Medical attacks on cycling are as old as cycling. Pressure on the genitalia – especially the female genitalia – was seen as suspect in the late 19th century. Leading doctors called for bans on women cycling. Such calls went unheeded and the bicycle was a key tool of women’s emancipation giving them new freedom and mobility. And despite the claims that riding on bike saddles would lead to impotence, the world population did not suffer.
And today, there are few complaints that China, with more cyclists than anywhere else, suffers from a lack of babies due to urological problems brought on by bicycling.
However, there's no getting away from the fact that many people suffer discomfort from 'normal' bicycle saddles, even ones with cut-outs, gel-pockets, or buttock-ridges. Such discomfort, whether real or perceived, is a major disincentive to cycling.
Cycle makers have known this for many years. Pederson bicycles, patented in 1894, had suspended, leather hammock-like 'saddles'. Recumbents with their laid-back, deck-chair like seats have long been advocated for those cyclists who really cannot abide mainstream saddles on upright bicycles.
And since the year dot, inventors have been coming up with nose-less saddle designs. Many of these inventors assume they are the first to arrive at the stunning conclusion that taking a saddle's nose away will alleviate discomfort.
To date, however, none of the noseless-saddle inventors have been able to convince the global cycle industry that their designs are practical for the majority of cyclists. Nose-free saddles may be more comfortable, but a 'standard' saddle has a nose for a reason: it aids steering, a cyclist's inner thighs having more influence over direction and 'feel' than is commonly appreciated.
At every trade show there are always one or two "saddle innovations" from inventors keen to stress their noseless/ball/super-wide/hammock-like/buttock-ridge saddle is the end to bum discomfort as we know it.
Perhaps, but standard saddles are not instruments of torture for all cyclists and there are many more factors in comfort on a bike than is perhaps appreciated.
Developing numb nuts? Stand up out of the saddle for a while; readjust your wedding tackle; wiggle.
Too much pressure on your perineum? Is your seat-post too high? Could the fore and aft position be altered to suit?
Such finesses are the stock in trade of professional bike shops. Before splashing out on the latest noseless/ball/super-wide/hammock-like/buttock-ridge saddle (available only via the web, possibly), or crying off to urologists, cyclists should be advised to seek out a cycle sizing and comfort specialist at a good, local bike shop.
Done this and you're still suffering? Here's a selection of saddle solutions, some available commercially, others that have now flopped but may be resurrected in the fullness of time...
In 1997, following Goldstein's impotency scaremongering, spine-doc and cyclist Roger Minkow MD helped Specialized to create the Body Geometry range of comfort saddles. Minkow, and others, surmised that cycling was uncomfortable for some people because undercarriage blood flow was being impeded by unforgiving saddles. There was no test for such a hypothesis.
However, went the theory, scoop out some of the saddle and there would be less arterial compression. Saddles with holes was the result. This was not a new technique, saddles-with-cut-outs have existed from the end of the 19th century. But Minkow applied anatomic knowledge and used his ergonomic experience to fashion lumps and bumps on the holey saddles, and the Minkow Wedge was born.
Still, there was no test for whether these supposed ergonomic saddles were anything of the sort. Then came Dr. Sommer, a urologist at Koln University in Germany. He, found a method of measuring undercarriage blood flow by attaching a plastic ring to a volunteer's penis. The ring was wired up to an oxygen meter.
For the first time, the effects of cycling on poorly designed saddles was measureble in a lab. Using Sommer's work, Minkow was able to pinpoint the undercarriage areas which would benefit the most from excision of material.
The 04 range of Specialized saddles was the result. At a trade show launch, Minkow held up one of the new Body Geometry saddles to demonstrate how it's critical to get the right shape of saddle cut-out and how the sides must be bevelled and not vertical.
"In 1997, the design of Body Geometry saddles was said to be a marketing ploy to sell saddles. We knew this wasn't the case but couldn't prove it," said Minkow.
