27 Apr 2016

27th April 2016 The vital, man-machine interface.


Wednesday 27th 35F, 2C,  heavy overcast, windy and raining. The forecast is much wetter than yesterday's and supposed to keep it up until 9pm. 8.20am and wet snowflakes are now falling though without pitching.

I should have mentioned that I re-tensioned my Brooks B17 saddle last week. I find the effect of a drooping saddle constantly pushes me forwards. Which, in turn, places my support system on a narrower part of the saddle. The ideal positions for the sit bones are resting on the largest triangular areas at the widest point of the saddle and they should preferably be nearly flat and slightly flexible. A hammock offers no such support and the rider slides forwards to the lowest point.  Precisely where bits of their private anatomy, were never really designed for supporting their entire weight. Which leads to acute discomfort and even severe numbness and impotency in some riders.

I may have overdone it with the [factory pre-knackered] Brooks spanner and could have done less tightening to achieve the same desired effect. The added, cross-lace tie has saved the saddle from going south ever more rapidly. Which has saved my having to buy yet another new Brooks. Though at the expense of less immediate comfort rather than having to break in another B17 saddle from new.

Brand new, Brooks B17 showing how flat the saddle appears out of the box.Once it is broken in it will effectively become even flatter. This is the real secret of a comfortable saddle. Not some identi-wedge which tries to force your delicate sit bones apart!

The untied leather saddle's skirts flap outwards to the rider's weight and any shocks transmitted upwards by the machine. Think of the  rider as a heavy blob with very high inertia and little or no compliance [or suspension] at the vital interface between the pelvic sit bones and the saddle surface. So the MkI bod is, quite literally, an immovable object and the machine and/or saddle must provide any/all shock absorption. The saddle actually hammers upwards against the small points of the rider's sit bones. Though it feels as if the rider is hammering downwards on the lumps and bumps of typically badly maintained, modern roads.

The larger the saddle the lower the applied pressure [mass per square unit] as the rider's crutch spreads the load over a larger surface area. Unfortunately a large and soft saddle is relatively inefficient. Energy is lost to friction and squashing muscles which would much prefer some freedom to help the pedalling effort.

The saddle to sit bone interface is actually extremely subtle and varies widely from rider to rider. One man's [or women's] comfy armchair is another's instrument of torture. While all serious cyclists wear slippery shorts, these days, the degree of slipperiness of the saddle surface and any sweat build-up in the materials will radically alter the friction levels.

Leather does seem to have some very attractive properties regarding friction, breathability and flexibility. It is not for nothing that the Brooks B17, tensioned, leather saddle enjoys widespread approval from very high mileage, recreational cyclists.

The B17 often looks nose-up but it isn't snobbery. If you draw a line from nose to tail it will be almost level.

Meanwhile the pro racing cyclist often does huge mileages [including long training rides] but has other needs or limitations: Usually comfort is heavily sacrificed for lightness. The pro rider may even have his saddle compulsorily provided under sponsorship. Ironically this lack of choice could affect the rider's entire career unless he has the abilities of a fakir in riding on a "bed of nails." No doubt saddle soreness is rife in the peloton. Particularly given the present crop of over-hyped, but very similar, hard, plastic based, racing saddles on offer. Though it must be said that a racing cyclist leans further forwards and puts more effort into pedalling. These actions tend to lift some of the weight of the cyclist from the saddle. The downside is that they ride on rock hard, narrow tyres with very little natural suspension.

The rider who can pound out the thousands of miles in relative comfort may be far more likely to perform well. Rather than the opposite, with a "saddle-sensitive" rider constantly struggling with saddle soreness. Bibs [shorts with braces] and specialist [interface] creams, backed up with rigid hygiene standards, must help. The bib shorts are tensioned up against the rider's crutch without the inevitable creasing of simpler, but constantly sagging, cycling shorts. The creams should prevent friction between the [usually] foam pad and the rider's crutch. Well, that's the theory. Fashionable racing saddles still have a lot to answer for! I find that standing up and stretching the bib's crutch material sideways will often relieve the painful interstitial creasing.

