The Bike Madame

The Comforts and Controversies of Ergonomic Bike Seats

The first time you cycle farther than the corner store, you learn how a comfortable seat makes the difference between an exhilarating and an excruciating journey. The seat has always been the first bike component I’ve modified, as I have less than fond memories of the hard plastic banana seat of my otherwise cool first bike.

Exactly what makes a seat “ergonomic” is a matter of debate. Does the comfort factor come from extra padding, suspension, a special shape, or the angle of the rider (upright, leaning forward, or recumbent)? To me, the only rule of bike-seat nirvana is that our very individuality of form and preference require you to test what’s available rather than relying solely on others’ advice and claims from manufacturers.

Some riders appreciate extra padding in the form of either a thicker seat or a gel cover. However, others find the padding as aggravating as too-soft couches that cause you to sink down into the seat, where you get overly familiar with the harder structural components. (Hence, some long-distance riders actually prefer a hard but anatomically correct seat.) Some seats feature central channels that purportedly take pressure off sensitive parts of the anatomy. Unfortunately, for some riders, these channels can trap soft tissue and decrease rather than increase ventilation. That’s why the relationship between the bumps and recesses of the seat and your individual shape is more important than whether or not the seat is padded or channeled. Is the seat wide enough to support your “sit bones”? Does any part pinch or squash a part of you? Does the seat force you to pedal like a cowboy to keep pressure off sensitive areas (risking injury to your knees)? Do the seams leave imprints on your tush? It may take a few miles of riding for these problems to appear, so don’t hesitate to take your potential new seat for a test ride.

Don’t overlook the possibility of the seat being set too low or high for you. I’ve encountered many a rider who could wear his/her knees as earrings because of a seat that’s too low. Have a friend hold your handlebars steady so you can put both feet on the pedals and spin backward. At the lowest point of the pedal’s arc, your knee should be just about straight, but not locked, without having to point your toe. Novice cyclists may set their seats too low because they want to stay seated when they come to a stop and are afraid of falling over. This is where practice, rather than a fancy new seat, comes in.

Adequate suspension is important for those who ride on rough roads, and not just gravel or dirt roads. Many paved roads have sketchy pavement on the shoulders, plus potholes and gravel and other debris. If your travels take you through a velo-minefield, consider a mountain bike or hybrid to give you some bounce as you navigate the craters.

Recumbent cycles have the ultimate in comfort: a chair-like seat that supports your back and puts you into a reclined position. Once you get used to the new demands on your leg muscles from this angle, you may never go back. Just make sure the seat is far enough forward or back for near-full leg extension and absence of torque on the knees (a potential problem with models where your buttocks is below your feet).

When it comes to being in the (bike) saddle, what’s beneath your posterior should not be beneath your notice!