Saddle Up! Getting Your Bike Saddle Right The First Time

Saddle Up! Getting Your Bike Saddle Right The First Time

Written by Contender Bicycles, on June 20, 2023

Choosing the right bicycle can be a daunting task. So many things make it “work”: Fit, brand preference, style, these all play a big role in how we pick out a bike, but they’re all variables that can be accommodated and be adjusted to. With bicycle saddles however, more often than not they either work or they don’t. And when a saddle isn’t right, it can ruin the entire experience. Only your hands and feet spend more time in contact with your bike than your hind end and it arguably supports a much higher percentage of the contact load. Your saddle needs to be comfortable as well as supportive, sized and positioned correctly on the bike. It takes some research and a bit of effort, but once you determine what will work best for you it can help avoid serious discomfort and having to buy saddle after saddle before you nail it down.

Speaking of what works, the ideal saddle for someone else might not work for you - overall body shape and size, as well as type of riding and flexibility come into play. Knowing your sit bone width can help, but it’s not always an absolute indicator as to which saddle or even saddle width will work best for you. Riding and proper adjustment are the keys to getting it right. Manufacturers are aware of this and for that reason the majority of them have a satisfaction guarantee that will accommodate trying out a saddle for a short period of time to see if it’s the right one for you. While you won’t be able to mount a saddle, do a mud-bath gravel extravaganza, or crash out of a criterium and expect to exchange the saddle afterwards, we’ll make every effort to help you get saddled up right! Here are some things to know to help the process go smoothly and comfortably (because that’s what it’s all about, right?):
Saddle Up! Getting Your Bike Saddle Right The First Time

What to know about width….
Saddle width is a big consideration when making a selection, and a good place to start the process. So, how to make the determination? Start by measuring your sit bone width. 

Measuring your sit bones:
One of the easiest ways to do this is the “cardboard method”: Find a piece of standard cardboard about the same size as your hind end (the side of a box usually works). Next, round up a chair or bench with a firm, solid surface, and where you can bend your knees at about a 90 degree angle when seated. It’s best if you can use a chair/bench that you can grab the underside of to pull yourself down and apply pressure to the seating surface. Place the cardboard on the seating surface, sit on down and pull yourself down onto the seating surface to create a sit bone impression. When you stand up and inspect the cardboard, you should see and/or feel 2 round-ish impressions where your pelvic (sit) bones depressed the cardboard (if you can’t see or feel the impressions, you can sweep the surface of the cardboard with the flat side of a piece of chalk to expose the low spots left by your sit bones). With a pen, or marker, circle the outside of the impressions, and then mark the center of the circles. Measure the distance between the center marks (in millimeters, as this is how most saddles are designated) and you’ll have your sit bone width.

saddle measuring

Translating to a saddle width
Once you know your sit bone width, you can zero in more on a proper saddle width. Manufacturers generally list the width of the saddle as the overall “effective” width, generally right about where the tapered part of the saddle flares into the widest section. This of course differs from model to model a bit, but it’s generally pretty uniform. Keep in mind that the labeled width of the saddle is *not* what your sit bones will measure. It will generally be much wider. A very general rule of thumb when determining a saddle width based on sit bone measurement is to add around 20-30mm to your sit bone width and start there. Rider position, riding type and flexibility will all play into this as well, so remember that it’s a general recommendation and consulting a shop pro is always recommended. One example is for me, my sit bones measure out right around 110mm. I prefer a pretty forward-flexed, road riding position, spending a fair amount of time in the dropped section of the handlebars. I tend to be most comfortable in the 140mm range, on a relatively flat saddle. 

Outside of using sit bone width, the basics of saddle width are pretty straightforward; if you’re a bigger person, lean towards a wider available width. Smaller riders tend to fit best on narrower saddles. As elementary as this sounds, it’s a good place to start. Again, proper positioning is key and many riders may feel the width is wrong, when the discomfort may be a question of positioning the saddle. Consulting with the shop is a good place to start.

What’s Your Saddle History?
Another important thing to consider when choosing a saddle is what has worked or not worked for you in the past. Oftentimes your riding style, flexibility and other factors change over the years, so something that has worked for years might not work forever. Saddle science, technology and materials are constantly evolving as well, so it’s good to keep up to date with what’s available. Some really interesting advancements have been made in how manufacturers can design and target padding zones and densities that haven’t been available in the past. So if you’ve been struggling with your saddle, or have simply been considering something new, it’s a good time to be looking at them!

