We might obsess about wheel builds, tyre casings and suspension features – but the most crucial element of riding comfort is often overlooked: your bike’s saddle. Mountain bikers come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, but the only bike component where finding an appropriate fit for your physiology is crucial would be saddle choice.
Whether you are tall or short, wide hipped or slim, there is little influence your physiology has on wheel choice or suspension. However, it directly impacts how comfortable a ride will be, with regards to saddle comfort. Saddles are not a universal fashion or trend item. They should be tailored to your personal requirements and be a discerning choice.
Mountain bike saddles differ from road bike perches due to the environmental and frame alterations which apply to these two cycling disciplines.
Mountain bike frames are generally longer than road bikes, with much slacker head angles and a contemporary trend towards very steep seat angles. You’ll be in a peculiarly more upright seated position when climbing your mountain bike, which alters weight distribution over the saddle’s support surface.
It is also worth remembering that mountain bike drivetrains feature extreme climbing gears not found on a road bike. On gradients where you will be out of the saddle, powering in a standing position on your road bike, you’d be seated on a mountain bike, running a much higher cadence. This means that any possible discomfort will manifest much sooner climbing your mountain bike, because you are powering along in the seated position more often, at a much more frenetic crankspeed. Therefore, you need the comfiest saddle possible.
BEST MTB SADDLES: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Having established the importance of finding an appropriate saddle for your body type and build, it is worth discussing the most predicable – and oft repeated – mistake that most mountain bikers make when buying a saddle: peer pressure.
What works for a mate or the local Strava KOM holder will not necessarily favour your physiology. The worst possible bike component to buy on the untested recommendation of another, is your saddle. An inappropriate saddle can deliver untold hours of riding misery.
To buy the best possible saddle you need to consider its function. A saddle’s primary function is to comfortably position you on the bike, and not impede your pedalling dynamics.
The shape of a saddle, its length, ergonomic contours and padding are all elements of what could possibly create the perfect perch for you to have hours of comfortable off-road riding.
A common misconception with saddle design is that plentiful padding is best. Rider weight will influence the pressure you exert on a saddle’s seating surface, but in fact: less is best. A saddle with too much padding will not correctly support you when the foam or padding material starts warping under pressure over time. This has the possibility of creating an annoyingly morphing pedalling perch.
Although there are carbon-fibre surface saddles available, for those who are of an exceedingly slim build and wish to save the most possible weight, you don’t have to consider something as extreme. The trend is to a slimmer profile saddle, with minimalist padding, without sacrificing comfort.
Overall hip and pelvic shape are issues worth considering. Those riders with wide hips and heaving quads will naturally require a broader saddle to accommodate their lower physique. Conversely, a slim rider on a wide saddle will struggle to find their ideal pedalling motion, as the seating surface will prove too wide and constrictive.
Saddle structure has also advanced to a point where cut outs and relief channels in the centre can be manufactured, without weakening the chassis. These ergonomic features can greatly increase long-distance riding comfort.
Robustness is another aspect which differentiates road and mountain bike saddle requirements. It is a reality that we do occasionally crash on singletrack and you are more likely to have a bike cartwheel away from you off-road, than on-road.
That means that a tougher and more tear-resistant material composition is desirable for your mountain bike. Singletrack riders are also more likely to ride in extreme rain and mud, which requires a saddle that is comprehensively weather sealed.
Enduro and long-travel frame riders rolling 29er wheels might need to consider the issue of tyre buzz shredding the aft portion of their saddle. This can happen when the rear-suspension is fully compressed, rolling downhill over extreme terrain, at speed.
Our top picks
Which saddles are potential winners for your off-road ride comfort in 2020? Californian brand SDG has a new Radar, which combines a lot of lessons it has learned in 25-years of saddle design. With its Radar, they have taken rider feedback and converted it into a very convincing product, which combined rider comfort and ultimate product durability.
For those riders seeking a nearly faultless saddle at a very competitive price position, the WTB Volt remains an unrivalled bargain.
THE BEST SADDLES FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING
1. SDG Radar
Designed and upholstered with rider comfort in mind
Weight: 230g | Size: 270mm x 138mm
The SDG Radar has some great fundamental design features such a carefully shaped central relief channel and rear-buzz cut-out – the latter being a concave shape to the saddle’s rear, which prevents tyre scuffing during extreme suspension compressions.
Shaped to distribute a rider’s weight optimally across the saddle platform, the Radar is tough too, ideally upholstered for testing outdoor use with Kevlar embedded surfacing.
SDG offers the new Radar in a range of rail material options too, which broadens its price appeal: from reliable steel to high-end titanium-alloy.
2. Ergon SMA3 Comp
Proving that flat is not a comfort fallacy
Weight: 240g | Size: 285mm x 145mm
The German company is a leading grip and saddle brand with designs that prioritise comfort. Although the SMA3-M is quite flat, there are no issues with its multi-hour riding comfort.
Orthopaedic foam prevents any morphing of the saddle’s padding and a micro-fibre surface material ensures a finish which is confidently rain and weather resistant.
If you are a rider who does not require a ridge toward the back of the saddle’s surface to keep you in place while climbing, and transmit most power seated on the flattest possible saddle, this is the one for you.
3. WTB Volt race
A superb option, both in terms of value and resilience
Weight: 249g | Size: 265mm x 142mm
Perhaps better known for their tyres, Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB) also do some great value saddles. The Volt is available in a terrific range of size and width options, which increases the likelihood of finding one that fits you near perfectly.
Its surfacing is synthetic, which means a soaked day of singletrack riding should not cause any moisture seepage and retention into the core padding.
The Volt also features cleverly reinforced corners, which mitigate against potential crash damage – as a cartwheeling bike often skims the corner of a saddle on rotation, instead of nose or centre.
4. Selle Italia SLR XC
Italian thoroughbred for minimalist racers
Weight: 170g | Size: 275mm x 131mm
This is a true cross-country racer’s saddle, which saves the grams but won’t punish you for their absence. Although the SLR XC’s shape is discreet, that does not mean it lacks features.
The seat surface is upholstered in breathable leather, which makes it less likely to squeak when wet, in contact with your riding outfit. Below that surface the padding has self-moulding properties, which means it can slightly adjust in shape and consistency to suit your build – over time.
It might be gram-saving champion but don’t underestimate this Italian off-road racing saddle’s toughness. Kevlar-reinforced edges mean that even if you have a have a big off, your Selle saddle should remain in good shape.
5. Brooks Cambium C17 all weather
A new look for the original saddle company
Weight: 446g | Size: 283mm x 164mm
The British brand best known for its gorgeous handcrafted commuter bike saddles, also makes an overbuilt touring bike item which can be repurposed for mountain biking.
Although it does not have the exact aesthetic resonance of a traditional Brooks saddle, the Cambium features a slimmer profile and promises abundant comfort. Like all other Brooks saddles it is made by hand in Italy.
The surface is waterproof thanks to its vulcanised natural rubber and nylon construction and those who ride them, believe no other saddle offers similar levels of comfort – or longevity. If there ever was something such as a status-enhancing saddle, this is it.