In my role as a female cycling advocate I’m often asked about how to find the right bike saddle for women. The saddle is the key contact area of the bike. It takes most of your weight and therefore it is crucially important to having a comfortable seat.
If you buy a women’s specific bike then chances are it will already be fitted with a women’s specific saddle, but it’s not necessarily the right one for you. My recommendation when you buy a new bike is to try the supplied saddle first, but be prepared to change it, if it proves to be uncomfortable.
In my experience, everyone will feel a degree of discomfort when they first start riding a road bike because it’s a new activity and your whole body needs to adapt. However, if after a month or so you are still uncomfortable, then you should seek help.
One potential area of discomfort for women is caused by putting pressure on the front of your genital area. 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.
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 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 those all important sit bones. I learnt about this the hard way when I did a cycling tour on a spongy saddle around Holland a couple of years ago. 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 a minimal amount of 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 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. If your saddle is too wide, the 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.
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. It also goes without saying that buying a saddle online, unless it’s a repeat purchase is also not a great idea.
I recommend that you 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 that they loan out to customers who leave a deposit. You can try several different test saddles until you find the one that is just right.
Good luck in finding your perfect match. If you’re going to spend many hours sitting on your saddle, then don’t hesitate to hunt around until you find the right one, and please 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.
Tell us about your quest to find the right bike saddle for women in the comments or the Women Who Cycle Facebook page.