A couple of years ago, I rode a 100-mile sportive on pancake-flat roads. Somewhere during those 100 miles, cycling changed for me. Not long after I had finished, I realised - and please excuse my candour here - that my crotch really, really hurt.
I pulled off my shorts and took a peek: the skin was red and raw. Chafed. I had done long rides before; I'd completed a different, more difficult century; I had ridden 40K perched on my saddle in wet shorts during many triathlons. But never had I felt this burning, awful pain.
In the months that followed the hurt persisted. I kept riding. I bought new shorts. The chafing continued. I almost bought a new saddle, but the variety was staggering: flat, swoopy, cutout, hard, soft, gel, carbon, titanium, leather. I didn't know where to begin, so instead, I went to see my doctor.
I had put off this appointment for some time purely out of sheepishness. But the discomfort finally beat back my pride. My doctor told me to stop using the chamois cream I'd been slathering on because it might be exacerbating, or even causing, the irritation. And he prescribed a lotion that contained triamcinolone, a corticosteroid.
The lotion helped lessen my discomfort between rides, but I still suffered and couldn't ride on consecutive days. But I persevered, rode every couple of days, and dealt with the pain. Then I got a new bike, a fancy carbon number that was light and fast, and I wanted to ride more. I tried the bike's stock saddle. Not a chance. I put my old saddle on. I still hurt. Desperate, I bought a saddle designed for comfort that had a bit of a dowdy reputation among the guys I rode with. If it worked, I thought, I would gladly accept the piss-taking at the post-ride tea stop.
It didn't work. And that's when I decided: there had to be a saddle out there that would work for me. And I would pull out all the stops in my quest to find it.
When the predecessor of the bicycle, the velocipede, was invented in the early 19th century, the seat usually consisted of either a flat piece of wood or a modified horse saddle. Riders favoured the upholstered leather saddles over the wooden models; they straddled the seat, pushed off with their feet to move forward and never picked up much speed.
By the 1860s, however, drivetrains had entered the picture, and saddles changed shape to accommodate the pedalling motion, assuming the narrow noses that are still popular today. In 1882, John Boultbee Brooks - founder of the Birmingham manufacturing firm that still bears his name - filed his first patent for a spring-supported model. Over the next few decades, saddle makers devised seats with cutouts down the middle to relieve pressure on the soft-tissue areas of riders.
In the 100-plus years since, saddle makers have incorporated new design features and materials to improve the riding experience. Selle San Marco, the Italy-based saddle maker, produced the Concor, claimed to be the first 'anatomic' saddle, in 1978. Selle Italia, founded in 1897, unveiled the Flite, the first saddle that weighed less than 200 grams, in 1990. Manufacturers introduced gel-padding inserts (to soak up road buzz); reintroduced cutouts (to increase blood flow to vital arteries and nerves); and fiddled with shell technology.
"But by the mid-1800s," says Joshua Cohen, a physiotherapist, saddle designer and author of e-book Finding the Perfect Bicycle Seat, "the bike saddle looked pretty much like it looks today."
And today, anyone who has spent a long time on a bike has had saddle discomfort. This pain is not entirely the fault of the saddles on the market. There have been massive leaps forward in materials, and saddle makers have made products that are comfortable and light - and fit at least some of the bike-riding public.
Finding what fits you is the key. "We're all built differently," says Dr Roger Minkow, who developed Specialized's Body Geometry line of saddles. Bike-fit expert Andy Pruitt puts it this way in his Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists: "Just as there is significant variation in face shapes among the population, there's a wide difference in crotch shapes as well."
I'm tall (180cm) and thin (79.5kg), but that doesn't mean a saddle designed for a 63kg Basque mountain climber will work for me. Likewise, what fits me might not fit someone who weighs 13kg more; and there's no guarantee that it will work for another cyclist with a body shape like mine.
The lesson is simple: when it comes to saddles, one size definitely does not fit all.
Fit for purpose
It's a boiling hot late-summer morning and I'm pedalling away on my fast new bike. Fortunately, the air-conditioning is on, and I've barely broken a sweat. I'm inside bike shop Bicycle Generation, where I've come to start my search. But I'm not here to buy, or even to look at, saddles. I'm here on the recommendation of Minkow, who suggested that I be professionally fit on my bike before testing new saddles.
And so here I am, bike attached to a CycleOps trainer, spinning, while Jeremy Doner examines my position. Doner has learned his craft at Specialized's Body Geometry F.I.T. Class. He checks my reach to the handlebar, my pedalling technique, my seat height and fore/aft position, and how my cleats are positioned on my shoes.
