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Bike Seat Buying Guide

Two men adjusting a bike seat height closeup

One of the most common conversations that we have with customers at ERIK’S is how to find a comfortable bike seat (also called bike saddle). It’s difficult to know whether the stock seat on your new bike will fit you. After a few rides, some customers find their saddle just doesn’t feel as though it fits. Riding a bike requires sitting (a lot) on a small, firm seat, and most of us are willing to do anything we can to make this experience more comfortable. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about bike seats so you can find one that is perfect for you.

First… bike seat or saddle?

Let’s get this out of the way, why is the bike seat called a saddle? It’s based on tradition, and it goes back to the days when there were far more horses than cars on the roads. A seat is something that you sit on and it supports your full weight. On a bike, your weight is also being supported by your legs and hands. A bike saddle provides partial support – it isn’t a full lounger. From that perspective, a bike “seat” has more in common with the design and use of a horse’s saddle, hence the name. Many folks, however, use both terms bike “seat” and “saddle” which we’ll also do through this guide.

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what you need to know to find the right bike saddle for you! We’ll review how bicycle style, rider position, padding, shape, size, technology, and saddle alignment are all important things to consider when selecting a bike seat. Then, we’ll discuss additional gear like bike shorts and chamois cream to achieve ultimate comfort on the saddle!

Things to consider when buying a new bike saddle:

1. Bike Style and Rider Position

How you ride and your position on the bike will affect what saddle works for you. 

Recreational Bikes — On a comfort-style recreational bike that puts you in a more upright position, the saddle ends up taking most of your body weight. On a leisurely ride, there’s not much pressure or force on the pedals lifting your weight out of the saddle. Typically, the more upright the position on the bike, the wider and more padded a saddle will be.

two people riding on a city trail on recreational style specialized electric bikes

Performance Bikes — On the other hand, there is more weight on the rider’s hands and less on the saddle on a performance bike with a more stretched-out position. Additionally, pushing harder on the pedals takes the pressure off of the saddle by supporting more of the rider’s body weight with their legs.

man riding a specialized performance road bike fast downhill

2. Saddle Padding

Pushing your thumb into a saddle’s padding tells you very little about the actual comfort of the saddle, yet it seems to be the universal test of comfort. The amount of padding you need is dependent on several factors: the more upright rider will need more padding because they have a higher percentage of their weight supported by their saddle.

Specialized The Cup Gel Saddle

But more padding isn’t always better. Too much padding can cause chafing, it can push into your soft tissue, or it can cause a rider’s hips to rock, which can lead to low back pain. If you plan to do lots of riding and longer rides, choose a firmer saddle. If you’re a recreational rider and you like to keep your outings short and sweet, more padding is okay. Think about it like a bed: some people sleep better on a softer mattress, while others prefer it more firm. Ultimately, you need to choose which works best for you.

3. Saddle Shape

Saddles can vary tremendously in profiles from tip to tail, from pancake flat to something resembling the Concorde with the nose tipped down and the tail kicking up, and everything in between. The profile of the top from side to side can be dramatically different in how much, and to what degree, the sides bend down. This can affect how wide a saddle feels regardless of its actual width.

Saddles can be more triangular or pear-shaped, and this will change how you sit as well as how your legs interact with the saddle on each pedal stroke. Choosing the right shape is more a matter of personal preference, but generally, once you find a shape that works for you, you’ll know it!

three different shapes of bike saddles

4. Saddle Size

Just like shoes and helmets, bike saddles come in different sizes. Riding the wrong saddle size is not only uncomfortable, you could be doing damage to your nether region.

Saddles, like riders, come in many different sizes and shapes, and it’s important that you find one that’s wide enough to support your sit bones (otherwise known as your Ischial Tuberosities). When we are supported on our sit bones, we are resting our weight on structures that are meant to bear our weight. If you have ever sat on a saddle that was too narrow, more than likely your body weight was resting more on your perineum and other sensitive areas. This can restrict blood flow, which could cause numbness and other issues.

Specialized has been at the forefront of designing their saddles based on sit bone width. Most of their saddles are available in 3 or 4 different widths to fit a wide range of riders. They also make a sit bone measurement tool – or ‘Ass-O-Meter’ as we jokingly call it. It is a simple tool to make sure you are on a saddle that will support the actual width of your sit bones. Interestingly, there is no correlation between sit bone width and how big or tall you are which is why this measurement tool is so important.

Saddle widths are measured from edge to edge, so it’s important to check with the manufacturer to see what saddle width works with your measured sit bone width. If you are between sizes, we recommend choosing the wider saddle.

5. Saddle Technology

Saddle Cut-Outs — When center cut-outs in bicycle seats first started to appear, many thought they weren’t necessary, a gimmick or just uncool. Dr. Minkow who developed the first Body Geometry saddle, medically tested the shape and position of the cut-out to come up with the first saddle that maintained blood flow to sensitive tissues while riding. This was revolutionary and ever since most saddle manufacturers offer some sort of cut-out on their saddle. The cut-out combined with the proper width saddle ensures most of your weight will be on the sit bones, and not on areas it shouldn’t be. After seeing the difference in comfort and fit, we always recommend saddles with cut-outs or relief channels.

cSpecialized Power Arc Expert Saddle with cut out

Mimic Technology — As we highlighted on our Specialized Mimic blog, Specialized learned that cutouts aren’t necessarily the best solution for all riders. Riders who were born with a vagina can find that cutouts can actually cause MORE discomfort! Specialized Mimic Technology was developed to address this specific need in riders and it has been found to be life-changing for a lot of riders. Shop Mimic Technology Saddles now.

three saddles with mimic technology

6. Saddle Alignment

No matter which saddle you choose, it’s very important that the saddle is adjusted specifically for you. You could be on the most comfortable saddle in the world, but if it was not set correctly, it could still be a painful ride.

