Buyer's Guide to Women's Saddles

By Ruth Brooker | Monday, April 1, 2013 7.00am

Getting the right saddle can be a problem for everyone, but women have it particularly bad. We examine what lasses should look for when choosing a perch...

On long rides, one nagging question plays over and over in my mind: is this as good as it gets? After whingeing in the office about the saddle that came with my bike, I was handed a foam-padded 'women's saddle' that looked like a small sofa. Initially, it was comfy, but 20 minutes into the ride and I had to stand up every five minutes to relieve the pressure.

The final straw came when I was riding in a mountain bike enduro event (with a potential eight hours of riding) having based my saddle choice on someone else's recommendation. An hour into the event and I knew I'd made a mistake. The nose of this instrument of torture was mashing my delicates so much that I was arching my back to lessen the contact and getting lower back pain as a consequence. The next day I was hobbling with my legs apart and drinking sparingly to avoid the sting of peeing. I decided that this had crossed the line between expected discomfort and unnecessary pain, and so began my determined quest to find the women's saddle equivalent of the Holy Grail.

Sensitive issue

In the last few years, horror stories of erectile dysfunction caused concern among the male cycling population, but the problems for women weren't focused on as closely. I also suspect that a few blokes think girls are just making a fuss... Well listen up, fellas, saddle pressure on female genitalia is the equivalent of you sitting on the end of your old man. Yeah, it's that sensitive!

Researchers at Boston University have acknowledged that saddles can cause urinary tract problems and sexual dysfunction for women, along with the general complaints of chronic pain and numbness. It's not surprising that saddle related problems stop girls from riding their bikes.

Search for bottom bliss

So what should a girl perch her pert posterior on? There's a bewildering array of choice and opinion on offer to those seeking a superior saddle: short and fat, hard and skinny, hole in the centre, chromoly rails, gel implants, fleecy covers... So where do you start?

Most ladies in pursuit of maximum comfort reach for short, stubby, armchair type saddles with gel inserts and loads of padding. They certainly look the comfiest, but while these saddles are fine for leisurely trips to the pub, they are unsuitable for longer rides. Initially, a harder saddle will feel less comfy but it will be infinitely better in the long term; with a softer saddle there's more contact between you and it, not necessarily where it's needed, leading to more chafing and aching, whereas a harder saddle supports just the important bits. Also, don't be put off if the saddle is not the usual women's 'shorter-in-the-nose' variety. Many saddle experts reckon that this design is just a fashion that gives women the impression they're getting a product specifically for them rather than something that's rooted in necessity.

Some shops run a 'try before you buy' scheme, so ask about this at your bike shop. It's also important to ensure that your bike fits you correctly because an ill-fitting bike can contribute to your discomfort. Off-road and road riding pose different problems for your undercarriage. On a long road commute you're usually leaning forward in the aerodynamic position so there's more continued pressing on the nose of the saddle, which puts pressure on the nerves and causes numbness. Off-road you tend to sit in a more upright position so there's more weight on the sit bones, but the riding is more aggressive and the saddle bangs and rubs.

Science helps

Saddle choice is a very personal matter - a saddle one person loves can feel like it's been sculpted by Satan himself to another rider. But although it's certainly true that people have different bodies and requirements, fundamentally women have the same basic anatomy, so getting saddle design right shouldn't be such a minefield.

My search eventually led me to Specialized who have been investing in scientific research for their Body Geometry range which includes women-specific kit. Their latest developments sounded interesting, so I went out to Santa Cruz to see for myself; purely for the purposes of research, of course...

The man in charge of Specialized's saddle science, Dr Roger Minkow, believes that women shouldn't have to randomly sample different saddles; with the help of scientific investigation you can be more specific than that. As a result, he has developed a test to help design saddles that are more comfortable and suitable for women. Dr Minkow's subjects sit on a device full of sensitive electrodes (pictured) that's attached to the saddle and measures the pressure applied to soft tissue areas, showing exactly where the contact occurs.

Specialized have also worked on the principle that people have different sized sit bones (the bones you actually sit down on) and therefore need different sized saddles to cater for the varying widths.

Of course, Specialized aren't the only company with a commitment to women's cycling. Back in the 1980s, Georgena Terry, equipped with vision and an engineering degree, began studying the anatomical differences between women and men, then set out to design bicycles solely for the ladies. And so Terry Precision Cycling was born, with a mission to help all women enjoy cycling. This eventually led to her innovative saddle designs that pioneered the concept of a seat with a section cut out. Some girls appear to be put off by saddles with a hole in, but I'm a big fan of the cut-out; it makes sense doesn't it? It's not a guaranteed winner though - on some brands the edges can be too hard and cut into your leg.

There has also been an increase in women-specific saddles from other companies. To see how far things have come, I've tried out eight high performance women's or unisex saddles and you can see my findings here.

I'm an average sized girl of 5ft 5in weighing roughly nine stone, and I'm sure I'm fairly typical of most committed female riders who ride regularly. I can't avoid the tricky issue of personal taste, but I hope this collection of saddles at least offers some insight into what could meet most women's needs. The future for girls on bikes looks bright; I just wish the saddles came in more adventurous colours!

Saddle up the perfect perch

  • Ensure your bike is the correct size for you and you're not reaching too far to the handlebar.
  • The height of the saddle should be set so there's a slight bend in your knee when the pedal's at the bottom of the stroke. The saddle is too high if your pelvis rocks side-to-side while you're pedalling.
  • The angle of the saddle should be level to provide full support. I confess I have mine tipped with the nose ever so slightly down but if it's too much there will be excess pressure on your arms.
  • Make sure you use a decent pair of padded shorts with a good quality chamois. The best saddle in the world can't help you if you're not wearing the right clothing.

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