I will endeavor over the following paragraphs to make no butt jokes, employ no puerile double entendre, and avoid, at all costs, referencing parts of the human anatomy I have barred my young sons from mentioning at the dinner table. We have over recent weeks been discussing product preferences for such crucial gear as helmets and gloves, and you, our readers, have chimed in ringingly with your insight and experience. We are group-sourcing this cycling thing, and it goes better when we all participate. So thanks for your effort.
Now, of all the touch points on the bike, I will argue that the most important one is the saddle. I don’t believe I have ever heard of a person’s ride being ruined by an insufficiently ergonomic lever, an improperly rounded handlebar or a properly functioning pedal of any stripe. To be sure, those things, bars and levers and pedals, if broken or set up badly, can have a dramatically deleterious effect on your ride, but your saddle, even functioning as it was intended by the bespectacled engineers who first drew its curves onto a sheet of paper, can turn a century into an eon, an epoch, a shambling millennium of despair.
And our hind quarters (careful now) are also highly individualized and various. We cyclists run from the beanpole narrow to the Volkswagen wide, our sit bones two points on a line describing a continuum not easily charted in leather or synthetic, with manganese, Ti or carbon rails. The seemingly simple curves of our selves are also bisected and punctuated by sensitive equipment (I know, I know) whose function ought not be compromised by a spirited, two-wheeled jaunt with our friends.
On my own primary road bike I recently installed a Specialized Romin saddle, which I assumed I would hate (because I assume this about all new cycling products that enter my world), but in actual practice (as with many of the aforementioned products) I love it. I can ride it for 100+ miles and maintain a level of comfort that keeps me seated on climbs I might normally attack out of the saddle, merely to give my aft deck (ok, sorry) a break.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What saddles do you love and why? Do you subscribe to the cut out model? Do you prefer firm or soft? What is it about you that works with the saddle of your choice? Give us enough detail that like-sized/minded riders might draw some benefit from your hard won experience.
In the last six months I’ve ridden four different saddles and am about to start riding a fifth. It’s four more saddles than I’d generally recommend for all but those looking for a new place to rest the glutes. The problem of finding a workable saddle is unlike any other fit issue. A two- to three-hour fitting can determine exactly the way your bike should be set up, down to the millimeter. Five minutes with a new bar will tell you if it’s going to work or not.
But saddles are a tougher challenge. Often you won’t know that a new saddle isn’t working until you’re more than 40 miles into a ride and the realization carries a penalty of discomfort that plays out over the rest of the day.
Trek and Specialized have created nifty little devices that can reveal how wide your sit bones are so you’ll know how broad a saddle you need. And yet, the shape of the saddle remains unfathomable until you’re actually on it.
There are retailers out there who will allow you to try a saddle and return it if it doesn’t work, but those retailers aren’t as common as feathers on a duck, which is why I’m so gaga over the new demo program that Competitive Cyclist just announced.
Competitive Cyclist will send you their 11 most popular saddles for a week. You’ll have some work ahead of you and will need a weekend with few honey-do items on it, but 11 saddles that are known to work for others is an opportunity with a solution waiting to be found. It is cycling’s answer to the differential equation: The answer is there; you just have to knuckle down and do the work to find it.
Which brings me to a larger point: the preeminence of Competitive Cyclist. When it comes to Internet retailing of bicycles and parts, no one else comes close.
But Competitive Cyclist is the anti-christ, isn’t it? It’s an Internet retailer, embodying all that is unholy and antithetical to the traditional cycling experience. Internet bike shops aren’t shops at all; they discount parts to within pennies of their worth, making their dollars on volume and caring as much about your cycling experience as the person in the drive-through window cares about your food.
Say what you want about other sites, Competitive Cyclist will make you rethink the intersection point between Internet retailing and quality. They aren’t the low-price leader. The operation is PRO, the way Columbia-HTC’s train is PRO. I’ve seen a bike they’ve packed come out of the box and I think most manufacturers could pick up pointers on how to reduce damage in shipping if they looked to their packing.
Then there’s the site itself. There are manufacturers with sites lacking the professional polish of Competitive Cyclist. The design is cleaner than ammonia and prettier than veined marble. It’s the online response to today’s top-end bike studios. The photos are original and so well executed, you don’t really need to hold the product to get excited about it. Frankly, their site is better lit than most shops I walk in.
If it seems that I’m bagging on brick-and-mortar retailers, I’m not. I love great shops. I can wander around a well-appointed shop for hours, but when I think back on the shops I first visited, there was a level of knowledge that I don’t often see today. By contrast, the staff at Competitive Cyclist seem to know their product line so well, you wonder if maybe they have more miles on the stuff than the manufacturer does.