Person holding their bike seat and pulling up on it

The most common issues we see are saddles that are adjusted too high, which puts extra pressure on your sit bones and can cause your hips to rock. Saddles that are positioned too far forward or too far back can have you riding on the wrong part of the saddle, causing discomfort, chafing or extra pressure. And the tilt of the saddle is important; even a few degrees angled up or down can have you sliding or put extra pressure on sensitive areas, it’s always best to start with your saddle level and make minor tweaks to find the right position for you.

Now that you know the basics to buying the perfect saddle for you and your riding style, keep reading to learn how bike shorts and chamois cream can add even more comfort to your ride!

Add more comfort and protection with bike shorts and chamois!

7. Bike Shorts (or Tights, Pants, and Bibs)

The saddle makes the biggest contribution to posterior comfort, but you cannot underestimate how much a good pair of padded cycling shorts will improve your comfort on the bike seat. Wearing board shorts or jeans on a casual ride is fine, but for a ride of any length — whether it’s for fitness, commuting, a road ride, or off-road — should have you reaching for your favorite padded cycling shorts.

Bike pants, tights, loose fitting shorts, tight-fitting shorts, women's bibs and men's bibs

Why padded cycling shorts?

Fitted cycling shorts move with you. They glide over the saddle with less friction, hold the padding in place exactly where you want it, and are very breathable, not to mention comfortable. The padding on bike shorts is there to protect you from the saddle and minimize the chance of chafing.

The pad, which is referred to as a chamois (pronounced ‘shammy’), can vary greatly. The construction can utilize memory foam and other materials in different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses to maximize comfort and they are designed to be gender specific (check out our men’s and women’s options).

If going into public with spandex shorts is not your thing, there are lots of great alternative riding shorts that have a padded snug-fitting liner under a looser fitting outer short that transitions easily from the bike to the coffee shop or brewpub after the ride (view our men and women styles). You can also just buy liner shorts to wear like boxers under your favorite street clothes.

Cost comparison.

From the materials to the construction a good pair of cycling shorts (often with a higher price tag) is going to outlast and outperform a more basic pair.

When choosing a pair of shorts, compress the chamois between your fingers. Some pads compress all the way down while others are denser. The more dense and substantial the chamois the better the — especially on long rides.

How should cycling shorts fit?

You want your shorts to fit snugly. It’s important that they fit almost like a second skin so the chamois doesn’t move around. On the other hand, snug does not mean tight. You don’t want the fit to be restrictive. Size varies by brand and style so make sure to try them on at your local shop to find the pair that works best for you.

form-fitting cycling short bibs on a man and spandex cycling shorts on a a woman

What should I wear under my cycling shorts?

Cycling shorts are designed to be worn commando. No undies, please.

The shorts and chamois are designed to limit irritation and chafing. Having an extra layer of material effectively negates the benefits of wearing padded cycling shorts. The material can bunch and the seams can irritate, both of which could cause saddle sores.

How should I care for my cycling shorts?

Cycling shorts need to be washed after every ride. This might seem obvious, but keeping your shorts clean feels better and helps to prevent saddle sores. Wash them inside out to ensure you are really getting the chamois clean. Follow the manufacturer’s washing directions and always hang your shorts to dry; Lycra does not like the heat of the dryer and will break down quickly with repeated drying. Following these tips should help your shorts to last a long time.

ERIK’S has a 30-Day “Love’em or Leave’em Guarantee” on cycling shorts. If you don’t love the shorts you buy, within 30 days of purchase you can bring them back for store credit.

8. Use Chamois Cream for Extra Protection from Chafing

Originally cycling shorts were padded with a leather chamois. To keep it soft, pliable and comfortable, you had to condition it with a cream. Fast forward to today and chamois cream is an antibacterial lotion, balm or cream that riders use to prevent chafing or saddle sores. It is especially helpful for cyclists putting on lots of miles or riding in hot conditions. It helps to reduce friction and adds an extra layer of comfort on the saddle.

Chamois Butt'r in a tube, pump bottle, or stick

Use chamois cream sparingly. You only need a little bit. It should be applied directly to key areas of contact between your body and the chamois. Some folks apply it directly to their skin before pulling their shorts on. If you are riding with cycling shorts and experiencing chafing, consider chamois cream.

Ready to ride in comfort?

There’s a belief out there that biking isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Cyclists are supposed to put up with a certain amount of misery when riding. But when it comes to sitting on our bike, there are many solutions to get more comfortable. Getting set up correctly with the right bike saddle for you and using cycling shorts and chamois cream will definitely help you better enjoy the ride — and if you enjoy the ride, you’re more likely to ride more.

If you’re uncomfortable sitting on your bike, swing by an ERIK’S shop near you or shop online our entire selection of bike saddles, cycling shorts, and chamois cream