He finds that I'm set up quite well. My bar is a few centimetres too wide, which might explain the occasional pain in my trapezius muscles on longer rides. Doner moves my brake levers up very slightly, so I'll be in a more relaxed position when riding on the hoods. My saddle height, at 77cm from the centre of my bottom bracket to the top of the seat, is spot on.
But Doner fiddles with my saddle tilt and fore/aft position. Because of the chafing I've experienced since the sportive, I've been riding with my saddle angled slightly down in the hope of relieving any undue pressure. After levelling my saddle so it's parallel to the ground, Doner watches me spin some more, then decides my saddle is a little too far back. He bumps it forward, pulls out his measuring tape, and writes down some numbers. I ask how much he moved the seat forward.
"Three millimetres," he says. "It'll put you in a slightly more upright position, and with the saddle flat, you shouldn't have as much trouble with the chafing."
I am dumbfounded. Three millimetres? But Doner seems to know what he's doing, and my sore crotch tells me I'm in no position to argue. An hour later, after more tweaking and chatting about bikes and saddles and racing, I thank Doner and head to my car. Only then do I remember one of nicknames given to seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong: Mr Millimetre. Perhaps Doner will have fixed my problem once and for all.
Take a seat
Why is bike fit so integral to comfort on your saddle? "Every cyclist tends to sit on the bicycle seat in their own way due to differences in flexibility, bike fit, perception of comfort, varying amounts of muscle and fatty tissue, and riding style," Cohen writes in Finding the Perfect Bicycle Seat. "Because of these factors, one seat design would have great difficulty working for every rider without some modification." In other words: you might have the perfect saddle, but if the bike doesn't fit, you're still probably in for some pain.
Pruitt devotes a section of his Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists to 'crotchitis,' a general term for saddle-related pain, but the term belies the complexity and variety of problems caused by sitting on a bike saddle. After visiting my doctor for my particular malady, I called Dr Patrick Kortebein, author of a paper titled Saddle Sores: The What and Why, as Well as Tips on Prevention and Treatment.
Kortebein says there are four skin conditions that can arise from sitting on a bicycle seat. The most common is ischial tuberosity pain. (One study found that 70 per cent of saddle-related pain falls into this category.) In layman's terms, this is known as a sore arse. The ischial tuberosities, or sit bones, are part of your pelvis; if you're a recreational triathlete, as opposed to, say, a pro time-trial specialist, the majority of your weight should be on those bones while on the saddle. The problem is that, although the sit bones can bear your body weight, the tissue and skin on the bones become irritated from contact with the seat. This relatively minor problem usually goes away as you ride more.
A second problem is chafing, which usually occurs on the inner thighs or crotch and is caused by constant rubbing against the saddle, resulting in "a red, inflamed abrasion," according to Kortebein. This is my issue - I can assure you, it is no fun.
However, chafing pales in comparison to saddle sores. Kortebein defines these as folliculitis, furuncles and skin ulcerations. Folliculitis is an infection of a hair follicle; it's usually innocuous. A furuncle is a boil or abscess; it can be massively painful. Skin ulceration is a crater-like lesion that can result in skin infection if not treated (see a doctor if you have any concerns).
Then, for men, there are the issues of penile numbness and erectile dysfunction. A recent study at Cordoba Medical School in Spain found that triathletes who cycled more than 330K in a week had on average less than four per cent normal sperm. The reason: nerves and blood vessels essential to achieving and maintaining erections run through the soft-tissue area known as the perineum. If you support your weight on your sit bones, you should be OK. But some people don't ride that way, instead putting pressure on their perineum, which can damage the arteries and nerves that maintain erections.
The Cordoba study is the latest of numerous studies on how riding a bike affects the male anatomy. One found that penile oxygen levels decreased by 68 per cent in subjects who had cycled for three minutes (compared with levels while standing). Another found that saddle design didn't matter much in terms of penile oxygen levels: both traditional saddles and saddles with cutouts or other ergonomic designs still resulted in lower levels. Researchers have only begun to consider whether women riders face similar issues. One 2006 study found evidence of "decreased genital sensation" among competitive women cyclists - but that study was not saddle-specific. All of which suggests we must be careful if we're going to spend a lot of time riding.
It's another scorching summer morning, and, once again, I'm pedalling away. But this time I'm outdoors. I've got a new saddle to test out and I'm feeling great. Better yet, the saddle feels great; it's lightweight, but forgiving and comfortable. For 45 minutes, I am in heaven.
And then, halfway through my ride: the saddle becomes less comfortable. Oddly enough, it's not the chafing. In fact, chafing is almost nonexistent. It's my ischial tuberosities - a problem I've never experienced before. But now I've become a master diagnostician, and there's no doubt in my mind: I've got a bad case of sore arse.
I move on, mounting test-saddle number two. Doner has taught me how to ensure a proper fit (see Three Steps to Saddle Heaven, right), and I become a wizard with my wrenches and tape measure.
