BICYCLE SADDLES AND WOMEN
By Caitlin Burke
Are women's saddles hype or help? Find the saddle that's right for you.
Manufacturers have noticed: men and women are different. But the women's bicycle saddle is not a new idea. From the days of the first "safety bicycles," spring-cushioned leather saddles were sold in men's and women's models. In our modern age, saddles for everyone have changed, acknowledging that the models of yore had serious shortcomings.
Most saddle soreness is from pressure on sensitive tissues and nerves, and the trend in saddle design for both sexes is to place pockets of softer material - or nothing at all - where those sensitive areas rest. Just as with the original leather-and-springs saddles, women's models are often a little shorter, front to back, than men's models, and they tend to be broader to accommodate women's typically wider-spaced sit bones.
What's Out There
Saddles come in many shapes and sizes, from performance to "comfort," but all are designed to ease the rider's experience at that all-important contact point.
Saddles with gel coverings or inserts: Selle, Serfas, Terry, and WTB make saddles with gel covering or elastomer inserts of various thicknesses. This gel allows "give" in the saddle where the sit bones and pubic area rest on the saddle, and they spread the body's contact over a larger area. This category contains most of the thick-gel "comfort" saddles, but it also includes performance saddles, like those from WTB, that offer good support for a rider's sit bones and plenty of give down the central channel of the saddle.
Saddles with recessed channels: Selle, Serfas, Terry, Specialized, and WTB make saddles with some type of recessed channel from the back of the saddles. The sit bones are supported by the saddle padding, and the channel actually takes pressure off the perineal area. This design is a boon to men, who have a blood vessel and nerve that can be compressed by long hours on traditional saddles. Women trying these saddles should be sure the forward part of the saddle has enough give to prevent discomfort.
Notched or cutaway saddles: Selle, Serfas, Specialized, and Terry make notched or cutaway saddles. Cutaways take the recessed-channel one step further: the channel is a hole in the saddle rather than just a pocket of softer material. The Specialized notched saddle includes a protective shield under the notch, so water and mud don't get kicked up there by the wheels. The other cutaway designs are further forward in the saddle. Women trying these saddles should be sure that the contact areas are comfortable - because the contact areas are so much smaller than on traditional saddles, they may focus discomfort if the design is not quite right for individual anatomy.
Some saddles are more comfortable for casual riding in an upright position - more like "seats" than saddles. Others are better designed for long hours of fast-paced training. Racing saddles, for example, are typically firm, and a racer either finds the right fit or chooses to compete in spite of the saddle's feel. But performance does not have to mean discomfort in the saddles stakes.
Performance saddles tend to have a firm support area for the sit bones that offers more contact to distribute the rider's weight evenly. The center channels are often designed to have "give," either with a slightly recessed area or an insert of softer material. They are not overtly cushiony. In general, a rider will be more comfortable on a firmer saddle - as long as it "hits and misses" in all the right places - because a firmer saddle gives the rider support and keeps the rider in position better.
Be careful when you consider a saddle with very thick padding or very thick gel sections. They may be comfortable on a short ride, but the padding may give so much that on a longer ride you sink all the way down to the frame of the saddle. That said, if you're just using your bicycle for short rides, go for it. Cushy seats work well for brief use.
Does a cyclist just have to "get used to" the pain of long hours in the saddle? No. There is some conditioning to the feel of properly supported sit bones, but if your saddle hurts you, you can find a saddle that doesn't.
A saddle is a personal item, and the best way to find the right saddle is to try a bunch of them. You may need to call a few bike shops to find out which shop carries what brand, but it's worth it to spend some time and try several brands and models.
In the end, you want the saddle you choose is comfortable for you - many women are comfortable on "men's" saddles. Manufacturers often offer the same model in a men's and women's version, such as the Raven and the Mrs Cox from Terry. So if you find that a broader saddle is chafing your legs as you pedal, you may find that a narrower (men's) version of the same saddle is a better fit.Testing Tips
After You Leave the Store
With any saddle, be sure you know the return policy in case the saddle that felt awesome on a 5-minute test ride feels like torture on a 50-miler - or even just on your ride to work.
If you wish to return a saddle, start with the shop where you bought it. Some manufacturers have explicit return policies. For example, Terry will accept any saddle for a credit, no matter where you bought it, and you are eligible for a refund if you bought directly from Terry. Other manufacturers may not be as specific about their policy, but are happy to accept a return if the local bike shop was unable to help.
Once you know the policy, be sure you take time to make sure the saddle works for you, so you can take advantage of the warranty if it's available. And once you have the right saddle, get out there and ride!
Modified May 2002.