Last winter I suffered a significant injury, recovery from which required either no bike time or only bike trainer time. You guys know I despise the trainer, but it was a necessary evil to maintain some level of fitness. The problem was that one session on the trainer was enough to make me quit from bike saddle pain. You guys also know that I despise bike saddle pain, and that I think the bike industry can do a LOT better than its current model, which is to produce the current race federation-mandated* style of bike seat and then shame anyone who doesn’t like it or experiences pain or bodily injury from it. Yes, bodily injury – I read a statistic from Cervelo** that 30% of women pro bike racers the author knew had to have genital surgery because of damage from bike seats. Genital surgery! Awful bike saddles are a common complaint from women riders, and it’s no secret that men experience a lot of problems from them too, ranging from numbness and pain to all-out impotence and infertility. So why in the world are bike seats shaped like that?
All data point to the fact that traditional bike saddles are not only really uncomfortable but are also extremely unhealthy. Really? Really, bike industry? DO BETTER. I mean it.
The Cervelo article linked above steered me to ISM saddles, which I’d not tried before. I had little to lose so I shelled out my $200 and gave one a shot.
It was a game changer.
Gone was the squirming, the pressure, the pain, the shifting position from one hot spot to another. The need to slather my nethers with layers of goo was gone, too. The fact that not only was all the discomfort gone, but the nose of the saddle was gone, too – hm, quite a coincidence, would you say? I vacillated between being ecstatic and being annoyed that it took so many years to find a reasonable bike saddle, but one thing was for sure, I wanted to learn more about ISM and probably buy more saddles for my other bikes. Their site showed all their different saddles, but it was hard to figure out which one would be the “right” one for me (I’d just randomly purchased their MTB saddle to try out, so that was all I knew about their line) so I contacted them and pitched this article to help readers choose a saddle. In response, they sent me a few more demo saddles and walked me through their offerings.
Basically they have several different shapes and several different padding levels. You choose a shape, then choose the padding level. For the purposes of my readers, I’ll assume that most of you would be interested in the “performance” models, so I’ll focus on those. Check out this chart to see all the different shapes. I at first assumed that one of the combinations would be “the one” and I’d like it better than all the others, but instead I found that generally all the saddles I tried worked for me for the most part. Other reviews have referred to having to do a lot of precision adjusting, but that didn’t happen to me. I pretty much just slapped the saddles on in center position and went, and they were all fine. Now that I’ve more mileage on them, I’ve done a little tweaking, but they are easier to get set up than traditional saddles, because (say it with me now) traditional saddles just generally suck and will never be comfortable anyway.
Yes, they feel a little weird at first, for two reasons: first, because there’s no nose, you’ll feel the saddle more on your legs when you pedal. If this bugs you too much, drop the nose of the saddle a little, and drop the saddle height by a millimeter or two (actually, do that anyway, and I’ll get to why in a minute). If it still bugs you, then just ride more and you’ll get used to it. How many years did it take you to “get used” to a traditional saddle’s pressure points and chafing? Probably a lot of years, so just keep at your ISM adaptation and you’ll be fine.
The second reason the saddle might feel weird at first is that you’ll actually be sitting with all of your weight on your skeletal structure instead of taking a bunch of weight on your soft tissues (to quote the Cervelo article, “we are talking labia here, okay?”). You probably won’t notice this when you actually sit on the saddle, but you will DEFINITELY notice it when you try to sit on the saddle the next day. Trust me on this and give yourself some acclimation time. Your seat bones WILL HURT if you try to ride too much on this saddle right away. But don’t worry, after a short time of adjustment, the situation will resolve.
And that brings me to the reason why you will need to drop your saddle height by a bit – it’s because you will be sitting “up” on your skeletal structure, not down on your labia. Think about it – the pain you will feel in your seat bones at first is because of the extra pressure your bones are taking up, pressure that used to be square on your genitals. NO WONDER TRADITIONAL BIKE SEATS ARE PAINFUL AND UNHEALTHY. I cannot emphasize that enough. Traditional bike seats are not only uncomfortable, but they are detrimental to your health. Come on, industry!
So far I’ve tried the ISM models Peak, Road, PN 1.1 and PR 1.0. The PR 1.0 is the same shape as the Road and the Peak, but is a little softer. Sometimes I like it better than the Peak and the Road, and sometimes I don’t. I really liked the PN 1.1 on my road bike as it was the most comfortable in road bike position for me and it has a little more padding than the Road. I never got over the seat bones pressure using the Road, but had no problems with the PN 1.1. I don’t have that seat bones pressure with the Peak even though it’s the same shape as the Road, so it’s probably just my position on the bike that makes the difference. Because there are so many ISM offerings and because everyone has different preferences, I strongly suggest you take advantage of ISM’s demo program to try out several different ones before choosing one to buy.
Go ahead, give ISM a shot. You don’t have anything to lose but pain, chafing, and the possibility of genital surgery.
*Yep, if you want to race and find your bike saddle uncomfortable, too bad for you, because the UCI won’t let you adjust it out of tolerance or use a seat that is more comfortable if it falls outside of their mandated length and positioning requirements. They would rather you damage your anatomy than let you use a bike seat that doesn’t hurt you. That’s why ISM saddles are the same length as a traditional seat even though they are noseless – because if they didn’t include the superfluous length, racers would be unable to use them. Really stupid, eh?
**Also note that the writer of that article co-signed my thoughts that painful saddles were a major factor in the lack of growth of the bike industry, but no armies of male Internet commenters descended to sneer at that notion and attack the writer’s credibility. Huh. I wonder what is the difference between the two articles. I just can’t imagine. What could possibly differentiate between me and the guy who wrote this article that makes a difference in the way men react to that statement? What could it be…..