«Revolutionary» saddle designs come onto the market every year, and these new technologies have much to offer for many riders. Nevertheless, many others may be best served by a technology that has not changed substantially in this century, the tensioned leather saddle.
From the dawn of history up through the early 1970's, virtually all good quality bicycles came with leather saddles. In the early '70's, plastic saddles started to make major inroads, and today only a few top end touring bikes come equipped with leather saddles. Does this mean that leather saddles are obsolete? NO! leather saddles are no more obsolete than leather baseball gloves!
Plastic vs Leather
Plastic saddles have four advantages over leather ones:
- They are lighter.
- They are weatherproof.
- They do not require breaking in.
- They are cheaper.
Leather saddles have only one advantage over plastic, but it is a big one:
- They are much more comfortable!
They are not for everyone. Leather saddles are substantially heavier than synthetic ones, and they do require breaking in. A new leather saddle is quite hard and rigid, and it takes several hundred miles to break one in. In addition, they require care, and can self destruct if not properly maintained.
Most of the cyclists on the road today became cyclists after the disappearance of the leather saddle as standard equipment on new bikes, so they have no experience with leather saddles. Many others may have had a leather saddle on their first bike, but never received any instruction in the proper
A leather saddle, like a good pair of shoes or a baseball glove, softens with use, and molds itself to fit a particular person's shape. What ever part of your rear end pushes hardest on the saddle causes the corresponding part of the saddle to soften and stretch to relieve the uneven pressure, until the saddle accomodates perfectly to your own particular tush.
Most plastic saddles use closed cell foam to provide some softness, but the foam and the plastic undercarriage of the saddle can only be shaped to fit an «Avarage» bottom, not yours. Closed cell foam is an excellent heat insulator, so this type of saddle is a particular problem in hot weather, because it holds heat and moisture.
Leather saddles, by contrast, are particularly good in hot weather, because they use no insulating foam, and can breathe. This makes them cooler and allows perspiration to evaporate through the saddle, so they are less likely to cause chafing and saddle sores.
In addition, when you sit on foam, the foam under your «sit bones» compresses right away, so other foam winds up exerting pressure on (ahem!) soft tissues that were not made for this.
Good Leather vs Bad Leather
Back when leather was the only game in town, good bikes came with good leather saddles, and cheap bikes came with cheap leather saddles. There is quite a difference. For one thing, good saddles are made of thick, high quality leather. In addition, there is the question of grain. Leather, like wood, has a natural grain pattern to it. When saddle tops are to be cut out of a hide, the cutter has a choice. The cheap way is to get the largest number of saddle tops from a given hide with the least wastage of leather. The quality way is to cut the saddle tops in such a way that the grain runs straight down the middle of the saddle.
The cheap saddles that came on $90 dollar bikes in the early '70's are no longer made, but their memory lingers on. Some of them could be broken in properly and give a comfortable ride, but many just had the wrong grain, and just went from bad to worse.
There used to be many brands of leather saddles, but two names in particular stood out for the highest quality: Brooks of England and Ideale of France. Now Brooks appears to be the only survivor. There is also a Dutch manufacturer called «Leppers», but they are not widely distributed, at least in the U.S.
Who Needs a Leather Saddle?
Leather saddles are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they are the best choice for the many serious cyclists. Racers, particularly those who compete in short events, should stick to plastic because of weight. People who ride a lot in the rain without fenders should stick to plastic because excessive wetness is bad for leather. People who are unwilling to do routine maintenance should stick to plastic, because leather does not thrive on neglect.
On the other hand, leather saddles are the best choice for the recreational/sport rider, and the overwhelming choice for the long distance tourist. The occasional weekend pootler is also a good prospect for leather, because
Leather saddles are not the easiest things to sell. Many people have the idea that they are for masochists, based on the exaggerated tales they have heard about how hard it is to break them in and how uncomfortable they are supposed to be for the first few thousand miles. If you take the time to explain how to break a leather saddle in, you can win your customer's undying gratitude. Few shops take the trouble to push leather saddles, and people will know that you are going against the «conventional wisdom». If you succeed in making the sale,
Breaking in a leather saddle
If a leather saddle is not oiled, and especially if it is allowed to get wet with water repeatedly, perhaps even ridden while soaked, it will eventually crack and disintegrate. The low quality leather saddles that came on inexpensive ten speeds of the sixties and seventies would also often go out of shape under such conditions.
The easiest and fastest method to break in a new saddle is with a liquid leather dressing, such as neatsfoot oil, Lexol, seal oil (a French favorite) or baseball glove oil.. These products are available from shoe stores
You can just pour the oil on and rub it in by hand, or for a more drastic approach, you can actually soak the saddle. The easiest way to soak a saddle
The soaking technique is best for thick,
Most leather saddles are dyed black. Oiling the saddle will partially dissolve the dye, which will stain on your clothes. This is why cycling shorts are black. Wear light colors at your own risk!
Light colored leather saddles, such as the Brooks «Honey» models, will be darkened by any treatment you apply.
The worst thing you can do is to neglect the saddle and allow it to dry out and crack.
Most leather saddles
If a leather saddle gradually becomes too soft and too wide after many thousands of miles, it is sometimes useful to punch a few holes in the bottoms of the side flaps and lace them together under the saddle frame.
This allows the width and firmness of the saddle to be adjusted to the rider's taste. Some older models came with a row of holes along the lower edge of the side flaps, for this very purpose.
I realize that this sounds like a lot of trouble, but most cyclists who take the trouble find it well worth