About a decade ago, a year or so before I got back on the bike, a good friend of mine got a purple Schwinn Stingray with a wavy purple velvet banana seat on a lark to use around the neighborhood; her commute only a few blocks from apartment to office.
But the banana seat? No bueno. If you haven’t ridden on one of these as an adult, know this: the angles of the side of the seat do not go well with the natural motions of your inner thigh while riding. Really, we couldn’t even sit on it for more than a few pedal strokes. That was my modern introduction to the importance of saddles.
I’ve been doing a lot of yoga lately. Our teacher often reminds us in the beginning of class and several times throughout, to check in with your root lock. Close up the earthly door, she says. She means the perineum. The space between your anus and your genitals. This basically means engaging and squeezing your sex organs. Openness here is an energy drain.
No wonder, then, that an unpleasant saddle experience on a bike can truly suck so hard.
If you’ve ever ridden more than a few minutes or miles on an unfriendly saddle you know just how bad saddle pain can be. It can make the last few miles of an otherwise lovely ride seemed unbearable, robbing us of those last moments that seal in the memories of an experience.
In fact, one of the top reasons why many women indicate that they don’t ride is due to saddle discomfort, and the challenges of finding a seat that will truly work for them.
Partly we can blame sexist gender stigmas that make it challenging for a woman to be honest about her physical needs. I recall a joke I heard from male classmates in seventh grade about women’s genitals on bike seats. These are the first shades of sexism and a sort of gender terrorism, really, making girls ashamed and afraid to inhabit their bodies and be whoever they naturally are.
Twenty years later, I’m perusing some chamois cream products at my LBS and this is what I notice.
The product on the left is for women. Check out the message on the packaging. Not only is the clinical-type statement omitted, but step one has a drastically different tone. Here we find another joke. Have a sense of humor, we’re told. It’s all in good fun, we’re told. But we know that some things never change, especially with this sexist cycle of bullshit.
Some women complain that due to the overwhelming dominance of men in the cycling industry focused on solving problems for other men, issues that are truly women-specific (read: cannot be solved by “pink-it-and-shrink-it” marketing tactics) are given short shrift.
Well guess what, the market is changing, and more women are riding bikes than ever.
Below are some tips, myths and resources to help you get closer to the ideal perch for you.
Tip: The Importance of Body Awareness
It’s not all about butts. We have a lot of stuff going on downstairs, and all of it is really important. Read: not to be ignored. I don’t want to scare you, but frequent riders and professional cyclists have even suffered from sexual dysfunction, a tacit result of saddle fit issues.
When you’re on the bike evaluating a saddle in the real world, you have to be in your body and focus on your parts and bits. What is going numb? Where is it rubbing, and where are you chafing? Do your bones feel supported, and if so, are your soft, fleshy bits being mashed some where else instead?
One of the things I love about riding a bike is the moving meditation of it. See how present and specific you can get with the uncomfortable sensations you’re feeling, and where exactly you’re feeling them.
When you make micro adjustments in saddle position, ride with it for a few miles and see how it shakes out. The only way that this saddle selection will be meaningful is if you become one with your downstairs area and understand what you’re feeling where.
Tip: Empower your Vocabulary
This can be a challenging topic for lots of folks – myself included – especially women who are often not empowered to use proper nomenclature to describe their anatomy, and have been fed a sexualized diet of the world since girlhood. I think there is even a divide between those who are comfortable talking about our lady bits and those who are just not there yet with their language.
Words have power, and us gals pretty much all have the same anatomy, so claim the language and call it as it is – vulva, labia, clit – and understand that there are a multitude of variations on them which are all completely normal.
Here are two amazing resources to help you strengthen your vocabulary, produced by women who I absolutely respect:
Our Bodies, Our Bikes – this book is edited by Elly Blue, and includes a piece on this topic that is well-written, thorough, and informative. In a world of never-ending, free, mediocre content this volume is well-worth the $15 for
this piece alone.
this piece alone.
Snack Parade, Episode 4 – you know that thing I just said about mediocre, free content?
Well present company is excluded. The Snack Parade podcast is the lovechild of Gladys Bikes owner Leah Benson and Sweetpea Cycles owner/builder Natalie Ramsland. This episode includes a frank conversation between two gals in the saddle and bike fitting business that is helpful, honest and so worth the listen. Did I mention that Leah is a former sex ed teacher? This one is good, folks.
