Part 6: The saddle saga continues

Welcome to Part 6 of the bike fitting and saddle series by your resident physical therapist and OCD triathlete. Part 5 took us on a spontaneous road trip to Connecticut to work with industry legend and pioneer of triathlon bike fitting, Dan Empfield.  Yup, true story.  Armed with more information and ideas from the venture, I hoped it would help Chris and I piece together the last bits of my fit and saddle comfort.  Will we reach a happy ending?The next visit to see Chris was scheduled (I’ve lost count)…in the meantime…

Step one: set up bike per Dan’s recommendations.  Check.Step two: custom inserts.  Check.  Await final product.I received the mail order custom orthotics molding kit.  It was not the typical foam impression kits.  It had a heat moldable “form” and a specially designed pillow you stepped on, to mold your foot.  The guy that makes these orthotics does these for a living and his technique to get molds is a proprietary thing.  He creates orthotics for ski boots, cycling and whatever else you might need an insert for.  The nice thing is that he deals with tight fitting footwear and he understands how an orthotic is to be made to fit in such footwear.  These aren’t super expensive either.  So we’ll see if these will help my little tootsies while I’m biking.

Step three: more saddles… check?I sourced the Koobi 232T saddle and my initial reaction…good gravy this this is hard as a rock!  The design and concept I really liked:  The large cutout, the not too narrow, not to wide downward swooping nose…all things I really liked, but I had a feeling the relationship ended before it started once I felt how darn firm the saddle was.  It was reminiscent of the Cobb Gen2 saddle, just shorter and firmer.  The “prongs” of this saddle were narrow which reminded me of some of the other saddles I tried with cut outs. I wasn’t too sure about how my anatomy was going to receive this saddle.  It made the Cobb Fifty Five feel like a tempur pedic pillow.  I said as much to Chris.  I was hesitant to put this on the bike until I saw him.  The Cobb Fifty Five, at least, was tolerable for a couple of hours.  I wasn’t sure if the Fifty Five was going to be a long term love affair.  Anything beyond 2+ hours was just torture on the trainer.  My next meeting with Chris couldn’t come soon enough. 

Meeting with Chris again, we captured film of the “Dan changes” and the numbers were all within a degree or two of where Chris had me.  We had a little bit of range to work with and it was a matter of rider preference at this point, so Chris wasn’t all that concerned.  He wanted me to be comfortable on my bike!More saddles.  Starting with the Koobi, we both really liked the design but not the firmness compared to the other saddles.  As I suspected, the firmness stood out the most.  The width was good but not too sure about the actual contact patch downstairs.  It was reminiscent of how the other Cobb saddles (the V-flow series), and how the Selle SMP contacted me. There was something about the shape and feel of those saddles that just didn’t disperse the pressure enough.  Below is my artistic attempt to illustrate these saddle shapes as viewed from the front looking down the nose.  

Frontal profile of the nose of the Cobb Fifty Five (Left) and some of the others (the right: SMP, Cobb VFlow series, Koobi): Notice the Fifty Five’s broader, flatter surface (plateaus) which helps to disperse weight more evenly.  The mountainous peaks of the other saddles have more localized points that push into you as you compress the peaks to gradually disperse the pressure.  You still have that “point” of highest pressure with the mountain profile.

-ISM Adamo PR 2.0: like all Adamo saddles, two pronged, noseless/short nosed saddle, unlike the PL and PN series the “nose” stayed the same width until the rear of the saddle.  Your rear end was really the only thing that was supposed to contact this thing, NOT anything to the front of your anatomy.  This was the softest saddle I tested and the heaviest.  I can see the appeal of it as it was very plush, almost pillowy.  According to ISM the padding is foam with gel.  The PR 1.0 is soft but not quite as plush (it only had the soft foam according to ISM).  It was still a bit wide for my liking and locked you into one seating position.  I tend to move.  In general, Chris didn’t like how I sat on the ISM saddles relative to how I interacted with the rest of the bike.  Off it went.-Fizik Tritone 5.5: 55mm short nose, 140mm rear, large relief channel open from the tip of the nose which tapered back to the “seat”.  The demo of this saddle sputtered out of the gate.  The rep gave Chris the carbon braided version of the saddle to try out.  Unfortunately, the shape of those braids were not compatible with my seat clamp interface on my bike (note to readers: the carbon braided version of this saddle is NOT compatible with Cervelo seat clamps).  For 45 minutes, Chris tried to make a modification to the hardware but to no avail, all efforts were fruitless.  Well…that sucks.  I gotta give him credit for his persistence.  (sigh)  Chris seemed equally frustrated; he just wanted to make me a happy rider.  He promptly ordered the Tritone with the Cromoly rails that would actually fit my seat clamp.  Why did I think that this would all go smoothly?  Add another layer of “UGH!!!!”  My inner triathlete told me to roll with it, nothing you can do about it.  Adapt and move on.   Things will work out.   At that current moment, there really wasn’t a saddle that was less offensive than what I originally rolled in with.  I reluctantly elected to put the Terry back on the bike until I came back.  I felt defeated and a bit dejected.  I didn’t want to even ride my bike.  It was almost depressing as I seemed to be stuck in a vicious circle of saddle discomfort.  I was trying not to be pessimistic, but mentally this saddle thing was beginning to wear VERY thin with me.    I’ve managed to either ruin or write off a number of my training rides because of this saddle dilemma.  My first race of the season loomed around the corner. 

