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,



Anonymous said...

Hey Kent! Thanks for the recommendation. I may have to come in and give one of these a try.

Several years ago, I put a Brooks on my bike. It looks sweet and has aged into a very lovely object...but this winter, I was thinking to myself, when did I fall out of love with my bike? When did it stop feeling like an extension of myself?

Well, darn it if it wasn't when I switched my saddle to something "fancy". So I pulled that Brooks (which by the way, never seemed to "break in" like I heard they're supposed to after about 5000 miles on it), and put back on my old saddle.

Thus far, no regrets with that decision, though for science, I'm going to switch back on my Brooks at some point this summer for a week just to verify that it's the saddle that was bringing me down and not the lack of powerful legs and stamina.

Gunnar Berg said...

I just fell into your blog by mistake. I'm old, like I could be your father. I have half a dozen bikes with Brooks and have never heard of WTB saddles - and don't care. Being from Minnesota, your trip link did catch my eye. Thanks, I enjoyed it. Stop over to 1410 Oakwood and say hello.

BJ Nicholls said...

There is no saddle that's ideal for everyone. While my WTB saddles are okay, I'm more comfortable on my men's Terry saddle. It's too bad the only reliable way to test saddles is for every individual rider to buy and ride several. I've owned a Brooks saddle and unfortunately it required a long break in time to become tolerable.

Frankly, I wouldn't presume to recommend a saddle to anyone else. What works for me doesn't imply anything useful for someone else.

You can't have my name said...

We've actually got a few Rocket V take-offs hanging around my shop as well. They always struck me as something I'd probably like, if not a little too padded. I prefer the thinner profile and almost curved sides of the WTB.

I'm riding a San Marco Ponza right now that will stay in service until I break a rail or wear away the surface, whichever comes first. Only saddle I've ever really been comfortable on... although I have NOT tried a Brooks.

DW said...


Which is funny, because I found the Ponza to be a torture device ;)


Have to agree with you on the WTB's, except that some models have a bit too much stiching on them for my liking. I miss the original WTB saddles with the drop nose, but cest la vie.

Currently roling a Terry Fly...relatively skinny, decent cutout, smooth leather, and enough padding that riding without a chamois is no big deal.

But as saddle relationships don't have to be monogamous, I'm leaving open the option to let my eyes wander :)

Tarik Saleh said...

Thanks Pal,
Now there will be no $10 WTB saddles to be had in the takeoff bin. Possibly my saving grace will be that I don't care for the slotted ones, but the slotless wonders instead. I hold you responsible.

FixieDave said...

So glad they re interduced the SST saddle... My favorite before going to a brooks... LOve brooks but they don't seem to hold up to off road fixgear abuse as well as the wtb's

Good stuff Kent!

MzunguEriki said...

For crying out loud Kent go read your last post.
I am perfectly happy with my seat(s). But now I won't sleep worrying if I should try a WTB! Thank you very much indeed! Luckily I live far away from those takeoff bins.

Mark Marowitz said...

I recently purchased a brand new 2008 Bianchi Volpe. I need a second bike like I need a hole in the head. It was the floor model and the shop put it on ebay. I followed the bidding and observed that nobody was bidding. The price kept spiraling down and down. I couldn't help myself, I just pulled the trigger and found myself the owner of a beautiful bike. It's so much lighter and faster than my Civilian. It's got a triple crank and 27 speeds and a drive train that's , well it's a Bianchi. The stock saddle is a Velo VL-1166 :( Do manufacturers expect the buyer to purchase their own saddle and pedals? This saddle is impossible to sit on comfortably for more than 20 minutes! My brand spanking new Brooks B17 saddle on my Civilian is far from being broken in but I have felt comfortable on it from day 1. So I found a new one on ebay. Such a good deal- oy vey- -- It's beautiful. Of course I'll have a pedal dilemma, but you know how that goes. I like big platforms.
But what do you seasoned riders find so appealing about drop handlebars? I purchased Nitto North Road handlebars. I'll probably add handlebar extensions (is that what they're called?) to vary my hand grip on longer rides, ie. riding with my palms facing one another. Reaching for the extensions will bring me into a more aerodynamic position, as well. With the drop handlebars, I rarely see riders holding the bars at the hand holding part where the palms face one another. Folks riding pretty fast usually grip the bars at the curve where their fingertips can reach the shifter and brakes. But for the most part I see riders grasping the drop bars somewhere on the top with the palms pronated. Maybe my belly is too big or I'm out of practice (25 years out of practice) or I'm just not in good enough bicycle condition to enjoy drop handlebars. Maybe next year.
P.S. With my hands on those extensions I can ride pretty fast. Faster than upright handlebars will allow.

Velomann said...

Remarkably timely post. I just rode my first 200K brevet Saturday (It rained the whole time, btw). By Friday I still hadn't decided which saddle (or bike) to ride. Two weeks earlier I did a 100K on my "cross bike and had some issues with the Fizik Arione. It's a great saddle for flying remounts because it's so flat, but for long distance it wasn't working so well. I had a lightly used Brooks Pro sitting around (that I had never ridden) and, based on comments you have made before, I asked Scott C for his opinion on the WTBs. Turns out he had a Rocket he wasn't using and he gave me a deal on it. So the Rocket went on the cross bike and the Brooks on the Nishiki tourer. But by mid-week with 200K looming my butt still hadn't actually sat on either one. I did a 100K Brooks test ride in the rain on Wednesday, and Thursday did a casual 25 miles with my wife and rode the WTB on the cross bike, which also felt pretty good. On Friday I pretty much flipped a coin and went with the Brooks and everything was fine - feels already broken in. Maybe the trick is riding in the rain?

