Contact Points Matter: Saddles

When I built my new bike for this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris, I was reminded of professional racers in the old days, who brought their favorite saddle and handlebars to the builder of their new bike. I’ve talked about handlebars here; today, I’ll cover saddles as the second contact point between us and our bikes.

For my new bike, I did what the pros used to do: I installed my favorite saddle, which has moved from one Bicycle Quarterly test bike to the next. It’s well-worn, which is why it is so comfortable: I had no saddle issues during the 56:35 hours of Paris-Brest-Paris.

Leather saddles change their shape over time: They conform to your anatomy as you ride. In my case, two dimples form where my sitbones go (above). Plastic saddles don’t have these indentations (or whatever your anatomy requires), so they use foam that temporarily conforms to your body’s shape. But the foam always pushes back, which creates pressure points that can cause pain, abrasions and saddle sores.

If you ride super-fast and only for relatively short periods, you barely touch your saddle, and most saddles will work fine. Once distances get longer, even the fastest racers care about their saddles. Ted King has been riding a Berthoud saddle in events like the 200-mile Dirty Kanza (above). He called it the “most comfortable saddle I’ve ever ridden.”

We started importing Berthoud saddles because we agree with Ted: Even among leather saddles, the Berthouds stand out for their comfort and quality. Not only is the leather absolutely top-notch, but the composite frame flexes a little, which improves the comfort further. (The metal frames of traditional leather saddles are unyielding and stiff.)

Berthoud saddles are available with a choice of stainless steel or titanium rails. The ti rails don’t just save weight: They are more flexible, making the saddles even more comfortable. Choosing your saddle is only partially about your body shape. More important is your riding style: When you pedal hard and your back is inclined at a low angle, you hardly touch the saddle, and you need a narrow saddle that fits between your legs. If you are riding longer distances and sit more upright, you put more weight on your sitbones, and you need a (slightly) wider saddle.

New in the Rene Herse program is the Soulor (above), which combines the minimalist, narrow shape of the superlight Galibier with more affordable stainless steel rails. Both the Soulor and the Galibier are a great choice for spirited riding. I’ve used the Galibier on a number of BQ test bikes, as well as the Concours de Machines J. P. Weigle.

For long rides, I prefer the Aravis (titanium rails) and Aspin (stainless), which have a slightly wider back and taller flanks that hold their shape a little better. That is the saddle I use on my new bike: Being comfortable is key for putting out power and riding fast.

The Agnel (titanium) and Marie-Blanque (stainless) are women’s saddles with shorter noses. However, some women prefer the standard Aravis/Aspin, since their longer rails offer better shock absorption. (The shorter nose of women’s saddles apparently was introduced to allow riding in skirts…)

Berthoud’s ‘Open’ models have a cutout that relieves pressure. For riders who suffer from saddle problems in this area, the ‘Open’ saddles are a great choice. (For me, both styles work equally well.)

Many customers ask how long it takes to break in a Berthoud saddle. This depends mostly on how old the leather is. If the saddle was made years ago and has been lying in a warehouse ever since, the leather will have dried out, and the break-in period will be much longer. When you hear stories of leather saddles taking forever to break in, they usually came from such old stocks.

We order our Berthoud saddles in small batches, so you are certain to get a fresh saddle. In my experience, it takes 150-200 miles (240-320 km) for a standard Berthoud saddle to become comfortable. The saddle will continue to improve over the following 500 or so miles (800 km). At that point, its condition will stabilize, and it will last many years. The ‘Open’ saddles are more flexible and break in more quickly.

Don’t try to speed the break-in period by applying neatsfoot oil or other products that soften the leather by breaking down its fibers.

If you want to soften the leather a bit, you can apply Obenauf’s leather preservative (above), which uses beeswax and natural propolis to soften the leather without damaging its fibers. Obenauf’s also great for keeping your leather saddle in perfect shape for many years.

How long does a Berthoud saddle last? I am still riding one of the prototype saddles that Berthoud made in 2007. It’s on my Urban Bike (above) that sees year-round use in rainy Seattle. The saddle on my new Herse has been through many adventures, too, yet it was supremely comfortable during the 1200 km (765 miles) of last month’s Paris-Brest-Paris.

And if your saddle does wear out eventually, it’s easy to replace the leather top. We have all replacement tops in stock, and you just need a Torx wrench to take off the old top and install a new one. All other spare parts are available as well, so your Berthoud saddle is fully rebuildable.

