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Women's Saddles and Bicycle Fit
Many women who cycle have experienced frustration with trying to find a comfortable saddle. It is amazing how many times I end up talking with other women about saddles. This article comes from those discussions and an informal survey of woman's saddle preferences. This is a dynamic article and has changed a lot over time. Comments are welcome.
While this is intended to be an article on women's saddles, since so many other things can contribute to potential saddle discomfort, it will also address many of these issues as well.
Just as women are different from men, we are also different from each other. Since (fortunately) there is no mold into which we were all poured, what works for one woman may not work for another.
The most important thing with regards to comfort on a bike is to be sure that your bike fits properly. Many women end up with overly padded shorts and a big fat thickly padded saddle instead of with a bike that fits properly. No saddle will be comfortable if the bike is too big, or set up incorrectly. It is important to find someone who knows about fit and specifically about women's fit and get the bike set up properly before making other changes. In addition to being more comfortable, a bike that really fits will also handle better than one that is improperly sized. It isn't always easy to find someone willing to take the time, but when you find a shop that will, give them lots of business and send your friends there! Go to shops during non-prime hours for the best service. You won't get a salesman to spend an hour letting you try different saddles on a Saturday afternoon, but you might on a Tuesday morning.
It's certainly getting better, but in even in recent times, most production bikes were built proportionally for the average man. Of course, the average man tends to be larger (taller, broader shoulders, etc.) than the average woman. So women, especially smaller women, may have a much more difficult time finding a bike that fits. Using the old guidelines of sizing a bike by straddling the top tube may result in a bike with a top tube that is too long, since many of these smaller bikes have shorter seat tubes, but the top tubes are left at the same length as larger bikes, so the bike is just not scaled proportionately. Compensating for too long a top tube with a shorter stem may change the geometry of the bike and it will not handle as well as it should.
Empirical evidence has come to suggest that many women are more comfortable with a shorter top tube - stem combination than men. Originally it was theorized that this was due to women having longer legs and shorter torsos than men of the same height. Statistics have proven otherwise. But despite the similar proportions, many women still felt stretched out on bikes on which men of the same size felt comfortable. There is no one definitive explanation for this. Some have proposed that women may bend from the waist while men pivot more at the hips, which would explain why two riders with identical torso lengths might still want different top tube stem lengths. Georgena Terry has observed that women tend to sit further back on their saddles than men, which she believes is due to different distributions in muscle mass. Again this could lead to that stretched out feeling.
A riding position that leaves the rider too stretched out can cause saddle pain, hand pain, shoulder and back pain. It is not necessary to run out and buy a new bike right away if the top tube on your current bike is too long. Using a shorter stem on a this bike may give you a more comfortable reach. Very short stems, less than 40 mm, are available, but may have to be specially ordered. TTT makes a handlebar called the Morphe, which sweeps back slightly to shorten the reach. The difference is very small, but it may be enough. (I have this bar and love it)
Some shops use a fitting system called the Fit Kit. The numbers generated from the Fit Kit are just guidelines and may not work for everybody, especially women, since most of the original data was collected for male racing cyclists. Some shops may have an infinitely adjustable stationary bike. These are often used for ordering custom bikes, but may also be used to fine tune an existing machine or a new production bike. When buying a new bike, you can trade stems, bars, saddles, cranks etc. up front with little or no additional charge. Changing these things after you have purchased the bike can be very costly.
Front loading stems - those with two bolts on the front - make stem changing easy and painless, since you won't need to remove brakes, shifters and bar tape to swap a stem. Most threadless stems are front loading and some quill stems are as well. I definitely recommend this type of stem for fine tuning fit. They also make travel easier if you have to disassemble or pack the bike.
Adjustable stems are also be available to help you and the shop pick a perfect length stem the first time, rather than the expensive trial and error method of buying different length stems repeatedly until you find the right size. Unless your current bike is a really poor fit, you should be able to make a few relatively inexpensive changes to improve the fit. Then when upgrading or buying a new bike, use what you have learned to buy a bike that fits better.
I've talked a lot about reach (stems and bars), but crank length is another place where many women have poor fitting equipment. There are loads of different formulas for recommended crank length. I, personally, ride a crank longer than recommended by many of these formulas. I can't really recommend any particular formula, since I ride with longer cranks than they suggest for me. But if you have difficulty spinning or feel you can't get enough power, a different length crank might help. This can also get expensive.
