Getting Comfortable in the Saddle

One of my blog readers, Trish, recently asked the following question about comfort in the saddle:

I searched your blog to see if I could find your thoughts on comfort in the saddle, which is my biggest obstacle to long rides. I’ve been doing metric centuries every weekend, but beyond that I think my rear end would be in too much discomfort.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

I know the saddle itself is highly personal, but do you have a favorite chamois? I like the Castelli Kiss chamois, not crazy about my Pearl Izumi, but haven’t tried all that many as experimentation is an expensive undertaking! Do you use Butt Butter or the like?

Obviously the position each rider finds comfortable varies by person, but the methods we use to achieve it are generally the same. Here’s what goes into making my saddle setup the best it can be.

Surly and the Capitol

The “Right” Saddle

Felkerino says that one of the ways you can tell you’ve become a cyclist is if you have a box full of various saddles at home. It takes some experimenting to find the right one. Reading the saddle description, perusing customer reviews, and getting input from other riders will give you an idea if a particular saddle is made to suit your type of riding, but beyond that it’s pretty much experimentation. Enter the box of saddles.

I started out riding a Terry Butterfly, which worked fine until it didn’t. Over time I switched to riding Brooks saddles. For the tandem, I like to ride the Brooks Flyer S, which is a leather saddle with springs and a wider base and a shorter nose than the regular Brooks saddles.

Taking note of the saddle tilts on the Co-Motion

Taking note of the saddle tilts on the Co-Motion

Saddle Adjustment

Once you select a saddle that you think might go the distance, put it on your bike and start tinkering with it. Here are a couple of things I keep in mind when adjusting my saddle.

1. Tilt

The angle with which a saddle tilts up or down can make all the difference to your ride. As you can see in the photo of my bike, I like to have my saddle tilted up. While one of my friends said it physically pains her to look at my saddle, I find it quite comfy. My sit bones are squarely on the base of the saddle, and the tilt is not so much that it creates any friction in front. Believe me, friction in front is something to avoid.

If for some reason the bolts loosen and my saddle starts to tilt such that it compromises my position, I stop to adjust it. As Felkerino says, never be afraid to turn a bolt. Whenever he has any saddle discomfort he will immediately stop to address it. I’m not as vigilant as Felkerino in that department, but it is a good philosophy. If a saddle becomes uncomfortable due to maladjustment, it will not become comfortable again until you stop, get out your wrenches, and change the setup.

2. Setback

The amount that you move the saddle the saddle forward or backward on its rails also contributes to a positive saddle position. For example, if I move my saddle too far forward, I can feel myself sitting on the saddle’s rivets, or close to its edge. Ouch. When that happens, I know I need to move my saddle further back on the seat post.

Different seat posts allow varying degrees of setback. (Enter box of seat posts!) I like to have a lot of setback on my saddle. For use on our tandem, I purchased (ok, Felkerino purchased) a Nitto Wayback seatpost. I have also used a Velo Orange Grand Cru Seatpost with a long setback. Otherwise, I found myself constantly pushing back on the saddle, which caused discomfort on longer rides. Because the wayback seatpost gives me the perfect amount of setback, I don’t end up fighting the saddle.

Felkerino and me (wearing the Sugoi RS shorts) on the 2012 DCR 600K (c) Bill Beck

The “Right” Bike Shorts

Just as I have a box for saddles and another for seatposts, I also have a drawer of bike shorts that did not make the “long ride” cut. Ultimately, the Sugoi RS (recommended to me by another randonneuse) are my go-to shorts for long rides.

The aspects I take into consideration when I purchase bike shorts include the following: chamois thickness and texture, chamois size, position of the short seams, the shorts fabric, shorts length and general aesthetic.

For me, the Sugoi RS work well because the chamois is not thick and it is smooth to the touch. The chamois also does not dry out easily or chafe my skin. The shorts fit me in such a ways that the seams don’t abrade me anywhere.