But really, you have to ride a Berthoud saddle to understand why we like them so much!

Click here for more information about Berthoud saddles.

Photo credits: Ansel Dickey (Photo 2), Nicholas Joly (Photos 8, 13).

About Jan Heine

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Rene Herse Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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40 Responses to Contact Points Matter: Saddles

  1. Frenchy says:

    Do these offer more forward/backward adjustment than Brooks saddles?

    • Andreas says:

      The rails are short like traditional Brooks leather saddles. Especially noticeable if you typically push your saddle back on the rails. I had to switch from a 20 to a 35mm setback post to get the Galibier in the same position as a Regal.

  2. john hawrylak says:

    I ride a Brooks B-17 and have not had a problem. However, I’m eager to try a Berthoud saddle, based on it’s design, good feedback from a club member, and your write-up.

    I’m 190# and ride with the bars at saddle height.

    What Berthoud saddle replaces a Brooks B-17 for me?

    • Jan Heine says:

      The width of the Aspin/Aravis is half-way between a Professional and a B-17. It should work well for you.

    • Steve Palincsar says:

      The Berthoud Aspin / Aravis replaced both the B.17 and the Team Pro for me.

      • Dave says:

        The Brooks Team Professional width 160mm where the Aspin is 157mm. The B17 is 175mm. So the Aspin is not half way.

      • Jan Heine says:

        How a saddle feels cannot be easily be expressed in numbers. I think most riders who’ve tried all these saddles would agree with Steve – the Aspin/Aravis feels about half-way between the two Brooks. Similarly, the Galibier/Soulor doesn’t feel as narrow as the numbers suggest.

  3. Dana Shifflett says:

    re: leather saddles – I know how to adjust mine, but not when or how much. Can you address this?

    • Jan Heine says:

      There should be some tension, but not too much. On a Berthoud saddle, if the nose piece has play, definitely tighten the bolt. If the saddle feels like it’s sagging a lot, also tighten it. But if feels fine, then there is no need to tighten it.

      There isn’t a ‘saddle tensiometer’ that allows you to quantify this, so you have to go by feel. Fortunately, unless you totally overdo it, you won’t damage the saddle – there is a lot of leeway in that adjustment.

  4. Tom Schibler says:

    Beautiful saddles. I have used several Selle Anatomica and Brooks saddles including the Cambium. Currently using a Specialized Power saddle which is very short—I find it very comfortable. What are your thoughts on the “women’s “ (short)saddle for men?

    • Jan Heine says:

      You don’t need the extra length at the front. However, the longer rails are a bit more flexible, so that is why most men choose the ‘standard’ versions. The women’s versions are a little lighter, though.

  5. Kingston Smith says:

    My Aravis was the most comfortable saddle I’d ever had until around 7k miles when the leather formed so well to my backside that it isn’t so comfortable anymore.

    • Jan Heine says:

      At that point, it may be necessary to replace the leather top. I am surprised that this happened after just 7,000 miles, but much depends on the riding conditions.

  6. mtbvfr says:

    HI Jan,

    What is the Silver and Yellow tubing, attached to the rear of your Urban Bike, for?

    Thanks, MTB.

  7. Phil Houck says:

    While titanium rails are nice, I am concerned about how much weight they will bear. I’m about 210 lbs and the last thing I need is a saddle with broken rails. Would stainless steel be a better choice for me?

    • Jan Heine says:

      I think you could use either – it depends not just on your weight, but also your riding style. I have not yet seen a broken saddle rail (it seems that they bend when overloaded), but if you’re concerned about durability, the stainless steel rails are a great choice.

      • Phil Houck says:

        Thanks for your reply. I notice that the picture of the Berthoud Aravis TI Saddle has the Berthoud anti-twisting brace. Is this included in the $295 price?

      • Jan Heine says:

        The anti-twisting brace is included with all current Berthoud saddles. It’s also available separately to retrofit older saddles. However, if your seatpost clamps your saddle firmly, the brace isn’t needed – it’s easy to remove.

      • calcagnolibero says:

        I am 85-90 kgs and broke two Titanium B17.
        I have been riding only Steel B17 since.
        May I ask you why you don’t recommend using Proofide?

      • Jan Heine says:

        The titanium Berthoud saddles are much stronger: There are no welds, and the composite underframes can flex and absorb shocks that otherwise stress the frame.

