James Spender

24 Nov 2020

For decades road bike saddles have been a similar length, but a surge in shorter designs is changing all that

Photography: Danny Bird

Saddles are the width they are to reflect the average spacing between riders’ sit bones, but why are saddles the length they are?

‘Traditionally, road saddles have always been between 26cm and 28cm in length,’ says Specialized’s saddles product manager, Garrett Getter.

‘When we developed a new saddle back in 2015 we questioned why saddles had always been so long, and through testing we found there was no disadvantage to lopping off 3-4cm from the nose.’

The result – a 24cm long saddle dubbed the ‘Power’ – came in for criticism for its looks, being deemed worryingly close to a triathlon saddle.

Yet five years on, every major saddle brand now offers a short-nosed design, So what has persuaded even the biggest traditionalists to get on board?

Coming up short

‘The more movement you make on a saddle, the more energy you waste during your effort,’ says Federico Mele, marketing manager at Selle Italia. ‘Using the correct saddle will help you to not ride below your abilities.’

While this logic could be applied to all your kit, it is a recurring theme among the short-nosed saddle brigade, which Selle Italia joined ranks with when it released its Boost range last year, a moniker attached to shortened variants of its Flite and SLR saddles.

The thinking is that short-nosed saddles are more comfortable for a lot of riders, and comfort means speed.

Selle Italia SLR Boost Kit Carbonio Superflow • Price £284.99 • Weight 122g • Sizes 130mm or 148mm x 248mm • Contact zyrofisher.co.uk

‘All the feedback we received through testing showed that a shorter saddle allowed riders to hold a lower, and therefore quicker, position for longer because they were more comfortable,’ says Fabric’s program manager, Logan Argent.

‘This is because a shorter saddle allows your pelvis to roll forwards more, making getting lower easier.’

The body is not designed to have excessive weight on the soft tissue of the perineum, yet in rotating hips forward that’s exactly what is happening.

But isn’t this a problem the cut-outs and channels down the middle of saddles were supposed to solve? Well yes… in part.

Much like the short-nosed shape, Specialized was an early proponent of pressure-relieving channels in saddles, having developed its cut-out Body Geometry saddles in the late 1990s with help from ergonomics expert Dr Roger Minkow.

The good doctor’s CV boasted work in spinal injury and research into designing pilots’ chairs, so when he came across an article relating saddle shape to blood flow and erectile dysfunction, he started whittling away at a few saddles of his own.

The results were compelling enough to get the attention of Specialized, and it’s the bedrock of this research that pushed Getter and his team into experiments leading to the Power. The short-nosed aspect simply builds on the soft-tissue relief of the cut-out design.

Fabric Line-S Pro Flat • Price £149.99 • Weight 182g • Sizes (Unisex) 142mm or 155mm x 240mm • Contact fabric.cc

This is why the Fabric Line-S also features a channel down the middle, so too most short-nosed saddles from other brands.

However, Selle Italia’s Mele does say that ‘shortening the saddle will not relieve the pressure on your soft tissue directly – it just means it removes a part of the saddle that is not good to sit on, encouraging the rider to sit further back, on their sit bones.’

Then, in typical Italian-racer fashion, he adds that ‘an important characteristic of the “Superflow” central cut-out of the Boost is that it saves weight.’

The comment highlights a difference in design philosophies. Some manufacturers have taken existing designs and cut the nose off, while others have adapted or redesigned.

‘The Flite Boost has the same flat shape of the traditional Flite, only we chopped off 27mm from the nose,’ says Mele.

While Fabric’s Argent says, ‘We didn’t just cut the nose off our Scoop saddle – we tried but it felt weird – so we changed the shape of the rear of the saddle, concentrating on where if flares from narrow to wide.’

Saddle shape is ultimately subjective, so there is no right or wrong way to go about designing a saddle provided it ‘works’ for at least some of its intended audience.

However, there is at least one objective reason why short-nosed saddles are preferable for some riders. 

Specialized Women’s S-Works Power Mimic • Price £230 • Weight 170g • Sizes 143mm or 155mm x 240mm • Contact specialized.com

 

The pros, the cons

Article 1.3.013 in the UCI rulebook stipulates the nose of a saddle must be no less than 5cm behind the centre line of the bottom bracket.

Exceptions can be made for rider morphology – if a rider is particularly short or tall – but even then a saddle must not overhang the centre of the BB. However, a saddle can be between 24cm and 30cm long.

It is therefore often mooted that short-nosed saddles are designed to circumvent this fore-aft position rule, specifically for riders who find that a saddle slammed as far forward as possible affords them the most aero position.

While this wasn’t the motivation for Specialized and Fabric, Mele over at Selle Italia does see this idea playing out at pro level.

‘This saddle position rule is enforced before every TT stage by the UCI officers, but not so thoroughly on a standard stage,’ he says.

‘So riders do protrude their saddles over their BB – it is a faster position. But with a longer saddle this is more obvious to an officer; with a shorter saddle it is easier to pass inspection.’

There you have it. While brands will never entirely agree, there is every chance shorter is faster, more comfortable or at the very least, in the words of Specialized’s Getter, ‘If you’re judging a saddle on looks alone, the only one missing out is you.’

Source: Cycling – Cyclist