It is important to ride your bike and make small adjustments until you achieve a perfect fit. Change, even for the better will feel strange at first. Drastic changes can even do more harm than good.
Of course the spending power of women seems to have enlightened some production bike makers, and many now offer women specific models in well proportioned smaller sizes, with narrower bars, shorter reach, shorter cranks, smaller wheels, etc. It's getting better, but it's still not great. Even those production builders with women's specific models don't offer them in their top of the line bikes! And one often pays a higher price for a women's specific model.
Some builders tried to shorten the top tube by increasing the seat tube angle, which then may place the rider uncomfortably far forward over the pedals. This forces the rider to use an adapter in the seat post to get the saddle back, which counteracts the shorter top tube. A steep seat tube angle may be good for a time trial or triathlon, but is not comfortable for longer distances, recreational riding or touring. And if it is true that women tend to be more comfortable sitting further back, then this is really counterproductive.
A sloping top tube has been used by many manufacturers to achieve a shorter seat tube and more standover clearance, but this leaves the top tube length the same as that for a larger bike, so the smaller rider still feels stretched out on a somewhat out of proportion bike..
Several manufacturers have started building bikes proportionally sized for smaller riders to specifically address those needs. There are several different approaches. Terry pioneered women's bikes with a small 24" wheel in front and a 700C or 26" wheel in back. Many smaller frames are built with two 26"or 650C wheels. Using two wheels of the same size simplifies what's in your spare kit.
To avoid confusion, let me state that by 26", I am referring to 559mm bead seat diameter. This size wheel is most commonly used in mountain biking. Thanks to mountain bikers use of very narrow rims, and a few tire manufacturers willingness to make narrow, slick tires for this size, these wheels can be used to build smaller bikes with proper proportions. Several manufacturers make 1 inch and 1.25 inch high pressure slicks which are very nice for loaded touring or casual riding. A bike using this wheel size is quite versatile, given the large variety of tire sizes available.
By 650C, I am referring to wheels with a bead seat diameter of 571mm. These wheels have found their way onto many triathlon bikes. These wheels are also occasionally referred to as 26" wheels, which is why the bead seat diameter number is so important. Tires for these two different 26 inch wheel sizes are not interchangeable, and it is very important to know which one you have. This wheel size is less versatile than 559, since only very narrow tires are made in this size. If you have rough roads, want to carry a load, or just feel more comfortable on wider tires, be aware of this. These tires are also not as easy to find in all bike shops.
700C is of course ISO 622, and is still the most common wheel size for road bikes today.
Now to saddles. A woman's hip bones tend to be set farther apart than a man's. (This is a design feature to help with childbirth!) Every woman is different, and there are many women out there with narrower hip bones. To determine where you sit bones are, sit on a low curb. Sorry, a chair won't do! When you sit on the curb, you will be able to feel your sit bones. This is what you want supported by your bike saddle.. With a saddle that's too narrow, a woman may find herself effectively straddling it with her hip bones, or slipping off of one side and pinching nerves - which may eventually cause the legs or feet to go numb. A saddle that's too wide will also cause problems.
A saddle that's slightly wider in the back (than the man's saddle that comes on most stock bikes) may offer better support for the sit bones. BTW, I'm not talking about those foot wide saddles you see on exercise bikes at the gym. These are too wide for anyone.
I have quite a few retired women's saddles with depressed gel indicating exactly where my bones are. Actually, looking at and feeling your old saddle will tell you a lot about where you do and do not need support! It's important to try out several different saddles to find one that fits. Widths do vary from manufacturer to manufacturer - so for example, if one brand doesn't fit, another might. Ask your local dealer to let you put your bike on a trainer in the shop and try sitting on and riding a few different saddles. Saddles are fairly easy to change and a good shop should be willing to let you try this. (Just not on a busy Saturday afternoon!) I've seen a device that makes this easier. It is a stationary bike with merry-go-round of saddles. You can sit on the saddle, pedaling, and then dismount and swing the next saddle to be tried in place. It isn't as good as trying a saddle on your bike, but will tell you a lot more than holding a saddle and poking it, which it seems it how many saddles are purchased!
There are several women's saddles on the market, many of which are padded with some form of gel. I have used (and retired) several of these. The gel does compress after a while (regardless of sex), so these saddles do have to be replaced. Brooks also has several different models of women's leather saddles, which some women swear by. I swear at them, but that's me! (And there are women who swear at the saddles I swear by!) And rather than needing to be replaced when the gel saddle is compressed, the Brooks is probably just getting broken in well at that point!
