Bicycle saddles exist so that riders aren’t obligated to stand for the duration of a given bicycle ride. They are a source of comfort to some cyclists, and a source of discomfort to other cyclists. Most other things you chose to sit on do not require you to straddle them and rest nearly your full body weight on one of the most sensitive parts of your body. As a result, a saddle is the most personal choice you can make when it comes to a comfortable ride. No other part of a bicycle will make you want to ride it more or less than the saddle, and yet many people who buy a new bicycle never even consider the possibility of upgrading the stock saddle, or even trying a few other saddles with a different size, shape or material before they head home with their new bike.
While the investment in time to try several saddles is worth it, the true test is breaking in yourself and the saddle. Many modern saddles have no break in period. They have a hard plastic or carbon fiber shell which is covered by some leather, Kevlar, synthetic leather, or Spandex with varying amounts of padding underneath. For these modern saddles, the only break in is you getting used to how a saddle fits you. Many people go this route for convenience, cost, or ignorance to the existence of other options. While modern saddles can offer years of comfort and use, they do not offer one of the main reasons why a Brooks saddle is an excellent choice. Brooks saddles get more comfortable as you ride them because they conform to fit you. The only daunting parts about owning a Brooks are how to break it in, and then how to care for it in the years which follow. Both are easy, and require very little time or effort on your part. Rarely can so much comfort come from so little effort.
Step 1: Selecting a Good Fit
Before you buy a saddle that you have no previous experience with, such as already owning the same model, it’s worth sitting on the saddle before you buy it. When you are shopping to buy a new saddle, plan on spending at least an hour, or more if you need to go to a few different shops, to try all the saddles you are interested in. Take three things with you: Your bike, the clothing you expect to ride in, and an open mind. The reasoning is that you want to put yourself in the same conditions you will be using the saddle so that you can accurately assess which one fits you the best. No amount of poking a saddle as hard as you can with your finger will tell you if the saddle supports you well or not. Sitting on it will. A saddle’s weight will not tell you if it hurts to sit on. Sitting on it will. A saddle’s color will not contribute to the comfort of your ride. Sitting on it will. With this in mind, try to leave behind any preconceived notions you have about what you think you want, and just pay attention to what your body tells you. A notebook is also a good idea to bring alone, so that you can make some notes about how different models felt, what you liked, didn’t like, prices, stuff that you will not instantly remember if your life depended on it.
Whether you, or the sales person, attach the saddle to your bike, start with it as close to level from front to back as possible. If you are female, you may want to lower on the nose of the saddle about a ¼”. This can be changed to suit your position and riding style, but it’s a good neutral place to start when trying a new saddle. When you sit on the saddle, you want the majority of your weight to be on your ischial tuberosities, the boniest part of your butt. You want little to no weight on anything forward of the ischial tuberosities, but contact and support are generally just fine. Ideally, your goal is to find a saddle which fully supports you, and does not limit your range of motion, while being comfortable to sit on. If you feel like the saddle is like sitting on the narrow edge of a split rail fence, you need something wider. If you feel like you are sitting on a bar stool, you probably want something narrower. If you are able, take the bike, or saddle more accurately, for a ten to fifteen minute ride. Make any minor height or angle adjustments you need, and test again for a few minutes. Then, try another saddle. Once you have made your selection, it’s time to buy it.
Step 2: Treating the Leather
Presumably, if you are still reading this, you ended up with a Brooks saddle, or spotted the title of this article and skipped the part about finding a new saddle. One thing everyone seems to agree on is Brooks saddles need some care to aid in their break in and extend their service life. Being natural leather under tension, they need to be kept clean, dry, and have grease/oil/treatment applied from time to time to prevent the leather from drying out. Brooks suggests Proofide as the best means of treating and protecting their leather saddles. While Proofide is a fine product, there are any number of others which work as well, do more to help the break in process, are easier to find, and cost less. Likewise, there are several products which you should avoid using, such as mink oil, or silicon based waterproofing agents because they are either destructive to the leather, or do nothing to actually treat the leather.
As a rule, you want to both oil the leather to keep it from drying out or cracking, and you want to provide some means of water resistance to keep the leather from absorbing water. Proofide is good at the later, but not the former. Neatsfoot oil is good at the former, but not the later. It is therefore a good idea to employ both a leather dressing and leather protectorate to help speed the break in time and help extend the service life of the saddle.
Chris’ Tip: Personally, I prefer Obenauf’s Leather Oil to neatsfoot oil, and Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP to Proofide. I have seen better results from infrequent applications of Obenauf’s to a Brooks saddle in the rainy weather of Seattle, than frequent applications of Proofide. This is my preferred product, what I personally recommend, and it is what I use in the shop for every saddle. I’m not paid, sponsored, or otherwise compensated by Obenauf’s at all, I just love their products.
There are generally two means to applying oil to a saddle. One is to apply it by hand using a dauber, or by pouring a small amount of oil into or onto the saddle, then working it into the whole of the saddle. The other is to submerge the whole saddle in the oil for a period of time and then drain the oil back into the bottle. Both have their merits, but applying by hand requires you to have less leather oil on hand, and usually has less clean up and wasted oil. Whereas the submersion method ensures every part of the leather will be treated with oil. Sheldon Brown detailed an excellent means of soaking by forming a sheet of aluminum foil around the top of the saddle to catch the oil and pouring the whole of a bottle in to soak for 30 minutes to an hour here. If you want to apply by hand, here are a few tricks.
Be aware the saddle will get much darker than it is now. Here are two new Brooks saddles in Honey, one has been treated and the other has not.
