Many cyclists seem to assume that a saddle should last as long as the rest of their bike. It won’t. Saddles should be considered akin to a drive-train component – something that will wear out and requires replacing.
Bike fitters know that there are many aspects of a saddle that need evaluation and attention, including the choice of saddle and the various aspects of saddle positioning. But one aspect too often overlooked is the structural integrity of the saddle. Assessing when to replace a bike saddle requires both careful visual inspection as well as hands-on palpation. Often what is wrong with a saddle cannot be seen, but it can be felt.
If a bike fit client is complaining about discomfort on the saddle or backaches, or you observe pelvic instability or poor knee tracking, be sure to assess the saddle for soundness. It is amazing how often a clue to a sign or symptom is right there in the saddle.
Common saddle ailments include bent rails, cracked shell, deformed rear support wing (rear of the saddle on one side) and foam padding that has lost its oomph.
- Orientation of the nose: is the saddle aligned or twisted to one side?
- Relative height of the underside of the rear saddle wings: same or different? One side may present as being dropped down relative to the other
From the rear of the bike, look along the saddle.
- Is the saddle aligned with the top tube?
- Any noticeable deformity from left to right?
- Any left / right deformity or asymmetry? I find it helpful to place a flat plate like the saddle tilt tool on the saddle and move it gradually forward, assessing the saddle from different viewpoints to see if there is asymmetry in the shape of the saddle along its length.
- bent rails or broken rails. This usually results from a hard fall but is also possible over time from the relationship between the seat post clamp and the rails. Stress of riding over time and/or an improper connection between these two may also cause bending or breaking.
- cracks in the shell of the saddle. Cracked shells are very common, often just on one side of the cutout along the nose, but may be full width across the nose of the saddle.
Physical, Hands-on Inspection
A saddle that visually appears to be fine can turn out to be a candidate for the trash can once you get your hands on it. I use my thumbs to palpate along the saddle.
Press down on the saddle, including the rear support on each side, and along the nose including each side if there is a cutout.
Is there more give on one side than another? This is often the first clue to a cracked shell, only visible from underneath the saddle.
How does the padding feel? Is there resilience to your thumb pressure or does it just give way? If the padding feels very mushy, it is likely the foam padding has broken down and is not providing the intended support it used to provide. If you are using a pressure mapping system, fatigued foam will often show up as relatively low pressure across the whole saddle, rather than pronounced pressure differentials. The fatigued foam in the saddle is not supporting the rider in the desired areas, and migrating too much pressure to the undesired areas.
Finding the Cause Helps Provide a Solution
If you can identify through sight or touch aspects of a saddle that indicate a loss of structural integrity, the saddle is no longer up for the task and needs to be replaced. This may be with the same model of saddle or a different one, depending on the broader issues at hand, rider preference, and saddle availability.
I recently solved a client’s saddle woes by having her replace a 10-year-old saddle with a new one that was exactly the same model. This was a popular woman’s saddle with a lot of padding. Ten years of accumulated riding on the original saddle had broken down the foam to the extent that it was no longer providing support in the right places, and migrating pressure to the wrong places. The saddle had been good, until it wasn’t, indicating that the model of the saddle was a good choice. In other situations, a different shape of saddle may be warranted.
The Life of a Saddle: How Often Should You Replace Your Bike Saddle?
How long can a rider expect a bike saddle to last? As with any bicycle component, there is a wide range in material selection, design, and quality of the product. Often lower cost bikes come with lower-cost saddles made of cheaper materials with a shorter lifespan. I’ve seen saddles 2 years old that were toast, whereas an 8-year-old saddle could be perfectly fine. Saddles with a lot of foam filler have a shorter life span than a firmer saddle, due to age-related deterioration of the foam.
When dealing with saddle issues and in fact, any bike fit issue, make sure you rule out or identify the saddle as a potential culprit by looking carefully at it and giving it a good prod. This can lead to a vital “ah-ha” moment.
John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists – although a few have won races! Many don’t race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)