After having ridden dozens of saddles, we know the importance of a high quality seat, and how an improper one can impair a comfortable riding experience. With this article we’ll be sharing everything we know on how to choose a road bike saddle.
What should you look for in a road bike saddle?
As with every bicycle product there are a number of criteria we’ve taken into consideration when looking at the road bike saddles we’ve researched. These are:
If you stop for a minute and consider the actual size of a road bike saddle, and how long you’re supposed to use it for support, it’s no wonder the biggest issue stemming from road cycling is a sore bum.
There is no saddle on earth that can compensate for an incorrect cycling posture, which can result in serious issues having nothing to do with the saddle itself.
But when we look at a road bike saddle in isolation, its dimensions are the most important aspect in offering reasonable comfort.
That’s because it’s not the saddle material that greatly determines riding comfort, it’s the saddle’s ability to provide support to your seat bones.
Road bike saddle widths generally hover between 130 and 145mm. Over the years saddles have evolved towards these widths. I can only assume that’s because they cover the biggest part of road cyclists’ preference.
To accommodate a wide variety of cyclists, saddle manufacturers offer the same saddle type in 2 variants: a regular/narrow one and a wide version.
Women vs men
It is true that women’s seat bones are wider on average than men’s, but you cannot use this to simply buy a “wide” or “regular/narrow” variant of a certain saddle.
Measuring seat bone width
A bike fitter might use a pressure system to measure the exact width of your sit bones and suggest a road bike saddle accordingly. More often you kind of know which direction to go based on trial and error or by doing a DIY seat bone measure.
The more upright you ride the wider your saddle can be without digging into the inside of your legs. Add 2 cm to your measured width for road and gravel bikes, 3 cm for mountain bikes and, and 3 or 4 cm for commuting/touring.
Saddle lengths vary greatly, with the more recently short-nosed saddles creating an ever greater gap between the longest and shortest saddles.
Since you’re not meant to put any pressure on the genital area, which are located (mostly) in the center between your legs, you could argue the nose of a saddle shouldn’t even be present. That’s actually something very near the truth.
The nose of the road bike saddle is there as much to provide structural integrity to the saddle as it is because it’s always been there, and it would be too great a leap to provide a different design for many.
But taking one look at ISM saddles and you know other saddle designs do exist and seem to be working for many riders.
Saddles’ lengths sit between 240 to 280mm.
Although saddles have become shorter over the years it’s a myth that classically shaped longer saddles are more uncomfortable.
Short-nosed saddles have become very popular recently, but are not meant for the average rider if I’m honest.
The idea behind a short-nosed saddle is that for people who prefer to ride aggressively, it alleviates the added pressure to the genital area caused by having a more aggressive riding position.
A short-nosed saddle typically is 20-30 mm shorter than your standard road bike saddle.
A saddle is a very expensive place to try to achieve a weight reduction. That’s because lightweight road bike saddles are almost all made from carbon. And any cycling product made from carbon is very expensive.
A good rule-of-thumb in cycling is that for every individual gram you’d like to reduce from the overall weight of your bicycle you have to pay a dollar. So try to take away 100 grams from a road bike saddle, and be willing to pay 100 USD more to do so.
A standard weight of a road bike saddle sits somewhere between 200 and 300 grams. Any saddle below the 200 mark can be called lightweight, and saddles below 100 grams featherweight.
The shell of the road bike saddle determines its overall shape and type of support. There are a number of materials used for the shell of a road bike saddle:
- Leather: used for retro-styled saddles like the entire Brooks range
- Nylon: a budget-friendly option most often used
- Nylon composite: either a fiberglass- or carbon injected nylon composite to reduce weight while maintaining strength and stiffness
- Carbon: expensive material known for its superb strength-to-weight ratio reserved for the most expensive road bike saddles.
- Vulcanized rubber: Brooks’ C lineup is made from in-house developed durable vulcanized rubber
The best question related to saddle padding has to be the one where a person asks why saddles have padding and people wear cycling bibs at the same time?
The answer to that question is that the saddle is much more dense than the padding you’ll find in the average cycling bib. It also stays in place and functions as a non-slip coverage.
Does it mean that full carbon, non-padded road bike saddles are less comfortable and kind of defeat the purpose of offering both support and comfort? The answer to that question would be yes.
There isn’t a pro peloton cyclist who rides a non-padded saddle, and apart from its novelty feature, and the rare hill climbing enthusiast, you probably shouldn’t either.
The padding results from a certain type of foam sitting underneath the saddle upper. Gel inserts are not part of road cycling saddles. If they are, it isn’t a road bike saddle.
How much padding is enough?
It’s a myth that more padding/foam results in more comfort. More comfort can result in more comfort when applied in a well designed saddle, like those used for endurance riding.
However, too much padding, or padding of low quality get’s dispersed in the wrong direction, and can result in discomfort and hot spots, especially when it moves towards the genital area, causing unwanted pressure.
