Woman seeks saddle for long-term compatibility

In preparation for potentially  bike touring Iceland, I’ve been riding regularly, trying to get my equipment all dialed in to fit my body and fit my needs.

I’ve never had any piece of gear be so finicky and challenging to refine. Funny thing, I don’t remember ever having any issues with the saddle of my road bike in my teens, which I did decent distances on, and certainly discomfort never crossed my mind on my BMX in my early 20s, which I rode quite seriously for hours a day.  However, recently exploring a new style of using a bicycle, for loaded, day after day long distances, has been an arduous hit and miss experience of seeking correct gear, especially the saddle.

The three places a bicycle interacts with you (hands, feet, and butt), are crucial comfort points.  If the weight distribution to your handlebars isn’t right or the right height, then one can get major aching and cramping in the shoulders and neck, like I do, which can also rapidly cause tension headaches.  The wrong shoes, or pedals, or pedal-to-seat ratios and alignment, can cause numb toes, sore feet, and all kinds of knee trouble.  Most serious of all, IMO, is the seat interface.  An uncomfortable saddle is just a recipe for several kinds of hell.

Thankfully, the pedal/shoe/pedal-seat positioning has been right from the beginning for me.  I think if it weren’t, I’d have thrown in the towel, because the other two aspects have been challenging enough.  Something has been causing a triangle of tightness between my neck and shoulder blades that invariably gives me a headache after three hours and lasts for days after riding.  I’ve moved the handlebars up, down, forward and back, seeking some relief. I think I’ve finally sorted that out now with another kind of aero bars placed wider and higher.  That’s yet to be confirmed with a multi-day ride, but so far so good.

And the saddle, alas.  The saddle.  Not to be a girl about it, but a saddle is serious business for girls.     Deep muscle bruising too tender to touch after day after day of riding.  Anything to escape, including torquing my back into wrong positions attempting to escape my seat.  Varieties of crotch pain I didn’t know existed, and all kinds of back pain and strain, from trying to shape my body in such a way to escape the former.  If I was lucky my crotch would mercifully go completely numb after 10 miles, which took care of the rest of the day, until swinging my leg over the bike the next day….

You are supposed to expect “some discomfort”, and a “breaking in period”.  Those are relative terms.  While I was suffering and not sure if what I was experiencing was to be expected, I told myself that it must be possible to feel better than this on a bike, and so I kept looking for a better saddle.  I was pretty sure men wouldn’t put up with that kind of pain for that long, so I clung to that theory and hoped.

Also, I was pretty convinced that time spent bicycling should be spent thinking about more than the saddle and associated agony. I’ve spent so much riding time unable to think about anything else, and I’ve spent so much time wishing I could divert my mind to think about something, anything else, other than the pain in my ….  Even still, I consider the number of moments where I notice I’m not thinking about the saddle as a marker for comfort.  “Hey!  I  was thinking about the scenery, or my legs, or my gears, for like, minutes there!”

For what it’s worth, here are my suggestions for women seeking a saddle:

Width   The general rule of thumb is: for men, comfort improves as the saddle gets narrower, for women it improves as the saddle gets wider (wider pelvises).    Supposedly, 90% of everyone fits into the medium 143mm vicinity.  Sometimes, the bike store has a pressure sensitive pad to sit on to measure your sit bones.  My measurement said I could ride either 143 or 155, but my butt decisively says 155.

Hardness/softness  Counter-intuitively, the softer the seat, the worse it is for long times in the saddle.  This is because a soft seat squishes into you more and creates more contact surface with you and your seat, all potential chafing spots.  So over time, a cushy seat gets un-comfy, and a harder seat is better for a longer ride.   That said, a poorly fit and hard seat is the absolute worst.  Vis a vis my first 400km.

Experiment  No one will be able to tell you what will fit you, and don’t buy into whatever the sales (usually -guy) says.  If you’ve sorted the seat and handlebar position for what you’re doing with your bike, then you can refine what shape and size of saddle you need for what you‘re doing by trying a few out.  Or several.

Pick a store that has a big range of women’s saddles from the same company with a comfort warranty period.  USE it.  Try out all the saddles you need to to figure it out.  Take the recommended saddle out, try many micro adjustments, and try to isolate what exactly is the issue that needs improvement.  You need to ride a seat at least two days and fifty miles before you’ll know, and it helps if the bruises from the last seat heal first.  That is, IF the seat in question doesn’t straight away make you squawk and jump off of it.  I mean if it feels initially comfortable, then it still needs a trial period to be sure.

So far I’ve been through six saddles in a series from hell through tolerable to almost right, not including the three that I tried for one pass around the block and knew immediately were wrong.  Thankfully, this kind of necessary experimentation before finding the right seat is fairly common.  Although every bike store dude sounds convincing about whatever line of saddles they carry and how happy women are with them, especially the saddle you’re holding in your hand at that moment, none of it is reliable.  I have yet to talk to an actual woman in a store about women specific saddles.

For me, and I am not you, I needed a long narrow nose with a deep cutout/pocket, med width and med hard (light gel layer).  I was only temporarily satisfied with the Terry LiberatorX after exhausting most of the Terrys and am pleased with the Specialized (Endurance Road 155m).  It’s not quite the Hallelujah seat, but it’s very good.  Bontrager was a dead loss.

More  For the rest of the basics, I like this site.  I especially like the permission, nay, emphasis, on figuring out what you need for you;  dispensing with rules of thumb, measurements, and what other people tell you.  They will be wrong.  Or if they’re right, it will be educated luck, because only you know how you feel and what you need and want.

Oh, and spend anything for the right seat.   Spend serious time with Mr. Not Right Seat and you will be willing to pay anything.  Don’t settle for almost.  When I find the Hallelujah seat, I plan to buy three of them.

Cycle fit guidelines from Peter White

2 thoughts on “Woman seeks saddle for long-term compatibility”

  1. I just stumbled across your blog and this bike post caught my eye!

    I’m sorry you haven’t been able to find a bike store with any female employees! That’s lame! I used to work a bike store and have spent countless hours with women looking for the right saddle and I wish I could give you a magic formula. For a long time I used saddles with cutouts but I recently switched to ones without and have found I think I prefer the ones without cutouts for touring. What we heard at the store was that the new thing is seats without cut-outs because it spreads out the pressure more rather than a cutout ? I have no idea if this is works out in real life though :) I look forward to reading some of your other posts!

  2. My partner and I have a tandem. A great problem is that on tandems one cannot raise the bottom as often as one would on a solo. In the end she ended up with a saddle marketed as “The Sofa” .It is very wide indeed and looks about the size of a kitchen stool seat. Chafing could be an issue but good padded shorts and loads of lube seem to prevent it. She is quite comfy on about 70 miles a day but we have no used it day in day out as yet. We both enjoyed your article here and you are so right about bike shops. I’ll be following all your Icelandic adventure.

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