People may believe that bicycle seats are fairly straightforward, the only difference being whether they're designed for a woman or a man. In reality, bicycle seats are more like choosing a comfortable pair of shoes, with the right model being one that fits your body and the type of riding you do. The right seat will not only make it easier for you to ride longer, but it can also help prevent health problems down the line.
Consider the Options
There are many different types of bicycle seats, but they can be classified into seven broad categories, according to cycling author Jim Langley. Racing seats tend to be light and narrow with minimal padding, whereas mountain bike seats add more padding and shaped rear and nose sections for comfort as you move back and forth. Gel seats are made of a shock-absorbing material that molds to your body for a more custom fit, as opposed to leather seats that are effective for absorbing body heat to keep you cooler but take longer to break in. Cutaway seats remove material from the saddle top to eliminate pressure points, while wide seats are the largest and heaviest models. The alternative category covers unique designs that may be adjustable, are often more expensive and may not attach easily to your bike.
Picking Your Seat
If you tend to ride fast, you’ll need a narrow seat that minimizes interference from the sides of the bicycle as you’re leaning or standing forward. If you’re a casual rider, a wide saddle with extra padding will be your best bet. The differences between men’s and women’s models are also important, with the wider pelvis in women requiring a shorter, wider seat than a man’s. Your sit bones tend to form dents in seats, and the right bicycle saddle will support you in the rear so those dents are centered on either side of the seat’s pads. You should also pay careful attention to the nose of the seat that can pinch nerves and cause chafing, trying several seats until you find one that feels comfortable. Avid cyclist and physician Richard Rafoth, who created Cycling Performance Tips, recommends you check with your local bike shop to see if they have a relatively new device that can measure sit-bone width.
Sitting Hard in the Saddle
If you’re out of shape, your legs tire more easily and you’ll sit harder on the saddle, leading to potential pain and discomfort. Sheldon Brown, a regular contributor to “Adventure Cyclist” magazine, recommends that whenever you try a new bicycle seat or are just using your bicycle again after a period of time away from cycling, you should taper with short rides at first, about a mile or two at a time.
Engineering Better Seats
Dr. Steven Schrader, supervisory research biologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says high pressure from straddling a bicycle seat can compress and temporarily block penile blood flow, potentially leading to damaged blood vessels and erectile dysfunction in some riders. A study led by Irwin Goldstein and published in “The Journal of Sexual Medicine,” found that bicycling police officers using a noseless bicycle saddle had significant improvement in penile tactile sensation, as well as a reduction from 82 percent to 27 percent in genital numbness while cycling. However, research is still ongoing. Dr. Craig Niederberger, Professor of Urology and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is working to engineer a better bicycle seat that reduces pelvic pressure and ensures adequate blood flow for men during cycling.