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Apparel & Accessories

Technical FAQ: Happiness is a custom saddle

Lennard Zinn explains how a custom saddle has helped him overcome an injury that was keeping him off the bike.

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Dear Lennard,
I have heard that a soft saddle is more likely than a hard one to contribute to saddle sores. Is this true or is it just one of those myths that naturally masochistic cyclists like to perpetuate? If it is true, it doesn’t exactly make sense. Some technical explanation would help.
— Perry

Dear Perry,
First of all, I’m not sure that’s true. While I rarely have had saddle sores, I also have always ridden fairly firm saddles, and I don’t think it’s due to masochism. Saddle sores are often a function of chafing, and I’m not sure that a softer saddle necessarily would cause more chafing than a firm one. I can imagine that a softer saddle, by having more surface area contacting the rider, would allow less ventilation under the butt. Perhaps that could result in a higher incidence of saddle sores?

Independent of saddle sores, I do have a number of reasons not to select a saddle with soft padding. And I make a distinction between soft padding and a saddle shell that flexes and could thus perhaps be considered “soft.”

This seems like a perfect opportunity to tell you about my recent discovery of the most comfortable saddle I have ever had and the particular set of circumstances that made this mandatory for me.

A critical thing about a bicycle saddle is that its shell is suspended like a hammock between the front and rear attachment points of the rails. Saddles that have no rails and instead have some sort of an I-beam underneath have come and gone many times. They are not on your friends’ bikes because, lacking the suspension of a shell that can move up and down between the rail attachment points, people soon go looking for another saddle.

Another thing to consider is how the saddle affects blood flow and the flow of nerve impulses through the perineum. Here is where I think that a saddle with soft padding can do a disservice to the rider.

The nerves and arteries supplying the genitals pass along the inboard edge of the ischial tuberosities (a.k.a. “sitbones” — the wide areas at the bottom of each ischium, the loop-shaped, lowest section of each side of the pelvis). If the saddle padding is so soft that the sitbones sink deeply into it, it can push outward against the medial side of each sitbone and impinge on those nerves and arteries, cutting off blood flow and causing numbness. Similar nerve and artery impingement can be produced by a saddle whose shell is curved steeply downward where the sitbones contact it. Over time, this impingement can result in permanent damage to the arteries and nerves, causing, among other things, erectile dysfunction in males.

This same effect can also be caused by a saddle that is too narrow at its widest point for the rider. The distance between the ischial tuberosities varies from person to person, and if this distance is greater than the saddle is wide, then the edges of the saddle can press against the medial sides of the sitbones, cutting off blood and nerve flow. This is the reason for measuring the spacing between the ischial tuberosities and then choosing a saddle of the correct width so that the ischial tuberosities are sitting on the saddle and not hanging off the edges of it.

To measure sitbone spacing, Specialized has the “Ass-O-Meter” with memory-foam lobes that stay indented after the rider sits on it so that the space between impressions can be measured. Specialized’s latest version does the same thing digitally with a pressure plate mounted to a bench. SQ Lab offers a corrugated-paper system for consumers to measure their sitbones at home or a shop fit bench with a plastic bed of “nails” that poke through a piece of paper under the rider’s weight.

Everything about a bike saddle (and any other contraption that I sit on) has recently come to the fore for me. Since June, I have had pain in my left sitbone when sitting associated with a strain of my medial hamstring and inflammation of the bursa at the sitbone. It has been literally a royal PITA. And I was sitting a lot — on a chair in front of a computer, on bicycle saddles, in my kayak seat, on airplane, and car seats, and at the dinner table or on the couch.

I don’t know what originally brought it on, but I can tell that sitting exacerbates it. Far worse is slipping; if my left leg shoots out from under me and yanks the hamstring attachment at the sitbone, my healing is set back weeks or months. On a three-week river trip through the Grand Canyon in late July and early August, I slipped a number of times on steep trails and slippery silt beaches, and it was excruciating. The last week of the trip, I could no longer sit in my kayak and instead sat on rafts with only my right buttock contacting the tube.

