7 Apr 2014

Musical saddles!


I thought I'd better have another look at saddles and the factors which seem to matter to me. Feel completely free to disagree. 

The mist had cleared quite a bit as I set off perched on the Vetta SL saddle. I had treated the B17 'Special' to Brooks own wax proofing yesterday because it showed the rain far too easily. It was still rather greasy to ride this morning. Though I could have buffed it with a coarse rag I chose to do something different for a change. The B17 could be left to soak up what wax that it might while I re-tried the Vetta.

It was an interesting experience riding another saddle for a change. It felt quite small but managed to support my sit bones well enough. I think what the B17 brings to the table is much greater area and the hammock suspension. It does so at the cost of some efficiency. Almost every other saddle which I have tried feels instantly "faster" than the B17. These 'artificial' saddles make you want to ride faster and you do. Including climbing more quickly and efficiently. This is despite my B17 'Special' being tied. Which made it much stiffer and quite a lot more uncomfortable. Though not unbearably so. Let's just say that it is sometimes noticeable that it is there.

Perhaps the B17 damps the power of the lower glutes (buttocks) by offering too much support? There is still some friction between my thighs and the B17 despite the tie. Though I notice it only for the sense of a complete lack of body friction on other saddles. The B17 reduces the contact pressure per square unit of area in the name of comfort but at the expense of speed. The Vetta remained quite tolerable but never quite failed to become completely unnoticeable. A good saddle can be completely ignored. It simply doesn't draw attention to itself. You can't expect a few millimeters of foam under a vinyl cover over a stiff plastic body to do the same job as a suspended, flexible, leather hammock.

Nor did the Vetta vinyl offer the same controlled slipperiness of the Brooks. Making it a matter of lifting off every time to change position fore and aft. I was wearing my slipperiest and thinnest shorts so it had to be the vinyl making it sticky right from the first moments. Until I climbed off 24 miles later. I wanted to give the Vetta a "fair go."

On a broken-in leather Brooks the ratio of dynamic to static friction (stiction) is absolutely perfect. Though certainly not when new. It is far too slippery out of the box! Which strongly suggests that Brooks' advice to Proofide the new saddle has other benefits than merely nourishing the leather.

One can micro-adjust one's position on a leather Brooks while remaining fully seated. I tried silicone polish on one vinyl saddle but found it far too slippery until it wore off! Then it was right back to sticky vinyl again. There must be lessons to be learned in comfort from getting the slipperiness exactly right. It has to be in all riding conditions too. A sweaty rider does not want any change in friction with the saddle. Or the saddle will dominate how his shorts behave against his skin. It needs little imagination to suggest that repeated rubbing as one pedals for hours will cause extreme soreness.

Were it otherwise it might have been fun to recover the tatty Vetta with new, purple upholstery vinyl to match the Trykit details. I shan't be rushing to try this after trying a vinyl saddle again. The Vetta looks and feels slippery but just isn't when sat on. It would be a waste of good leather to recover a plastic seat.

I plan to try the Brooks 'Professional' next. Just to remind myself why I gave it up. Unfortunately it had become mouldy in places from sitting in a box in the unheated shed over the winter. I gave it a rub with a dry rag before renewing the Proofide treatment. It should be ready to ride by tomorrow. It is still showing the marks form the battens I used to pull out the creases while the saddle was soaking wet. Any rub marks rapidly disappear when a leather saddle is ridden. My 'Professional' still doesn't have the correct form and should be re-soaked and reformed. I rode it too soon after the last attempt at soaking and spoiled it all over again. I had discovered the wonders of the B17 by then. So didn't need the 'Professional' to be comfortable just to maintain my mobility.

The reason I am trying other saddles is to discover whether it is the rider who eventually toughens up in the contact areas. Or it is only the saddle itself which matters in the comfort stakes. I have been riding almost every day for years now. I can't honestly say that I have developed a rhino-like hide where I sit on the trike.

There is also the question of underwear. Not that one should wear anything under ones shorts or bibs. Except that tights are unavoidable in the colder weather. Even my best bibs do not offer the same comfort when wearing "skiing" tights. I never wear waterproof trousers because they hamper pedaling movement far too much. I also avoid rain whenever I can. It is simply unnecessary for me to go out in the rain. So I don't bother. Denmark is far drier than the western UK. So wet weather doesn't crop up nearly so often.

