Lady on a bike cross-county

Seats and Saddles for Electric Bikes

June 7, 2012
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Proper seat selection for an electric bike will make a huge difference in the pleasure, performance, and comfort when riding, particularly over long-distance. This primer is designed to provide the basic information about saddle types and features, as well as where they are best employed.

Background:

During college I would ride modest distances over level ground using my road bike, sometimes racking up to 20 miles/day.  At the time I knew little about saddles and proper riding gear which periodically led to chafing and fatigue, and ultimately limiting the comfort of the experience. Years later I moved to Austin Texas, a beautiful city nestled in beside the Balcones Escarpment/Hill Country, and began to explore it with my new Specialized Rockhopper MtB with Rockshox (RS-1, the originals).  The seat was shaped like an Isosceles triangle, broader in the rear, narrow in the front, and crowned with thinly padded synthetic material.  For the type of trail riding I was doing, it didn’t matter much; I wasn’t really going very far and I had all afternoon to get there.

My home now is the Seattle-Metro in the Pacific Northwest, and aside from nearly daily doses of rain, we have these rather steep hills interspersed within the city which can be very intimidating for cyclists.  A few years ago I became deeply involved in electric bikes.  My job was up a steep hill about 5 miles away, although after installing a 9C hub motor onto my old Rockhopper, the hill climb no longer presented a problem.  In fact I rather enjoyed it and expanded the scope of my business activity by riding up to 50 miles/day.  This naturally translated into a lot more time in the saddle.  The pains of my college days suddenly returned.  The Specialized Seat by this time was cracked and frayed; time for a new one… and without knowing – I chose poorly.

In addition, I noted that riding beyond 35 miles in a single session would foster a tingling numbing sensation in the groin and legs, the pain of which would linger for hours.  Spurred on to understand the problem, I sought answers from my local bike shop, and they pointed to the saddle.  For the next few months I employed various seats over increasing range, eventually settling on one that worked quite well for long-distance, allowing me to travel over 140 miles/day… day after day on my electric cross-country road trip.

Let’s explore the high points of good saddle design!

 

Brief History of Origin:

With any subject, I am fascinated by its history.  Long before invention of bicycles, humanity had been riding astride various beasts of burden for thousands of years.  Written records describe saddles that we would recognize today – however primitive, they began with the domestication of the horse, perhaps 4,000 BCE, although in truth no one knows for sure.  From the onset, saddles were designed to support the rider or load, and were secured onto the animals back along the girth, primarily with comfort of the rider in mind.  The first saddles were made using heavy cloth, weaves, and padding, though they did little to vary the point-load over the spine of the animal or map it correctly to the sit-bones of the rider.
Jockey On English Saddle
Through intervening centuries of trade, travel, and warfare – leather proved to be more durable, and eventually saddles incorporated a solid “tree” structure which better framed the load over the animal shoulders and hindquarters.  This in turn greatly added to the loadbearing capacity, endurance, and useful lifetime of the creature… and comfort for the rider.  The underlying “tree” is aptly named because of the source material used that allowed for limited suspension as well as provided a foundation from which to hang or secure loads.

The evolution of the saddle, especially in the last few centuries – has been driven by purpose, the variations of which are a testament to the adaptability of the interface and the creative ingenuity between man and beast and machine. We’ve come a long way since riding bareback on goat, camel, or horse – and yet the fundamental basics of the modern saddle are indelible and directly inherited from design we can trace back to antiquity. The names and materials of the components of construction may have changed, however they are readily identifiable and extremely important for the type and style of modern ridership.

Components:

For leather horse saddles, we can see that there are three primary components relative to cycling:  Seat, Tree (framework), and Padding.  Comparatively, bicycle saddles have a Covering, Shell, and Mounting Rails.  Padding and Suspension are features unique to types of bicycle riding, and are not implicitly common.