DW said...

Hey Mark- Just picked up a 2008 Volpe myself. You prolly got a better deal...mine was $799 plus tax, but so be it. I probably should have just built up a CrossCheck, but I like the Bianchi.

So far-

Panaracer RibMo 700x32
Dimension 120x17 deg rise stem
Kleen Kanteen cages
MKS Touring pedals
VeloOrange Silver friction shifters
12x28 SRAM 8 speed cassette
KMC Chain
Terry Fly saddle

Planet Bike 1W headlight
Planet Bike rear flasher
Planet Bike Fenders
Delta Rack (like Nitto Top-Rack)
Wald small front basket for the rear.

Compulsive Tinkerers should not buy bikes off the rack...but so be it. I like it and that's what matters (mostly).

Mark Marowitz said...

Hi Carrie Greetings Dan-when y'all comin to NYC? Fuhgeddaboudit!:) So what is the skinny on that Terry Fly saddle? Why that saddle?
As the very proud owner of a custom bike I can say without hesitation that they are overrated for the average cyclist. Stick with a rack bike. Just make sure it fits. My Civilian is bedecked as a commuter with fenders and such. My Bianchi will be ridden as is (stock). Except for the saddle and the pedals and the handlebars and the grips and in time the tires.:)
The Volpe has a low gear of about 24 gear-inches while the Cross Check has a low gear of about 38 gear-inches. That is a BIG difference when climbing. The beauty of the Volpe is that wide gear range. What was the reason for that SRAM cassette?
The xcheck v Volpe comparison seems to be that for that price range you can't go wrong with either.
Perhaps you should have just purchased a frame and fork. Both the Surly and the Soma can be purchased like this.
Have you guy's ridden a Xcheck? How do the two bikes differ?
Anyways enjoy your bike! I am enjoying mine. But to tell you the truth I ride around the city on my Civilian. That internal gear hub and those mechanical disc brakes are just the ticket for Manhattan.
My Bianchi will take me everywhere else. But so far I haven't gone there.
I do hook my Bianchi up to my incredible 1upUSA Bike trainer. I love this trainer. The knobby stock tires are a trifle loud but that is not a problem for me. The trainer has helped my body adjust to riding for an hour or so.
Does anyone use a bike trainer?
Does anyone use an internal gear hub?
If I CC tour on my Bianchi I'll utilize that Velo Orange ViVa saddlebag support with a Carradice saddlebag. When it rains I'll wear rain pants and stuff to stay warm and dry. Mostly I'll pick one Inn or whatever and just return there everyday rather than moving from place to place.

Bob M said...

Hi Kent,

Nice synopsis. I picked up a Rocket V saddle last year after perusing the Web and finding numerous recommendations. I really like it.

What's your take on Butt Buddy vs Rock Shox suspension seatpost vs Thudbuster (vs nothing) for taking the jolts out of a hardtail? I have a 1989 Giant Sedona and recently picked up a Rock Shox suspension post for $5, but not sure if I want that much play. It seems like I would be sproinging around and it would affect my knees.

DW said...


I'm building up a CrossCheck for my wife right now as an frame with all silver bits, looks very nice.

I'm just realizing with all the tinkering I'm doing to the Bianchi, I could have built up a CC with exactly the parts I wanted, but I do think the Volpe has a bit lighter, more road oriented frameset, so I'm happy with it.

I switched the cassette because I wanted a narrower range of gears (less jumps between) and since I'm using friction bar end shifters, I figured I might as well go to 8 speed for greater durability while I'm at it...I'll just sell the other parts anyway.

The Terry Fly I like because it has just enough padding to use regular clothes with it, but is still narrow and relatively firm.

I ride in the rain and just didn't want to deal with a Brooks.

Mark Marowitz said...

C & D -- Can you post pics of C's xcheck? I want to see it. The Volpe as well. Mine is just as is. Why is an 8-sp cassette more durable?

DW said...

@ Mark -- I'll post photos of both sometime next week...working long hours right now and the weather here hasn't really compelled me to get the bikes done real quick like.

RE: 8 spd

I'm of the general opinion that more gears aren't really needed and that narrower chains require more fiddling and are less durable than the 8 spd stuff. Might be silly, but I'm stickin to it for now ;)

Apis said...

I am in agreement that saddle fit is as individual as toothbrush preference. As an example, I just traded straight-up a used Selle Italia Flite Ti (130mm width, 225gm) that was on a crit bike for a "like new" WTB SST Ti that is heavier, but 15mm wider.

Better for my sit bones (and perneum). I put the SST on a Raleigh Record Ace touring frame that I am running at 2x6. Brevets, here I come!?

Barb Chamberlain said...

Ha! The commenter who said "saddle relationships don't have to be monogamous" anticipated the metaphor Andrea used writing a series of guest posts on my blog about saddle selection: is Part I and there are two more in the series, "Choosing a Bike Saddle Is like Choosing a Life Partner."

I went through 3 or 4 before getting happy on my road bike with a used Serfas Terazzo straight out of a bike-shop bin. I just got a more upright-posture bike and am going to use the stock one that came with it for a while before rendering judgment (on bike and saddle both, actually), knowing that what works on a road bike isn't necessarily right on a city bike given the different postures. Starting research now, though, and you happened to tweet this at the right time for me to see it. Thanks!