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What we promote, we ride. Two tandem teams, four leather saddles:
Jacob and John Allen (foreground), George and Sheldon Brown (background).
"Revolutionary" saddle designs come onto the market every year, and these new technologies have much to offer for many riders. Nevertheless, many others may be best served by a technology that has not changed substantially since 1880, the tensioned leather saddle.
From the dawn of history up through the early 1970's, virtually all good-quality bicycles came with leather saddles.
In the early '70's, plastic saddles started to make major inroads, and today only a few top-end touring bikes come equipped with leather saddles. Does this mean that leather saddles are obsolete? NO! leather saddles are no more obsolete than leather baseball gloves!
Plastic saddles have four advantages over leather ones:
Leather saddles have only one advantage over plastic, but it is a big one:
They are not for everyone. Leather saddles are substantially heavier than synthetic ones, and they do require breaking in. A new leather saddle is quite hard and rigid, and it takes several hundred miles to break one in. In addition, they require care, and can self-destruct if not properly maintained. People who slide forward and back on the saddle a lot may find a leather saddle uncomfortable because of the metal frame at the back and nose at the front.
Most of the cyclists on the road today became cyclists after the disappearance of the leather saddle as standard equipment on new bikes, so they have no experience with leather saddles. Many others may have had a leather saddle on their first bike, but never received any instruction in the proper care and break-in of a leather saddle. As a result, many otherwise knowledgeable cyclists are woefully ignorant about leather saddles. They have heard that a well broken-in leather saddle is more comfortable than a plastic one, but they have an exaggerated idea of how difficult and painful it is to break one in.
A leather saddle, like a good pair of shoes or a baseball glove, softens with use, and molds itself to fit a particular person's shape. Whatever part of your rear end pushes hardest on the saddle causes the corresponding part of the saddle to soften and stretch to relieve the uneven pressure, until the saddle accommodates perfectly to your own particular tush.
Most plastic saddles use closed-cell foam to provide some softness, but the foam and the plastic undercarriage of the saddle can only be shaped to fit an "Average" bottom, not yours. Closed-cell foam is an excellent heat insulator, so this type of saddle is a particular problem in hot weather, because it holds heat and moisture. A saddle with a fabric covering can wear clothing quickly.
In addition, when you sit on foam, the foam under your "sit bones" compresses right away, so other foam winds up exerting pressure on (ahem!) soft tissues that were not made for this.
Leather saddles, by contrast, are particularly good in hot weather, because they use no insulating foam, and can breathe. This makes them cooler and allows perspiration to evaporate through the saddle, so they are less likely to cause chafing and saddle sores. Even though it breathes, the leather is smooth, reducing chafing and wear to clothing.
Back when leather was the only game in town, good bikes came with good leather saddles, and cheap bikes came with cheap leather saddles. There is quite a difference. For one thing, good saddles are made of thick, high quality leather. In addition, there is the question of grain. Leather, like wood, has a natural grain pattern to it. When saddle tops are to be cut out of a hide, the cutter has a choice. The cheap way is to get the largest number of saddle tops from a given hide with the least wastage of leather. The quality way is to cut the saddle tops in such a way that the grain runs straight down the middle of the saddle.
The cheap saddles that came on $90 bikes in the early '70's are no longer made, but their memory lingers on. Some of them could be broken in properly and give a comfortable ride, but many just had the wrong grain, and just went from bad to worse.
On the other hand, a good leather saddle will last for many years. It can be expensive, but it will outlast several synthetic saddles, and cost less in the long run.
There used to be many brands of leather saddles, but two names in particular stood out for the highest quality: Brooks of England and Idéale of France; Idéale saddles are no longer made.
Brooks is still very much in business, and sells by far the most leather saddles in the USA. Reader Jake Kassen has tried saddles of other brands and reports:
Velo Orange Brooks Swift Knock-Off - Rivets at the wrong places. Too narrow up front, too wide in back.
Berthoud Saddle - Excellent build quality but rock hard and looks to take years to break in. Didn't want to wait it out. Returned after 20 miles.
Selle Anatomica - Do not buy! Worst cycling purchase I've ever made and I buy a lot. 21 days of riding 90 miles daily before sagging like a hammock on railroad tracks. Trashed and no help from the company.