  • Covering:  The outer layer covering the Shell is often made from Lycra, synthetic fiber, vinyl, or leather, and often perforated for breathability.  Generally, these materials require little maintenance or upkeep beyond occasional wipe-down.  Leather, though by some considered archaic is however the most popular and forgiving material… and yet requires a bit more attention to maintain.  Good durable covering combined with maintenance should withstand elementals of UV and rain, resist damage such as nicks and cuts and cracking, and should also be slippery enough to assuage chafing.
  • Shell: Analogous to the “Tree” somewhat, the Shell provides the shape and framework for the saddle by spreading out the load, and can be made of plastic or carbon fiber.  One particular saddle manufacturer uses adjustable open metal framework covered by stretched leather.  Generally shells are quite rigid, though may allow for slight deflection typically along on the periphery.
  • Rails:  The twin tubular rigid structure beneath the shell that allows for binding and positioning of the saddle assembly relative to the bike frame.  Rails are typically made of steel, aluminum, possibly titanium, or carbon fiber, and can be hollow or solid.  The clamping mechanisms allow the saddle to pitch up or down, as well as forward or back to suit the riders’ posture.

Specialized Avatar Gel Bicycle Saddle
Specialized Avatar Gel Bicycle Saddle: Classic example of a Multisport saddle, having a synthetic covering with light gel padding over a carbon-reinforced shell, and supported by Cr-Mo rails. Note the cutaway and venting for increased recirculation.

Variations and Details:

  • Padding:  With bicycles, padding is optional and varies on construction.  Generally it is made from high-density foam, felts, and/or employs gel pads that are optimally placed between the covering and the shell.   Given time, padding will break down.  Leather covered seats may or not have padding.
  • Suspension: Also optional, suspension assemblies are constructed of mechanical springs, elastomers, and even air shocks.  They are integrated between the rails and the shell.  Traditionally these have their best use with bikes having no other form of suspension.
  • Ergonomics: Seats come in various shapes, although the most notable properties are…
    • Width: Wider seats such (as Cruisers) afford more comfort verses slender (such as Road and Triathelon) for greater athleticism.
    • Shape:  Anatomical, triangular, low-profile, venting, dual-pad; nearly one for every body type.
    • Cutaway:  Central sculpturing that relieves constriction of blood flow through the crotch area, circumventing numbness and body dysfunction.   Cutaways typically have a long central vent cutout or channel, and/or have corresponding raised padding for the sit-bones.
    • Nose:  Varies between long and narrow to short and stubby, droop-nosed, or possibly non-existent.
    • Weight:  Competitors will seek the lightest weight relative to the depth of their pocketbooks to achieve the greatest racing edge in exchange for comfort.

 

Riding Classification Types:

  • Unicycle: Not particularly applicable to this discussion.
  • BMX trick, trials,  & stunt riding:  Seat optional, again not particularly applicable to this discussion.
  • General Cycling: Low impact & casual riding over relatively short distances such as to the store, the park, or the beach.  Bikes associated with this activity have limited frame suspension (or none at all) and therefore employ low-cost wide, recreational or cruiser-shaped, leather or care-free vinyl-covered padded seats with spring suspension.  About as deluxe in comfort as it gets.
  • Recumbent:  By virtue of the seating position and having good back support, recumbent seats are generally quite wide and short, having well-defined raised sit-bone regions,  and possibly without a nose.  Or, they can be entirely integrated riding chairs. Very popular for elderly bicyclists with weak backs and wrists.
  • Mountain Biking: Trail & downhill, technical & aggressive to extremes.  Borrowing uniquely from road saddles, these types of seats are shorter in length, wider at the rear with durable tough covering, and often slim on padding and suspension-free due to greater bike suspension.  They may sport a cutaway and a droop-nose which allows for faster positioning and reduced hazard.  Mountain bikes generally have the greatest choice for selection because they can be adapted for urban, trail, downhill, beach, or all the above.  Shapes are often recreational, MTB, multisport, or road.
  • Road Cycling: Urban bike & trail, rural road & highway.  Specially crafted light-weight narrow seats, having highly-sculpted sit-bone support and/or cutaways that support greater blood flow, and often can be very expensive.  Padding varies between none to gel, though are suspension-free.
  • Triathlon: In a word… Racing.  These seats are the longest, most narrow, and minimalistic; the extreme of road types, and have the lightest weights.