The appropiately-named Brian Cox is co-inventor of the Comfort Saddle ("a revolutionary breakthrough in comfort,") as featured on Tomorrow's World and on the trade-only part of this site in November 2002.
In a promotional blurb, Cox said his company wants to "give people the chance to try the Comfort Saddle for themselves and attract the interest of retailers and distributors."
"We sell the best alternative bicycle saddle available," says Jim Bombardier, president of Bycycle Inc., the Portland, Oregon, maker of the BiSaddle, a noseless saddle with micro-adjustable 'bun supports'.
"We have done our homework on this design and while it may not be for everyone, it eliminates pressure on soft tissue areas (which for men is the prostate and the pubic symphasis that all the plumbing goes under on the way to your genitals and for women is the perineum where all their genitalia is).
"We suggest riders get a bike fit by professionals and that they raise their handlebars and extend their cabling to compensate for the lack of a nose on the saddle. The problems we address are not going to go away and we think that we provide an intelligent alternative.
"The adjustability of our saddle lets riders find what surface positions works for them."
If you prefer your comfort saddles to come with a bike designed specifically for it, Peter Clutton of Australia has just the job.
His Stylyx saddle is wide and comfy:
"Our claim to have solved the century-old problem of bike-seat soreness may appear somewhat trite to the bike industry...but to the broad mass of consumers it will have a considerable impact when it lives up to the promise," Clutton promised BikeBiz.com
Straddling both worlds, as it were, is the Flow saddle from Saddleco of California. The super-stylish Flow is a mesh road saddle and is now appearing in shops. It is covered with the same elastomer filament fabric used on top-end comfort furniture by trendy Swedish designers. Flow's "suspended seating surface...is 100 percent open to the air, which allows moisture to be wicked away from the body."
It has garnered award after award in the US.
Koobi is a US saddle design company. It gets its skinny saddles made by Italian saddle behemoth Selle Italia. Skinny, yes, but comfy too. The Koobi PRS saddle offers tunable suspension: elastomer bungs to you and me. PRS stands for Personal Ride System. You get three sets of bouncy bungs, with the bounciest giving you about 10mm of travel. The red bung is 20 percent harder than yellow and blue is 20 percent harder than yellow. Whilst designed with hardtail MTBers in mind, the Koobi PRS also makes a fine road saddle.
Fizik Wing Flex
Fizik launched the Wing Flex in autumn 2003. The Arione saddle was first seen underneath the bum of Saeco Cannondale's Gilberto Simoni during the 03 Giro d'Italia. Simoni had been involved in the saddle's design and development, including participating in computerised pressure distribution testing at Milan's Bioengineering Center.
The new saddle uses "Wing Flex" technology, Fizik's name for the Arione's comfort characteristics. There's also a mountain bike version.
Brooks, and other leather saddles, are rock hard to begin with, but over time and lots of riding, they conform to your undercarriage shape. The company was founded in 1866 and produces 75 000 hand-crafted leather saddles a year.
The Hamoc saddle for women is not available in the UK any more. This banana shaped saddle came about after the male designer made a series of plaster casts of his girlfriend's undercarriage. The Hamoc saddle was widely reported to be supremely comfortable for some women riders used to having their genitalia pummelled by traditional saddles. But only some. For others the Hamoc saddle was far from comfortable.
John Kenny of Stampede Product Marketing Ltd. sells his Rido saddles from a website. At £9.99 plus postage, they are cheap yet are intelligently designed and would cost many times this amount if produced by one of the big bike brands. As with all 'comfort' saddles, some folks will find the Rido saddle the most comfortable they've ever owned.
Using 'Pressure Shift Geometry', 'Monocoque Sculpture' and 'SoftGrip', the Rido saddle, flying in the face of saddle patents since the year dot, is another that claims "nothing presently available offers a genuinely more comfortable...alternative...until now that is."