There is also a Dutch manufacturer called "Lepper", not widely distributed in the USA; we don't have reports on this brand.
You can test the fit of a saddle by placing it on the edge of a table -- it will sit level on its rails --- and sitting on it. The main issue is whether the rear of the saddle is wide enough to support your sit bones (ischial tuberosities of the pelvis). Women generally need wider saddles, though width ranges for men and women overlap.
Brooks saddles are available in many different widths and styles. The ones shown below are representative of the main types.
The Brooks B17 is a medium-width saddle which generally works well for sport cyclists; several variations are available including a somewhat wider women's version. This saddle, like all Brooks saddles except the racing models, has bag loops at the rear for a touring bag. There is even a child's version, the Colt.
Brooks B17 saddle
A similar, sprung model, the Flyer, can increase comfort and take the roughness out of the ride of a small-wheel bicycle.
Brooks Flyer saddle
Racing saddles, such as the Brooks Team Pro, do not have bag loops. They are of thicker leather and are best for cyclists who ride with the handlebars lower than the saddle.
Brooks Team Pro saddle
A narrower saddle, the Swallow, is especially good for cyclists who have problems with legs chafing against the wings of the saddle. The Swallow has bag loops; a similar model, the Swift, is the lightest Brooks saddle. It has titanium rails and lacks bag loops.
Brooks Swallow saddle
Wide saddles such as the Brooks B66 (below) are most suitable with an upright riding position, which places most of the cyclist's weight on the saddle. This saddle, like those on classic high-end English three-speed bicycles, has a four-wire undercarriage and must be used with a "seat sandwich" adapter or a plain tube seatpost. The B67, with a standard two-wire undercarriage, is also available. The B72 is similar, but has only short loops of wire instead of springs. There are also other Brooks saddles with more elaborate springing.
Brooks B66 saddle
Leather saddles are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they are the best choice for the many serious cyclists. Racers, particularly those who compete in short events, should stick to plastic because of weight. People who ride a lot in the rain without fenders should stick to plastic because excessive wetness is bad for leather. People who are unwilling to do routine maintenance should stick with plastic, because leather does not thrive on neglect. People who must ride in light-colored clothes should avoid leather saddles, because they can stain clothing.
On the other hand, leather saddles are the best choice for the recreational/sport rider, and the overwhelming choice for the long distance tourist. The occasional weekend pootler is also a good prospect for leather, because an un-conditioned rider has a more delicate rear end and sits down harder on the saddle than a hard-pedalling sport rider.
Leather saddles are not the easiest things to sell. Many people have the idea that they are for masochists, based on the exaggerated tales they have heard about how hard it is to break them in and how uncomfortable they are supposed to be for the first few thousand miles. If you take the time to explain how to break a leather saddle in, you can win your customer's undying gratitude. Few shops take the trouble to push leather saddles, and people will know that you are going against the "conventional wisdom". If you succeed in making the sale, and give good break-in instruction, your customer will know in a couple of months that you gave good advice, when others were taking the easy way out and pushing the trendy plastic product.
If a leather saddle is not oiled, and especially if it is allowed to get wet with water repeatedly, perhaps even ridden while soaked, it will eventually crack and disintegrate. The low-quality leather saddles that came on inexpensive ten speeds of the sixties and seventies would also often go out of shape under such conditions.
The easiest and fastest method to break in a new saddle is with a liquid leather dressing, such as neats-foot oil, Lexol, seal oil (a French favorite) or baseball glove oil.. These products are available from shoe stores and sporting-goods stores, and over the Internet. There are probably lots of other liquid oils that would work as well-RAAM pioneer Lon Haldeman uses SAE 30 motor oil, but his saddles tend to wear out after only 300,000 miles or so (according to Cyclist magazine).
You can just pour the oil on and rub it in by hand, or for a more drastic approach, you can actually soak the saddle. The easiest way to soak a saddle is to turn it upside-down on a sheet of aluminum foil, then form the foil up around the saddle for a snug fit. Pour in a whole 4-ounce can of neats-foot oil or whatever oil you prefer, and let the saddle soak for 30 minutes to an hour. Pour the remaining oil back into the can, and wipe the excess oil off with a rag or paper towel. Install the saddle onto the bike, put on your black shorts, and ride. Even the most recalcitrant saddle (the thick-skinned Brooks Professional) will be substantially broken in within 200 miles or so.
