Part 3: The saddle search…the struggle is REAL!

This is part 3 of an ongoing series about bike fits, saddles and everything in between from the perspective of a triathlete and physical therapist.So what about the saddle?  Part 2 ventured through the meat and potatoes of the bike fit, now on to saddles.  I want comfort and I want it NOW!!  Actually, I wanted it yesterday.  Before I continue with the second half of my initial fit session with Chris, I want to go over why all the fuss over the saddle. 

The saddle is the most important point of contact with your bike.  If you aren’t comfortable sitting on your saddle, then the rest of the fit is meaningless because you can’t even get on your bike.Many people complain of saddle discomfort/pain when riding their bike.  Some quit riding simply because they couldn’t stand it.  I’m not expecting a bike saddle to be like sitting on the comfy sofa at home (it would be nice), but I would hope that it would be comfortable enough where I’m not feeling chafed, or have hot spot sensations as if sitting on a cactus or glass shards or worse yet, dreaded saddle sores (hate these things).  Saddles are a highly personal and a highly individual thing.  What works for some may be a medieval torture device for others, so all the reviews in the world should be taken with some caution.

Let’s face it, boys and girls obviously have different anatomies and as a result we sit on saddles differently.  Honestly, is the human body really meant to bear weight on a tiny contact patch of real estate on the saddle of a bike?  Let alone on the most sensitive part of our bodies?  Take triathletes (me) for example, we sit well forward of our “sit bones” because we contort ourselves over our bikes and sit on an even smaller contact patch on the saddle than our road cycling friends.  The pain is real.   Boys need to avoid crushing… well… their “boys” and sensitive nerve structures and blood vessels that can cause long term damage.  Girls need to avoid crushing their sensitive girl bits and all the important nerve and blood vessel structures as well.  Boys seems have a little bit of an easier time finding a saddle that will work than the girls.  Guys generally sit on the perineum or their “taint” as it is called while the ladies have a more complex problem as their lady bits are more exposed to varying degrees.  We have to sit on the area in front, around or more towards the rear of where the lady bits are located.  You’ll get to follow along on my saddle hunt and find that “the struggle is REAL!”

Another factor in saddle comfort are your shorts.  A well fitted/designed pair of shorts can impact your comfort as well.  Whatever you do, DO NOT cheapen out on your shorts.  If you value your health and the most sensitive part of your body, get shorts that FIT.  Your starting price point for a good pair of shorts should be around $80 and up (even better if on sale).  The shorts are supposed to be snug and supportive and NOT wrinkle or bunch in places where you sit or move.  This is not a time to get self-conscious, honestly, NO ONE cares and no one is judging you except maybe the haters in cars.  If they are, then who cares?  I own a variety of shorts of varying padding (from little padding in tri shorts to super padded road shorts).   Keep in mind, more padding is NOT always better.  Too much and the padding bunches in places you don’t want it to while too little may leave you feeling more discomfort than you want.  As far as fit, I tend to size down if I can, knowing that with time the materials will stretch out after the first few rides.  Again, this is all personal preference and what works with you and the saddle.   YES, it makes a difference.

The last item: chamois cream.  There are dozens of creams.  I have my favorites and they work, most of the time.  The one added thing triathletes need to keep in mind, you swim BEFORE you ride when you race so choose your anti-chafing/blister/friction lube wisely.Finding the right saddle

Now, the continuation of the initial bike fitting session from Part 2:

Before we started the fit session, I told Chris, ”I’m gonna put a lot of pressure on you to help me find the right saddle.  I’ve had a tough time finding one that would work on my own over the years.”  I’m not sure if he took this as a harmless challenge or not, but little did either one of us know this was the beginning of seeking out the “Holy Grail” of saddles. In all my years of riding, my longtime companion was the Terry Zero X (which was discontinued) and then to their FLX women’s saddle.  From my mountain bikes to my tri bikes, Terry saddles just worked.  However, on my current ride, for whatever reason (possibly soft tissue changes, how I ride, or even my position) my Terry saddle would give me grief on rides longer than 2 hours on my trainer and greater than 4 hour rides outside.  Since I was going all out with my bike fit, I was taking the opportunity to see what was out there under the watchful eye of an experienced fitter.  I always liked to think that there could be something better (the grass is always greener…), but the few times I ventured out of the pasture, I came back with my tail between my legs.  I didn’t have the patience nor time to go through the whole buy/try and return route. I was convinced, years ago, that comfort on a saddle just didn’t exist past the 3 or 4 hour mark and you sucked it up the rest of the time.    The Terry saddle was the saddle I relied on for “tolerable comfort.”

