Choosing parts for your bike is usually quite straightforward - that is, unless it's a new saddle. With so many brands on the market you can only imagine the massive spectrum of features to choose from. Not only that, you're also buying something that is very strongly driven by how it feels when you ride. All this choice can really make your purchase feel like a lucky dip instead of an educated decision...
Before you tear down to your local bike shop read the following buying tips to learn about the different features in a saddle. Ultimately the final choice will be yours, but it will make it easier for all involved if you can narrow down your options to just a few saddles.
Brands are irrelevant at this point, so have an open mind when it comes to trying something new. With more experience you will realize that specific shapes are employed by individual brands and you will begin to know which suits you best.
Some saddles are designed specifically for each gender, with various factors coming into play. Usually saddle width and length play a major role, as well as the relief zone in the centre of the seat. Gender specific saddles are clearly marked as such, so you'll be able to spot the difference quite easily.
A relief zone on a saddle is either a softer area, or an actual cut out in the middle of the saddle. In women's and men's saddles the targeted relief zone is usually a large cut out to reduce or remove pressure on the sensitive soft tissue in your perennial area. These cut-outs come in different shapes and sizes and are worth trying out if you have experienced discomfort in this area.
We don't all have the same width pelvis so saddles have been designed to accommodate all of us! When you look at saddles, you'll notice that there are different widths. Wide saddles suit cyclists with a wider 'bum print' and narrower saddles suit people with a narrower pelvis. By no means does a wider seat mean it is more comfortable! Be willing to try a narrower saddle while going through your options, as the seat needs to fit between your legs as well as support your sit bones. An overly wide seat can splay your pelvic region apart, causing chafing and discomfort on the inside of your thighs.
NOTE: Soft tissue on your rear does not change your skeletal structure. Choose a seat that suits your pelvic sit bones, and not the perceived width of your buttocks.
Saddle length is not something that is overly crucial in choosing the right saddle for your bike. But saddles do come in varied lengths for different reasons. For example, a saddle made for XC mountain biking might be a little longer; to offer the opportunity to move forwards and backwards on the seat depending on the terrain you're riding. A saddle made for road riding also features the same, to allow you a longer sitting area. You can slide back a few inches when climbing, and sit well centred when riding in the bunch. It means one seat will fit more people...
Cheaper saddles rely on extra padding to offer comfort. But logic states that the excess padding is useless once you compress the padding when you sit down. Instead of choosing the softest, squishiest saddle on the shelf, try choosing one in between - a saddle with a bit of anatomical shape to it, as well as sufficient padding. Those big loafer saddles on the wall are not to be excluded, but try the other stuff too (it's not all for those 'racer types' you see on the road).
TIP: The saddles designed for long days on the bike are often the most minimally padded! Huh? Performance saddles are designed to be used with padded lycra cycling shorts and the minimal surface area reduces rubbing and chafing. You sit on your sitting bones, but your legs require maximum freedom of movement to be comfortable. If you intend on doing a "serious" amount of riding, look at the minimally padded saddles and buy a pair of knicks!
Saddles are increasingly featuring gel areas within the seat. The benefit with using gel is that the seat returns to a neutral shape when you hop off the bike. Whereas cheaper foam tends to mould to your shape, eventually offering no padding at all. Gel is not the only way to go, but it is worth considering.
Some saddles are flat. Other saddles are curved. Why can't they all be the same!? Well depending on your riding style, a saddle needs to be a different shape. If you ride in a very upright position, your weight will be distributed vertically onto your sit bones. This means you'll need a slightly wider and flatter sitting area on the seat to offer the support you need.
But if you're riding on a road bike, and have the typical 'nose down, bum up' setup, then your pelvis will have rotated forwards slightly, again demanding a different seat shape.
To sum it up, there's a lot that goes into choosing the right seat! Pop down to your LBS and have a look at what's on offer. Ask for some help when trying to figure out which saddle is for what. It can be a little daunting at first, but soon you'll gain momentum in your decision process. Firstly address the style of riding you'll be doing and whether or not you get sore in certain areas when you ride your current saddle. Allow the experts to guide you to the best options.
Remember to ask if there are any trial saddles on offer as some brands do offer this service. Also request to have your saddle fitted to your bike professionally to ensure the saddle is in the correct position. It's pointless buying the fancy saddle only to have it fitted in the wrong position and at the wrong angle. It's not all that straightforward!
Last of all, if you take your new seat home, and you still feel discomfort after about 1 week of riding, pop back in to your local shop and mention this to them. It can be as simple as moving the saddle slightly, or adjusting the angle of your saddle. Have fun, and enjoy spoiling your bike with a new seat!