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There’s nothing that will ruin a bike ride quicker than saddle pain or discomfort. Saddle issues can present directly where you contact the saddle with issues like saddle sores, chafed skin, or more serious issues with your sensitive bits. A poor saddle selection can compromise everything from your form to your bike fit, creating issues elsewhere in your body that can be tough to trace back to something as simple as an uncomfortable seat. Some argue that your saddle choice is more important than the bike you ride, and I would tend to agree.
RELATED: The Best Triathlon Saddles of 2021
Pelvic Anatomy 101 & Road v. Tri
A rider assumes a different position aboard a triathlon bike compared to a road bike, and the saddle required to support this position is quite different as well. On a tri bike, the rider is rotated forward a good deal compared to a road bike—moving the contact area of the pelvis on the saddle forward. A rider’s “sit bones” will, in all likelihood, not contact the saddle when riding in the aero position, rather the rider will contact the saddle in front of the sit bones, on a thin rail like skeletal structure just outboard of the perineal area, known as the pubic ramus. Triathlon saddles are designed to support the pubic ramus and to make the act of sitting on a triathlon bike as comfortable as possible. Compared to a road bike saddle, tri bike saddles usually have a truncated nose, more cushion, and wider supports under the pubic ramus.
Riding a triathlon bike is not a natural act, and there will be a degree of adapting that a person has to do in order to ride a tri bike—even when the bike is optimized in pretty much every way. Getting used to the triathlon bike saddle is a part of this overall body adaptation, just like training. There is a difference however, between common soreness associated with adapting and more serious issues.
A tri bike saddle will probably never be “comfortable” in a pure sense of the word. A good way of evaluating the severity of your saddle issues (or any other triathlon bike fit related issues) is to consider if the discomfort is getting in the way of your training or performance. If the discomfort is limiting your time on the bike, or getting in the way of you riding the aero position for approximately 90% of your ride, then it is worth investigating.
Saddle Width and Shape
A tri bike is meant to be ridden with your hips relatively forward on the saddle and with your elbows in the aero position for most of the time. A common tri saddle complaint is that they are too wide—this often comes from sitting too far back on the saddle or from riders who spend a considerable amount of time riding upright. Again, consider getting your bike fit evaluated if your aero position is not sustainable for the duration of your ride.
Some talk about the nose width as a determining factor of comfort, but it doesn’t make too much sense to measure the nose width at the very front of the saddle since that is rarely where issues occur. A more practical approach is to measure the width at a few spots 80-120mm back from the nose to get a sense of how one saddle’s functional width compares to another.
Consider the ISM PN 1.0 and PS 1.0 saddles shown below. The PN 1.0 resembles a diamond shape while the PS 1.0 has a curved shape to the sides. At maximum width, the PS1.0 is wider, however the mid-nose section—where it is relevant—is actually slightly narrower (all dimensions are approximate for visual reference).
Pretty much all triathlon saddles have a generous pressure relief area making numbness or more personal issues almost a thing of the past. What seems to matter more at this point when it comes to comfort is what is left to sit on after a large section from the middle has been removed from the saddle nose.
The two supporting structures that remain are meant to support a large portion of your body weight on a relatively small surface area. A narrower cut out will leave more surface area available to support the rider, but too wide of a cut out won’t leave much left to sit on and can create hot spots or pressure points.
Within reason, the degree of cushion that one requires seems to be less important than saddle shape. Riders seem to be able to adapt to saddles of varying levels of cushion, provided everything else checks out. At the extremes, a wooden saddle would obviously not be very comfortable and a saddle that is way too soft won’t provide any support. Saddles lose their defined shape the greater they are deflected, so it follows that heavier riders tend to prefer firmer saddles and lighter riders prefer softer saddles, however this rule is far from gospel.
Figuring it all out
This is the tricky part and unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There is a strong interconnection between the equipment chosen and the position itself on triathlon bikes, so a saddle that works in one tri bike position may not work quite as well after fit changes are made.
By far, the best use of your time and money is to visit the best bike fitter you can find. A fitter can help identify if the cause of your discomfort truly lies in the saddle; or perhaps it’s just where the saddle is positioned or maybe where the aerobars are located relative to the saddle. Some fitters may have devices to help in the saddle selection process, and some can even do complex pressure mapping of the saddle to identify trouble, but at the end of the day, the fitter with the most experience and also the widest selection of saddles available will likely solve your saddle woes for good.