I've heard from many women who said that they have the nose of their saddle tilted slightly forward to alleviate pressure on the soft tissue. A large variety of saddles were used with this method. A seatpost with infinitely adjustable angles will help one to find the perfect angle. Although one problem with having the saddle tilted too far forward is that you may end up with two much weight/pressure on your wrists and hands. The result is numb hands and pain in the lower back.
A few years ago, Miyata and Terry made saddles for women with holes in the center to prevent pressure on soft tissue. These saddles became popular with many women, but were still hard to find and available in limited quantity or only from specialty dealers. Then the issue of male numbness hit mainstream press, and suddenly those saddles with holes became quite popular for men as well. Now you can barely find a saddle without a hole.
Terry, pioneer in women's bikes and saddles, has made several different saddles over the years. I had mixed success with some of the earlier models, but currently have a fleet of Butterfly saddles. These aren't gel saddles, so I'm not compressing them and having to replace them frequently, and they are shaped just right for me. Terry has a 30 day money back guarantee, so you can actually try a saddle on real rides, risk free. They are producing a large variety of saddles now for both men and women, with and without gel, in a variety of widths.
Not all women need a wider saddle. Fortunately there are loads of saddles to choose from in a variety of widths and materials. And since men's saddles now come with holes in the center, if you want the hole with a narrow saddle, you can likely get it.
I can't stress enough that each woman is different and no one saddle is perfect for all of us. Just because a local or national racer, or your friend, or this author uses a particular type of saddle doesn't mean that it will work for you. Don't let anyone intimidate you into riding something that is uncomfortable, or changing the angle of your saddle because it's different. Use the setup that's most comfortable for you.
And I would be completely negligent if I didn't mention that many people feel that recumbents solve the uncomfortable saddle problem.
Other things that contribute to saddle comfort are shorts. There are a lot of different shorts out there - and just like saddles, they all fit differently. Stay away from shorts with seams in the center. Most good women's shorts now have one piece chamois so there is no seam in the middle. Cheaper shorts likely do have a seam down the middle.
Baseball stitching around the edge of the chamois can be very helpful. A chamois with simple stitching may leave rough edges exposed which can cause irritation. I tossed out one very pricey pair of shorts because I was literally getting cut by the edge of the chamois. This was a well known brand and quite popular, and I was very surprised to have problems, but after three bloody and painful rides, these were history.
On multiday rides, I try to use different brands of shorts, since having any seam in the same place day after day may also cause irritation.
It is likely that you have looked at this article because you are experiencing some type of saddle sore or pain. There are several different types of saddle soreness, and many contributing factors - only one of which is the actual saddle.
The most common saddle sore is a rash, which is commonly prevented and treated by creams which act as a moisture barrier and lubricant. Diaper rash ointments are quite effective, as are many cycling specific creams. Personally I'm a real fan of Boudreaux's Butt Paste. My husband is a Chamois Butt'r devotee.
15 years ago, I used an oinment called Borofax, and have mentioned it in other articles on this website. Borofax is no longer available as far as I can tell and judging my the email I get every few months, I'm not the only person who found it effective. If you've found this page looking for it, I can report that I have found products recently with the magic ingredient, Boric Acid. Boudreaux's Butt Paste is one of those. I have found it to be very effective for prevention and healing.
Standing around after a ride in damp, sweaty shorts can also cause rash type sores. Changing into loose fitting shorts so air can circulate is a really good idea. If you can't shower immediately, disposable antibacterial cleansing cloths are another good idea.
Bruising type soreness can come from bumpy rides. Standing or unweighting over bumps and suspension seatposts are the most common prevention methods for this type soreness. Of course this can be a big issue when stoking a tandem if the captain does not call bumps and coast to allow the unweighting.
There is also the new user type of soreness. It does take time to toughen the saddle contact area! Even the most experienced rider, who takes time off, and then goes back to riding, will suffer soreness for a while. Getting the bum into shape just takes time in the saddle. The secret here is once you get your bum in shape, never take time off ! I even find that if I only ride my single for a while and then get on the back of the tandem, I can suffer some tenderness as well.
There is also the seated climbing soreness. I find that if I do lots of seated climbing that I am more prone to rash type sores than otherwise. I actually got my first saddle sore in years recently after spending a week climbing seated on some great climbs in California's wine country. Some tandem teams hesitate to stand, and this can exacerbate the issue for the stoker.
Good luck, and may the wind be at your back!