Prior to my meeting, I researched a lot of possible saddles that might fit my criteria.  I had a few in mind and luckily, Chris carried a few in house.  Open to anything that might work, I sought long term comfort with my only limiter possibly being the weight of the saddle.  My inner weight weenie comes out as the grams creep up.  I know, I know.  Seriously grams?  But they add up….just saying.  The things I know I needed in a saddle: a cut out, a narrow nose and on the not too firm and not too soft side. 

From Bontrager: Note the varying pressure points from an upright posture of a leisure position all the way to the folded over triathlon position.  The contact patch gets smaller as you get more forward with your body.  The shades of blue are good.  The more orange and red is bad.  My pressure maps looked like the far right, except smaller patch with yellow/orange/red.

To help in searching for the “Holy Grail” of saddles, Chris utilized a saddle pressure mapping sensor, a wireless device that looks like a gel cover that slips over the saddle.  The sensor determines where you contact the saddle, determines the ideal seating position, and the amount of pressure you place on that contact point.  An example of what the maps look like are illustrated above.  Obviously, this was simply a tool to aid in determining the ideal saddle.  What really mattered was rider feedback and how they felt on the saddle. 

During testing, I soon found I didn’t like sitting on the sensor much because it covered up the cut out of the saddles (I hope I don’t need to elaborate as to why.  Are we done yet?).  We looked for narrow nosed saddles since wider saddles in the nose would cause rubbing on the inner thighs and possibly to the hamstrings or other places not meant to be sat on for hours.  We paid no attention to the actual width of the saddle (narrower the better) in the rear since I really wouldn’t be sitting on that portion of the saddle on my tri bike.  My take on testing saddles: it should be like trying on running shoes, it should be like a pair of socks.  A saddle should feel about right once your bum hits the saddle with a few tweaks, as your initial impression, assuming your rear was already conditioned to sit on a bike.Going through this saddle hunt, I soon realized, in much greater detail, that saddle shapes/designs, nose widths, and a whole host of other factors can influence, not only your comfort, but how you interact with a saddle.   I knew of these intricacies, but to experience them first hand and really thinking about it was quite eye opening.  Another aspect of the fit: where the saddle was placed on the bike relative to everything else, a few millimeters (or centimeters, in some cases) fore or aft, up or down, can make a world of difference (trust me, it does and yes, I can tell if there is a difference). Here was the list of saddles we tested during my initial visit (and Chris’ shop carries a vast inventory of saddles, a huge plus, one stop shopping) and in no particular order:

-Fabric Line: I never heard of the brand, but why not.  I saw the price of the saddle (not that price was going to deter me) and was like wow…economical and not super heavy.  Impression: firm, relief channel (not deep enough), the outer was a rubberized type of material, shaped like a traditional road saddle (pear shaped), eh, not a fan…it tested poorly on my pressure map.-Selle Italia Iron Flow: short narrow nose (38 mm) leading to a traditional rear of a saddle (kinda T shaped) with a relief channel, firm, pricey as hell, odd really but not in a good way…tested poorly.  Chris noted I postured differently as I sat on this one trying to get off the uncomfortable spot on my sensitive bits. -ISM Adamo Attack: ever so popular with many triathletes, noseless, split nose (55mm width), a narrow triangle shape, felt too wide as it flared away from the nose (and yes, I was sitting off the front as it was designed), tested poorly, tried the zip tie trick…still no good.-Bontrager Hilo: shaped like a traditional road saddle (pear shaped), split nose relief channel, narrow nose (sub 50mm), firm, similar to the Fabric saddle in feel, but again tested poorly-Cobb VFlow Plus2: narrow nose (starts at 38 mm and gradually widens as you go back), shaped like a road saddle (more triangle, than pear) with a narrow rear, almost soft, true cut out, tested the best on mapping (among those tested and better than my Terry), but would it be a match made in heaven?After FOUR hours, my nether regions had enough.  Holy crap, 4 hours?!?!  Yes, from start to finish with initial tweaks to the bike, measuring, and saddle testing.  It was hard to be objective because my nether regions had reached the point of beyond irritated with all the saddle tests and sitting on the sensor.  Mentally drained and raw/irritated downstairs, we ultimately decided to give the Cobb saddle a try.   Though, I was not convinced since my initial impression didn’t really give me that “where have you been all my life?” moment.  I trusted the technology, Chris’ recommendation and held on to hope that maybe it would work.   

