Monday, March 30, 2009

WTB Saddles

When I was visiting Portland my pal Scott reminded me that I haven't really written much about WTB saddles. I guess it's time to correct that.

But before I write about WTB saddles, I'm going to write a bit about Brooks saddles. A lot of people love Brooks saddles. Heck, I love Brooks saddles. About a decade ago my pal Andy and I were unpacking our crates of excess bike stuff while setting up for the annual Seattle Bike Swap. Andy pulls a well-worn Brooks Pro out of his crate. "How much you want for that?" I ask him. "Ten bucks," he says, "but it's pretty well shot." I check my wallet, "I've got eight bucks," I say. "Deal," says Andy.

That saddle had a few more miles in it. I rode a full brevet series on it in 1999. And I rode Paris-Brest-Paris on it. And the next year's brevet series. And Boston-Montreal-Boston. And the Rocky Mountain 1200 a couple of times. And a quick tour back to Minnesota. And a few more brevet series. And the Raid Californie-Oregon.

And, eventually, after I'd put about 50,000 miles on it, Andy was right. It was pretty well shot. The leather started to tear out at the rivets and the saddle developed a terminal sag that caused numbness in what my friend Alan Tilling refers to as "the gentleman's department." Time for a new saddle.

I tried various other Brooks saddles. I tried another Pro and a B17. I had some old Ideales (a leather French saddle similar to a Brooks). I gave them good trials (thousands of miles) but nothing quite fit like Andy's old Pro. Either the saddle would refuse to break in or it would break in and keep going. And the Brooks saddles, for all their fine qualities are expensive. And heavy. And the rail design is from an older era a more slack seat tubes. On some bikes, it's hard to get a Brooks back far enough.

I was working at Sammamish Valley Cycles when my Brooks Pro finally perished. Sammamish had (and probably still has) a bin of "take-off" saddles. Take-off saddles are saddles that customers have discarded. In some cases, these are brand new saddles. The customer may buy a new Bianchi or Colnago or whatever and they may have a saddle they prefer. Maybe it's a well-loved Brooks Pro or a Flite Trans-Am or something. In any case, they want their saddle mounted on their new bike and the old saddle goes in the take-off bin. Back when I was working there, Sammamish sold many of the take-off saddles for ten bucks.

Now here's the thing. These take-off saddles may be fine. Heck, they may be great. And at ten bucks a pop, it's pretty cheap to experiment. Lon Haldeman told me a story once that illustrates something interesting about the world of bike saddles. Lon is an ultra-distance legend and he runs these hundred-plus miles-per-day events called PAC Tours. At those kind of miles, PAC Tour riders have every kind of saddle issue and Lon's support van has a bin of saddles for folks to swap out. "Every trip," Lon told me, "somebody is cursing out their saddle and we swap it out with one from the bin. And on every trip, we end with someone praising the saddle we gave them out of that bin. And, you know, every saddle in that bin, every saddle that literally saved somebody's butt, is one that we took off of somebody else's bike when they were cursing it!"

I was thinking of Lon's story when I pulled my first WTB saddle out of the Sammamish Valley Cycle's take-off bin. It was a Rocket V. Sky Yaeger was making sure the Bianchi bikes came with WTB saddles back then, but some folks know exactly what saddle they want and it wasn't a WTB so we'd get a few in the take-off bin. I was looking for a saddle that I'd like well enough to commit to it for the 2500-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Race. I'd noticed a lot of 24-hour racers favored the Rocket V, so I gave it a try.

Now I don't think there is anything magical about WTB saddles, but I find they fit well. I rode the Rocket V on the GDR and I've been riding it since. All WTB saddles with the "V" designation have what WTB calls the "Love Channel" to keep the saddle from pressing on places that you don't want to go numb. Since this is a family-friendly blog, I'll just say that it works fine.

All my bikes wind up with WTB saddles. The Rocket V is a bit narrower than the Speed V and the Laser V. The wider saddles work well on bikes like my Dahon, where I ride a bit more upright. The Laser and Speed saddles have a bit more padding than the Rocket but for me at least they don't pass over into the "too cushy" range. In my experience, too much padding can lead to chafing or numbness.

Another thing I like about WTB saddles is that if you find a shape you like, say a Rocket V, you can get a cheaper one with steel rails or spend some more money and get a lighter version of the saddle. Also, because they do OEM saddles for a variety of bike makers, you can sometimes find different color schemes in shop take-off bins. Some Bianchi WTB saddles would have exotic looks, like fake leopard skin or chrome, if that's your thing.

The shop I manage, Bike Works, is physically tiny. Our sales floor is about the size of my living room and at any given time it'll have at least a dozen bikes in it (the shop, I mean, not my living room. Christine, Peter and Eric, before you chime in here, I've never had a dozen bikes in the living room. Four max. So don't give me a hard time about that!) Where was I? Oh yeah. I've got a tiny bike shop, space is at a premium. We've got a bin of used saddles, but there are only two models of new saddles we sell. They are both WTBs, the Speed V and the Speed She.

The bottom line, for me, is that WTB saddles work. They work well for me and they seem to work well for my customers. I always tell people that everybody has to find out for themselves what works for them and I tell them the Lon story. I tell them if they don't like the WTB, they can bring it back for a refund. As of this writing, nobody has come back for a refund.

Keep 'em rolling,

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