Clear-eyed, witty and sporting a breadth of experience that our club elders always had, their copy should be studied by most of the cycling journalists out there. Brendan Quirk is an excellent writer and those who work for him are held to exceptional standards.
But a detailed product write-up does not necessarily make for information you can trust. What makes me trust their copy is that the opinions and insights echo my own experience. I adore the Capo Forma and Assos clothing lines. So do they. What happens when you’ve got a buddy who, like you, loves the same film directors you do? You listen to his recommendations and if he tells you, “There is a new guy you’ve got to check out,” you add it to your Netflix queue.
Competitive Cyclist’s product line hasn’t been easy to amass. Internet retailing doesn’t have a great reputation in the bike industry and most manufacturers are working harder to prevent their products from being sold on the net than they are to open new accounts. The discount mentality has made many manufacturers run screaming from Internet retailing out of a fear they’ll lose the brick and mortar shops. Adding lines to Competitive Cyclist’s offerings is a real challenge, but you don’t hear Quirk complaining; he has built solid relationships with lines he believes in, lines that seem to be standing by him, lines you still see in the brick and mortar shops.
Quirk’s “What’s New” section is one of the best blogs in the industry. It’s a window into the operation, Quirk’s personal interests and riding, his take on industry trends and crises and a bit of humor and criticism as well. To be needled by Quirk is to have your closest friend give you a breath mint and say, “Dude, you have got to take care of that.” If you’re in his sights, it’s because he’s interested and if you get a critique, it means he’s watching, closely.
For me, Competitive Cyclist is a virtual bike studio. All it lacks, aside from the bricks and mortar, is the ability to fit you and given the incredible execution of the rest of the site, if they thought they could fit me via web cam, I’d give it a shot. As it is, their online fit guide is a good start, good enough to get you the right size bike and headed to someone to do an in-person fitting. And if you doubt that they know what they are talking about when it comes to fitting, just read their differentiation of sizing and fit between Cervelo’s RS and R3 models. It’s better than anything I’ve seen in any of the bike magazines.
Frankly, the danger that Competitive Cyclist represents is in vacuuming dollars from geeked-out cyclists’ wallets until households can’t afford basics like toilet paper and wine. If these guys get offed, the first person of interest I’d look for would be the spouse of their best customer.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of Rube Goldberg’s excessively geared, pulleyed and levered heart was a burning desire to improve everyday life. He is the only person on the planet who could turn Macchiavelli’s most basic truth—that the ends justify the means—into the punchline of a joke, and accidentally at that.
There was a time when every bike I owned had one detail in common … aside from dirt. They were all equipped with Flite saddles. It was the negative to my hind quarters’ positive and its soft plastic shell gave in a noticeable and pleasant way on the frost-heaved roads around my home.
Somehow, in the course of reviewing scores of bikes, I lost track of my love (and ownership) of the Flite and my ischial tuberosities were forced to adapt to a greater variety of shapes than I would weave into a work of fiction. Trying that many saddles doesn’t even make for good humor.
In 2003 I was introduced to the Aliante by Fi’zi:k. When I tell you it was love at first site, I’m serious. I beheld the object of my affection from a dozen years before, only reimagined in greater design. I braced myself for comfort.
Since my first ride on the Aliante it has been my saddle of choice. And while the Arione is Fi’zi:k’s more popular model (the most popular saddle on road bikes worldwide, in fact), I can’t imagine why they even make it. But there you have it, everyone’s ass is shaped differently and that’s why I’ve been loathe to give saddle advice.
So while I will advocate some products, believing that if you use them the quality of your cycling experience will be improved, I’ve always stopped short on saddles. It’s ironic that while I know not everyone will agree on saddle comfort, I find the Aliante so comfortable I wonder how anyone could choose another saddle. Its comfort is seemingly universal. To say this saddle is uncomfortable is tantamount to saying you didn’t shake your thing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Where were we?
Unlike some saddles, the Aliante comes in a few iterations, meaning you can spend as little as $139 at retail or nearly double that, depending on which rails and other materials are employed. Naturally, as the price goes up, weight drops; my carbon-railed version weighed only 175g. If only the leather was as undying as my love; I’ve had one recovered, twice.
We can discuss the engineering brilliance of the twin-flex carbon-kevlar shell, the gentle curve of the saddle’s pocket or its surprisingly low weight despite its generous padding, but there’s not much point. At the end of the discussion a saddle either works or you try another. I’ll keep trying saddles and there are some good ones out there, but you’ll always be able to tell a bike I own from a bike I’m reviewing. Just check the what’s mounted to the seatpost.