WHAT IS BETTER - SADDLES?
Saddle choice is a preference issue. A saddle that works well for me, might well prove to be a figurative and literal pain in the butt for you. A saddle that works well for the butt, might look completely out of place on the vintage bicycle. Only trying different saddles out, will help you pick the one that is best for you. And it is or paramount importance that you find a comfortable saddle! Failure to do so will end your vintage road bicycle career in short order.
However, saddle choice must be tempered with giving each saddle a fair chance. Achieving saddle comfort is not all up to the saddle. You will play an important part in this situation yourself. At the beginning of each riding season I feel the need to apologize to my rear end after the first few rides. Your butt must toughen up before any level of comfort can be achieved. That statement bears repeating. There is little chance that you will find immediate comfort on most, if not all, bicycle saddles. You are spreading your weight over a very small area when you perch yourself on a bicycle saddle. You must give your butt time to toughen up and get used to the situation. And it only takes a few rides for this to happen. Honestly!
The vintage road bicycle is a narrow unit, at best. A very good portion of your body weight will be resting on a relatively small area of your backside. And until your butt gets used to this small area of contact and support, you will experience discomfort but it does go away. Try a saddle for a few rides just to toughen yourself up a bit. If the discomfort continues, seek a different saddle.
Of course the question that must come to mind is why make the saddle so narrow? Simply put, there is a lot of leg activity on a road bicycle. Properly ridden, the legs carry a portion of the rider's weight as he or she spins the pedals. If a saddle is too wide, there is a good chance the chaffing of the inner thighs will occur. This is a very uncomfortable over the sort term and even worse as the length of the ride increases. To that comfort issue, couple the need for light weight and the saddle size and design becomes a bit easier to understand.
There are a host of different saddle designs and quality levels. Some saddles are incredibly uncomfortable and some so comfortable that you never give them a second thought. I prefer group two.
Leather saddles are collectable and frequently original issue equipment for many pre-eighties, high end road bicycles. In fact, for the longest time, the best quality and most comfortable saddle offered, was the suspended leather saddle.
These Old School offerings consisted of good quality leather, more or less stretched and suspended between support points front and aft. Since the suspended material is prone to stretching and molding to the rider's shape, the need to adjust saddle suspension tension is required. Saddle tension can be adjusted by tightening a nut and bolt assembly on the underside of the saddle. A word of caution here though. Once stretched, it cannot be easily unstretched. Make sure that you know what you are doing before touching the adjustment nut!
I much prefer a leather saddle, to just about anything else available. That said, I have never had the opportunity to ride some of the newer saddles that are selling for incredibly high prices – are they worth it! Yes and no….
The words comfort and saddle, for the vintage road bicycle, are very closely attached but difficult to bring together. Racing saddles are relatively small, when compared to just about all other bicycle saddles. And small is not necessarily and issue, but fit is. Because their surface, or butt support area, is small you want to do your best to get a saddle that fits you. If the saddle does not fit, your level of riding pleasure will diminish considerably. Sooner or later, the vintage light weight road bicycle will find its way back into a secret storage place, where it might once again remain for a very long time. Though I really like Brooks saddles, the B15 design does not work for me! In fact, the B15 is one of the most uncomfortable saddles I have ever sat.
Though comfort is the absolute primary concern, a vintage road bicycle saddle also needs to look as if it belongs. Ah, the age old dilemma of Form vs Function. Begin by focusing on Function! Then consider Form.
For the longest time for me a vintage road bike saddle had one name – Brooks! With the exception of the B15 mentioned, anyway. And the Brooks name has been around for quite a while. If the bicycle you are considering has a Brooks leather saddle mounted and the saddle is in good condition, the bicycle wins points. But what does good condition mean, when considering the value of a vintage leather saddle?
As leather dries out, it shrinks and cracks. The cracks will appear in the leather, on both the surface and underside of the leather. Small surface cracks can often be disguised with repeated applications of leather conditioner. If, however, you see larger cracks that have exposed the inner leather, shrinking has taken over. If this same shrinking has caused the leather to pull away from the rivets, the saddle will deteriorate rather quickly once put back into use. In either instance, refurbishment becomes less likely. For most intents and purposes, it is easy to see the damage that time heaps on the leather saddle. The good news is, leather saddles are still available as new items from Brooks. I have used quite a few Brooks saddles, both of vintage and modern origins, and they have all served to please me, except one. That hated mid seventies Brooks B-15 proved to be too uncomfortable. My guess is that it was just too wide.
A leather saddle might well prove to be very uncomfortable, when first used. They are hard (knock knock hard) and certainly not shaped to properly accommodate the contours of my butt. However, the saddle is made of leather and leather will "break-in". With the passing of time, coupled with use by the same rider, the saddle will reform, taking the shape that best distributes the rider’s weight. A used saddle will have indents where the previous rider’s butt found comfort, and this is not necessarily bad. You will still be able to use the saddle and comfort will join you, once the saddle reshapes itself to accommodate your sit bone structure (the sit bones cause the indentations in the saddle). However, it is possible that the saddle will never reshape itself adequately. There is only one way to tell - use it!
Leather saddles can become stretched out of shape. This is generally an indication, that the saddle was used a great deal and just wore out. It could also be a sign of very poor maintenance. Unless the leather and the frame are truly shot, put the saddle away for trading opportunities in the future. True, the Brooks saddle is still available new, but not with the 1965 date stamped on the frame. The leather might be shot, but the frame might be worth saving.
