Thursday, September 30, 2010

Brooks Saddles and Saddle Position

I've often said that if there was one perfect bicycle saddle we'd all be riding it. The truth of the matter is bikes are different, riders are different, riding positions are different, riding styles are different and guess what? Different saddles work better or worse for various folks. That said, if you hang out with high mileage folks you'll find a lot of them who swear by Brooks saddle. You'll probably find some that swear at Brooks saddles as well. As near as I can tell, neither group is 100% right or wrong.

Brooks are tensioned leather saddles. Sheldon Brown has a great article describing the great comfort virtues of leather saddles here. Sheldon notes, "A leather saddle, like a good pair of shoes or a baseball glove, softens with use, and molds itself to fit a particular person's shape." The unique comfort factor is what makes the saddle worth the expense, weight and break-in period. However, if you're a vegan, that dead cow thing may be a deal breaker for you. I totally expect some entrepreneurial vegan to start a company making a Brooks-style saddle made of tensioned rattan (or some other sustainable, eco-vegan substance) any day now. It's an untapped market.

What prompted me to write this piece, despite Sheldon's excellent article on leather saddles and his wise words on saddles in general, is that I wanted to call attention to the issue of saddle set-back. One of the virtues of Brooks saddles is their classic design, they have basically remained unchanged for decades. And there, my friends, literally, is the rub.

Brooks saddles were designed when bikes had much slacker seat tube angles than what is common today. My 1972 Peugeot PX-10 was considered "racy" in its day and it had a 72 degree seat tube angle. It was easy to get a Brooks saddle back far enough in relation to the bottom bracket for comfortable riding. A modern bike, say a Surly Long Haul Trucker, in the same 52 cm size as my PX-10 has a 73.5 seat tube angle. Basic trigonometry tells us that given the same seat post but a steeper seat tube angle, the clamp area is going to be further forward on the modern bike. Modern saddles have longer rails to address this issue but the classic design of the Brooks keeps it from moving back. And if the saddle is too far forward, you'll tend to sit on the metal frame rather than the tensioned leather and wonder why anyone could ever think a Brooks saddle is comfortable.

There are some solutions out there. Velo Orange makes the Grand Cru Seat Post specifically with this problem in mind. A Brompton Saddle Adapter Pin used with a straight post and a seat clamp allows even more adjustment but it's a more complex solution. Sella Anatomica makes a couple of changes to the classic Brooks design, adding a cutout to the leather and longer rails to address the set-back issue. Like Brooks saddles themselves, the Sella Anatomica saddles have received mixed reviews.

A comfortable saddle is key to enjoying your bicycle riding and a Brooks or other leather saddle might be just right for you. If you can get it on the right spot on your bike.

BTW, I've logged thousands of miles on Brooks saddles, having ridden them on PBP, BMB and various other brevets and tours. These days, my butt is totally happy on WTB saddles but your mileage may vary.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


PsySal said...

This is unfortunately, all-too-true and has been a problem for me in the past. I still find the brooks very comfortable but wish that I could at least TRY it a bit further back...

Amy said...

And try being a lady with longer femurs needing that little bit extra push back.

Johann Rissik said...

Wise words, Kent. Let's hope family Brookes are reading this.

The Velo Hobo said...

Going to a Brooks takes a bit of a leap of faith. It is very different than the jelly filled modern marvels currently being sat upon by today’s cyclist. So to plop down almost a hundred bucks on a leather hammock seat and hope, after it breaks in, you’re going to enjoy the ride take a brave and trusting soul. I’m glad I took the chance. I now have brooks on both the bikes I’m riding and have no regrets.

Thanks for posting, Jack

Dr Codfish said...

Oh yes, the 'short rails' dilemma, a problem even for stumpy guys like me. A seatpost with slight setback solved me problem, also I had my one and only custom bike built with slightly slacker ST angle just for this issue.

