Leather saddles – a bike fitter’s perspective
Recently, a client asked me “Why don’t bike fitter’s like Brooks saddles?” The question wasn’t really specific to Brooks saddles per se, but rather the ‘old school’ style of leather saddles made by Brooks and others like Selle Anatomica and Berthoud.
I was initially surprised by the question as I have nothing against these saddles but, after some thought, I realised that there was a lot of merit to the question. I haven’t ever recommended one of these saddles to a client (though I have fitted quite a few riders who already use them). But the reason is probably not what you think it is…
So what are these leather saddles I’m talking about?
They consist of tensioned leather stretched over a metal frame. The leather is allowed to flex and mould to the cyclist’s body. The advantages of this design is that, just like leather shoes stretch and mould to your feet, this style of leather saddle can stretch and mould to your bottom.
Like all saddles, some riders find them supremely comfortable and would not consider riding anything else. Other riders, even after a solid bike fit session, never find them comfortable.
One of the idiosyncrasies of a leather saddle such as a Brooks B17 is that they require a “break in” period. It takes time for the leather to soften and mould to the rider. There are many opinions on how a saddle should be broken in. A quick web search will bring up a plethora of different methods. On the whole the methods boil down to either lots of time or the application of various substances.
This is in contrast to saddles that use a plastic or carbon shell for structural support and some form of padding for comfort. These saddles start at ‘peak comfort’. Comfort then deteriorates over time as the padding compresses and the shell wears out. There is no break in period other than the cyclist adjusting to the new saddle.
Bike fitter recommended?
So why might bike fitters not recommend leather saddles? The break in period means that it’s unlikely that a rider will feel instant comfort. And it’s possible they will feel quite uncomfortable. It follows that they are less likely to choose a leather saddle over another option. Further, it’s not possible to have a two week trial period for these saddles. At the end of two weeks they have started the break in. They are no longer ‘as new’ and can’t be restocked.
Another reason that a bike fitter might not recommend a leather saddle is that they require care over their lifetime. Like all leather items, they need to be regularly treated or they will deteriorate. And getting them wet can cause problems if maintenance is lacking. Not every cyclist is up for regular saddle maintenance. Fitters can be hesitant to recommend something that is high maintenance if they don’t know the cyclist well.
None of this is to say they can’t be the BEST saddle for a particular rider.
My observation is that people who spend substantial time in the saddle – like cycle tourers and Audax riders/randoneurs – often find that this style of saddle fantastic. In contrast, other types of saddles can become increasingly uncomfortable over the course of a long ride. When you’ve spent 3 days non-stop on an uncomfortable saddle, you may be quite prepared to spend time breaking in a saddle if it means long term comfort.
So in answer to the original question ‘why don’t bike fitters recommend leather saddles’, it’s not because of anything against the saddles themselves. There are just some practical considerations that get in the way.
Two final thoughts to close this post out:
1. An interesting development is the Brooks Camabium saddles where rubber is used in the place of leather. The advantage is there is no break in period. Additionally they are more weather proof. The jury is out as to whether they can really replicate the comfort of a well broken in leather saddle.
2. For cyclists with a well broken in a leather saddle, a major change in position can mean that the saddle becomes uncomfortable. A subsequent break in period might be required. In a worse case scenario, a replacement saddle could be needed if the old one can’t be “broken” to the new position.