A good road bike saddle needs to be many things, but the most important thing is that it's comfortable. However, what's comfortable for one of your riding buddies might be cruel and unusual punishment for your nether regions.
Working out which saddle is right for you can be a bit intimidating given the variety of different shapes, sizes, designs, and materials on offer. There is no 'one size fits all' option and finding the right seating arrangements often requires a bit of trial and error.
If you’re just getting started with riding, it takes a few rides for your rear end to 'toughen up', but if the pain in your butt persists it might be time to look into a new perch.
Fix saddle soreness
Your bike saddle is designed to support your body by supporting your sitting bones. However, when you sit on a saddle and it feels like someone has tasered your bits, it's likely because the brunt of your weight is being carried by the soft tissue in the area.
For guys, if you notice numbness in your old fella, it’s likely due to compression of the dorsal penile nerve. The numbness should alleviate when you shift position, stand up out of the saddle and when you finish your ride. If it regularly lingers, it could lead to long-term problems. A possible link to erectile dysfunction has been debated (see the American Urological Association's research in our article It's official: cycling is good for your sex life). Excessive pressure in the area may also cause infections or damage to the urethra.
For women, an ill-fitting saddle could cause urethral compression, damage, infection and inflammation in your delicate areas.
For both sexes, pain caused by your saddle may cause you to adopt an awkward position when seeking relief, which may lead to secondary knee or back problems. In any case, if you're experiencing any of these symptoms it might be time to look into a new saddle. Also see our guide How to fix 5 of the most common causes of bike pain.
How to choose the right saddle
There are an eye-watering number of saddles on the market, and finding the right perch can mean the difference between having an awesome ride and not being able to sit comfortably at the dinner table. Here's how to go about choosing the right saddle for your needs.
1. What kind of riding are you doing?
This may seem like a silly question in a guide about how to choose a saddle for a road bike, but road riding isn’t as cut-and-dry as it used to be. And the type of riding you do, as well as your riding style, will affect the saddle shape you need.
If you're planning on racing or you're a rider who slides forward during efforts and rides ‘on the rivet', you may want a saddle with a flat profile and wide and flat nose.If you sit a bit more upright on your bike and don’t move around too much, something slightly wider with a curved profile might offer more comfort.
2. Are you male or female?
Given that men and women are built quite differently, many brands make women’s specific saddles to accommodate the differences in anatomy.
That said, there are plenty of women out there who are perfectly comfortable on a men’s or unisex saddle.
If you are considering a women's specific saddle, check out our in-depth article Best women's bike saddle: a buyer's guide
3. What size and shape do you need?
As we mentioned before, your saddle is designed to support your sitting bones, and because not everyone is built to the same shape, many saddles come in different shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, riders who adopt a long and low riding position with a flat back usually appreciate a narrower, flatter saddle, while riders who sit a bit more upright are partial to more curved, wider saddles.
Just about every saddle brand has its own proprietary fit system to help you find the right saddle in its range, using various methods to determine the width of your sitting bones as well as your flexibility. Most shops will have one of these fitting systems, or at the very least have a device to measure the distance between your sitting bones – usually a gel or memory foam pad that you sit on, so your sitting bones leave an impression that can then be measured.
If you can't find a shop with these tools you can take this measurement at home using a piece of aluminium foil or corrugated cardboard. Place the foil or cardboard on a carpeted stair and sit down, then pick up your feet to mimic your riding position.
When you stand up there should be two depressions left by your sitting bones. Measure the distance between the centres of the depressions and add 25-30mm to find your ideal saddle width.
4. Can you take it for a test ride?
Lots of shops will have a fleet of test saddles they will let you put on your bike to take for a test ride. With some, the moment you sit down, you’ll know that it’s not for you, but with others it takes a bit of time to work out the kinks.
Things to look out for when test riding a saddle are numbness and any pressure on soft tissue areas. You also shouldn’t feel the saddle digging into your undercarriage, nor at the top of your legs, when you pedal. It’s best to spend at least an hour on a saddle as it will take your body some time to adjust to new seating arrangements, as well as for niggles to surface.
5. How much money do you have to spend?
Saddles can range in price from very reasonable to costly, depending on their intended use as well as the materials used to make the saddle.
In general, the more a saddle costs the more you begin to see things like carbon rails and lightweight yet longer lasting covers.
The anatomy of a bike saddle
The shell or hull of the saddle is the hard base that forms its basic shape and governs how much it will flex.
More budget-friendly saddles will be made of plastic or a fibre-reinforced polymer, whereas more expensive saddles will have a carbon shell. It’s worth noting that a specific model of the saddle will have the same shape whether it has a carbon or plastic shell – so a basic Specialized Power saddle will have the same shape as the carbon S-Works Power.
The advantage of a carbon shell is that in most cases it will be lighter and stronger than the plastic or polymer alternatives, and will also absorb a bit of road vibration, too.
The rails of the saddle are what the seat clamp grabs to secure it to the seat post. Cheaper saddles use steel alloys, while mid-range saddles tend to opt for titanium, and top of the range saddles use carbon.
It’s worth noting that carbon rail saddles may not be compatible with all seat clamps, due to the rails being oval shaped instead of round.
There is a third option when it comes to saddle rails, and that is a single rail and seat post system. Here the saddle has a single rail that only works with a special seatpost. These systems are lightweight and extremely adjustable but are not particularly common.
The cover is the outermost layer of the saddle and is the part you actually sit on. They're made from a variety of materials including real leather, though synthetic covers are much more common.
Something to take note of on any saddle are seams and rough patches, as they can cause discomfort depending on their location. They can wear holes in your shorts, too.
While thick, soft padding may seem like the solution for saddle discomfort, over the course of a ride the padding compresses under your sitting bones and ends up putting pressure on surrounding soft tissue areas.
Many saddle manufacturers use pressure mapping to determine where to place padding, which can range from simple foam to more exotic materials such as gel and memory foam.
For the most part, the majority of road saddles will have thin padding, but some riders are even happy with bare carbon saddles that have no padding at all. These are definitely not for everyone, but highlight the importance of finding a saddle that’s the correct size and shape.
5. Groove, cutout, channel
Quite a lot of saddles on the market feature pressure-relieving grooves, channels or cutouts in the middle section of the seat. The idea behind this is to further relieve any soft tissue pressure that material may have caused, and to improve blood flow in the region. Especially if you’re experiencing numbness while riding, a saddle with a cutout or centre channel is something to look into.
What about if you're not experiencing numbness, can you still use a saddle with a cutout? The answer is yes, many people do. It really comes down to what's most comfortable for you. Be warned, though, that for some people a cutout creates pressure points close the edge of the channel.
Some saddles have extras like reinforced corners to prevent scuffing or tearing the cover, elastomers between the rails and shell, and some have things like mounting brackets for taillights and saddle bags. While these features are cool, they shouldn’t have too much influence on your buying decision.