Choosing a leather saddle?

Paul ButlerMVH Club member Paul Butler writes about his affection for an English classic
Article: Why some riders opt for a traditional seat material: leather

Some time ago I went looking for a way to save myself from the pain of distance rides. Of course, my racing bike came with a saddle which looked every bit as capable and contoured as the other much more expensive bikes in the shop. It even had a special perineum ‘gap’ that looked impressive. As a rider of hybrid bikes for years I had learned to accept and adjust to the discomfort of saddles – just taking breaks every now and then made a big difference. But after I joined MVH my mileage grew and 25, 35 then 50 miles were fairly regular. It was then that the discomfort from my saddle really began to tell. So, I went looking for a tried and tested saddle with reputation; an Italian model, slim and elegantly contoured. Surely reputation meant something and most of the competition riders had them. Result? no difference. No, it was actually more painful. The Italian went on eBay.

Next, I bought a new, Specialized model for about £60 with a comfort guarantee, in white. Was it better? Well, it looked better but after 35 miles I was squirming to find comfort. Actually, over the 56 miles in the Mallorca half Ironman it was the most uncomfortable memory of that race – nothing else comes close.

Back in UK I had a conversation with a work colleague was talking about. He is the type of cyclist who rides a single speed fixed gear from Lands End to John o’Groats: an enthusiast and traditionalist. His view, which I can now confirm: leather seats change their shape to fit you. But aren’t they heavy? Surely the modern racing saddle technology must be superior? Well, yes and no.

Brookes England

The Brookes company has been building saddles since 1866. The B17 saddle at 520g, has been on the market for over 116 years and is renowned as a long distance sports touring saddle. It’s by far its biggest seller; it is, like all Brookes saddles, made from a single piece of leather, largely by hand and built to last. It’s the saddle that Robert Penn rode for 40,00 km around the world. Of this saddle he says:

“I’m not saying that it didn’t cause me pain – pain is inevitable remember – but I didn’t suffer”

Brookes saddles can be considerably heavier than most modern, lightweight saddles: Brookes has a range of 40 saddles from the inconceivable 1.7 Kg (the fully sprung B190) down to 370g for the Swallow Titanium, the lightest in the range. It’s not difficult to find a sleek Italian saddle carbon saddle from Selle Italia (SLR kit 125g) or Fi’zi:k (Arione 35g!). Think about that though. The difference betweeen a Brookes saddle (e.g. Swift Titanium, 390g) and the (Fi’zi:k Arione 190g) for around the same money is less than half a pint of your best drink or a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Brookes B17 Narrow saddle (530g)
Brookes Swallow Titanium
Brookes Swallow Titanium (370g)

Price? Well, good leather racing saddles are not so cheap either. In the Brookes ‘Road & MTB’ range the cheapest B17 Narrow (about 530g) runs to about £60, online; the top of that range ‘B15 Swallow titanium’ (370g) fetches about £230.

So, what does a leather saddle give you? Now, I’m not saying that they suit everyone and in fact, I think few will forgo their whippet undercarriage of choice and take that big step backwards in time to what used to be normal for racing and touring cyclists. Leather survives as a saddle ‘technology’ because, being made of leather, over time they changes their shape according to the pressure you put on them. To begin, it takes time for this to happen depending on the narrowness of the saddle (there is less leather to give) and how much you ride. And, while this happens there is a ‘negotiation’ between the saddle, your determination and your nether parts. In short, it’s not comfortable at first and some never get by that stage. But, if you persevere, once they surrender you are left with a truly bespoke ‘seat’ that is a pleasure to ride and own; one that fits the way you sit and move and your riding style. And you are reminded of that every time you start off. It looks gorgeous too if you like the beauty of polished leather.

They are not hassle free however. You must avoid getting them soaked (a mild dampness is OK) because they will ‘give’ too much. So, leaping onto them with a wet tri suit padding may be an issue but you can get waterproof covers. From time to time they need a bit of leather conditioner (from Brookes) to stop their natural oils from drying out. They also need a periodic adjustment of the leather tension. That said, given a little care, they will last for years.

Aside from their weight, detractors say the avoidance of a soaking rules them out for tri, that the saddles are not long enough; others, that plastic seats are better suited to more aggressive riding on the nose positions. Many testimonials support their comfort on longer rides. Now, I am a long way from saying that most members will be interested but if your riding is giving you reasons to learn more than you would rather know about your ischial tuberosities (sit bones) then it’s something you could consider.

There are plenty of riders who agree.

Brookes Racing range