle. The key cause of this is the chamois moving out of place when shorts are too big, or restricting blood flow if they’re too small. Before you write off your saddle, make sure your chamois stays in place and doesn’t move around or sit too close to your skin in a way that feels restrictive. And use chamois cream if you’re not comfy (though once you’ve found saddle perfection I bet you won’t need it anymore!)
2) Talk about it
I've already said you can't find the perfect saddle by just buying the one that your mate from your cycling club has - all women are different so just because you've got the same taste in bikes and jerseys doesn't mean you'll get on with the same saddles. BUT do be honest and try not to be embarrassed when talking to cycling buddies abut problems you're having - it may be that your mate has struggled with very similar discomfort to you, and found an answer or a saddle shape that might work for both of you.
3) Work out what is uncomfortable and tackle it
Women suffer different types of discomfort on the bike, depending upon the way they sit and their anatomy. Whilst all my problems have been soft tissue discomfort, I know just as many riders who find they get sore sit bones from resting on their bum for hours whilst pedalling. Work out what’s wrong – and what might be causing it. For example, chafing on the thighs might signal a saddle with an overly wide nose, whilst sit bone pain could mean you need a wider base and numbness in your ultimate girly bits means there’s pressure building and you could probably do with relieving that via a channel or cut out.
4) Don't get into adjusting saddle angle (too much)
You can sometimes relieve a little discomfort by angling your saddle down very slightly on the rails. However, this can become a pesky addiction if you end up dipping it lower and lower. Eventually, you'll find you suffer discomfort in your lower back or arms from being in an odd position. It's ok to drop the nose a tiny bit, but this should be barely noticeable to the eye - if you need to make a drastic dip, then it's the wrong saddle!
5) Choose a saddle brand with a sizing guide and use it
If you’re buying in a bike shop, then ask if there is a fitting guide. Many brands – Selle Italia, Fizik, Bontrager, Specialzied to name a few – have their own carefully designed measurement tools that will determine the right saddle within their range for you. This usually involves sitting on a device and letting your bum make an imprint – so wear leggings or something light when you go shopping for the best arseprint!
5) Ask about saddle hire schemes
The search for the perfect saddle must be widespread because a lot of brands and retails offer a hire scheme – to help people to locate the right option without spending too much cash. Often, you’ll buy the saddle, and then be able to get a full refund within a set period of time if it’s not right.
6) Check eBay
Saddles depreciate in value pretty quickly – so even a barely used one might not fetch a lot of cash on eBay. Sad news if you’ve got a couple of duds to sell off, but great news if you’ve got an idea of one that might suit and don’t want to splash out on the RRP.
7) Get a bike fit
A bike fit can help to unearth problems you may not have realised you had, which could be contributing to your discomfort. For example, if you’re too stretched out on your bike, you may be placing undue stress where it isn’t needed. Admittedly, bike fits can feel like a swindle initially as you’ll usually walk out the shop £100 lighter with no brown paper bag. However, the comfort of a bike set up to fit you perfectly is priceless.
Already saddle sore? Check out this guide to getting rid of saddle sores, and keeping them away!