Before the river trip, I had followed doctor’s advice for weeks, carefully stretching it and icing it, and it was not improving. Since the river trip, I switched to a standing desk in my office. I also have been minimizing driving and flying, and my daily sitting meditation I now do lying down or sitting cross-legged on a special platform, rather than on a chair.

Even with these changes, progress was glacial, so a month ago I had a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection; Boulder Biologics took out eight tubes of blood from my arm, centrifuged it down, removed the red cells and the white cells, and injected it back in at my sitbone. Years ago, the same doctor gave me PRP for a torn triceps, and that healed miraculously quickly, but this has been a much slower process, and I have been told to be patient for 6-8 weeks.

Since PRP, my physical therapy has included dry needling — sticking acupuncture needles into my hamstring – with electrical stim. One acupuncture needle is stuck into my high hamstring near my sitbone with one electrode of a TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) unit attached and another needle with the other electrode attached is stuck into my lower hamstring. The electrical current is turned up, and my hamstring thumps like bouncing basketball while my foot flips up and down like a dolphin’s tail.

Combined with stretching and exercises at home, these therapies have improved, but not resolved, my PITA. Cycling I was not willing to give up, but the saddles on all of my bikes, which I had been happy with for years, bothered me almost from the first pedal stroke of every ride. Since you don’t push as hard with your legs, saddle pressure is higher on an e-bike, which I now ride due to a heart condition, so saddle choice has become even more important.

The saddles that I had been using I had chosen based on the explanation above; they are all broad and flat in the back with thin padding to ensure that the pressure is on the sitbones and not on the soft tissue between them. The Fizik Antares saddle that I had on my e-bike bothered my inflamed sitbone, even though I have had this saddle model on umpteen bikes for the good part of a decade and had always loved them. The Specialized Toupe, Selle Italia Prolink, Selle San Marco Rever, and SQ Lab 611 Ergowave on my other bikes (I have a lot of bikes) and which I had loved for years (they also met the above criteria), also were not giving my left sitbone any love.

Enter a fully custom saddle, which has made cycling with an inflamed hamstring attachment and bursa at the sitbone much more bearable. Meld 3D sent me a foam crush box similar to the one used to get custom orthotics made to fit problem feet. But instead of standing on the foam in this crush box, you sit in it and produce an exact negative of the shape of your butt.

I sent the foam impression of my butt to Meld 3D and selected among the numerous options for shell type and exterior outline, padding thickness, rider weight, center channel or cutout or no, cover color, rail material, and logo, name, and national flag atop it. There are also options for slope of the rear section, mirroring about the centerline, curving of the nose, angle of the wings, and hip rotation. My saddle is the Hamilton in Alps style with the Diablo shape. Its all-carbon shell has much more flex than I ever had experienced in a carbon saddle. It is 280mm long, 147mm wide at its widest point, and has a long, flat, 41mm-wide nose. It has a synthetic leather cover, 1/8 inch-thick EVA padding, and stainless steel rails (which I picked over carbon since I have broken carbon rails in the past jumping off and back on for cyclocross barriers). It is personalized with my name, company logo, and American flag. Price for all of this is $292.50. Given the discomfort it has so drastically reduced for me, that’s a bargain. And with a single click, I can have the same saddle duplicated.

My Meld 3D saddle is shaped so perfectly to my butt that I hardly notice it when riding. Even on a three-hour ride on gravel roads and rough trails to celebrate Chris Case’s birthday this past Sunday, my hamstring did not start complaining until the very end, and then not even at saddle contact points. The flex of the shell provides nice compliance on bumpy roads, and the ramps coming down from the wide rear part are shaped perfectly for my hamstrings, allowing room for them to swing up and down without impingement. What a revelation! I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
― Lennard