A very common complaint about cycling is about pain or discomfort caused by the saddle. Let’s get the obvious point out in the open right away: we are all different, and our bodies are different. What this means in practice is that a saddle that’s extremely comfortable to you might be excruciating for me to use.
That’s the root of the problem. Even if all saddles were equal in quality (and they most certainly are not!) we still cannot escape the fact that our bodies are unique. Remember, on the average bicycle saddle, you don’t sit on your bum, but rather on your “sitting bones”, which are part of your pelvis. Different people have different sizes of pelvis, so immediately there’s a saddle width issue to contend with.
Add to that the fact that women’s and men’s pelvic bones are different, and it becomes instantly obvious why so many women complain about uncomfortable saddles: cycling is male dominated, and the majority of saddles are designed and manufactured with men in mind.
Also, ladies, please do yourself the favour of NOT taking what any man has to say about saddles as the gospel truth, but go speak to other women, and listen to what they have to say. Specifically, if you’re a woman, I strongly suggest you go read this excellent post by Lovely Bicycle.
Your undercarriage is far more complex than what you may realise: your pelvis pivots below your spine, which allows you to remain upright on uneven ground, amongst other things. As mentioned above, when sat on a bike saddle, what carries our weight is our pelvis, and not the soft tissue in between.
Any saddle can be supremely comfortable when sat on for all of 60 seconds, but after 6 hours, you might feel considerably different. Having the wrong saddle is almost guaranteed to cause people new to cycling to stop cycling, or to stop regular cyclists from going on longer rides, such as when cycle touring.
A very normal newbie mistake to make is to select a very padded saddle, or worse, get one of those gel-padded saddle covers. In the very short term, they’re great and very comfortable, but over longer rides aren’t good at all. You see, they change how weight transfer works when you’re sat on such a padded saddle – instead of sitting on your pelvic bones, you end up with soft tissue taking your full weight. That risks blood flow to the soft tissue being restricted, or even cut off, and can lead to a variety of undercarriage trouble you really would rather want to avoid.
The bottom line – see what I did there? – is this: even with a great saddle that fits your bottom perfectly, it usually takes around 2 weeks of near-daily riding for your bottom to adjust. Yes, for some it takes less time, but as a rule of thumb, 2 weeks is about right.
Better bike shops will have a device that measures how far apart your sitting bones are, but you can measure it yourself – with surprising accuracy – using a piece of corrugated cardboard. Put the cardboard on a hard chair, then sit on it for a little while, then measure how far apart the indentations left by your sitting bones are.
Once you know how wide your sitting bones are apart, you can start selecting a saddle that’s appropriate for you. Generally, it’s best to go for a saddle with less, rather than more padding.
If you can, consider getting a leather saddle, such as those sold by Brooks or Spa Cycles. Leather saddles “break in”, which is to say the leather stretches and deforms to perfectly fit your anatomy. Once broken in, they are usually supremely comfortable, but it can take a fair amount of time to reach that point. Brooks saddles are quicker to break in than Spa saddles, which are made from thicker leather.
Some bike shops have “saddle libraries” and would let you try out a saddle for a week, to see how you get on with it. Obviously, they won’t do that with leather saddles. If you can, do make use of that opportunity.
Some saddles have a hole in the middle, and though not specific to women’s saddles, especially woman can benefit from these. Some saddles have a very short “nose” but you must remember that such saddles might change your riding more than you expected, so do see if you can try it out first.
Sooner or later, anyone who cycles a lot will get the dreaded saddle sores. They tend to be caused by chafing, in-grown hair follicles that become infected, or sometimes lack of blood flow to soft tissue, caused by overly-padded saddles.
The very best cure is not to ride until they’ve healed, but if you have to ride, lather on anti-sceptic cream!
Inside Lycra shorts there’s a padded insert, called the chamois (actually pronounced “shammy”) because it used to be made from chamois goat leather. Chamois cream doesn’t get applied to the chamois, but rather to your undercarriage, and yes, you can use it even if you don’t wear Lycre shorts.
The cream serves several purposes: it lubricates, to avoid chafing, and is an anti-bacterial and anti-sceptic. There are lots of brands available, and some of them are eye-wateringly expensive. My advice is simple: use good old Sudocrem!