Recognizing the urgency, Chris offered to squeeze me in during the week if I could manage to get there a few days later.  I knew it would be a monumental task driving to the shop in the middle of the week.  Shit, at this point, I’ll find a way to make it work.  So close to possible resolution…A few days later, as expected, the traffic to get to the shop from my office took longer than driving from my house and I was 15 miles CLOSER!  Welcome to DC/MD/VA traffic! 

Before we started, I showed Chris the newly fabricated custom foot beds I just received.  He liked them a lot.  Light, minimal, and well made.  I had yet to ride with them, so the evening session was the maiden voyage. 

Foot Dynamics Custom Footbeds: Minimalist, light weight.  The metatarsal buttons were added to further help minimalize possible “hot foot” or neuropathy to the feet.

Our evening session focused on the correct Fizik saddle and try the Cobb Max saddle.  I tried the Max saddle before (a long time ago) and it didn’t work then, but what the hell?  Try it.  Rule it in or out. 

We finally mounted the Fizik saddle, I hopped on and gave it a trial ride on the trainer.  Initial impression: I liked it.  It’s not instant lust or love but it seemed less offensive than everything else we’ve tried, at the moment.  I was willing to have a test run with it to see if it was truly going to be “The One”.  With my legs feeling a bit tanked from my workout earlier in the day and the old brain heading to late day zombie mode, I didn’t want to keep Chris later than need be.  The shopped closed 30 minutes after I finally arrived (traffic was painful, maybe not as painful as my saddle issues, but nonetheless painful).  We threw the Cobb Max on the bike just to rule it out.  As I suspected, my time was short lived on it.  The Max felt like the “mountain” split nose profile I mentioned above.  We ended the brief evening session with the Fizik back on the bike. First ride at home on the trainer…odd, it’s not as comfy as when I was in CT or at the shop (bang head here…).  ARGH!  Time to tinker.  Hmmm, why do I keep spinning my wheels with these saddles?  Two trainer rides with small tweaks and no improvement in comfort, in fact, it seemed to worsen with each passing ride.

It’s a totally different type of discomfort than the Cobb Fifty Five.  To be slightly graphic, the Cobb was like sitting on a 2×4 after 2 hours with what felt like bone bruising to my pubic bone while the Fizik had a lot more soft tissue discomfort (abrading), glass shards sensation causing inflammation.  What would you rather deal with given the options?  Personally, neither sounds appealing.

At this point, emotionally, I went numb.  I remained objective, shelving my emotions as I informed Chris of my experience.  We were both baffled.  Why have the last few saddles felt ok at the shop but as soon as I ride at home, it’s a completely different saddle?  He joked that I needed to do all my workouts at the shop.  Funny, that’s what Dan said. 

My underlying theory for the Fizik as a possible match was debunked.  I quickly realized the Fizik’s trough/ relief channel was not agreeing with me nor was the subtle firmness of the saddle while the seams at the end of the truncated nose dug into me.  Chris encouraged me to keep trying the saddle.  My long weekend ride was BARELY tolerable.  A change of shorts eventually lead to swapping the saddle with my Terry just to get through as much as the ride as I could tolerate.  The soft tissue irritation became too much to deal with, I had to get off the bike.In the meantime, I sent the Koobi 232T back as it was too firm.  The owner of Koobi, Phil, recommended one of the two “softer” versions of the same saddle.  I asked to try the middle one, he ended up sending both to me to see if one of them might work.  Can you say awesome customer service?   I mentioned to Chris I was getting these saddles and sourced yet another saddle, the Profile Design Vertex 80 Tri saddle. 