The cover protects both the shell and padding, and keeps the padding in place as well.
Unless you have a leather saddle, the cover is made from some type of synthetic leather, like microfiber, polyester, Microtex, or nylon.
Because the cover is not very impact resistant the widest tips of the saddle sometimes have nylon shell extenders called scuff protectors.
They help protect the cover when parking the road bike with the saddle against a rough object (like a wall), or to a lesser extent in the case of a crash.
A mainstay of road bike saddle design is the cutout, which is a large oval cut in the genital area to relieve pressure.
The absence of material in this area does indeed mean there can be no pressure there. However you do take away saddle material that would otherwise support the rider.
It means that more weight is put onto other areas of the rider, which makes a correct saddle fit still a delicate balancing act.
Pressure relief channel
While some brands, like for instance Selle Italia, favor saddle designs with huge cutouts, other brands are less conspicuous and offer saddles with a pressure relief channel instead.
The advantages of a pressure relief channel is that the technology to make the saddle is less complex, since there’s more material to work with and provide the proper stiffness. In turn this makes the manufacturing of the saddle cheaper.
A certain type of cutout, where the opening encompasses the nose of the saddle as well, results in a two-prong design. The brand ISM mentioned earlier only offers these types of saddles. And there are long distance road bike saddles as well with a similar design
The rails is the saddle element that helps it be attached to the seatpost. A number of materials are being used with respect to bicycle saddle rails:
- Chromoly steel
The latter 3 all offer a weight and price reduction when compared to a saddle with steel rails.
I’m hard pressed to believe that anyone will notice the difference between steel rails, and either magnesium or titanium rails.
Saddle rails have a standard diameter of 7mm, and are meant to flex barely or not all.
A rails is never meant to break. If it does, it’s a product malfunction. Both nylon and carbon shells are weaker than steel, magnesium, and titanium, and should break before the rails do.
Carbon rails deserve a little more explanation, if not for the reason they are offered in oversized, oval form where the widest part is 9mm. It means you need a carbon compatible seatpost.
Although carbon has a natural ability to absorb road buzz, this product characteristic is further complemented because these types of rails are used in often unique road bike saddle designs.
What I mean with that is that it’s not just the carbon rails that increases comfort, but it’s the rail as part of the overall saddle design that does.
Saddles with carbon used for either the shell and/or the rails are the most expensive ones, setting you back over 200 USD easily.
Since saddles are so rider-specific, think twice before paying such a hefty sum of money. But armed with the information in this article, you should be better off than before.
Why you should trust us
Johan van Seijen has been riding both road bikes, mountain bikes, and everything in between for decades. And his experience with bikes and bicycle components is further enhanced with repairing, restoring, and building bikes.
Encompassing a spectrum from swift road rides to adventurous gravel journeys, cross-country routes, and intricate trails, Johan holds a deep appreciation for all things bicycle-related. As an active member of the TFC Weesp road cycling club, he resides near one of the Netherlands’ most scenic trails in Schoorl, where he contributes annually to MTB Noordwest.
With thousands of miles under his belt riding on the widest possible spectrum of bicycle saddles, from padded endurance saddles, to flimsy full-carbon options, he knows everything there is to know about the subject, as well as experiencing the painful outcome of what a wrong saddle choice brings with it.
How we picked and tested
One of the biggest issues with saddles is the fact that they are extremely rider specific, with one person favoring a saddle which another one would detest. To get as objective a review as possible we first create an overview of possible candidates, which we then trim down to a list that’s diverse enough for a wide range of riders, yet specific enough to share a certain saddle requirement.
For instance, saddles meant for endurance riding differ from those more suitable for XC racing. The same goes for budget-friendly options and lightweight saddles, which usually employ expensive carbon to keep the weight down. Another example is narrow saddles as opposed to saddles for people with wide sit bones.
All of these examples showcase a certain amount of objectivity that can be introduced into a product category which would be otherwise deemed very rider-specific.
Our list of possible contenders is made up of brands we prefer ourselves, or are otherwise known to produce high-quality saddles. Many of the companies have been around for decades and are forerunners in bicycle saddle innovation.
The brands we’ve taken into consideration for our reviews are Fabric, Brooks, Selle San Marco, Fizik, Selle Italia, Ergon, Prologo, ISM, and WTB.
Though saddle catalogs aren’t prone to be updated often and saddle types stay around for years, we keep our list of almost 500 contenders up-to-date as best as possible, and remove saddles no longer sold.
We don’t receive saddles, and don’t get paid by brands in exchange for placement in any of our saddle overviews.
Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His cycling career has seen him at the starting line of classics such as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege. Realizing his racing capacity would fall short of what was needed he obtained a MS from the University of Amsterdam in engineering. His love for cycling changed into riding in an amateur capacity with his local cycling club TFC Weesp as a roadie and supporting MTB Noordwest as a mountain biker. He repairs, restores, and builds bicycles and shares his knowledge on YouTube, Facebook and this website.