I keep wishing I could find an ultra-lightweight saddle which offers perfect comfort. The Brooks are much heavier than any racing saddle by at least a pound. The B17 has comfort to die for but needs protection from the weather. Tragically, it also changes shape beyond the perfection of "just broken in".

Which is precisely why I tied it when it started sagging into what I call the delta form. This is when forward sloping grooves appear between the "wings" and the "fuselage." The seating area being the wings and the fuselage the spine of the saddle. They really ought to remain level but with extended wear become separated. These grooves force the rider to slide forwards "down" the saddle onto the spine. So the spine sags. The owner then decides to tighten the tension nut to stop the sag. Immediately leading to far more grooving than before. The saddle is now doomed.

Tying helps to overcome this tendency in my experience. A suggestion from Alan H. for which I remain grateful. Though tying does cost some loss of comfort. The saddle is stiffened into an inverted U-beam with no freedom of the vertical sides to flex outwards. It is this flexure which makes Brooks leather saddles so comfortable over bumps. The stretched hammock design certainly helps but outward skirt flexure does most of the work. The support rails have almost no suspension effect at all. If they were flexible enough to bend they would not be stiff enough to support the rider. The rails would eventually break through fatigue.

If only it were possible to "freeze" the newly broken in Brooks in its optimum shape for the rider. Only lace tying seems to do this. Otherwise I would have had to start all over again breaking in a brand new B17 'Special'. The name is very apt. These really are very special leather saddles until their very flexibility ultimately becomes their downfall.

Others seem to keep riding them for decades and enjoy their sagging delta hammocks. I found I had to keep tipping the nose up just to stay seated at the back of the saddle. Tipping the nose up only exposes one's soft tissues to the front of the saddle spine. Your crutch really doesn't like to be crushed and constantly rubbed while pedalling. Supporting your weight is the vital job of the sit bones and the relatively flat (and springy) seating area at the back of the saddle.

We'll have to ignore the forward position adopted by many racing cyclists in competition. At least for the purpose of this discussion. If the Utterly Corrupt Individuals at the top of the self appointed cycling mafia would allow more forward saddles then everybody could sit comfortably. But progress is not the name of the game in competition cycling. Maintaining the corrupt power of the UCI is. They'd probably appoint a pope if they thought they could get away with it. No doubt Galileo had some thoughts on bicycle design which had to be suitably punished. Da Vinci almost certainly knew more about bicycle design than the UCI does today. But I digress:

Don't be a naive "tyre kicker" and use your hands to judge the stiffness and quality of a saddle. Your fingers cannot possibly apply the local pressures your pointy sit bones apply to a saddle. So pressing and knocking will teach you absolutely nothing. A broken in leather saddle sounds just as hard when you rap it with your knuckles. Playing musical saddles involves sitting on them in turn and riding them for a long way until one of you gives up the fight. Or you agree to an amicable truce based on mutual respect.

I have often thought that the Brooks 'Professional' 'S' would make an ideal touring saddle. The 'S' stands for short. Not "sissy" or "women's" per se. Though Brooks certainly describe them as the latter. The idea being that ladies need a wider saddle because their sit bones are anatomically wider. Or is it because they usually have more padding than men before the obesity pandemic reared its ugly wotsit? Not sure about this but I have read that the girls don't actually like "their" shorter saddles..

The 'Professional 'S' is as wide as a B17 at 175mm but has thicker leather and is considerably shorter. 242mm to the B17s 275mm. Though some dealers quote other dimensions to Brooks'. How often do you need the full length of a B17 as tourist?  I would prefer a new old stock 'Professional S' rather than a Team Pro S.

I actually saw a gorgeous NOS 'Professional S' on the wall of a bike shop but passed it by. Having been bitten once by a NOS 'Professional' I doubted the 'S' would offer any more comfort. I completely missed the extra width and replaced the saddle on the display hook. A decision I now much regret. Of course it had been sold by the time I returned at a later date. I just hope the new owners are using it well. It would probably make a good MTB saddle too. The modern 'Team Pro S' is a bit pricey for an experimental purchase and I have enough saddles already. I'm not sure Brooks still uses the very thick hide of the "professional" on the replacement "Team Pro" models.

My long-suffering wife has just reinvented an apt old saying to describe my frenetic typing: "Doolally tap." You'll have to do your own research to discover the origin of the term. ;-)

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