The soaking technique is best for thick, hard-to-break in saddles such as the Brooks Professional. For most leather saddles, the pour-and-rub technique is adequate. A saddle only needs baptism by immersion once. After that, some oil should be poured onto the saddle and rubbed in by hand every few weeks. Once the saddle has become soft and comfortable, it is only necessary to oil it lightly every few months to keep it from drying out.
Paste- or wax-type leather dressings, such as Brooks Proofide, Sno-Seal, and saddle soap will work, but it takes much, much longer to break in a saddle that way. They will absorb faster into the leather if it is warm -- in the sun on a hot day, or in a warm oven. Temperatures up to about 50° C (120° F) are safe. Higher temperatures can cook and ruin the leather.
Products containing animal fat, and in particular, one called Mink Oil, can eventually allow mold to form, and also are more likely to make the saddle tasty to mice and squirrels.
A reader recommends that if a saddle has become too soft through long immersion, it should be scrubbed from the bottom with soap and water. Try at your own risk!
Many leather saddles are dyed black. Oiling the saddle will partially dissolve the dye, which will stain your clothes. This is why cycling shorts are black. Wear light colors at your own risk! If you must wear day-glo pink shorts, put a seat cover on the saddle.
Light colored leather saddles, such as the Brooks "Honey" models, will be darkened by any treatment you apply.
Note: treatment and break-in of leather saddles is not an exact science, and there are those that claim that some of the products I've listed are harmful to leather. If absolute safety is your primary concern, using Brooks Proofide according to directions is probably the best approach...but you may find that the break-in period is unnecessarily long with this approach.
The worst thing you can do is to neglect the saddle and allow it to dry out and crack.
Brooks leather saddles have a rather short front-rear adjustment range and should be used with a seatpost that has setback. On a frame with a high seat-tube angle, a seatpost with a long setback may be needed unless the cyclist prefers a "triathlon" riding position.
Saddle tilt is important, and a microadjustable seatpost is preferable to one with a ratcheting angle adjustment.
Most leather saddles have a tension-adjusting nut located under the nose of the saddle. Fortunately, this nut usually requires a special wrench, so most people leave it alone. In almost every case that I know of where someone has tried to adjust the tension with this nut, the saddle has been ruined. My advice is to leave it alone.
If a leather saddle gradually becomes too soft and too wide after many thousands of miles, it is sometimes useful to punch a few holes in the bottoms of the side flaps and lace them together under the saddle frame.
This allows the width and firmness of the saddle to be adjusted to the rider's taste. Some older models came with a row of holes along the lower edge of the side flaps, for this very purpose.
I realize that this sounds like a lot of trouble, but most cyclists who take the trouble find it well worth while--in the end.
I've been riding leather saddles since the early 1970s and heard about
the neat's-foot oil trick about 40 years ago. I’ve done it on a couple
of saddles and have purchased used saddles that have had this
treatment. I no longer recommend it, as I think it has too much
potential to ruin saddles, especially when one gets caught in the rain
on long rides. The problem is that neat's-foot oil can work too well,
giving the saddle the flexibility of a glove or purse. While this is
initially quite comfortable, the saddle can stretch way too much where
pressure is applied, especially if ridden when soaked. Using
Proofide or Dubbin on the top of the saddle, and a beeswax-based
treatment on the bottom of the saddle does take longer to break the
saddle in, but it tends to stop at the perfect combination of
flexibility and support, whereas saturating the saddle seems to break
down the fibers that give the saddle its stiffness. Since Proofide
has become so expensive, I’ve switched to Pappy’s Dubbin and Bee Dry
to maintain my leather saddles. [Sno-Seal is another beeswax-based treatment -- John Allen]
Certainly, everyone’s experience will be slightly different, and rider weight, distance, amount of wet weather riding, and even the inherent uniqueness of each leather saddle will likely yield different results, but I now suggest that people take the longer, but more predictable approach to breaking in leather saddles, so they don’t end up with what some derisively and crudely describe as an “ass hatchet.”
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