Cyclists and their bicycles come in many different shapes and sizes. We all have different weights and heights, shoulder widths and sit bone sizes to name a few. The pursuit of comfort is absolutely individual, and finding a good bike fitter will help provide some tips about what is most comfortable for your riding style and needs. Arguably, the saddle is usually one of the first components that many cyclists will upgrade.
My first saddle upgrade
After an endless amount of research, I bought my first saddle – the Brooks B17 leather saddle. Cyclists worldwide praised the signature B17 as the gold standard for touring, so I figured they couldn't be wrong. And indeed, it was extremely comfortable compared to the stock saddle that came with my Birdy folding bike. The leather hammock worked like magic, providing just the right amount of firmness and support and after a few months, naturally conformed to the shape of my sit bones.
Unfortunately, what I discovered after almost a year was that the B17 was not suited to my riding anatomy. Although it was an extremely comfortable saddle to ride with at first, it somehow made my crown jewels go numb after 30 minutes.
I've tried numerous saddle adjustments – different nose angles, fore and aft adjustments – and in the end also tried adjusting the tension, all to no avail. I couldn't explain why a saddle that felt so comfortable would give the opposite effect to the nether regions. So that's when I did more cycling anatomy research and learned a few more things that I didn't initially think about.
How do I know what the right saddle is?
I'm of average height at 172cm (that's 5' 8" for you non-metric folks) and the width of my sit bones measure at a narrow 105mm. On average, the sit bone width of men measures between 100mm to 140mm, and 110mm to 150mm for women. The general rule is that the width of the saddle's seating area should match those of your sit bones, plus about 10mm on each side (20mm in total). So for me, it meant finding a saddle that measured 125mm as the minimum width.
The other thing that I didn't factor in the beginning was my riding position. The most comfortable position for me is when my hands are placed on the hoods of my handlebars, which naturally rotates my pelvis forward by a few degrees. In addition to that, my saddle height is also just slightly higher than my handlebars. The two images below from Gebiomized show a pressure map of an upright position on the left, and a more forward position on the right (that's me).
There are plenty of articles out there about measuring sit bone widths and such, and how the anatomy of your riding position determines saddle selection. Out of the many articles that I've come across, I found that The Four and a Half Rules of Road Saddles seemed to be the most comprehensive one for me.
In summary, the Brooks B17 is better suited for a more upright riding position where it sits at the same level as the handlebars or higher. On the B17, the indentations of my narrow and forward rotated sit bones looked as if they have carved the saddle. This resulted in pushing the leather of the middle section upwards, slowly cutting off circulation to my vital parts over time. Not good.
Making the cut (out)
So it was back to square one, and I searched for a saddle that was friendly to my sensitive bits. With a bit more research, it certainly felt like I needed to find a saddle with a cutout. I wasn't comfortable in shelling out more money unless I could find a place that had saddles in stock that I could try. It just so happened that the folks at Van's Urban Bicycles had the Brooks Cambium C17, C17 Carved, and the newly arrived C15 models.
I first tried the regular C17 which didn't feel too different than my existing B17 other than the firmness. I then tried the cutout version and noticed that leaning forward was more comfortable. I would have gone with the C17 Carved, but the racier looking C15 was also there beckoning. Everyone was skeptical (myself included) that I would find it comfortable, but it was worth trying.
So I fixed the Cambium C15 Carved to my bike and went for a spin. Cue the chorus of angels – the saddle disappeared underneath me, and I suddenly discovered better freedom of movement. It was surprisingly comfortable, even more so than the C17. There was just the right amount of firmness with a bit of flexibility where it mattered, provided by the cutout.
This IS the saddle that I've been looking for! And this one had a slate grey top with black rubber underneath (yay!) – definitely a thing of beauty. I was sold.
Here's a description of the Cambium C15 Carved straight from the Brooks website:
The Cambium C15 Carved shares the same narrower shape as the existing Cambium C15, but with an ergonomic cut-out to provide relief from discomfort in the perineal area, experienced by some cyclists. This registered cutting, a sure preventive to all perenial pressure, is also to be found in the saddles of the Brooks Imperial line. Made from vulcanised natural rubber and organic cotton top, combined with a die-cast aluminium structure and tubular steel rails. For performance, a distinct dampening effect is delivered by the classic Brooks construction keeping the rider in unparalleled comfort mile after mile.