I like the fabric Sugoi uses, the shorts fit my body well, the length is perfect, and they are fairly understated.

I also have a couple of pairs of Voler Elite FS shorts that I’ve used on rides of 200+ miles. While the shorts fabric, fit, and chamois type work well for me, I do not like the contrasting stitching on these shorts. If I only had time to take a black Sharpie to all those seams.

For a short time I used wool shorts, but found that they ended up stretching and sagging in the butt area. That’s not a look I’m really going for so I’ve stuck to using shorts made of synthetic fabrics.

Stocking up on Chamois Butt’r

Chamois Cream

Chamois cream helps ward off any chafing during a ride. I always use it for rides that are, say, over 40 miles. At our house, we use Chamois Butt’r. It’s pretty affordable, I don’t usually need to reapply until after the century mark, and it makes my ride that much more comfortable. I know there are many others out there, but since Chamois Butt’r has always done the job, I have not done any experimenting with other creams. If you’ve got one that you really like, please put it in the comments.

Handlebar Height and Reach

One of my tweeps suggested that I mention something about handlebars, as their position on the bike also affects a rider’s comfort in the saddle. If a rider is too stretched out over the bike, that means his or her hips will be tilting forward at an angle that invites trouble, i.e., pain.

If the rider is squinched up on the bike (my technical term meaning that the reach is not long enough), another uncomfortable angle is likely to cause the rider to fight the bike in an effort to make the ride more comfortable, also leading to saddle problems.

Because I am not that flexible of a rider and the bulk of my riding is touring, I also set up my handlebars slightly higher than the saddle in order to have a more upright position. This works well for me on long rides.

I don’t know how to technically explain this, but when on the bike, the rider does not want to feel like a lot of weight is going into his or her hands. Certainly some weight will be distributed into the hands, but the bulk of a rider’s weight should be distributed toward the back end of the bike, which is why having a saddle that feels good and supports the sit bones well is so critical.

By finding the right saddle for me, adjusting it properly to my body, finding some shorts that will go the distance, making sure to put on Chamois Butt’r before rides, and tweaking the handlebars just so I’ve found that I can ride for miles and miles in comfort. I also had a lot of help from Felkerino, who was always at the ready with the wrenches. It took time experimenting and fiddling, but I ultimately got there.

Did I miss anything? Please feel free to add any other comments or thoughts you have about finding comfort in the saddle.

19 responses to “Getting Comfortable in the Saddle

  1. Ok, how ’bout saddle height?

    • Regarding saddle height, I would say you want the saddle high enough that you have a slight bend in the leg when you put your foot on the pedal. Also, in my opinion your saddle is too high if your hips rock back and forth as you pedal (or if someone can see you rocking side to side as you pedal). The hips should remain stable.

  2. If you can afford to get a fitting at a bike shop, I’d say it’s well worth it. I can get fairly bad IT band problems with my saddle height off by as little as an 1/8th of an inch or so or incorrect fore & aft position. Once you figure out the sweet spot, mark the heck out of it or memorize it so you can always return it to that position if it changes.

    I ride a Long Haul Trucker too and my longest ride was probably 120 miles in one day, just as reference. Also, I am male. I use a Brooks B17 Standard and after a good break in, I love it. Even after a long day of riding in a chamois, I can switch into a pair of running shorts and still ride the bike sans discomfort (this is important when touring). My Brooks is also canted up at what would appear to be an uncomfortable angle, but the owner of my local shop said that many folks set Brooks that way in the end.

    I wear Endura’s fairly basic chamois (since I bought two pair at the same time) and don’t use chamois cream. Haven’t ever tried the cream though so I’m not discouraging its use. Overall, I have approximately 8,000 miles on this saddle/chamois setup and have been comfortable while riding.