There is a big difference. Also be aware if a color was used to make the saddle a color, then some of that dye will likely run out during the treating process, which could be an issue if you have white carpets and some oil drips. It will also come out on your shorts in the first few rides, so avoid light colored clothing at first, or use a saddle cover.
- Clean off an area on your work area about as big as a jelly roll pan. You will want to have a clean and dry work surface. Using a jelly roll pan to catch any oil drips is a good idea as well. This is not something you want to do over the heirloom rug from your spouse’s dead grandfather, or a new couch (unless it’s leather).
- Wash your hands. You want to prevent cleaning agents, dirt, and grease from getting on the saddle.
- Have two or three lint free rags to wipe up oil and clean off the saddle when you are done ready before you start. You hands are going to get oily doing this, and people rarely enjoy oily hand prints around the house or on the clean linens.
- Warm the saddle up before you start. It should not be hot, as it can damage the leather and you will need to be able to handle it. If the sun is out, ten to twenty minutes of sitting in direct sun should be good for most locations in the world on a summer day. If you live somewhere where it isn’t currently, or doesn’t get warm, try a hairdryer. Do not use direct heat though. It is common for other cyclists to feel sorry for you while simultaneously laughing at you if you forget your new Brooks in the oven.
- Once warm, apply oil to the inside of the saddle first, then the outside. When you have a freshly dunked dauber of oil, be sure to get the crevices of the saddle frame and the nose piece first, while saving the big open areas like the middle for last.
- Rub the oil around with your hands. Some parts of the leather will take oil faster than others and look dryer than the rest. This seems obvious, but the trick is to even the oil out over the whole surface inside and out.
- Let the saddle sit for five or ten minutes in a warm place to absorb the oil on a rag or other surface which will not stain if oil drips off the saddle.
- Repeat step 5 through step 7 two or three times. This is much easier to see visibly on any saddle which is not black because the saddle will get darker.
- Using one of the clean lint-free rags, wipe off any excess oil, then warm the saddle again.
- Once warm, apply the leather protector to the inside of the saddle first, then the outside. Rub it in with your hands paying special attention to the edges, rivets, and inside.
- Place the saddle in a plastic bag just big enough to hold the saddle, tie it off so there is as much trapped air in the bag as possible, then place it in the sun for an hour. If you do not have access to reliable sun, put it somewhere warm, like the top of a dryer while drying a load of laundry.
- Remove the saddle, and wipe it off with the lint free rag before mounting it to your bike.
- Mount the saddle on your bike. I hate to be presumptuous, but I am going to presume that you know how to do this. There are an awful lot of seatposts out there, and I am leery of telling you how your seatpost works without seeing it. However, there are several saddles which will not work in some types of seatposts. Several Brooks have more than two seat rails and come with a clamp for a “pipe” style of seatpost. If you want to use a modern micro-adjust seatpost, you will need a Seat Sandwich®, which may not work will all types of seatposts. Consult your local bike shop if needed.
- Adjust the saddle to your liking, but always start neutral. Clamp the saddle rails in the middle with the seatpost and ensure the nose and the tail of the saddle are level with each other. Most people like the saddle to be as close to level as possible, although many women like the nose of the saddle to be tipped down as much as ¼” or 6mm. The more upright your riding position is, the more tipping the nose up is worth considering. But if the saddle as springs, consider tipping the nose down so the saddle is close to level when you’re sitting on it with your full weight. In the end, you have to decide what is right for you. Do not be surprised if it takes several tried to find the best position and angle for yourself.
Step 3: Changing Your Habits
Once you have installed the treated the saddle, it should be ready for a few weeks of riding with little to no further attention. However, there are some differences between a leather saddle and a modern saddle which may necessitate some changes in your behavior and habits with your new saddle.
¨ Do not ride a leather saddle wet. It will stretch out the leather and dramatically shorten its service life. In point of fact, you should carry a plastic grocery sack or other specialty seat cover to protect your saddle in the event it starts raining while you have it locked up somewhere. If you do not have fenders, and expect to ride in the rain, get some fenders before you ride in the rain. The water which gets flung off the rear tire will to get your saddle wet enough to cause damage. The odd drop of water will not cause damage, but sustained tire spray while riding should be avoided.
¨ Avoid leaving the saddle in the sun for days and days. Ultraviolet light can cause the saddle to dry out and crack. Leather oil and protector will help, but it’s cheaper, easier and more effective to keep your bike inside, and not just for your saddle. A bike kept inside will last longer and work better than the same bike left on a patio, or in a shed. Bikes like the same environment as you do, which is to say about 70 degrees Fahrenheit/21 Celsius and about 50% humidity (give or take).
¨ Wear dark shorts or pants. The leather will stop leaching out any dyes eventually, but the first hundred miles or so will really do a number on whites.
¨ If needed, clean the saddle with a damp rag and a little saddle soap, but you probably won’t need to very frequently. The goal is to keep the saddle free of dirt and water. Fenders are the best way, but unexpected things such as stream crossings, irrigation run off, snow storms, chemical spills, etc. can be very hard on a leather saddle. Brush off any dirt that you can, and use a little water and saddle soap to clean up the rest.
Changing your habits for the better is always the best way to extend the service life of any part, but especially for a leather saddle. While ferrous metals rust and aluminum can corrode when exposed to water and/or salt, leather will break down substantially faster than metal if left untreated and uncared for.
Depending on weather conditions, and where you store your bike, reapply the leather protector about once a month to three months. Not a lot of the leather protector, just enough to give the outside a little bit of a shine. A blob of leather protector about the size of an apple seed will be enough for the top, and a blob the size of a grapefruit seed will be enough for the bottom. If you live somewhere really hot and dry, and you cannot bring your bike inside, aim for the monthly application. Likewise if live somewhere really humid and wet and you cannot keep your bike inside.