SITTING PRETTY: CARING FOR TRADITIONAL LEATHER SADDLES
Leather saddles aren’t for everyone and I’m not just referring to vegans/strict vegetarians. They are a good deal heavier than synthetics. New ones can feel like the proverbial church pew, for the first few hundred miles or so, until they’ve moulded to your shape. Michael Strenning's been thinking about caring for them.
Tourists are the obvious/default audience for leather saddles, but they can also prove an excellent choice for tandems, audax/sportive builds, or fully dressed training bikes. Riders shunning mudguards, in the foulest weathers, short-middle distance racers/time triallists should go for something lower maintenance/lighter.
Traditional leather saddles also require more care but repay the favour with many years of blissful service.
Leather also breathes, so remains cooler than a faux/leather topped, foam padded model.
There’s some overlap with choosing any saddle here. A saddle needs to be broad enough to support your sit bones (Ischial Tuberoses) but without inducing chafing. Women tend to require a wider base and a shorter nose but caution’s required when talking had n’ fast rules. As a rule of thumb, plonk yourself on a chair, or sofa that will leave a nice indent of your sit bones, given a minute, or two.
Leave a couple of pennies there (in case it resumes the original shape, or you get called away) and measure the distance between them. 143mm is my textbook optimum...A great default but my Tubby Tourer’s leather saddle is 146mm wide and until very recently, I’d run a 140mm on my Holdsworth. Said four season’s mile muncher has a more moderate stance, the Holdsworth is much lower slung.
Mention leather saddles and Brooks B17 often springs to mind. However, there’s a wealth of shapes and sizes. Sprung designs, such as the B66 and Flyer were quite popular on some higher end British production mountain bikes during the late 1980s. Though the springs add heft, riders of small wheel folders and some tandem stokers, who have less control over ruts, bumps and holes may really appreciate their damping qualities.
Models such as this Gilles Berthoud Soulor (above) are sportier and do not feature the classic saddlebag loops.
In common with this Bobbin Gents Leather Saddle (above) the hide is also thicker, so better suited to riders who don’t place a lot of weight upon the saddle and/or will tolerate a longer breaking in period.
Riders who experience chafing around the wings are perhaps better suited to models such as this, which has been serving my fixed gear winter/trainer on and off, for eight years. In this instance, titanium rails add a little extra zing, while saving a few grams. Look closely and you’ll note a productive laminate on the underside, which offers greater defence from rain and spray. Pressure relieving cutaways have also become more common in recent years-for both genders. Frankly, if you are going the traditional leather saddle route, there’s a sound argument for going the whole hog-if you can afford it.
Personally, I find glossy hides too slippery, leading to annoying “surf”. Satin effects offer a little more purchase, while still allowing minute shuffling.
Electroplated steel rails remain a popular choice, albeit adding to the overall weight. Stainless is arguably the most practical and climate resistant option, although I’ve found electroplated rails last well, given periodic coats of hard paste wax (or oily rag wipe-overs). Some brands stipulate weight limits, so double check, if you are over 90 kilos. Titanium is lighter and offers some additional spring but with a consummate price hike.
Brooks rails have a shorter range of adjustment than some, leading to the suggestion they work best with layback seatposts. I am proportionately short in the torso, thus tend to have my saddles set a good way forward. I also like to be positioned over the bottom bracket shell and not just on my TT bike-no issues with Brooks, or other brands to date.
Moulding (Going from arrgh to ahhhhh)
This is full of myths and tales of masochism/heroism. Take a wander round the web and you’ll find all sorts of advice, ranging from slathering them in SAE30 motor oil, to lard. Some suggest soaking the saddle, leaving it for an hour, removing the excess and then riding (with black shorts/tights!). Apparently, this soaking technique is particularly effective for thicker hides.
First and foremost, we’d recommend popping the kettle on, and reading through the manufacturer’s specific care instructions. Some recommend the use of wax type products - Proofide being the most obvious example.
Some saddles are coloured using vegetable dye, which is very durable but can bleed/leach, if oil-based softeners/” feeds” are used. Anecdotally, we’ve had Brooks B17’s shaped in 300miles, thicker hides have needed 600miles and more frequent helpings of water-based leather softener.
Assuming there’s nothing warrantee wrecking about using liquid feeds/conditioners, applying a thin layer to the top after every ride, for three weeks rapidly accelerates this process. Once it’s assumed your shape, only reapply a thin layer every 10 weeks, or so. Some liquid “foods” may cause the hide to darken slightly, so test a small, inconspicuous area, first. A moot point on a black hide but potentially undesirable, with a light tan, let alone baby pink!
I’ve known riders to successfully break in a Brooks during a 400km endurance sportive, but my technique is to start with a twenty-mile ride, then progressively increase the mileage, ride upon ride until its done, “Done” means sufficiently comfortable for day rides, while the hide stretches in tiny increments, unnoticed until perfection. A supremely satisfying experience.
Treating the hide periodically with an appropriate food/conditioner, products such as Crankalicious Leather Lacquer will lock these in, and the elements out. However, invest in a decent saddle cover. These are useful, not only for protection when at a wet-ride cage’ break but when the bike’s sleeping in the garage/shed/outbuilding. Well-fitting shower caps can also prove good substitutes.
Another tricky subject and potentially catastrophic, if done wrong. A lot of riders don’t need to touch the front-loaded tension bolt - I've only needed to do this once, with a very long serving B17 that had become a touch too soft and wide. If you are at this stage, go carefully. Some riders suggest boring neat holes in the sides, threading laces through and tightening these to firm things up.
Chosen carefully, a traditional leather saddle can be the last word in personalisation and with basic care, one that will last many years and countless thousands of miles. Periodic feeding, carrying your bike by the frame (not the saddle) and using a cover when parked up in the street, or at home are small but effective ways of maximising a saddle’s useful life.
PUBLISHED JUNE 2020