  3. I started on a Terry and now I’m with Brooks. the jury is still out. For me, the most critical componet of a comfortable ride is my suspension seat post. I will take my thudbuster to the grave with me! :) Regarding saddle height – Coach John gave me the best advice, have someone ride behind you as you are riding in a sports bra, your spine and hips should be perfectly still as you pedal. If you rock you will eventually chaffe!

  4. A nice “rule of thumb” for saddle height that works for me is that your leg should be just fully extended with the heel of the shoe on the pedal. Then when you put the foot in the normal position, it has just the right amount of bend.

    Even though I have bad-mouthed Lantiseptic in the past, I now use it for rides of 300K and up. It is gooey and sticky and a mess to get off your hands, but that’s why it doesn’t wear off the “saddle area” during a long ride. So for less than 300K – just Chamois Buttr, but for rides longer than 300K – a base layer of Lantiseptic with Chamois Buttr over that. A real mess, but it works and has staying power.

  5. Thank you so much – very helpful! I’m going to look into the Sugoi shorts. I don’t mind spending the money if they are good.

    Sometimes (just this afternoon even) I’ll see a rider who is rocking side to side, as if they were an oil derrick, and I really want to ask them if they are comfortable, because unless they are only doing it on hills, it seems to me their saddle must be too high!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  6. So glad you addressed this. You’ve become the source I turn to when I have questions like these!

  7. Trish,

    What’s your bar height? Are they significantly below your saddle height? Do you have to bend deep to reach the bars? If so, it may be that your body weight is not supported by your sit bones but is instead compressing “nether region” soft tissue due to forward rotation of the pelvis. You may already have accounted for this, but thought I’d mention it to be complete.

    Tom’s suggestion for a fitting is excellent but, if you’re not aware, be apprised that distance/tourist/commuter cyclists often prefer a more upright riding posture than racers, so make sure your fitment, especially with respect to bar height and reach, matches your riding goals.

  8. So what does the chamois cream “butt’r” actually do? Nobody ever says, and I only imagine it would be cold and moist (and other unappetizing thoughts)

    • It is definitely moist. If kept inside, it’s not that cold. For me, the chamois cream has been an additional aid against chafing. I apply it both to the sit bone area and “in front.” It’s especially helpful in front because I have found that area to be prone to discomfort on rides when I don’t use it. As the ride progresses, it’s absorbed into the skin so it’s not like your pants are exploding with cold wet chamois cream. Hopefully not, anyway :).

  9. So wonderful to be able to benefit from the collective wisdom!

    I had a fancy fitting done when I bought the bike, but my flexibility has probably changed since then, and it was my first road bike so I don’t think I was able to provide good feedback to the fitter. Since then I’ve done a lot of tweaks and am much more comfortable. Tilting my saddle slightly down was a huge improvement, as was flipping my stem to raise the handlebars a bit. I am not miserable at the end of the metrics, but figured a randonneur would probably have insights that might help me do the upcoming Seagull Century with the least pain possible. BTW, I actually have two carbon road bikes – one is more relaxed and suited for distance, the other a more aggressive geometry with 650c wheels. I use the latter when there is significant climbing, but wouldn’t want to use it on more than a metric.

  10. This is a great post. Lots of good info.
    How funny that we both tried and gave up on Terry saddles. And we both ride Brooks with an upward tilt and a big setback.
    Sometimes leather saddles take a while to get just right. Over time they develop dents in the wide part. The dents correspond to your sit bones. It’s kind of like the pocket of baseball glove. If the pocket is off, the glove doesn’t work right.
    I like Assos chamois cream. It’s a little hard to find. I actually tingles a bit when you put it on, which is a little weird. But it works for me. It’s also a little more expensive than Chamois Butt’r. I learned of Assos from reading a Crazyguyonabike.com journal of two young women touring in Eastern Europe. Their bottoms were so sore they almost quit. Then they tried Assos. They raved about it.
    This will sound weird but one way to tell if the saddle is too high is to ride out of the saddle and then sit. If you have to raise your, um, self up to clear the nose of the saddle it’s too high.
    Finally, on the handlebars, I like it when my hands sit on the brake hoods and my arms are relaxed. This keeps the bumps from tightening your shoulders and neck.

