From How To Ride A Bicycle 'Round The World
Chapter Sixteen Your Butt's Best Friend
In the saddle is where you'll spend most of your time on your 'round-the-world bicycle tour. That means it had better be comfortable because if it's not you will learn a new meaning for the word suffer. On my first 100-mile ride the plastic saddle I was using caused me so much pain that I finished the last 20 miles standing up. Plastic saddles are fine for racers or the occasional short jaunt around the block but for the real deal you have just one choice: Brooks leather. Almost every 'round-the-world cyclist I've met has a Brooks saddle. Brooks, an English company, has been in business since 1866. That's a year after the end of the American Civil War!
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Leather is the ideal material for a ‘round-the-world touring bicycle saddle because over time it conforms to your anatomy. Plus, it breathes so it's cooler on those hot days. The result is a more comfortable ride. Once broken in, a Brooks saddle just seems to disappear. It's like sitting at home on your sofa.
But there are a few caveats when it comes to your Brooks. Brooks makes two models that are suitable for 'round-the-world touring: the B-17 and the Champion Flyer. The Flyer is the same saddle as the B-17 except it comes with big springs to soften those sudden jolts you get when hitting a pot hole or jumping a curb. I've toured with both and riding down a smooth road I couldn't tell the difference. But on a rough surface or when hitting a big bump, the spring-loaded Champion is clearly more comfortable.
Keep in mind, though, that not all Brooks saddles of the same model are identical. Because they're made from leather, a natural material, there are bound to be variances, which can translate into comfort and durability issues. Halfway through my trip the B-17 I was using gave up the ghost. It had many years of hard use in all kinds of weather and its time had come. So I replaced it with a Champion Flyer that I bought from a local bike shop. As I was mounting it, it seemed that the leather was softer than any of the other Brooks saddles I'd had. But I had faith in Brooks' quality so I didn't give it another thought.
But I should have listened to my gut and returned the saddle because by the end of my first month the leather had deformed so much that riding was uncomfortable. Just as I had thought, the leather was too thin and soft and couldn't stand up to the rigors of 'round-the-world touring. I wound up having a friend search the local Seattle bike shops for the hardest Brooks he could find and ship it to me in Turkey. So far this replacement saddle is working fine. The leather is nice and thick and hard and it's broken-in to the point where I can't even feel it.
There's more to a Brooks than picking the right model and making sure the leather is thick and hard enough. There's an art and a science to maintaining a Brooks leather saddle, too.
When you get your new Brooks saddle, buy the Brooks maintenance kit, too. It contains a leather treatment called Proofride, which you should apply according to the directions. A cursory search on the Web will produce myriad other methods for treating and breaking in a new Brooks. In fact, there is a slew of myths about how to treat a new Brooks that run the gamut from soaking it in motor oil to blessing it with frog's blood at the site of a fresh grave at midnight of a full moon. Needless to say ignore these wacky ideas and just follow the directions that come with your saddle.
Because the leather in a Brooks saddle deforms to fit your anatomy it will continue to deform and stretch as time goes on. Eventually every leather saddle will deform to the point where it becomes unusable. That's just the nature of the beast but there are some steps you can take to prolong its life.
Every Brooks saddle comes with a little wrench you can use to turn a nut at the underside of the nose to stretch the leather, keep it taut, and help maintain its proper shape. The instructions for care that come with the saddle give guidance on how often this procedure needs to be performed and I've always had good luck simply following those directions. Eventually though you'll run the nut the full length of the tightening bolt at which point you've lost the ability to influence the shape of the saddle.
But there's a better way to keep your Brooks in the right shape and make it last even longer. I've had a couple of Brooks saddles that had become so misshapen with use that they were a pain ride on. To breathe new life into the old critters I drilled rows of holes along the lower edge of each side of the leather and ran a stout shoelace through them, performing basically, a lacing procedure that drew the flaps together and forced the saddle back into a usable configuration.
One saddle was so bad that I had to drill a second set of holes halfway up the sides and lace those, too. There's no reason to wait until your saddle starts to sag to lace it. The first thing I do when I get a new Brooks is to get out the drill and start making holes. It doesn't harm the saddle and having it laced from the very beginning means you don't have to worry about figuring out how to do it on the road. If you're squeamish about violating your fine new Brooks, take it to a saddle, leather or shoe repair shop and have them perform the surgery for you.
Adjusting your saddle to the right position for 'round-the-world bicycle touring is a matter of trial and error. The first adjustment to make is angle. Start by setting the saddle parallel to the ground. Nine times out of ten this is will be the right angle. You might want to tip the nose up a little if you feel like you're sliding forward but raise it up just a little, never a lot.
The next adjustment to make is height. Getting it right will make a huge difference in the quality of the ride. Too low and you'll wind up with sore knees, too high and you can rub your thighs raw. I had been riding my Brooks saddle for years on moderate-length tours of from a few days to more than a week and I thought I had it set up just right. But two months into my round-the-world bicycle tour I began to get a rash on the inside of my thigh. It turned out that I had the saddle set just a smidgen too high, certainly not more than half an inch. But over the months that small error had taken its toll and produced such a painful condition that I wound up needing medical attention.
To start the height adjustment procedure set the seat post at a level at which you can comfortably sit slightly leaned over with one foot on the ground. Now, get a friend to follow you as you ride down the road. Ask him or her to notice if your hips are rocking from side to side. If they are, the saddle is too high. Lower it to the point where your butt stays firmly planted on the widest part of the saddle with no rocking motion.
Your saddle should be low enough that you don't rock but high enough that your leg is almost completely extended at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Sometimes it's not possible to hit this happy medium and you have to compromise. If this turns it to be the situation in your case, set the saddle lower not higher. You can stretch your legs off the pedals if you begin to get sore knees but the injuries you risk from a saddle set too high are much greater.
Now you're ready to adjust the forward-back position. Start by clamping the seat post to the mid point of the saddle rails. Get a friend to hold you up while you mount the bike, situating your butt on the widest part of the saddle. Don't sit too far forward with your legs squeezing the nose. Now put your feet on the pedals and grab the handlebars. Do you feel like you're reaching too far or does it seem that you're cramped up in a little ball? Move the saddle forward or back until you feel comfortable.
As you get more miles under your belt you might find you want to make some tweaks but generally at this point the saddle position should be just about right.
Eventually, sadly, you'll have to retire your brooks to your trophy case but you can make it last for many years by taking good care of it. Be sure to cover it with a saddle cover or plastic bag when you leave it out in wet weather. Treat it regularly with Proofride and don't go overboard with the tightening bolt. Take good care of it and it should provide you with many years of faithful, trouble-free riding.
What's your technique for improving the ride of your Brooks?