After the conclusion of my first session with Chris, I was excited over the changes, but still very unsure of the new saddle.  Within the first week, after the first two rides, I was ready to tear it off the bike.  The discomfort and soft tissue pressure was worse than my Terry.  I told myself to give it a chance, your nether regions need to get used to the new saddle points.  After over 2 weeks, I couldn’t stand it.  Different shorts and small tweaks, just didn’t do it. By small tweaks, we’re talking degrees and millimeters of movement.  Yes, these minute little measurements make a HUGE difference to comfort or sitting on a pin cushion.  Back to the Terry I went while I contacted Chris with my frustrations.  He agreed with my assessment.  I easily put over 200 agonizing miles on that saddle.  It was not meant to be. We set up a follow up time to meet again to not only address my saddle discomfort, but play with the idea of “how low (aerodynamically) could I go in my front end?”  During my first meeting, Chris offered to experiment with this on his Guru Fitting machine since I had asked about the possibilities of further optimizing my fit and looking to upgrade the front end.  For those unfamiliar, the Guru machine is an automated fit bike that moves the seat and bars into varying positions based on your “fit” coordinates.  It also assists in finding the optimal position for you based on comfort and power.  It’s a great machine if you are looking to buy a new tri bike to see which bikes fit YOU based on the output of where you end up positioned on the machine(shameless plug here…). About a month later, we reconvened.  After the first meeting, I committed to upgrading my cockpit/front end (aerobars) to something with more adjustability than the stock bars (Black Friday sales allowed Santa to come early, Merry Christmas to me!).  I arrived at the shop with new toys (the new cockpit) and excited over the possibilities with the new bars once we determined the best position using the Guru Fitting machine.  The experience was interesting.  At the push of a button, the fitting machine came alive as it raised or lowered the front end at desired millimeter by millimeter increments after Chris entered my fit coordinates. The saddle and bars moved up and down, fore and aft as we tweaked the position.  It’s a nice efficient way to test one position and immediately test another back to back (kinda like going to the eye doctor, ONE or TWO, THREE or FOUR).  We eventually settled on a position that felt comfortable with the new “cockpit.”  These numbers would then be translated over to my bike when the new cockpit was installed.  While I was on the Guru, we tested a few more saddles.  Chris mentioned, he was really excited to test this new saddle he had just gotten in for this latest session.Next candidates:

-Fabric Tri (new to market, Chris’ “I can’t wait for Jamie to try this one!”): It wasn’t bad, a split nose relief channel, narrow saddle (pear shaped),  firm, but didn’t map well.  Chris was kinda disappointed…-Cobb Gen2: just for giggles, Chris slapped this one on; interesting feel, we didn’t spend a lot of time dialing this one in, ended up bagging it.  So I couldn’t give you a true assessment of what this one was like.-There might have been a couple of others, but I can’t recall which ones they were.  It was that memorable.(sigh)  No further than where I started in seeking saddle relief. Despite not finding a saddle, we worked on dialing in the rest of the fit around my tolerable Terry saddle. 

Also during our first meeting, Chris and I talked about the possibilities of shorter cranks (much shorter than what the main industry has on the market).  I had given a lot of thought to doing this modification since that time and interested in what this would feel like.  The literature reported that there would be no change in power output by going shorter.  Shorter cranks would help improve my hip angle at the top of my pedal stroke (open it), allow for a little bit more wiggle room to get my upper body lower (more aero), and perhaps even help with running off the bike because I’d be more efficient with my pedal stroke and my fit.  I asked if we could try it out on the Guru machine.  Chris was game.  My initial feel was like I was pedaling a tricycle, but my impression was that I really liked it.  My pedal stroke smoothed out, the dead spot at the top of the stroke was near nonexistent, my cadence naturally increased, it just felt really nice, like my legs were finally free to turn my pedals.  My hips felt stable on my saddle and didn’t feel jammed up like I had to fight with my bike at the top of the pedal stroke.  It suited my body metrics and my riding style.  I was sold. While the front end was getting overhauled with new bars to allow for a lower body position, I decided to have my cranks swapped out to something shorter (155 mm) than I was riding (167.5 mm).   My bike was transforming into a thoroughbred meeting MY needs.  I left my steed with Chris to undergo surgery (for me, it’s like leaving my car with the dealer…it leaves me anxious since I have no idea how the “baby” is being treated while it’s away from home).  From what I could tell, Chris and boys are true bike guys, they treat your prized possession like it’s their own, gently with a lot of TLC.Two weeks later, we met again to try out the changes made to the bike and dial in the fit.  It was practically a new bike which left me excited like a kid at Christmas to get my bike back.    Mmm…yummy!  I still had the tricycle feeling while I was pedaling but in due time it would feel natural.  All other aspects of the fit, felt great…well…my saddle was tolerable, sort of.  We still had not found a saddle to meet my needs and we kinda settled on the least offensive saddle.

After a couple of weeks of adjusting to the new position and barely tolerating my old saddle, I reached out to Chris again.  My existing saddle was just not going to cut it.  It had gotten to the point that the glass shards sensation was just too much for me to bear on my indoor trainer for an hour to an hour and half, let alone, the 5-7 hour training rides outside.  It was agonizing.  We both went in search for other options.  Something out there has to work.

Part 4 continues with the struggles of seeking the “Holy Grail”. 

Dr. Jamie So

Jamie So, PT, DPT, is the owner and physical therapist of Manual Therapy Effects.

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