And the process repeats itself, again and again: over the next few months I test more than 10 saddles from six manufacturers. I try wide saddles and narrow saddles, saddles with solid tops and saddles with cutouts and channels, saddles with gel inserts and saddles with almost no padding at all, saddles with hard shells and saddles with more forgiving shells, old-school saddles and the newest of the new, flat-top saddles and anatomically shaped saddles.
And here is what I find: even in my favourite Pearl Izumi Microsensor bibs, when I'm on my bike for more than three hours, mostly seated, there is no such thing as a flawless saddle. Not for me, at least. But there are nearly perfect saddles. For me, that saddle is the Fi'zi:k Arione, a racing model with some concessions for comfort. The Arione is longer than most, resulting in an increased contact surface area. Fi'zi:k says that "the larger surface area means an even distribution of the rider's weight, and therefore, a more comfortable position regardless of changing hand positions on the bars." I find this to be true. The saddle also has cutouts in the shell - Fi'zi:k's 'Wing Flex' technology - that allow the sides of the shell to flex slightly when I'm pedalling.
After months of riding and thinking about nothing but saddles and how my rear end felt on them, I mounted the Arione - and promptly forgot about it. For the first time in years, I could ride without serious discomfort. For the first time in years I could sit down after my ride without wincing. I have a few issues with the saddle, and I still get a little chafed after longer rides, but overall the Arione has helped make cycling a joyful experience again. If a saddle can provide that, it's pretty damn near perfect. And that's close enough for me.
Three steps to saddle heaven
So you want to try different saddles to see which works best, but you don't know how to ensure that they're even on the bike correctly? Follow these three steps for the perfect seat.
1 Know the numbers
The first step is to get a professional bike fit. Once a specialist takes your dimensions down to the millimetre, you can use those measurements to place a new saddle in the right spot every time.
2 Be like Mr Millimetre
Take two measurements. The first is your saddle height, which you determine by measuring from the centre of your bottom bracket, along the seat tube, to the top of your saddle. (For me this is 77cm.) The second measurement is your saddle's fore/aft position on the seat post, which you can work out by measuring from the centre of the bolt that connects your stem to your headset to the front tip of your saddle. (For me, this is 47.3cm.) Now you can place any saddle on your bike with minimal adjustments - and know that it's set up properly.
3 Ride before you buy
With most saddles, you can't buy a new one, ride it for three months, then decide it's not for you and return it. But you can ask your bike shop if it has samples of saddles you'd like to try. Ask what the policy is for trying new saddles. Some shops will give you 30 days to test one; if you don't like it you can put the money you've spent toward another saddle the shop sells. If you can't find a shop with such a policy, see if you can get a group of triathletes together to buy and try different saddles - think of it as a saddle co-op.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin
Finding a saddle is a little like finding a mate: you try a few and hope for the best. With some, you'll know immediately that it won't work. Others last a little longer but ultimately you realise something isn't right. And then, one day, you find The One. You'll be with it until the day you die. We can't guarantee that one of the saddles below will make a lifelong mate for you, but we do know that they have an excellent track record among our testers. Happy hunting.
Specialized Phenom SL, £79.99
"Though matched to my sit bones through a body geometry fit session, the Phenom (available in 130mm or 143mm widths) felt only decent at first. But after a seven-day off-road race and many five-hour training days, it broke in perfectly. Though firm, the carbon-reinforced shell retains flex for added comfort; and the design was lab-tested to eliminate sensitive pressure points." - Mike Cushionbury
Weight: 190g (130mm width)
Selle SLR, £113.99
"The SLR is a paragon of functional minimalism: it is just wide, long, light and padded enough to perform with perfection - if you're on your saddle long enough to adapt to it. (For me that's typically four weekly lunchtime rides plus a three-hour weekend romp, some road and cyclo cross races, and about 10 centuries and sportives a year.) There are variations but I spend my money on a classic." - Bill Strickland
Selle San Marco Aspide Glamour, £74.99
"The Glamour Aspide has won awards for best women's saddle. It comes in one size, or as the arrowhead, which has a cutout. The Aspide's centre channel eliminates material and the firm foam provides the support for short and long rides. I also raced two Olympic-distance tris on the Arrowhead, and found it more comfortable than any tri saddle I've used." - Emily Furia
Fi'zi:k Arione CX Kium, £114.99
"The CX is slightly lower in profile and weight than the original Arione. It's longer than most traditional racing seats (by as much as 30mm), offering better pressure distribution. The shape lets me shift around and stay in the saddle's comfort zone. The Wing Flex technology provides chafe-free movement and the 85mm-long rails offer key fore/aft adjustability." - Mike Cushionbury