Sunday, January 2, 2011

Q&A: Bicycle Seat Relief

While most cyclists do fine on normal, everyday bicycle seats, some people, like Nick here, suffer so badly they consider giving up biking, which is a shame. Fortunately, there are all kinds of seats to choose from, and even some very unique ones as I explain... 

Q: Hi Jim,
I'm coming to you almost as a last resort. My story is, I got into biking again because I liked it as a kid and my doctor said I needed to start exercising. (I can't walk or jog much cause my back's not so good.) So, I went out and got a basic mountain bike - nothing fancy - but something to ride around on that has a comfortable upright riding position. 

For a few months now, I've been getting out a couple of times a week and actually enjoying it except for one thing. My butt is killing me. And nothing I've tried seems to help. I go numb and get so sore I have to keep stopping and it's taking all the fun away. I tried switching to a wider, softer seat, but that didn't work. I think my seat is adjusted right too. I even bought some cycling shorts with the padding inside and even that didn't make the pain and numbness go away.

Is there any way to get a comfortable seat or do I have to find another type of exercise?

The Spongy Wonder (keep reading for details)
A: Sorry to hear about your saddle sores, Nick, but it's a common problem with many new or returning riders and something that can bother even pro riders sometimes. In fact of all the cycling inventions created since the first bike came along about 150 years ago, there have probably been more seats than anything else because yours is such a common complaint and always has been.

There's a lot to understand about seats and what causes saddle sores and how to prevent them and my extensive online bicycle seats guide should help you as it has many others in your shoes. For example, you said that you had tried a wider, softer, seat. But sometimes what's needed is a narrower, firmer saddle that provides more support and doesn't squish and get in the way so much. 

You also said you had tried cycling shorts but maybe no one told you that these special shorts are meant to be worn alone (without underwear) since the seams in underwear can press on nerves and cause numbness, and also chafe. And, even seat adjustment can be tricky. A little too high or low makes a big difference and if the seat is angled up or down that can cause problems too. Here's how to adjust a seat.

Any good bicycle shop will have an expert who can take a look at your bike's setup and your seat and tell you if they spot something wrong. And they should be happy to let you try different seats since there are so many types. Usually, as long as the seat is in new condition you can bring it back and trade it for another one until you find the one that feels right. Another way to test seats is to try the ones your riding friends like. Maybe they had problems and found one that works for them that you'll like too. And, the bike shop may be able to recommend a saddle based on what's not working for you now.

The Real Seat
But, let's say that all of these steps don't work, and you just can't find a seat that doesn't hurt you. What do you do then? I recommend trying non-standard seats, also called alternate or alternative seats. They're unique and can be a little hard to find so I provide a regularly updated list (I just added the Carbon Comfort Saddle this week) on my bicycle seats guide and I've provided a few examples here so you can see just how different they are.

Probably the most unconventional looking is the Real Seat. Kind of like putting the seat from a lawn chair on your bicycle, it provides a wide sling seat for comfort and support that feels a little like sitting on a playground swing.

Tip: If you switch to one of these alternate seats from a standard saddle, there's a learning curve. Riding on a regular seat you control the bike a good bit with your thighs holding and pushing on the front of the seat (the "nose"). 

But on alternate seats, you often sit more on top of the seat and there's usually no nose to use to control the bike, so you'll want to practice to get used to it.

The oldest alternate seat that I can remember is the Easy Seat (it also goes by the "Hobson seat.") I remember ads for this in the sixties (the name has changed over the years) and it's still selling strong all these years later.

It's a two-part seat, which is actually a very early design dating back to the 1890's. The idea is that if the seat is split in half, there won't be any pressure on your sensitive areas and each half can move with your pedaling motion unlike a standard seat that remains fixed in one place. 

The BiSaddle
The Easy Seat has two cupped and cushioned "pads" that can be adjusted sideways so that they're directly beneath your sit bones.

Tip: Since alternate seats can be expensive and you may have to order online, ask if they'll take the seat back if it doesn't work for you. If they won't do that, ask if there's a local bike shop that carries the seat so you can try it out. No? Maybe they sold one to someone in your town and that person will let you come check it out? You might make a new riding buddy that way and find a nice new seat.

Two other seats that use the two-part design are the BiSaddle that comes in men's and women's versions and can be fine-tuned to your exact sit-bone distance (photo), and the also adjustable-width Spongy Wonder (photo, top of page), which several readers have told me made their saddle woes go away.

See my list for more choices, and I hope my seat tips help you enjoy pain-free rides so you can continue cycling.