Finding the right saddle should be a high priority for all female cyclists. I’m a strong advocate of women-specific saddles, like I am of women specific bikes, because women have very different anatomy to men and therefore have very different needs. The good news is that if you buy a women- specific bike then it will already be fitted with a women’s saddle so you’re already part the way there. I was really lucky that my Specialized road bike came with a saddle (pictured) that suited me and I’m still using it, two and a half years later.
One potential area of discomfort for women is caused by putting pressure on the front of your private parts. The soft tissue at the front really isn’t meant to be bear weight. We have sit bones, aka ischial tuberosities, for that job. But on a bike, in a bent-over riding position, your body weight is shared between the two sit bones and the pubic bone in the front, which means there is pressure on the soft tissue (the perineum) at the front. Read my previous post on secret women’s business for a few other tips on how to look after that area when riding.
The most common cause of saddle discomfort is a poor choice of saddle. Some saddles are hard as a rock and some are too cushy. A lot of women in pursuit of maximum comfort reach for short, stubby, armchair type saddles with gel inserts and heaps of padding. They certainly look the comfiest, but while these saddles are fine for leisurely trips to the shops, they are unsuitable for longer rides. A saddle that is too thick and soft will make you sink down from the weight of your sit bones and cause the middle of the saddle to push up and place more pressure on your soft tissue.
Initially, a harder saddle will feel less comfy but it will be infinitely better in the long term because a harder saddle supports just the important bits. I learnt about this the hard way when I did a cycling tour on a spongy saddle around Holland last year. It was a six day tour and by day four I was in real pain and it didn’t abate until day seven when the tour was over.
A proper woman’s saddle should have padding for the sit bones and a cut-out or groove in front to provide relief from pressure on the perineum and to improve blood flow. It’s important for the cut-out or groove to extend far enough forward to remove pressure in the correct region. That’s why a women-specific saddle is essential for most women.
Width is also important. The sit bones should be sitting in the middle of the widest part of the saddle. Specialized and Bontrager both offer saddles in three different widths. Specialized has a simple device called the “ass-o-meter”, a simple piece of memory foam that leaves an imprint of your sit bones to determine the correct saddle width. A saddle that is too narrow causes the sit bones to hang off the sides, creating uncomfortable friction at the sit bones where the hamstring tendons attach. If your saddle is too wide, the gel support isn’t where it is needed. Having a choice of saddle width is important for petite women who have narrow pelvises and would normally choose a narrower men’s saddle. I’ve been measured on the Specialized “ass-o-meter” and my Specialized Ruby 143 mm is precisely the right saddle for both my riding style and sit-bone width. I guess that’s why it’s so comfortable for me.
Saddle selection is a personal choice. Everyone’s anatomy, weight and style of riding is unique. As a result, one person may love a saddle whereas another will hate it. When buying a saddle, make sure your local bike shop will allow you to return it if you don’t like it. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of money trying to find a saddle that’s “just right” for you.
Better still, visit a bike shop that has ‘test saddles’ available which allow you to ‘try before you buy’. Most Specialized dealers carry a full range of test saddles (they are red and white to deter people from keeping them) that they loan out to customers who leave a deposit. If that saddle is the one you want you can then order it in the size and colour you want. You can also try several different test saddles until you find the one that is just right.
Good luck. If you going to spend many hours sitting on your saddle then don’t hesitate to hunt around until you find the right saddle and don’t skimp on the price. Plus, don’t forget it’s also your choice of cycling attire like good quality well-fitted lycra knicks that will have an impact on your comfort level.