 

Best Saddle Shape Classifications for Electric Bikes:

Electric bicycles have their greatest appeal in General, Recreational, or Mountain Bike categories. The common types of saddles most frequently employed are listed below.  Please note that the examples provided are meant to illustrate the spectrum available and are not necessarily an endorsement of quality or value.

Cruiser: Triangular, short & wide, often fully-spring suspension, and amply padded. The sitting area varies greatly from simplistically crowned, to largely dished-out or well-sculpted, and having raised sit-bone padding. Quite possibly the most comfortable seats ever crafted for casual riding, they are not well-suited though for any sort of long distance, fast-paced, or prolonged riding, and can lead to reduced blood flow, numbness, and chaffing. They are the heaviest of seats, and unusually the most creative. Cost: $10-$70. Avenir Classic Cruiser Saddle
Avenir Classic Cruiser SaddleRavX Cruiser Delux Ultimate Comfort Saddle
RavX Cruiser Delux Ultimate Comfort Saddle
Schwinn No Pressure Bicycle Seat
Schwinn No Pressure Bicycle Seat
Hobson Easyseat Ergonomical Dual Pad Bicycle Saddle
Hobson Easyseat Ergonomical Dual Pad Bicycle Saddle
Recreational: A compromise of styling in-between MTB and road and cruiser, they take the best aspects of each shape to define a seat that is better suited for the weekend warrior or commuter. They are less wide than cruiser at the rear though longer, gel-padded and possessing cutaways or channels for greater blood flow, and may employ some form of suspension. Again, these seats are generally not designed for long distance, although are the most comfortable for MTB riders and easy commuters. Cost: $20-$200+. Serfas Full Suspension Hybrid Bicycle Saddle
Serfas Full Suspension Hybrid Bicycle Saddle
Selle Royal Respiro Athletic Cool Xsenium Bicycle Saddle - Mens
Selle Royal Respiro Athletic Cool Xsenium Bicycle Saddle – (Men’s)
ISM Bicycle Saddle - Sport
ISM Bicycle Saddle, SportBrooks B73 City/Touring Bicycle Saddle
Brooks B73 City/Touring Bicycle Saddle
MTB: Strictly speaking, these saddles are more closely aligned with road bike seats though more rugged and slightly wider though not as long, with sculpted center cutaways for better blood flow, and may sport a droop-nose for easy dismounting. They are best for endurance, though designed more for trail, downhill, or cross-country beatings. Cost: $40-$200+. Planet Bike 5020 Mens ARS Standard Anatomic Relief Saddle with Gel
Planet Bike 5020 Men’s ARS Standard Anatomic Relief Saddle with Gel
Avenir Mens 300 Series Mountain Saddle
Avenir Men’s 300 Series Mountain Saddle
WTB Pure V Pro Saddle
WTB Pure V Pro Saddle
Multisport: Essentially a competitive MTB seat for racing; a sub-classification that lies between purists MTB and Road, following MTB design of shape, though forgoing highly-sculptured padding, yet employing a copious cutaway and being very strong and lightweight. Excellent for endurance. Cost: $50-$300+. BrooksB-17 Narrow Imperial ATB Trekking Bicycle Saddle
Brooks B-17 Narrow Imperial ATB/Trekking Bicycle Saddle
ISM Century Saddle Black
ISM Century Saddle Black
Terry Mens Liberator Y Black
Terry Mens Liberator Y Black
Road Cycling: Longer, narrower, possibly the lightest weight, with padding that varies from Spartan hard shell to highly-sculpted, and nearly always central-vented. Designed for endurance and long-distance, they are optimized to provide the best sit-bone support, and reduced profile to assuage chafing and increase blood flow. Cost: $50-$300+. Selle Italia ProLink Light Gel Flow Road Bicycle Saddle w/ Carbon-Vanox Tube
Selle Italia ProLink Light Gel Flow Road Bicycle Saddle – Carbon-Vanox Tube
Origin8 Pro Uno Saddle - Brown
Origin8 Pro Uno Saddle – Brown
Fizik Aliante Carbon Braided Twin Flex Road Bicycle Saddle
Fizik Aliante Carbon Braided Twin Flex Road Bicycle SaddleWTB Valcon SLT Saddle w/ Titanium Rail - Carbon Black
WTB Valcon SLT Saddle w/ Titanium Rail – Carbon Black

