Featured Post by Kelly Hobkirk

Blazing Saddles -
what you don’t know can hurt you

I’ve had bike saddle issues for twenty years, and until my BikePT made a recommendation, I had been riding the wrong saddles for about twenty years. I experienced various problematic injuries and irritations during those years, and I had no idea they were caused by my saddle choices.

I have always had the hardest time finding the right saddle. In my early racing years, I rode the saddle that came on my first bike, a Trek steel frame– I think the saddle was a San Marco Super Corsa. Later, I had switched to a San Marco Rolls for years before I finally wore right through the leather and foam beneath it, down to the plastic shell. My quadriceps has grown quite a bit as I rode more and more, training for racing, until the Rolls was just too wide up front. So I switched to a Selle Italia Flight Max, which always felt uncomfortable. Little did I know how wrong that saddle was for me.

Then I switched to a San Marco Concor Light, which is about 131mm wide. I raced on that saddle for years, unaware that it had a life span of about one year. I used to go numb in the nether regions, and I always figured that was just part of riding. I’d stand up periodically, and figured everyone had to do that. I never asked anyone, of course, because talking about numbness wasn’t exactly the top topic of conversation.

One year, I swapped saddles about five times, never finding one that felt right. I tried all manner of them, with my belief always that I needed something narrow, lest I wear off the sides again. I finally landed on a narrow (134mm), lightweight, mens titanium-railed Terry saddle. I liked it so much I bought four of them, so I’d be set for years to come. And boy was I set, in all the wrong ways.

I’ve had odd problems for years. Stuff I tried to explain to my physical therapist that he had never heard of before. Since no one I knew had the same problems I did, I had come up with all manner of explanations to try to explain the issues. 

One problem was (I thought) saddle sores. This was incorrect, but I didn’t know that yet. Any time I did a ride longer than about three hours, I would get inflamed tissues right where the nether regions meets the saddle. First, I convinced myself that I was getting inflammation from allergies to chamois cream. There are a ton of common allergens and chemicals in chamois creams, and I am allergy boy (I have a ton of allergies) so this was a perfectly plausible explanation. But it was wrong. 

A few years back, I appeared to have somehow pulled a groin muscle while riding, and subsequent rides resulted in numbness that lasted in one case over four months after riding STP with the injury. I somehow convinced my pea brain that the problem was modern chamois, which are often thin and narrow, whereas I tend to prefer a wide chamois with several layers of fabric, or just a good old-fashioned ultra-sensor chamois that feels like leather. This explanation also proved wrong, and the injury one day just kind of vanished, after about a year of cropping up on occasion.

I stuck with the narrow Terry saddles for years, and often had to take weeks off in between rides to let the inflamed tissues at the top of my inner thighs calm back down. (I need to note here that the Terry saddles are probably fine for the right sized rider.) There were other issues too that I will spare you the pain of reading. Suffice to say it was a frustrating few years.

This year, I built a commuter bike from old parts and a used frame. I stuck one of my old San Marco Concor Light saddles on it, and rode it for a couple of weeks before stopping in to Corpore Sano Physical Therapy to have my position checked by BikePT maestro Erik Moen. Erik took measurements and said everything looked great except for one thing. “This saddle is way too narrow for you,” he said.

“Really? This is about the same size as the saddles I’ve been riding for years,” I said.

“You should be on a saddle that’s 10mm wider than this,” Erik said, without any hesitation whatsoever.

I didn’t believe him. My mind just couldn’t handle it, even though I revere the man’s recommendations, abilities, experience and every bike measurement he’s ever bestowed upon my humble riding life. Still, my mind was like, ‘Nah, can’t be!’ But it was be.

It took me about three weeks to convince myself that I had been riding saddles far too narrow for something like forever years (that’s about 15 in people years). When I finally switched to the saddle Erik recommended, a Fizik Aliante Versus (which is in fact 9mm wider than that old Concor Light), everything changed. The sick thing is, I knew the saddle was a better fit literally within two pedal strokes. I was so thrilled by the change, I couldn’t wipe the stupid-happy grin off my face the whole ride home.

I suffered through roughly 15 or more years on saddles that were too narrow for my frame. It cost me a whole season of cyclocross racing, countless rides, a world of senseless pressure on my taints, and more numbness and injuries than I hope any other cyclist ever encounters. Which is why I wrote this.

Erik Moen is fond of saying that human beings were not made to ride bicycles. We try, often in vain, to fit ourselves on the bike, and most of us have little to no idea how to do that properly. Some people give up and never ride because they are so uncomfortable on the bike, and other people, like me, just ride on in a mix of ignorant bliss and pain, hoping all the weird problems will magically resolve themselves. (Here’s a tip from someone VERY experienced in this practice: They won’t.) The proper way is the other way around, fitting the bike to our bodies. We can’t really retrofit ourselves, but we can retrofit a bike.

Your saddle has the important task of supporting a rather large amount of your weight on the bike. It’s a big responsibility (and even bigger if you are a big person). Getting fit properly on the correct saddle is worth its weight in pleather.