Knowing the Fizik was not what I thought it was going to be, Chris was willing to meet with me in the middle of the week (once again, staying after hours) just to help me out.  I didn’t want to impede on his weekend schedule when he could be making money on other fits.  Our schedules were not matching up well, but we were both trying to work something out.  I have this feeling Chris would be the type to work on his day off to accommodate clients and in no way was I willing to infringe on his personal time.  I respect the value of personal time away from work.  It’s a necessity, not an option. Another evening meeting well after hours.  I showed up about 10 minutes before the shop closed which was not what I had intended.  It took twice as long to get there than it should as the midweek traffic in Southern MD, makes getting out of Tyson’s look like a cakewalk until you get on the Beltway.  Add rain and people drive like idiots.  However, Chris said he was fine with whenever I arrived (I’m not sure this was what he bargained for but I got there, eventually).  All this time, Chris continued to impress me.  He never wavered in his overall demeanor working with me and maintained his patience through everything.  I’ve been amazed by his persistence and dedication through this process in an effort to get me comfortable on my bike, not to mention all the time spent.  I cannot thank him enough.   Earlier in the day, I emailed Chris giving him a rundown of my initial thoughts on the new Koobi saddles and my time with the Fizik just to save a bit of time that evening.  I didn’t want to forget any details due to any late evening brain farts on my end.

We were down to these, some new, some to revisit, in summary:-Cobb 55 JOF-worked in short doses, BUT bone bruising after 2 hours.  Was this discomfort something my pelvis would “toughen” up to?  I really didn’t want to settle and it would be a long term experiment.-ISM PR 2.0-soft pillowy, slightly wide.  Chris didn’t like how I sat on any of the ISM saddles.  Not just where I physically sat but, as Chris put it, how I “addressed” my bike.

-Terry FLX- same issues prior to the whole saddle soap opera.  I would prefer to find something less offensive.

-Koobi 232K- soft top on a firm foam on a firm base (per Koobi), great width, shape.  The lycra/neoprene top covering was something I was not 100% sold on.  It added a different type of “softness” to the saddle.  It was almost “squishy” or “spongy”.  Our concerns were long term wear especially with a wet backside after a swim during a race.  The saddle rails were also really short.

-Koobi 232 Sprint- soft foam on a soft base (per Koobi), great width, shape.  Same observations to its sister, the 232K except this saddle was really soft.  Almost too soft.  Chis and I played with this one for a short time to see how I sat on it and how it felt.  It felt ok but we both had long term ride concerns of not offering enough support for a 5 to 7 hour training ride.  Chris didn’t like how I postured or interacted with my bike on the Koobi’s. We started the evening with the 232 Sprint saddle.  It was mounted to the bike all ready since I was “playing” with it at home.  We spent maybe 10 minutes or so trying this one.  As noted above, we both had our reservations.  Chris jotted the numbers down in case I ended up switching to it later.

Revisiting an old friend?

Chris really wanted to get me back on the Cobb Fifty Five to see how it would go.  Back on the Cobb Fifty Five.  Oh…I remember you now.  It’s like the on again, off again relationship.  Compared to the Koobi Sprint saddle, the Cobb had a firm but slightly forgiving nature.  My undercarriage, now getting reacquainted, it’s everything I remembered it to be.  Chris let me ride for a little bit before we decided to do one last tweak that Dan recommended but had not tried.  After 10 min, we moved the saddle forward 1 cm and again, started riding.  We figured why not?  Those 10 little millimeters forward might just be the magic ticket to this saddle.  By moving the saddle a touch more forward, a little bit more weight shifts forward to my bars with a touch more saddle under me.A quarter after eight or so in the evening, with the shop closed and the staff gone for the day, it was eerie.  I was used to the foot traffic and the people watching coming and going.  It was just us and the shop music playing.  Chris has me spinning away and dripping in sweat as I have done in previous sessions.   We chatted, he watched and he filmed.  He commented on how much he loved my position and postured on my bike on this saddle.   Chris’ subtle way of admiring his work, as he should, especially if this rockets me to a few podium finishes this season and beyond. 

After 20 minutes, I was ready to call it a night because I didn’t want to keep him late, but Chris just said “I want you to keep riding.”   Um, okie dokie.  At his request, I kept riding and we chatted some more.  At one point, I said “you know, I can keep going as long as you need me to if you just feed and water me.”  He kinda laughed.  After a good while, I peeked at my watch and noticed the time.  Damn, I’ve been on here for over an hour.  I looked over at him as he briefly wandered about the shop doing random end of day stuff and asked, “So, are you bored yet?”  Chris responds, “No, I’m good.”  Again, he wanted this right and taking the time to get it right.  As I was riding all this time, he asked how it felt.  I told him “if the saddle felt like this in 5 hours, then I’d be fine.”  However, past history pointed to the two hour limit before the bruised 2×4 feeling, leaving me sore. 

