Have you ever cut a bike ride short and made an excuse to hide the real reason? Your legs are tired. You have a cramp. It looks like rain. Anything to avoid the uncomfortable truth: your butt is killing you. Well, you’re not the only one. Most cyclists will admit that sometimes their bike seats – no matter how high-tech and carefully designed – can get uncomfortable or even downright painful. Luckily, there are many things you can do to alleviate pressure and pain, and they’re all pretty simple. So pull out your bike and sit your butt down for a quick primer on how to make your seat less of, well, a pain in the rear.
You’ve probably already adjusted your seat for your height with an eye toward your leg length, but a seat at the wrong level can also cause problems for your rear, so you may want to double-check. Stand directly next to your bike and make sure that your hip bones directly line up to the seat height. Your goal is to avoid having to rock your hips to reach the pedals at their lowest position. Rocking can increase the friction between you and the seat, and this can cause irritation, so try setting your seat a little lower. That may be all that’s standing between you and a more comfy ride.
Saddle tilt is another crucial measurement when it comes to your riding comfort. If your seat is angled nose-down at even a slightly askew pitch, you’re asking for discomfort. You’ll be perched on the narrowest portion of the seat. That’s a lot of pressure on delicate body parts, so if you find you’ve got any of the following symptoms, check for a too-aggressive forward pitch: pain or stress in your forearms and hands, knee discomfort, and (of course) discomfort in the pelvic area or at your sit bones.
If your saddle is cranked nose-upward, you could be compensating with the muscles in your neck or lower back. This balancing act is just as crucial a data point as the arm and knee pain above – either way, your body is attempting to take the pressure off your rear and stay at the most comfortable spot on the seat. Adjust your bike seat, so it’s horizontal. Some pros even use a level to make sure their saddles are at the optimal angle.
To pad or not to pad?
If you’ve tried adjusting your seat height and angle without relief, it may be time to either supplement your existing saddle or think about replacement. We’ll break down the former option first:
Seat pad – This can be tricky. Although it’s natural to think that more padding equals more comfort, you may be just exacerbating the issue. Voluminous seat pads may seem plush and cushy upon the first sit, but they often contribute to hip movement, which you now know can create discomfort. If you decide to purchase a seat cover for a little extra padding, be sure to look for styles that add comfort without the bulk. We particularly like gel models with ergonomic design; they give you cushioning where you most need it.
Cycling shorts – They may make you feel conspicuous, but these thoughtfully designed shorts give you protection in all the right places (if you’re self-conscious, you can pair them with a baggy pair of shorts or pants, and no one will be the wiser). The more expensive models will have more panels, which makes them both more comfortable and less obvious.
Moving on: finding a new saddle
You may suspect that a new bike seat will solve your discomfort, and you could be right. But if you’re going to spring for one, make sure the new model is right for you. Consider how and where you ride and measure your sit-bones (more on that later).
For most recreational riders, a sport-model saddle is a solid choice; they’re designed for light-to-medium trail use, as well as road riding. But this style is typically what you’ll get when you purchase a hybrid, city, touring, or mountain bike. So if you’ve already tried adjusting or supplementing your factory-installed model, you may want to try something else.
If you tend to go for long rides, look for user reviews and recommendations that take this into account. We like the Brooks B17 leather for touring bikes. It’s designed to conform to your sit-bones and is high quality to boot. If you’re into racing, it’s definitely worth exploring narrow, lighter seats, and maybe even a model with a cutout.
The most important factor to consider when you’re shopping for a new bike saddle is the width of your sit bones, which you can measure at home. Simply sit on a firm surface with a piece of corrugated cardboard under your rear. Measure the distance between the center of the impressions, add about 20mm, and check online charts for which saddles correspond best with your measurements. Once you find the saddles that best suit you, you’ll be sitting pretty – and pretty comfortably, too.