But Kent, I'm astonished that you left off the MOST important factor in saddle selection... COLOR! Everyone with any chops knows that red saddles are faster, leopard spotted saddles are sexier, and of course green saddles are so much more esotric (when will we have a tweed saddle?)

HOBO: A Brooks for one Benjamin would be a deal these days. Not sure if it is still in place but Bill at Wallingford Bike Parts in NOLA used to offer a 6 months money back guarantee on all Brooks saddles. Ask befor you order ... it has been literally years since I bought a saddle, Brooks' are like that. Brooks Pro for me.

Yr Pal, Dr C

Mark Beattie said...

I have this exact issue with my B.17 Narrow and my '73 Gitane "le Tour..." Unfortunately the ID of the seat tube is 26.4mm I believe, and as such, the Brompton rail adapter or maybe the "butt buddy" (no longer made?) are my best options.

With older frames and plain/straight gauge tubing the selection of seatposts is mostly limited to Kalloy Uno models, most of which have only 25mm of setback. I had thought about maybe fabricating a clamp that is angled to clamp to the front portion of the B.17 rails, but this is likely not recommended by anyone.

So, perhaps the best solution is to find a frame with a longer top tube and slacken my angles so my B.17 doesn't need as much setback.

Scott Gamble said...

You already pointed to the Brompton solution - inspired by that and after about 2 seconds of head scratching I cut the end off a bar-end and accomplished the same thing for about $3. Think the Brooks saddles are bad, the rails on the pictured Ideale are shorter still - no mercy.



Lazy Bike Commuter said...

I got a B17 for my Long Haul Trucker and was instantly happy with it. Then I got one for my Giant TCR 1 and never could get comfortable on it.

The problem resolved itself when the one on the LHT got rained on a couple times because I'm irresponsible and became 100% uncomfortable, so I transferred the other Brooks and am now happy.

The WTB on my mountain bike is super comfortable, and in fact the entire bike just feels perfect when I am on the trail. Maybe I should do some measuring and change out parts on other bikes to match angles...

CedarWood said...

I'm all for Brooks saddles, but wanted a less expensive leather saddle experiment. So I purchased a Gyes leather saddle (there are only slight cosmetic differences between it and the respective VO model which I also own), and the Brompton seatpost adaptor.

This combo has proven very comfortable for both my butt and long femurs, and I've since ridden many miles with no discomfort whatever.

DrMekon said...

I use mine with a Titec Hellbent post, but I've also moved my spd cleats back (to help with hot foot) and I wonder if that might have helped too.

Anonymous said...

@Scott Gamble--remember bar ends are built to sustain your full weight indefinitely. The Brompton pin, which I have on two bikes, isn't expensive and is built for the task at hand.


Scott Gamble said...

@Jim - The techniques and materials used to fabricate the $30 Brompton part varies not at all from many of the bar-ends on the market out there. To say it was designed to do this task is giving it too much credit. It's a length of rod with a clamp welded to the end - let's not get creative about what's involved. It was marketed to do that task; it was designed to solve a variety of similar issues ie where to put your hands, where to put your butt, where to put your lights, etc.

I would consider paying $30 for a $5 part expensive, but if paying an extra $25 provides you some peace of mind, then go for it I say. I'd be happy to put this under static load tests against the Brompton model of the same. I postulate that any number of other things are likely to fail (saddle rails, saddle clamps, seat posts, tires, rims, binder clamps, etc) before loads reach sufficient levels to cause either item to yield.

Ground Round Jim said...

This is funny. I'm the Jim Scott shot down.

Anyway 4 years on the Brompton adaptor pin and going strong (knock wood). But I broke a bar end doing bar end stuff. Funny huh?

Anyway the pin is maxed out backwards; I added a more handlebar return with a sleeve and stuff and would like to be even further back, as an experiment.

Kent have you come across a solution for this?

Ground Round Jim said...

Ah just figured it out: two adaptor pins.