By the end of the session, Chris and I discussed the different aspects of what we liked and didn’t like with the saddles.  I pointed out that despite all the initial frustrations with the Cobb Fifty Five, it was the one saddle I tried on a trial basis that I didn’t have the compulsion to tear it off the bike after a week.  I was running out of time screwing around with different saddles with a race in 6 weeks.  We both agreed to try out the Cobb Fifty Five again and race on it.  Once we get through race day, we’ll re-evaluate everything.  We both wanted to know if my body would adapt to the bone bruised feeling I was getting to my pelvis.  I felt like I was a long term case study for Chris.  He recorded the fit numbers from the session and we called it a night. By the end of the week I received the next saddle:

-Profile Design Vertex 80 Tri – initial reviews per Triathlete Magazine indicated very soft, but may bottom out.  55mm nose, a rubbery type outer, super soft.  There was a shallow relief channel at the nose that transitions to a deep cut out towards the rear of the saddle.  Rails are on the short side.  The edges of the channel are rounded so no hard edges to dig into you.  My body has not gotten along well with relief channels.  I compress the padding and then contact the bottom of the relief channel which subsequently defeats the purpose of said relief channel.  Later, I showed Chris the saddle and he was surprised to see how “fat” the nose of the saddle looked.  It was my initial impression as well.  The Vertex saddle reminds me a lot of the Cobb Randee saddle except the Cobb has a longer cut out and a deeper relief channel towards the leaner nose.  Suffice it to say, the Vertex saddle never made it to my bike.

I just reacquainted myself with the Cobb Fifty Five and dialed it in (I hope).  At the moment, due to limited time and options, I was more or less content except for the parting gift the Fizik saddle left for me to deal with (the gift that keeps on giving) so I had to work through that discomfort.  If only the saddle would feel the way it does at hour 1 to hour 5 or 6.  I was going to stick with this one for the time being until race day as Chris and I discussed.  I’ll have these three, the Profile Design and the two Koobis, on stand by for a couple of weeks if things really hit the fan before I send them back. After the first couple of weeks, my long rides turned into a shear test of how long can I tolerate the soreness down there after the two hour mark.  The wet cool spring has not allowed me to emerge from the depths of the pain cave to play outside.  I decided to tilt the saddle a touch more, a whole whopping degree, to ascertain if that just might relieve the post 2 hour soreness I continued to experience on the Cobb.  Knowing the other three saddles I had in my possession were not good matches, I shipped them back.  I was putting all my eggs in one basket with the Cobb, so I’ll either end up with scrambled eggs or cute little fuzzy chicks by race day.  Chris and I were in a holding pattern.

During this time, the new foot beds took some getting used to. The foot beds I liked, but the left pinky toe numbness persisted.  I have now relegated my foot issue to some biomechanical anomaly with how I press through the shoe and pedal with that foot.  I needed to train myself to pedal through my big toe versus my lateral foot.  With these foot beds, I can feel my big toe contact the bottom of the shoe, but I still want to pedal off the outer toes.  This is how my foot moves when I run, slightly toe in.  However, the foot was the least of my concerns considering the saddle comfort issues.  Maybe I need more time to break them in.A month with the Cobb Fifty Five (2 weeks out from race day), the weather finally broke from the 20 some odd days of rain streak and below normal temperatures.  I spent a week off the bike to let some saddle sores go away (I said, I hated these little buggers.  Soaking wet shorts from the last 4 hour basement ride, despite a change in shorts, left me with gifts you care not to receive without a return receipt). 

Finally, the first outdoor ride of the year, 90 degrees and sunny.  It was glorious!  The new position on the road felt a bit weird as I regained my road feel.  The jury was still out on the saddle, however.  I realized I move around a great deal when I’m riding outdoors.  Part of that was from the rolling/hilly terrain, safety, and slowing a little as my training partner reeled himself back up to me.  The saddle discomfort onset a bit later, but I’m not sure how exactly I’m sitting on the saddle on the road.  Peeking down at myself to see where I am on the saddle with all the potential road hazards is a recipe for disaster.  No distracted riding!  The width seemed to be the one thing that stood out to me.  Again, I wasn’t sure if I’m more hyperaware since I still had some signs of resolving hotspots.  Position-wise, I felt fast.  There were short sections where I know I was faster than I was last year.  Just imagine if I had my race gear on.  Another positive from the first outdoor ride: no foot numbness!  With all the climbing on the bike, my feet were fine.   The new set up outside felt great other than the saddle.

I emailed Chris with my outdoor observations.  There were a few things I wanted his feedback on (position).  He wanted me to stick with what we had set up through race day unless there was something blatantly awful when riding outside.  He was pretty psyched to find out how it would go on race day.  I was eager to find out as well, but I know not to go into races with huge expectations.  I have a historical relationship with my first race of the season, a soon to be 12 year history on 3 different race bikes.    It’s all relative.  How will the day unfold?  How will my body feel? What will mother nature decide to throw at me?  We shall see. A week later, I couldn’t leave well enough alone and made one last tweak prior to race day.  The thought, “What if this is the one thing that makes the whole fit feel that much better?”  The second outdoor ride provided a nice test and it made a big difference in my all around comfort despite nursing a resolving hotspot.  My feet remained happy since the inserts were finally broken in.  Perhaps, things were finally falling into place.  Now, I’m ready to see what race day brings.

Dr. Jamie So

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


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