Absolute Beginners: The Saddle and Seating

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The first three posts in my Absolute Beginner’s series are about the body-bicycle interface: pedals, saddle, handlebars. This week, I write about the saddle or seat.

Figure A. Parts of a Bicycle. Image Credit (with more detail).

Your saddle is much more than a comfy place to put your butt while enjoying the scenery. Instead, it’s an integral part of how you operate the bicycle.

1. Choosing a saddle shape.

Just like nearly every other component, there is a range of saddle types, depending on the type of bike and the shape of the rider. (Here’s an extensive summary of bicycle saddles and their various parts.)

Figure B1. Classic Saddle. Image Credit.
Figure B2. Touring Saddle. Image Credit.
Figure B3. Road bike Saddle. Image Credit.

Walking around cycling shops, you’ll notice many different saddle shapes and sizes. New cyclists may be tempted to choose a large, broad, soft or springy model. But there’s a reason why road bike saddles are shaped as they are.

When you ride long distances, a larger saddle may chafe your inner thighs and a softer saddle provides insufficient support to your sit bones — the point where your butt actually intersects with the saddle. That is why saddles have the narrowed, tapered shape and the broad backside. Here is the problem with larges, squishy saddles simply stated:

Imagine sitting down on a coffee table. Your weight is concentrated on the two bumps of your “sit bones”, also known as the “ischial tuberosities.” These are the parts of your body designed to bear your seated weight. Most cases of saddle-related discomfort arise because the load is carried on the soft tissues between the sit bones. 

Imagine placing a soft pillow on top of the coffee table. Now, as you sit down on it, the sit bones compress the pillow, which yields until the sit bones are almost on the table surface again. The difference is that now, you have pressure in between your sit bones from the middle part of the pillow. 

In the same way, a saddle with excessively soft, thick padding can make you less comfortable by increasing the pressure between your sit bones. 

Many cyclists are unaware of this, and many saddles are made to appeal to the purchaser who chooses a saddle on the basis of how easily the thumb can sink into the squishy top. 

This type of saddle is only comfortable for very short rides, (though an inexperienced cyclist will often find it more comfortable than a better saddle, as long as rides don’t exceed a mile or two.) 

Saddles with excessive padding are also a common cause of painful chafing of the inner thigh, as rides become longer.

(Thank you Sheldon Brown.)

If you find discomfort in your butt or numbness in your privates, you may have the wrong saddle or may have other fit issues. Before spending a lot of money on a series of new saddles, I recommend you get a competent bike fit: “It’s the best $300 you’ll ever spend to get more comfort and power out of your trusty steed.” (not the bike fit you get from a salesperson when you buy the bike).

2. The Butt’s Role in Support.

As a new rider, you may have the impression that riding a bicycle means sitting on the saddle, holding on by the handlebars, and pedaling with your thighs. However, that is not the proper way to look at it.

When riding, a good rule of thumb is to start out with about 60% of your weight on the rear wheel (via your butt), 40% the front wheel (via your arms), and shifting these numbers onto the pedals to varying degrees during pedal strokes (via your thighs and legs). Most of the google references on this topic are highly technical and related to racing. But for a new rider, the issue is comfort.

If you put too much weight on your butt, you’re going to chafe and you’re going to dislike cycling. If you put too much weight on your arms and hands, you’re going to get numb fingers and you’re going to dislike cycling. Thus, what is important is to keep a healthy balance between the two, attempting to keep everything under as little stress as possible for the maximum amount of time.

3. The Butt’s Role in Control.
Steering a bicycle is not as simple as grabbing the handlebars and yanking left and right. There’s a full-body motion involved in each and every turn you make. Smaller turns require the more subtle motion, too. This portion of this article will require more detailed explanation, and a quick Google search did not return immediately applicable material.

As I’ve written before, and will again when I write my article on steering, a good turn occurs when you press on the pedal with your outside foot, inside foot high in the pedal stroke. So, one of the most important roles of the saddle in steering is providing a lever from which to generate the push on the outside foot.

Another important role is when you need to actively lean your bike into a sharp, high-speed turn. More about that in a future post.

4. Why Your Butt Hurts: Changing Saddles may not Fix it.
There are two reasons why your butt may be hurting. First, you may be getting chaffing, which leads to irritation, which leads to infection. Symptoms of this are redness, bumps, pain, swelling, and itchiness. This kind of infection is common among cyclists. Over time, you may become a bit calloused in the creases under your butt cheeks. This is nothing to be alarmed over, so long as you cure any infection before it becomes chronic.

Try using some antibiotic ointment on the infected area (I’m not sure of the efficacy of this treatment, so consult with your doctor). Your physician may prescribe lidocaine to reduce pain and inflammation. Additionally, you may try ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce inflammation. Also, experiment with different short materials and styles. The stitching in less-expensive shorts may not agree with your physique.

Consult with your physician if these symptoms occur frequently, persist, or become severe. Otherwise, they are, to some degree, a right of passage for cyclists.

Second, you may experience soreness in your buttocks, thighs, or hamstrings after rides. If these symptoms are bearable and reduce with continued riding, they may be simply a matter of getting used to cycling. If they become worse with time or longer rides, you may need a bike fit.

In fact, if either of these conditions persist, a bike fit might help. Subtle changes in your interface with the bike may alleviate the pressure causing chaffing or causing muscular pain. Only consultation with a professional and testing will help you know for sure.

Your Bear
Over the next couple months, I’m going to write a few articles with the lead-in title “Absolute Beginners,” explaining some of the basic principles of cycling. Most of the information is stuff I’ve learned from other cyclists, bike shop mechanics, classes I’ve taken, and Google searches. Please help me out and comment with corrections, additions, or supplements which will help my readers learn about how to operate their bikes!

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