Key points to keep in mind when you’re choosing a saddle:
Riding type, riding position and flexibility play a big part - If you’re mostly in a forward leaning, aero or aggressive road position that creates high pelvic rotation, a flatter saddle shape will most likely work best. If you find yourself more upright, say on a gravel bike or most MTB riding positions, a more rounded saddle shape will better support your sit bones with the lower amount of pelvic rotation present in these positions. There is of course an “in-between” semi-round saddle shape as well. 

measuring your saddle width

Do I need a cutout? 
While center cutouts and grooves aren’t necessary for every rider, they do help prevent undue circulatory pressure and resulting numbness in many riders, both men and women. Perineal numbness and discomfort can definitely ruin a ride, so it’s worth investigating whether a cutout saddle might help you out. 

A very general rule of thumb in determining if you might need a cutout saddle is: If you can comfortably sit on a hard, unpadded seat or bench for longer than five minutes without any real discomfort, you’ll probably be fine without a cutout or channel. The increased surface area without the cutout might be more comfortable and useful to you, if circulation issues are not a problem. The correct width and proper shape of the saddle is arguably more important to nail down than having a cutout or not.

Men’s/Women’s specific saddles
While there are some saddles out there that are designated as male or female specific, there’s been somewhat of a shift in thinking as we’ve realized that these designations can be a bit arbitrary. The gendered designations are largely (but not entirely) based on what an average male or female is comfortable on, and oftentimes the opposite might be true. There are a large number of female riders out there that find a cutout saddle (originally designed for male circulatory issues) to work best for them, and lots of male riders have found that a “female specific” shape fits them better. The reality is that most of us fall outside the “average” shape, so don’t be afraid to try out a saddle that might be branded outside of your designated gender. The important thing is the comfort and again, getting the saddle properly fit and set up.

It can be tempting to try and cure saddle woes by going for a model that has more padding. But like many things in life, more is not always better, especially with a bike saddle. Thick, soft padding in a saddle can compress over time (even over the course of a ride), and result in padding deformities around sensitive tissue. The best way to “add the pad” as it were is to ride in cycling shorts that have a high quality chamois/pad built in. The pad in the shorts will do far more for both immediate and long term comfort throughout the ride than an overly padded saddle. As important as it is to get the saddle right, bike shorts with a quality chamois are arguably just as key to the experience.   

chamois in bike shorts

Saddle rail construction... When does cost go off the rails?
The rail material of a saddle will affect price, have an effect on vibration felt through the saddle and influence the rigidity of the saddle to a degree, but will mostly affect the weight. Carbon rails will lighten the saddle, dampen *some* vibration, but make the saddle more costly and usually require carbon-specific seat post clamps. Some riders will argue that full- carbon saddle rails will make enough of a difference in shock absorption along with the weight savings to justify the cost, but contemporary alloy rails do a great job of soaking up as much vibration as possible while still remaining relatively lightweight. That being said, if you’ve shelled out $10k for a race bike, the extra couple hundred bucks for carbon saddle rails might be justifiable to pinch the weight down as much as possible.


Short nose saddles: Is less more?

You may have noticed a trend over the past few seasons of shorter length or “short nose” saddles hitting the market. One of the main ideas behind the shorter saddle chassis is that for many riders, the longer nose is excess real estate. With a shorter saddle, the rider will have more ability to flex forward and get more aerodynamic while remaining planted in the wider part of the saddle (while creating less anatomical pressure while doing so). However, some taller riders, or those tend to naturally move fore and aft quite a bit while riding might still prefer the traditional longer saddle shape. My own experience is that the shorter shapes have some merit as I’m on the smaller end of the scale, but I still like having more nose out in front when I’m flexed far forward, pushing the pace. Again, the proper fit can get very personal.

Making an informed decision when getting a new saddle is the key to lasting comfort and continued great rides. We’re here to help you get it right and are happy to discuss the options that are available. Give us a call or swing in and chat all things saddles in Salt Lake or Park City Utah! 

1 comment

  • Bravo ! This is the best article I have seen on how to choose a saddle…Read it !

    Alex Rosas on

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