Intended use should be the first thing that you consider when selecting a saddle. Would a high end racing saddle work on your beach cruiser? Sure, but why pay top dollar for a lightweight saddle when you will be putting it on a 45 lb bike that you only ride less than a mile to the coffee shop now and then. So you must consider what is important to you, and this will likely be based on what type of riding you plan to do and what your goals are.
Many people new to cycling make the assumption that a saddle with more padding will be more comfortable than one with minimal padding. This is simply not the case. Padding does impact the comfort of a saddle, but proper placement is far more critical than the amount or thickness. All saddles have some degree of give or flex when the weight of the rider is applied. The flex is achieved through compression of padding, or via flex in the shell. Most padding in saddles is comprised of some combination of closed and open cell foam. With use, padding will break down in the areas of the saddle that see the greatest application of weight. The shells of most modern saddles are made of either plastic or carbon fiber and are far more resistant to fatigue than padding. We have found saddles with minimal padding and a properly designed shell remain more consistent in shape, flex and comfort over time. A saddle with very heavy padding will break down with extended use, often becoming uncomfortable as a result.
If you intend to race in any capacity, then performance and weight should be stand out features. If you ride for fitness and fun, then your focus should be on a saddle that is comfortable and that you will not dread sitting on for a few hours. Most of us are looking for the elusive saddle in the middle, one that offers both all day comfort; good power transfer, and tips the scale a reasonable weight.
You must also consider potential compatibility issues. Many saddles are available with carbon fiber rails; due to the oval shape of the rails these saddles are not compatible with most seat posts that employ single bolt side clamp mechanisms. One other potential compatibility consideration is saddle profile. Some saddles have a very low profile, meaning the distance from the rail to the bottom of the shell is quite minimal, in some cases, 2cm or less. A low profile saddle may interfere with angle adjustment depending on the type of seat post you have. Some seat posts have more material protruding above the clamp mechanism than others that can come into contact with the bottom of the saddle. The greater the degree of negative fore to aft adjustment, the more likely you will run into problems.
Where and What to Buy
Most saddle manufacturers offer a wide range of different saddles. Often they offer multiple versions of the same saddle at different price points. As a general rule, of thumb the higher priced versions will be lower in weight, often utilizing carbon fiber rails instead of steel or titanium. Some manufacturers claim a reduction in vibration transmission with the use of carbon fiber rails. While none of our test saddles utilize carbon fiber rails, our testers have put in a good amount of time on saddles equipped with carbon fiber rails. If there is a reduction in road vibration, it is minimal and will likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of riders. So the main benefit of carbon rails comes down to weight. The price increase from alloy to carbon can be substantial, up to $100. Whether or not the decrease in weight justifies the increase in price depends on how important saving a few grams is to you. Some of the ultra high-end versions of saddles come not only with carbon fiber rails, but also utilize a carbon fiber shell. A carbon fiber shell can impact the comfort and flex of a saddle, often being stiffer than the plastic version of the same shell. Some saddle manufactures also offer mountain bike specific saddle versions. These are often constructed with tougher covers and scuff guards on the corners, so depending on your intended use this may be a factor for consideration. Another variation often offered is a TT, or Time Trial version. Most time trial specific saddles have a shorter, more padded nose. The shorter nose allows for a more forward saddle position while still maintaining UCI regulations for saddle placement in sanctioned races. If you are buying a new saddle, we recommend purchasing the cheapest version. If you fall in love with the shape and design, you can always upgrade later, and move the cheaper saddle to another bike or sell it.
If you have friends that ride, they may have a few saddles cluttering the garage, from their own trial and error saddle search. Borrowing saddles from friends to try out is a great way to sample some different saddle shapes and types prior to breaking out your wallet. Keep in mind, however, that a saddle that has been broken in may feel different than the one you eventually purchase new.
You may find the best prices with online retailers, but when it comes to saddles, we recommend you visit your local bike shop. Many retailers will have test saddles on hand that you can borrow, (a deposit is usually required) and keep for a few days to a week. Often retailers will apply your deposit to the purchase price of a new saddle, in an effort to make sure you not only test, but purchase from them. Most bike shops will help you set it up properly on your bike so that you can make an educated decision as to whether or not is suits you.
Another important factor is fit. Saddle fit varies in the same way that boot or shoe fit does. Your individual anatomy will make some saddles feel amazing and others feel like a medieval torture device. Many variables come into play when considering fit, including width of your sit bones, flexibility, and to what extent you naturally rotate your pelvis forward when on the bike. High performance saddles are designed with the assumption that the rider will be wearing cycling specific shorts with a padded chamois. This partly explains why racing saddles tend to have a bit less padding than saddles designed for casual riding.
Another resource is the saddle manufacturers, many of whom have a system to pair you with a saddle. Fizik, for example, utilizes the Spine Concept system to pair riders with a saddle based on flexibility. Selle Italia offers IDMatch service at select retailers, pairing riders with the appropriate saddle based on a series of measurements, and the intended use.
When you do purchase a saddle, give it some time. Your first ride may not be a blissful experience. It may take a few rides to get used to a new saddle, especially if you have been using another saddle with substantially different dimensions. Setting up your new saddle properly is critical; a difference of 1-2 degrees in the fore to aft angle can make an enormous difference in how a saddle feels. During our testing all saddles were set at an angle between 0 degrees and -3 degrees, using a digital level. Likewise, moving your saddle forward or backwards will also impact comfort, fit and performance.
It is also important to keep in mind that total saddle height, (the distance from the bottom of the rails to the top of the saddle) can vary dramatically from saddle to saddle. If your new saddle is taller than your old one, you will need to drop your seatpost in order to compensate for the difference in height. Conversely, if your new saddle is shorter than the one it is replacing you will need to raise your seat post. Your cycling shorts also have an effect on setting your saddle height. Proper saddle height allows for good leg extension, and optimal power transfer. The difference of padding thickness from one pair of cycling shorts to another can equal a few millimeters, which can raise or lower your overall position on the bike. We recommend you use the same shorts when trying out different saddles to eliminate the variable your shorts can have on fit and comfort. Most bicycle shops will be more than willing to assist you in setting up your new saddle assuming you have purchased it from them.
Taking it one step further…
A rider has three contact points on a bicycle they are the saddle, handlebars, and pedals. If one contact point is not in proper adjustment, the imbalance will cascade to impact the other two. To get the most out of your saddle and bicycle, we recommend that you seek the services of a qualified bike fitter. Having your other contact points set up properly will allow you to isolate the saddle component of bike fit, and A proper bike fit will allow you to obtain the greatest benefit from your investment in a new bicycle saddle. If you would like to know more about bike fitting, there are several online resources.