Myth: Bigger is better
One of the most common questions I get asked by someone who is bike-curious is “doesn’t that little bike seat hurt?” Followed up with a comment about how they would need an extra-large cushy bike seat. It always surprises them to hear that size isn’t everything.
So many new riders – men and women alike – think that a big ol cushy bike seat or a gel seat cover is the way to go for comfort. This is especially true if those folks might perceive themselves as overweight. It seems like a safe assumption.
“I’ve got a shot glass of saddle and a gallon of ass,” a good friend of mine said years ago when I offered this.
Big old cushy saddles have a place – usually on shorter rides and frame styles where the rider enjoys an upright riding position, but just because a rider might be a clyde doesn’t mean that a large seat is the best way to go. Same is true for those gel pad covers sold in department stores. It’s actually not going to help the way you think it will. The extra material might cause your thighs to rub on the seat uncomfortably, or get bunched up in places that smoosh your soft tissue and cut off blood flow causing numbness and pain.
Myth: A saddle with a cut out will solve everything
Ah, “Vagina Saddles” – no I’ve never called it that, but ever since listening to the recently published masterpiece of Snack Parade #4 (sounds like a great perfume, no?) I might forever associate the cut-outs in saddles which are meant to relieve soft tissue pressure with the phrase “vagina saddles”.
Turns out, according to that unapologetic dialogue between Leah and Natalie, that these cut outs are often more of a marketing device than a problem solver, unless your anatomy happens to line up perfectly with that cut out. Which does happen, and on different saddles of various sizes, you might find something that works for you. But don’t rely on that as the sole identifier of what might make a saddle worth purchasing without a test ride.
Tip: Negotiate a DIY Saddle Library
Buying a bike seat is personal, y’all. And if business has taught us anything, it’s that people are willing to spend money on a solution for things that are literally pains in their asses. If someone’s love of cycling is great enough, they will figure out how to be more comfortable in their downstairs region so they can enjoy doing it longer. Nothing is more annoying than having tons of fight left in your legs but all of your energy sapped out of the pinching pain of your root lock.
We’re not all lucky enough to live in Portland, Oregon or Milwaukee, Wisconsin – which means the vast majority of us don’t have access to the beautifulness of a saddle library.
Here’s a way to do it yourself: Local Bike Shops: Ask them if they have a demos of the saddles they carry. You should, at a minimum, be able to take one out on a ride, but ideally you would have time to live on the saddle under real world conditions, including longer rides to get a good feel if this is the perch for you.
Ask your LBS if they’ve ever heard of a saddle library, and be prepared to explain what it is: a demo model of each saddle they sell is available for customers to use on their own bike for a few days to decide what they want.
Suggest that you can put down a deposit of $25 to use the demo saddle on your own bike for a full week. You’ll bring it back after a week, and if you like the saddle, you can apply the $25 toward the purchase price of that saddle. If you’re not sure that’s the saddle for you, you can borrow a different demo saddle for another week to evaluate it in real world conditions on your own bike.
This cycle can keep going until you decide on a saddle, or move on to a different shop with different brands. They can keep the $25 – it’ll end up being a worthy investment. Tell them how awesome of a business opportunity a saddle library is, and how it demonstrates the shop’s dedication to customer satisfaction. It’s good ju-jus that will end up paying off in spades.
Thinking about buying a saddle directly from a manufacturer online? Perhaps you can buy a saddle and try it for a while. Find out about their return policy. Some brands may allow returns and exchanges as long as it looks new.Very handy since it takes a fair bit of riding and adjustment to see if you really like a saddle.
Myth: It’s not all about the seat
Even after all this, it’s not all about the seat.
The overall fit of your bike, the length of your reach, how far forward you lean, the fore and aft positioning of the saddle on the seat post, the tilt and angle of the saddle, as well as shorts, chamois, chamois cream and if you’re wearing underware between your bike shorts and your body (just don’t) all have an impact on how you feel on the bike.
I bought a Terry brand saddle for my CrossTrail soon after owning the bike. I hadn’t done much research at all, other than studying the catalog recommendations of “upright or forward position” or “racing or touring” to try to triangulate what might be the right seat for me based on descriptions and guessing. I ended up getting the Liberator X, and was fairly satisfied with my purchase, even though the ride would become quite uncomfortable by miles 28-30. Of course now I understand that the bike itself didn’t fit me all that well.
The Internets is chock full of content on the saddle topic, here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
Featured Saddle Brands:
All those variables and micro adjustments can add up to be quite a pain in the ass, but we’re all unique snowflakes. It’s worth the time and energy to figure it out.