Pressure Shift Geometry is said by Kenny to be "a very specific combination of radial and straight contoured planes [which] redistributes the downward pressure of the rider's weight away from the perineum and onto the gluteus maximus (buttocks), providing a new and unrivalled level of improved cycling comfort with a completely free pedalling action."
Monocoque Sculpture is a "technological manufacturing revolution, specially developed to fulfil the saddle's requisite combination of localised flexibility and rigidity and doing away with the need for any superfluous upholstery."
There are number of air-filled saddles on the market but Kelly Wheeler of Montana-based Derri-Air believes his to be the best. His saddle is also articulated for extra bounce and shape-hugging. The Derri-Air comes in extra, extra wide as well as competition versions.
Real Man Saddle
US bike shop worker Sheldon Brown, a well-known web cycle-guru, once produced an April Fool corollary to all these comfort saddles. His beautifully photoshopped Real Man Saddle, premiered on his website, was built to last:
"Are you a girly-man, riding a 'unisex' bicycle saddle, or are you ready for a Real MAN ® Saddle?
"The typical saddle sold today is made of squishy "gel" foam over a plastic base, designed to coddle the delicate derrières of women and decadent, emasculated males. They're often upholstered with slippery Lycra or similar slippery cloth. Yecch!
"By contrast, the Real MAN ® saddle is made from solid granite from Canada's rugged Gaspé peninsula, shaped and smoothed by eons of pounding by powerful Atlantic breakers. The Real MAN ® saddle is tough enough to stand up to whatever you can dish out!"
The saddle was 'made' from granite.
The bottom line
For whatever reasons, commercial failure is the likely lot for most "revolutionary" saddle designs, especially the noseless ones. Is this because they only work for a fraction of the population or because the cycle industry is too timid to spec them as 'original equipment'?
What some saddle inventors often fail to appreciate is that people are built differently down below: a thin saddle that may be excruciating to one person is comfortable to another. And a wide, noseless saddle may be just the answer for one person but is a nightmare for another.
Yet with fear of discomfort being such a definite disincentive for would-be cyclists - especially women - might there not be scope for individual saddle fittings? Such a service is available in the world of skiing: skiers and snowboarders happily pay through the nose for customised boot insoles, moulded to the perfect shape thanks to heat-setting foam.
Such customisation is a growing consumer trend. The main Levi jeans store in America offers a made-to-measure jeans-making service. Running shops have floor-mats that analyse foot landing strikes to aid correct fitting of trainers. And German company Xybermind produced ‘Achillex’, a running shoe selection system. This involves placing sensors in the shoes. Once the customer has run a few steps, the computer signals either ‘fit’ or ‘doesn’t fit’, having correlated the shoe with the precise dimensions of the customer’s foot and running style. The system is said to be based on years of biomechanical research at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
Could bike shops of the future make money from taking hi-tech, digital 'plaster-casts' of customer's bums?
Or could diligent research find out whether there are 'average' undercarriage profiles and so bike shpps could 'fit' customers to one of, say, six different saddle profiles?
Some bike shops already offer a 'saddle library' where customers (women find the service especially useful) get the chance to try out a number of different high-end saddles to find the one 'right' for them. A more hi-tech, bum-scan approach could set tills ringing.
However, this is poo-poohed by Bycycle Inc.'s Jim Bombardier:
"Sitting folks in a plaster cast will not work. While you would be lucky to pick up the specific curvature of the bones, you have no chance to discern where that individual's nerves, arteries and veins run. We are all different."
BikeBiz.com knows of only one customised saddle maker and that's Graeme Murray of South Africa. He has been hand-building his "anatomically-correct bicycle saddles" for seven years. He takes the rider's weight, sex and age into consideration and pads out a custom saddle, unique to each customer. He has made 3000+ of his Orthoped saddles to date, most for leisure-use, others suitable for longer-duration, competition use.
For a lecture on 'The Basics of the Pelvis and Perineum' by a professor go to: