Any experienced mountain biking enthusiasts will tell you that the right saddle can make or break your biking adventures. While it’s true that tires, brakes, and other components of the bike are incredibly important as far as safety and functionality, there is truly nothing more important than the saddle when it comes to overall comfort.
The wrong bike saddle can turn people off from mountain biking altogether. If you are introducing a friend or a family member to your beloved favorite hobby, but you put them in the wrong saddle, chances are they will wonder why on earth you choose to spend your free time this way.
On the other hand, in the right saddle, mountain biking can be one of the most enjoyable ways to spend time in the great outdoors. At high speeds or down steep descents, cycling can satisfy the needs of adrenaline junkies; at a slower, leisurely pace on a neighborhood trail, it can provide fun in the fresh air for families. Cycling is a pastime that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds, and there are bikes (and saddles) to suit every budget and body type.
We will walk you through five important tips for finding the perfect mountain bike saddle, but first, we will offer a quick bit of history on the evolution of the bike saddle.
The Evolution of the Bike Saddle
The earliest iteration of bicycles in the 1800s had wooden planks and then steel seats, with little or no padding to cushion the derrieres of early riders. It is hard to fathom how cycling caught on, imagining how uncomfortable they must have been, but luckily our ancestors were hardy enough folk to withstand the discomfort for the thrill of a two-wheeled adventure.
Today’s bike saddles still look as though they would be terribly uncomfortable to the casual observer and inexperienced cyclist. The truth is that over two centuries, those bike saddles have been tinkered with to find a balance between comfort and speed. The wider the saddle, the more you interfere with the hard-working thighs of a cyclist. So, the saddle remains narrow to ensure the cyclists can ride as fast as their bodies will allow.
The saddle’s back is just wide enough to provide the proper rear support, and the saddle itself is suspended on rails. This positioning cannot be overlooked: proper adjustments to the bike saddle must be made for each cyclist, and their unique needs and body type.
You cannot jump on another person’s bike and assume you will have the optimum comfort level in your ride. Properly fitted bikes and saddles are essential when it comes to comfort and safety as well.
Getting the most out of your mountain bike saddle also means making smart decisions about what you wear while you are on it. Proper gear is also crucial, and we will touch on that later.
As far as bike saddles go today, they are typically constructed for three different categories: racing, performance, and recreation. Most mountain bikers will choose saddles in the performance category.
Tip #1: Shape of the Saddle
The shape of the saddle is the first aspect to consider when looking for the perfect mountain bike saddle. For starters, there are gender-specific saddles for men and women.
A saddle designed for females is going to be wider than a saddle designed for males.
The shape goes beyond gender specificity, though. The shape is a factor when it comes to the type of cycling you are doing most often – whether you are an adventurous mountain biker, a speed-loving racer, or simply a Sunday afternoon beach-cruising kind of cyclist.
The challenge with the saddle shape is its relationship to the saddle weight. In other words, a wider saddle with more cushion is going to weigh more (and therefore slow you down). A narrow saddle with little cushioning will keep you going at top speeds (but the price you pay for that is an incredibly sore rear end!)
The sweet spot for saddles (as long as you are not trying to win the Tour de France) is somewhere in between. And that sweet spot varies by cyclist since they come in all shapes and sizes. Some have “junk in the trunk,” and some…not so much.
So, finding the right shape and size in a new mountain bike saddle means taking your own body shape and size into account. That takes us right into our second tip.
Tip #2: Measure Your Sit Bones
If your specific measurements are needed for a tuxedo you will wear once for a few hours to your cousin’s wedding, you can bet they are needed for a bicycle you expect to spend not just a few hours but days on end riding.
A good mountain bike is a significant investment, so you want to get it right. You no sooner want to appear at that wedding in an ill-fitted tuxedo (and hear the heckling of your most obnoxious uncle) than you want to ride on a mountain bike ill-fitted for your body type.
The most important measurement when it comes to the saddle of the mountain bike is the measurement of your sit bones. We know this sounds a bit awkward: even asking your partner of a decade to “measure your sit bones” sounds a bit embarrassing. However, bike shops are completely prepared to help you with this task in a non-invasive way.
Your local bike shop may have a gel pad you sit on to record the sit bone measurements or the “peanut pad” apparatus, with the name suggesting that a peanut-shaped pad is used to measure indentions from your sit bones.
Additionally, some bike manufacturers can send you materials to take your own measurements at home, or you can get really creative with supplies you already have on hand. We have seen some cyclists measure their sit bones by covering a mound of play-dough with plastic food wrap and sitting on it!
Perhaps that is not the most scientifically accurate method, but it works in a pinch to provide the indentions that can be measured. The measurement between the two deepest points of indention would be your sit bone measurement.
Once you know your sit bones measurement, you can add numbers to that based on how you are seated on the bicycle (i.e., if you lean down to the handlebars or sit upright). The manufacturer or your local bike shop should help you determine this number once you have your sit bone measurements.
We mentioned earlier that female saddles are usually wider than a male bike saddle, and this is directly related to the variations in sit bone measurements. Men measure on average 100mm to 140 mm, whereas women measure on average 110mm to 150mm.
Tip #3: Positioning the Saddle and Adjusting the Height
Once you have your mountain bike saddle chosen in accordance with your sit bone measurements, you can move on to the positioning and adjusting the saddle. This is another incredibly important step to ensure the optimum level of comfort while riding your mountain bike.
The mountain bike saddle’s position and height can vary in ways that make the ride everything from comfortable to just bearable to downright miserable. Getting this right is crucial, and it is often advisable to work with your bike shop to ensure it is done correctly.
Luckily, because position and height are adjustable and not permanently fixed the first go-round, you can tweak the mountain bike saddle placement and height if you notice problems while riding.
As far as positioning goes, you want to look for horizontal placement on the saddle. This may seem obvious, but it can still be challenging to get this “just right.” If the saddle nose is pointed just a hair too far up (or down), it could cause the cyclist and an uncomfortable or even painful ride.
In addition to the correct positioning, the correct height must be achieved to avoid problems, which can be split into what happens when the height is too low and what happens when it is too high.
A mountain bike seat placed too LOW will potentially:
- Cause joint pain
- Cause muscle soreness
- Lead to saddle sores
A mountain bike seat placed too HIGH will potentially:
- Cause hyperextended tendons
- Lead to pulled hamstrings
- Cause Achilles tendinitis and other foot problems
To get the right height on your mountain bike saddle and avoid these problems, you can try one of two common methods: the hip measurement or the inseam measurement.
The first method is a quick and simple one. Wearing your bike shoes, stand next to the mountain bike, and set the bike saddle even with the point at the top of your hip bone.
Try a test ride after placing the saddle height even with the top of your hip bone, and if it is uncomfortable, you could adjust it down a half-inch or so. This is a popular method that often works, but it does not necessarily work perfectly for every bike and every rider.
If you want to try something slightly more “scientific” than the hip method, you could opt for a saddle height placement based on an inseam measurement.
Your inseam measurement, which you have likely had taken if you have ever altered any clothing, is the measurement from your crotch to the ground. If you multiply this number by 0.883, you will have your saddle height.
This is still not a perfect science, though, as there may be some variations based on shoes, a pants measurement versus an actual crotch-to-ground measurement, etc. This is a starting point for you to set the saddle height, take a test ride on the bike, and adjust the height as necessary until you find the perfect spot.
The bottom line is if you get the mountain bike saddle height wrong, your body will tell you in the ways described above. It is always a good idea to work with your local bike shop on saddle positioning and height to achieve the best possible precision.
Tip #4: Accounting for Your Flexibility Level
While you do not have to be a certified yogi to enjoy mountain biking, do not be fooled: flexibility DOES matter in cycling. Your own level of flexibility is important to consider when choosing a mountain bike saddle and positioning it.
If you are not spending your days alternating between downward dogs and a child’s pose, and you have no idea the range of your own flexibility, test it out with a tried and true method. Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you, and then lean forward and try to touch your toes.
If you cannot get your hands anywhere remotely close to your feet, you are not flexible. At all. If you can reach forward and touch your toes with ease, you are extremely flexible. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
This level of flexibility relates to your mountain bike saddle in that those who are less flexible will inevitably move around more on the saddle to adjust, so a more rounded saddle is preferred in those cases.
On the other hand, if a cyclist is a little more flexible, he can ride on a flatter saddle with some ease. And finally, the super-flexible certified-yogi cyclist would perform best on a slightly curved mountain bike saddle.
If you are working with your local bike shop to choose a bike saddle and position it appropriately on your mountain bike, talk to them about your flexibility level in this process. They will also want to know whether you are the type of mountain biker who prefers to ride upright or favors bending forward toward the handlebars. All of these variations matter in terms of the mountain bike saddle placement that will create a safe and comfortable ride and not cause pain or additional stress and wear and tear on your body.
Tip #5: Dress for the Saddle
Even if you have chosen the perfect mountain bike saddle and had it expertly positioned by a bike shop pro, you will have a miserable experience on that saddle if you set out on your mountain biking adventure in the wrong clothing. Who would want that result after spending a considerable amount of money on a new mountain bike?
Dressing the part is also incredibly important for mountain biking adventures, and we do not mean simply wearing trendy brands to impress other cyclists.
Experienced riders know that what matters most is functionality in clothing; they are not concerned with making a fashion statement (although many brands can and do both!)
The right mountain bike clothing can protect your skin from both the exterior elements as well as chafing from the saddle. If you plan to spend a lot of time mountain biking, you will need to invest in high-quality padded bib shorts.
The material of the shorts should be lightweight enough to be breathable but also supportive enough to provide comfort, and they should include padding or gel inserts for the sit bones. There is no way to avoid the fact that your bum will take a beating on a mountain bike, but the right bib shorts can certainly soften the blow.
These Cerotipolar shorts provide comfort and padding at an affordable price, with a moisture wicking fabric and a nice large side pocket for a phone, keys, or other small items.
If you are riding in chillier temperatures, you will want to invest in padded pants as well.
And do not forget the incredibly important chamois cream that any experienced mountain biker will tell you is a must-have.
If you forego efforts to prevent chafing, your mountain biking days will come to a very quick close – trust us on that.
Lastly, while getting dressed for a mountain biking day, do not forget to apply sunscreen liberally, and carry a small tube along with you to reapply while out on the trail. Thinskport SPF 50 is one of our favorites. Free of harsh chemicals and never tested on animals, it absorbs quickly and does not have an overwhelming scent.
A Few of Our Favorite Saddles for Mountain Bikes
Now that you understand the things you need to look for while mountain bike saddle shopping, from your own level of flexibility to the measurements of your sit bones, we will look at a few options to consider.
Before ordering a bike saddle online, it is still a good idea to double-check with your local bike shop to determine if that saddle is good for both your specific needs and the mountain bike you own or plan to purchase.
Remember that you are not “stuck” with a bike saddle forever. A “bad” bike could become your favorite bike once the saddle is replaced with one that better suits your needs, and even a great bike saddle will still need to be replaced after a period of time. So, bike saddle shopping is a normal part of the mountain biking experience, especially if you stick with it as a hobby for many years to come.
Here are a few of our favorite choices:
The SQlab 611 Ergowave MTB S-Tube Bicycle Saddle boasts superlight foam padding and weighs in at only .44 pounds. It is covered in durable C84 Kevlar and was designed specifically for use on mountain bikes.
This saddle comes in four sizes, and SQlab will even send you a measurement kit to get your sit bone measurements. The sophisticated, scientific design behind this bike saddle makes it one of the best ergonomic choices, and the high tail positions the rider to optimize weight distribution while cycling.
The Spank Oozy 220 comes at a slightly cheaper price point than the Ergowave, but it is not without its quality or merits. Offered in five color combinations, the Spank Oozy has a shell made of reinforced polymer and covered with co-molded foam. A pronounced relief channel relieves pressure while cycling, and this mountain bike saddle offers high shock absorption to cushion the blows out on the trail.
Finally, the Planet Bike A.R.S Classic Black Bike Seat is a budget-conscious choice for those who are primarily seeking comfort and are not concerned with the bike saddle being particularly lightweight. This saddle can be used on any bike, whether it is the stationary exercise bike collecting dust in your garage or the new mountain bike you vow to use as part of a New Year’s resolution. This clamp-style bike saddle is intended to provide anatomic relief from bumpy rides and comes with a durable weatherproof cover.
Once you find the perfect saddle and position it correctly, you will be off on your way to a thrilling mountain biking adventure.