 

Manufacturers:

Top Manufacturers having wide selection include, but not limited to:

Avenir, Brooks, Cloud 9, eclat, Electra, Eleven81, Fizik, Flybikes, ISM, Kore, MacNeil, MegaSoft, Nirve, Odyssey, Origin 8, Planet Bike, Prologo, Pyramid, RavX, Ritchey, Schwinn, SDG, Selle (et al), Serfas, Specialized, Sportourer, Sunlite, Terry, Tioga, VELO, WTB, XLC.  (Source: Amazon)

For MtB, Road and Multisport, the quality of workmanship is dominated by Brooks, Fizik, Selle (et al), and WTB.

In a class all to their own are Brooks Saddles:  These are a direct throwback to the original bicycle saddle that was adapted after the Brooks-engineered English Horse saddles of the 1800’s.  They are made of durable leather conditioned and stretched over an adjustable metal framework that may or not employ metal springs.  Brooks saddles are not padded; instead they use a special saddle dressing which both protects and softens the leather against elements.  And though it takes about 500 miles or more to break-in/conform to the riders shape, there is a modicum of suspension that lends greatly to comfort by virtue of the stretched and treated leather.  There are many models from which to choose, albeit casual, recreational, touring, and MTB.  Some versions have a center cutout for increased blood flow and ventilation.  IMO, the slickness of well-treated leather has no equal, and is perfectly suited for long distance riding.  Be prepared though to crack that wallet wide open; but…you truly get what you pay for with Brooks.

Last words and conclusions:

In my quest to find the perfect saddle, I have tried many.  The last one I purchased may never wear out with proper care.  It wasn’t cheap, but it has been by far the best fitting and most comfortable saddle to date.  Can you guess which one?  Regardless of which saddle you choose… and it is certainly a most personal choice, during cross-country all saddles become un-comfortable after 50 fast and hard miles.  The challenge therefore is finding the one saddle that is the least un-comfortable.  Yes, this is backward-logic, but makes good sense if you are into going the distance!  Therefore:

Girl On MTB
  • The most comfortable saddle is the one you rarely spend time in; if you did – you wouldn’t be in it for long because of numbness and chafing.
  • Saddle Padding and Seat Suspension are features best employed for bike frames not having front and/or rear suspension.
  • Moderately wide and relatively firm seats are best for high-impact trail riding with downhill frames sporting full-suspension.
  • Longer narrow seats are best for high-repetition, such as racing or cross-country.
  • Seats that are sculpted and/or sport a cutaway are designed to reduce numbness, increase blood flow, and ventilation; they are designed for endurance.
  • Weight matters if the type of riding is uphill or long-distance.
  • Materials of construction matter for durability.  Some are well-suited for exposure and require little care, such as vinyl’s and synthetics.  Lycra and Leather are best for high-repetition.  Leather is the most delicate, popular, and comfortable, and has the potential to last quite long if well-managed.
  • The best way to gain saddle experience is to locate a local store that offers an exchange system which allows you to try various models.

 

Best of luck, good hunting, and safe travels!
~KF

Eric has been involved in the electric bike industry since 2002 when he started a 6000 square foot brick and mortar Electric Bike store in downtown San Francisco. He is a true believer that small electric vehicles can change the way we operate and the way we think.

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