The weekend warrior may slavishly copy his idol's equipment choice but may not enjoy the experience. Particularly if they "cheat" and wear underwear. Or simply have to add extra layers of clothing for warmth in cold weather mileage training. Few "skiing" tights or winter long-johns have perfectly flat seams and the seams will often lie at the vital rider/saddle interface. [Sit bones and crutch.]

Underpants may add warmth and greater social acceptability but usually ruck up and get sweaty when not allowed ample ventilation. Plus, the necessary seams, for fit, add their own discomfort burden to the vital interface. What works well up to [say] 40 miles can quickly turn very nasty indeed beyond that distance. Depending greatly on the rider and saddle, of course.

Despite my [steadily falling] annual mileages I still cannot confirm whether one really "toughens up" at the vital rider/saddle interface. Saddle soreness was certainly my limiting [debilitating] distance factor when I was riding nearer to 10,000 miles per year. The later purchase of decent quality bib shorts, for planned longer rides, increased comfort dramatically but only on longer, summer rides. I still have to ride year round and often in very cold weather indeed. Wandering the supermarkets and shopping streets "au-naturel" [in bibs] also has its [social] discomforts. A US café, once popular with cyclists, has actually banned the wearing of [anatomically correct] "Lycra" cycling shorts! Presumably this was in sunny California or balmy Florida. Chance would be a fine thing to be such "an exhibitionist" for most of the Danish year! 

The B17 saddles have certainly helped the comfort cause. As has careful selection of flat seamed, short legged, boxer shorts for when it is not particularly balmy in Denmark. Which is actually most of the time. Perhaps I should go "superhero" and wear my underpants on the outside? This actually makes a lot of sense if you really think about it. The pad in the bibs/shorts will protect me from the inevitably screwed up cloth of the under/over garment. Though I would rather not think about it too much and it seems like sharing [far] too much information already!

It automatically follows that any keen cyclist should have strict laundry and hygiene routines. As well as plentiful changes of carefully chosen, clean clothing to maintain comfort where it really matters. How anyone rides more than a few yards in denim jeans will remain one of life's mysteries. The hard knot of seams is always in exactly the wrong place to do anything but disrupt and injure the vital saddle/rider interface!

The design of a saddle is a highly complex matter of shape, length, width, curvature and padding. I find most saddles far too uncomfortable to sit on for even a few moments let alone go for a ride on the damned things. Promising saddles, like the Nidd and Cambium [B17 copies] proved to be hideously uncomfortable despite their similarities to the Brooks B17 in size and plan. Particularly the Nidd.

The Nidd [imaged alongside] had great potential but was fiberglass [GRP] reinforced underneath. To the point where it might just as well have been cast in concrete, carved from granite or pressed out of thick steel. It will never break in. Not ever! I tried soaking mine in a bucket of water but it never gave a millimeter nor became any more comfortable.

This  clearly belies the claim that the tension [hammock] saddle on steel rails automatically provides comfort. My belief is that the flexibility of the leather top is the most vital factor in comfort levels. Which is why a brand new and inflexible B17 feels like riding on a polished beach rock at first. Only when it is properly broken in does the saddle start offering any comfort at all. The triangles on the widest part of the 'bench' will sink and become flexible while the rest of the saddle should remain firm. Sometimes this desirable state of affairs can be a bit of a lottery.

Not all B17s are created equal and a pre-softened saddle may actually be too flexible all over. Man may have gone to the Moon but he has yet to come up with a perfectly broken in B17 lying in a presentation box. I tried that with their absolutely gorgeous B17 'Select' model but it was too soft all over and soon lost its shape. Badly enough to feel its twisted form while riding along. IT bwas returned for a refund and chose a B17 'Special' to replace it.. I now consider the Brooks B17 'Special' as coming close to perfection in a leather saddle. Whether you like the appearance of aging leather is purely a matter of taste.Though there is no denying it really is made of real leather and leather absorbs sweat. It shows as variable darkening of the leather over time. Black ids always a popular option.