        As to Proofide, we used to think that it contained neatsfoot oil, but I haven’t been able to confirm that, so I took out that comment in the post.

  8. woahdae says:

    I gave up my comfortable leather saddles for synthetic due to always stressing about covering the leather in the rain (I’m also in Seattle). I’m usually doing lots of short trips around town, and either the cover is another thing to remember to take on/off, or the saddle just lives under a cover and I ride on top of it for half the year.

    What do you do to protect your saddle from the rain?

    • Jan Heine says:

      When I ride, I sit on the saddle, so it doesn’t need to be protected. If I park the bike outside in the rain, I use a shower cap or a plastic bag. The saddle of my Urban Bike has withstood 12 years of almost daily use in rainy Seattle without much special care.

      Leather saddles are more durable than most people think, even in the rain. If you ride it too long while it’s really wet, it will lose its shape. (The leather tops are shaped by making them wet and putting them into a form.) But otherwise, even if it gets wet, just let it dry and put some Obenauf’s Leather Preservative on it if the leather has dried out too much.

      • Mat Grewe says:

        When I ride in the rain, the nose of my Berthoud gets pretty wet still. Has anyone had issues with just the nose of their saddle deforming, if so, is their a way you found to protect it while riding? (I’ve had no shape issues yet, just discoloration, but that doesn’t bother me).

      • Jan Heine says:

        The nose doesn’t deform, since you don’t sit on it, so it doesn’t need protection. The leather dries out, so we recommend to put some Obenauf’s on it (after the leather has dried completely). That will take care of the discoloration, too. Leather saddles do get a little patina with age. To me, that adds to their appeal.

  9. Scott says:

    I find the B17 narrow the most comfortable of the leather saddles I have ridden. Which Berthoud model would be a good replacement choice?

    Also, not saddle related, but I really would like to know who built the frame of your new bike. It looks beautiful.

  10. Hi Jan, I have had major saddle issues for years and have tried B and C Brooks as well as pretty much everything else. I currently ride an Infinity and it has been very successful ( I managed the Tour Aotearoa 3,000k Brevet on it) . I ride a Salsa Timberjack ti with Carver bars and aeros above so it’s a weird 2 stage riding position. Basically this waffle is to ask you if the Aspin etc will work for the positions?
    P.s. love your answer about rain…it makes so much sense now!!!

    • Jan Heine says:

      It’s difficult to make saddle recommendations without seeing you on the bike. All Berthoud saddles have relatively narrow noses, so they are comfortable for most riders. If your aero position is very low, I’d recommend the Galibier/Soulor. Otherwise, I think you’ll like the Aravis/Aspin.

      • Thanks or the reply, it’s a high position for long distance comfort as much as speed. It’s worth a go. Cheers, Stephen.
        P.S. an Antelope Hills with the stronger sidewall would be awesome when you can justify the expense.

  11. marmotte27 says:

    Was it really the Soulor rather than the Galibier you used on your Concours J;P. Weigle, where every gram counted?

  12. mike w. says:

    i’m curious about the revived Ideale saddle company that Bicycle Quarterly covered a few months ago. Do you have any plans to import these saddles, or do you know if the makers have plans to bring them to the US?

  13. 20kmrando says:

    With the current trend towards wider saddles, even in racing bikes, why wouldn’t you carry the Mente as well?
    My backside seems to do a lot better with a wide saddle, irrespective of my position on the bike, so the Aspin works well in my bikes with handlebars lower than the saddle, but if I were to raise the bars (keeping the stem at the same length), I would go for the Mente.

    • Jan Heine says:

      The Aspin / Aravis is already significantly wider than most modern saddles, so it works well for most riders. We are thinking about adding the even wider Berthoud saddles to the line, if there is demand.

  14. Ian Raymond says:

    I decided to try a B17 which I slowly broke in (I have 3 bikes all ridden equally) and I just could not find the comfort that is supposedly legend. At around 3 years having decided to sell it I thought 1 last try so I made my own shape with a razor and a power drill. Better but not great… Next I fitted a steel u spring. Now I have suspension on my already springy steel frame but more the seat noticeably has auto yaw – it rolls from side to side. Happy at last! I have found having 3 different seats is key for no saddle sore, just choose a different bike the next day if I notice pressure points. I hope this is of interest to readers here and thanks for your site, love the detail on tires…

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