I have a few Brooks saddles mounted on different bicycles. Most of the new ones were reasonably comfortable right from the start. Though not all, most are broken in now and are comfort non-issues, when riding. They distribute my weight well and have even improved in the cosmetics department. Leather darkens with use, and the brown saddles now display well earned and beautiful patinas of age.
There are, of course, a host of other vintage leather saddles that are available. But only Brooks is still in business, as far as I know. In your travels you will come across Ideal, Wrights, AGDA, Belt, Air Bike, Lycett and a great many more leather saddles. Consider the condition of the saddle first, no buts about it!
There are any number of other saddles, that will offer reasonable comfort and be period correct. I am by no means an expert in the area of other saddles, but I do want to learn. And I am learning. As mentioned, for quite some time I used nothing but the Brooks product. Needless to say, this can become expensive and time consuming from a maintenance point of view. With that and other things in mind, I decided to give other saddle types or styles a try. And I am glad that I did so...
It was my good fortune to stumble across an original Miele suede saddle one day. The saddle proudly displayed the Miele name on the back. I could not help but give the saddle a try. I removed the Brooks Pro from my Miele Limited Edition and installed the original issue Miele suede sitter. I wanted to give the original saddle a try, to see how it holds up (pardon the pun). I didn't expect much in the comfort area from the Miele saddle. I did, however, promise myself, that I would give it an honest try. And, I'm glad that I did. The Miele saddle proved to be remarkably comfortable.
I plan too do the same with my early eighties Cambio Rino. While Yard Sailing one Saturday morning, I picked up a near mint Cambio Rino. That bicycle's suede saddle was almost mint. Though the saddle has been installed on my early eighties Cambio Rino 2000, I have not yet had a chance to try the sitter out. A pleasant project for next riding season.
Both the Miele and Cambio Rino saddles have suede leather covers over hard plastic bases. Leather absorbs and helps to wick away body heat. Plastic tends to reflect body heat back at the body, and I find this to be uncomfortable. True, both test saddles have leather covers but neither the body heat or the body sweat has any place to go, once it gets through the thin leather cover. Heat + Sweat + Friction = Saddle Sores, and you don’t want that. To many saddle sores and your next ride will be on the couch. And your riding partner will be Kevin Costner as you watch “American Flyers” - again.
That said, I do like the feel and performance offered by the original saddle I installed on my Miele. And there is another qualifying factor that leads me to believe that suspended leather is not the only way to go. Leather saddles do require maintenance and they are expensive. Maintaining a single saddle is not a hardship. But looking after several can become time consuming and tedious. And the expensive issue means that I do not leave a Brooks equipped mount parked outside of the grocery store as I shop for fresh veggies. For around town errands, I build and ride a "Junk Bike" each year. Why each year? Because someone always buys the darn thing away from me. Anyway...
I will never mount a quality leather saddle on a "Junk Bike". I choose a saddle that is comfortable, of course, but not necessarily attractive. And I have found a couple of saddle styles or types that are always comfortable. The "Turbo", a leather covered over plastic base offering, that always offers a very comfortable ride. The blue Turbo pictured is not the saddle I mount on my daily rides. That saddle is a cosmetic mess but still intact and certainly useable. I just never took a picture of it. Sadly, I have not had the time to build a "Junk Bike" up for myself this year since much of my time has been devoted to getting MY "TEN SPEEDS" up and running. I have had to settle for riding an early seventies Glider roadster as this year's "Junk Bike". Not exactly my cup of tea but I am getting used to riding that neat old bike, rain or shine.
The second "Junk Bike" saddle is a fabric covered something or other that looks awful but feels great. I never did purchase the saddle on purpose. It came mounted on an eighties something painted over Raleigh and was left fitted to the bicycle. I rode that saddle for a very long time and foolishly sold it with the Raleigh. My mistake but one that has sort of been corrected. I found another fabric saddle that is nearly identical but much uglier. A purple nightmare that I have yet to mount and try out. The point is you need to experiment until you find a sitter that works for you. When you do find just the right saddle, keep it even if you sell the bicycle.
Just about everything else in the vintage saddle field is made of some plastic and/or a combination of plastic, plus something else. Most good saddles are a combination of a plastic base, covered with leather or suede. Mediocre vintage saddles would have the same plastic base, however; the cover would also be plastic. Full plastic saddles are not for the long distance crowd, in my humble opinion. However, I have tried quite a few of the "composite" saddles and, some quite frankly are pretty nice. The Turbo saddle was pretty popular, in the eighties, and is a remarkably comfortable perch.
A quick glance would suggest that the Turbo saddle and the Peugeot saddle are nearly identical. The similarity ends with appearance. Unlike the beautiful blue dyed leather cover of the Turbo, the Peugeots skin is plastic. Though incredibly durable and certainly water proof, the Peugeot perch is uncomfortable when sat for long periods of time.
And so it goes with vintage bicycle saddles. There are a so many different styles and brands, both of which tended to change through the years, that it would be difficult to compare them all. When trying to choose a saddle, consider your needs. Look to see what appeals to you, and would also suit your bicycle. Then, research what you seek. In today's world, the Net is a great place to ask "has anyone tried this or that kind of saddle?" In the end, however, no matter what you do, you will have to try the saddle out yourself. And you might even get a wrong one or two doing so.
And you must remember that the key to trying a saddle out is to give it a fair chance. Do not jump on your bike the first day of riding season and expect to give a brand new saddle a fair test. On day one, no saddle will be comfortable! You must ride each day for an hour or two to properly give a saddle a fair trial.