The Cambium was a major disappointment despite it being promised [by the Italian makers] to be an ideal B17 replacement. One which they claimed was as comfortable as a B17 from day one, would last for years and not need any breaking in. Again it was completely spoilt by blind adherence to the hype artists at Selle rather than fulfilling its absolutely huge potential. Fear of replacement demands, under guarantee, meant that it was reinforced to hell! Just like the Nidd and that made both saddles completely unrideable! Unforgivably so!

A colossal mistake, which any owner of a broken-in B17 will confirm. Instead of using the natural flexibility of the rubber base they deliberately and literally killed it stone dead with fiberglass laminate!

Instead of aiming straight for the comfort of a broken-in B17 the drooling idiots in the Italian design department came up with a straight-out-of-the-box and heavily curved, absolutely rock hard sort of  B17 almost lookalike. With absolutely no chance in hell of it ever breaking in because "they" said it wouldn't. You could not make it up if you tried! Talk about an own goal! They believed their own bullshit/hype/propaganda/advertising and all they did was admire the racy lines without ever taking it for a bløødy ride! They can't have, or they'd know it was just another misshapen Italian boulder!

They even curved the thing sharply across the back like any narrow racing saddle. Because that is all they know at Selle and thereby they reduced the Cambium C17's active width by a good couple of inches! Had it been made flat it might have had a remote chance despite the ridiculous level of GRP reinforcement.

Perhaps they thought they'd be selling mostly to to the "big boned" American market. So were terrified of countless 30 stone Lycra "weekend weaklings" trashing their Cambiums on their very first ride? So it had to be heavily reinforced whether you needed it or not. One size fits all and that was mostly aimed at the 30+ stone American market. No choice is offered for those of normal girth.   

It was never meant to be a true B17 replacement IMO. Instead of which it was a blatant display of ingrained arrogance and ignorance, in equal measure, by somebody who had never ridden a touring bicycle in their entire lives. But whose absolute, iron willed, sociopathic authority could never be questioned by their mere underlings and sub-lackeys. The ruthless dictator does not surround himself with yes-men just to be questioned at every turn! The C17 is all too obviously a victim of rigid, internal, business hierarchy. What other possible explanation can there be for so dramatic, a complete and utter, total cock up? Where's my refund for fraudulent advertising of goods under the UK Sale of Goods Act? B17 replacement? Give me a break! Give me back my money!!!

The Cambium could easily have been cast in very thick and unyielding metal, covered [equally as badly] in raggedy canvas and there would still be no perceived difference in comfort. Because of its high retail price I persevered with the Cambium well beyond what common sense demanded. So much so that I injured my saddle "interface" enough to need a recovery period of greatly reduced mileage with the fully broken broken-in B17 'Special' safely back on the trike. Imagine if you had believed the factory's steaming bullshit and ridden off on a 'round the world' trip? I'd give you [maybe] 15 miles before you started looking for a bike shop to buy a new saddle and bin the Cambium!

The over-hyped Cambium "game changer" was just another mass produced, Italian saddle. All design and no comfort. In fact the Cambium has probably done so much real damage to the Brooks label's reputation that they [Selle] may well have intended this all along. Just so they could close down the Brooks "industrial heritage museum" and export the manufacturing jobs straight to Chinese assembly robots. With a nice fat bonus and the latest and biggest Audi for the manager who came up with this desperately clever idea. That of ridding themselves of the inherited Brooks workforce and Edwardian machinery without actually looking like the business Mafia they most probably are. All strictly IMO, of course. Can you be sued for telling the obvious truth? ;-)
Click on any image for an enlargement.


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