And here are the specifications of the saddle:
- LENGTH: 283 mm
- WIDTH: 140 mm
- HEIGHT: 52 mm
- WEIGHT: 395 g
- FRAME: Steel
- PRICE: £ 120 retail
For comparison, the width of the C17 measures at 162 mm and just slightly heavier at a little over 400 grams.
Touring with the Brooks Cambium C15 Carved
In the following months, I have ridden the saddle through a few different countries and climates, and I am pleased to say that it has held up extremely well. I live in a tropical climate that's usually humid, and I have cycled through my fair share of torrential downpours, along with tropical heat and direct sun. At the other end of the scale, the saddle has also gone through colder and drier alpine temperatures, where some of those days were close to freezing. My backside was quite happy throughout all those conditions.
For a saddle that looks like it has race-like aspirations, it certainly isn't light at close to 400 grams. So if you are a weight weenie, there are lighter saddles to consider. However, if you are in the market for a maintenance free touring saddle, the Brooks Cambium C15 Is a great candidate, and the Carved version is a bit more comfortable, at least for me. It is also much lighter than most of the other leather saddles in the market which is how I think it should be compared against. For reference, the standard Brooks B17 weighs around 540 grams as comparison.
With that said, I would like to present my thoughts on what it's like to own one.
Great construction quality and materials. The cotton canvas top simply gets better with age, just like a good old pair of denims. In the beginning, the canvas surface may feel a bit rough for some folks, but it weathers quite nicely after a few rides. It eventually develops a nice sheen that is very smooth and easy to ride on. The construction of the steel rails is extremely solid and there's plenty of rail length to provide a good range of adjustments. You could slide the C15 further forward or back compared to the B17.
No break-in period. The design of the Cambium saddle is similar to its leather brethren where the vulcanized rubber top is held under tension, creating the comfortable hammock effect. The difference here is that the leather will stretch over time, whereas the Cambium material stays fairly intact and therefore does not require a break-in period. The C15 was comfortable straight out of the box, and the cutout gives it just the right amount of flex for me. Basically, it has been designed to feel just right from the start, without the break-in period!
All-weather conditions. As much as I loved the original leather saddles, there is a bit of maintenance that has to be done to ensure that the leather stays healthy. Water will make leather stretch, and riding in the rain without protecting the saddle will wear it out prematurely. Nadiah usually carries a shower cap that's used to cover her B17S leather saddle when it rains. With the C15 however, I didn't have to worry about weather. There's no stretch or leather conditioning to worry about. It'll go through torrential rain without issue, and I never had to worry about the "oh crap it's raining" moment when my bike is parked outside.
Easy to clean and maintain. This goes hand in hand with its all-weather construction. After a ride with plenty of muddy splashes and dirt from the road, a quick spray from a garden hose is all it takes. Since it is just a single piece of material on top, cleaning the underside is fairly easy too as there are not many complicated or hidden areas to worry about. If I'm in the middle of a tour, just a quick wipe down of the cotton canvas top is good enough and it dries quickly.
Great comfort for long distance. And of course, what good is a touring saddle if it doesn't provide comfort for long days in the saddle, day after day. It takes a bit of getting used to in the beginning if you are not used to firm saddles, but your muscles do get the hang of it. The longest stretch I've experienced is around 10 straight days of riding, at an average of about 8 hours per day. There was a little bit of soreness after about 6 days, but nothing that I couldn't recover from. And the best part is... I don't ride with padded shorts! It's actually that comfortable.
My original mission was to find a replacement for the Brooks B17 as it was literally numbing my privates. Despite that, I still liked the overall comfort that the construction of a Brooks saddle provided, so when I first learned about the Cambium line, my curiosity was piqued.
When I made the discovery of the C15 Carved, I was initially doubtful that it would solve my dilemma, but one test ride on it was enough to convince me. Since then, it has lived up to its expectations as a hard wearing and amazingly comfortable saddle.
Most recently, Brooks has introduced the Cambium C13 Carved which is a carbon version of the same saddle, and they now have a model with similar dimensions and a cutout. The only reason I would think about trying the C13 is simply because it is lighter. But given that the C15 is already a solid performer, I think I'll stay with it for awhile longer. A full five stars for comfort, durability and care free maintenance!