  11. Bookmarked in my fave’s is the @lovelybicycle article on female saddle comfort. http://lovelybike.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/on-female-anatomy-and-bicycle-saddles.html

  12. I also have the “box of saddles,” but most manufacturers now offer demos or have liberal return policies. Many shops will allow you to check them out for weeks. I ride a Terry saddle on distance and tandem rides (yes they make great men’s saddles) and Sella Italia on my speedy bikes. Brooks don’t work for me, but that goes to show it’s very personal (I can’t imagine riding with your tilt). Chamios Butt’r comes in little one-time use packets if space is a concern. Oh, and many cyclists ride “commando.” (Sort of like Brooke Shields “Nothing gets between me and my Calvins.”)

  13. What a great post!

    I’ve had so many discomfort issues on the bike, and it’s taken me a long time to work up to even 100 mile rides because of them. It’s so sad and frustrating when these issues prevent us from riding.

    As far as chamois cream, I’ve tried loads of them at this point because I am insanely chafe-prone (to the point of lesions at every point where the edge of clothing comes in contact with skin!). What I found works best for me is DZNuts on shorter rides (<50 miles) and Boudreaux Butt Paste on longer ones. The latter stuff has the texture of putty and a weird, medicinal smell to it. But it stays put with tenacity and solves my chafing issues. I have taken to putting it not only on the chamois, but pretty much everywhere my skin tends to get irritated.

    I think the bottom line is, as you point out, that experimenting for ourselves is key. Unfortunately it is not as easy as quizzing an experienced rider and just doing what they do. Our bodies are all so different that what works for one person may not for another.

  14. Saddle angle side to side: depending on what your chafing issues are, sometimes it can help to loosen the seatpost bolt a tiny bit, and angle the nose of the saddle to one side or the other, slightly off center from the top tube. Try one way, then the other. During a ride, it can help re-adjust where you’re sitting on the seat or how it’s interacting with your butt, inner thighs, crotch. Just another thing to try.

    Chamois cream: I like Bag Balm (for cows), sold in local drugstores (a square dark green tin usually on a bottom shelf, near the body lotions). It is greasier and heavier than Chamois Butt’r brand, but I can adjust whether I use a thin or thicker amount. I ride several thousand miles a year, and still sometimes have chafing issues, so sometimes I use a thick glob where the chafe is. Bag Balm stains a light colored chamois, but I am the only one using my bike shorts so I don’t care because I like the way it works. On long hot (read: sweaty!) rides (60+), I put a small amount in a small ziplock bag, inside another ziplock bag and reapply at some point.

  15. I found the search for the right saddle to be a trails & error experience, and expensive too as I too have a box of saddles that were fine until they weren’t. Two things helped me. One was a good bike fit, as other have suggested. The second was measuring my sit bones to find saddles in the right width. Sit bone width is not related to your general butt width, so so can’t go by how you look in jeans. Shops that carry Bontrager saddles have a gel-filled sit bone fit measurer that will give you the distance between your sit bones. Saddles are “sized” by width and length. You sit on the thing, and your sit bones push into the gel giving you a measurement. You want to find a saddle whose width matches the distance between your sit bones. Length, shape, and other features ( cut outs, padding, etc) are still a matter of trial and error, so this may help control the overall size of that saddle box, but not its existence. Good luck, bonne route, and a happy butt is happy rider!

  16. Hey MG – good stuff. I love my Brooks saddles. Never need chamois creme. Thought of you today on a ride through fall foliage and cool temps. Will there be a 2012 Coffeeneurring Challenge? I sure hope so. That was a bunch of fun last year.

  17. Many thanks to everybody who shared their knowledge and experience regarding saddle comfort! Really built on the original post so thank you all!

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