reviews
editorials
"how tos"
maintenance
race schedules
event reports
 
pageok

 

 

Finally: A saddle that works.
By Tom Demerly.

 

Read this first about our reviews

 

The first time you tried aero bars you probably thought two things: "They really do make me faster and, now my saddle really hurts- it feels like I'm only using the front 1/3rd."

When aerobars were invented by Boone Lennon around 1987 he had no idea the impact they would have on cycling in general and the sport of triathlon specifically. Now, 15 years later, it is a rarity to see any bike in a transition area without the elbow-steering, aerodynamic hop-up handlebars.

So profound is the contribution of Aerobars that a new generation of bicycles- triathlon specific frames- are designed around the aerodynamic posture mandated by Boone Lennon's creation. Dan Empfield (Quintana Roo founder, Slowtwitch.com Editor) and Ralph Ray were the visionaries that recognized the need for a specific frame to optimize the comfort and performance benefits of aero bars. They brought the sport closer to realizing its potential and making it easier, faster and more fun for the masses.

As is often the case, however, filling one need lead to another. Soon after aerobars and multisport specific frames became de riguer the Werner Von Braun of triathlon bikes, Dan Empfield, realized the need for a triathlon specific saddle to go with triathlon specific aero bars and frames.

Empfield had been talking about an aerobar specific saddle design for years. He recognized that a triathlon cyclist's pelvis is rotated farther forward than a normal road posture and put extreme pressure on soft tissue areas not well suited for long term loads. Most of us are familiar with the sensations associated with riding aerobars: At first your crotch hurts. Man or woman (it doesn't matter) you are pulled forward onto your genitals and the pounding of the road and corresponding downforce caused by pulling up on your pedals grinds your crotch into the saddle. It burns, feels bruised and, if your lucky, eventually goes completely numb so at least you don't have to think about the pain anymore. But then comes the big worry: Permanent Damage.

Several years back Bicycling magazine (Rodale Press) broke a sensational cover story about "Male Erectile Disfunction" being caused by bicycle saddles. The article was written by a "doctor" and featured graphic and gruesome X-rays of a cyclist's pelvis tilted forward onto a bike seat with their genitals smashed into an impossible contortion like something out of a San Francisco S&M underground magazine. Testimonials from wounded cyclists recounted horror stories of impotence and permanent genital numbness in men and women.

The article was paraphrased in The New York Times and other national publications sending shock waves throughout the cycling world. Literally overnight men and women everywhere thought the biggest threat to their sexual capability wasn't AIDS but a bicycle saddle.

Always ready to turn a need into an opportunity the bicycle industry responded with a new generation of "anatomically correct" so called "men's" and "women's' specific" saddles. These saddles feature holes, grooves, "comfort channels" and all manner of distortions to supposedly facilitate genital health. The cycling industry had discovered a universal truth of marketing to the American public: The quickest way to a person's wallet is through their crotch. People will do anything to save their privates or make them work better. Like "bike Viagra" these saddles sold as face as we could unbox them.


The problem: Triathletes ride on the nose of their saddle.Tthe solution is the new Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon saddle.

Ironically, the following month Bicycling magazine ran a retraction to the sensational saddle article, siting numerous errors and factual inaccuracies that lead to the exaggeration of the problem and called the good "doctor's" qualifications into question. It was too late, the American cycling public was already buying "men's comfort saddles" and "female specific saddles" at a dizzying rate, and the industry was more than happy to ring up the sales.

Meanwhile, in the real cycling world, the new saddle designs were exposed for exactly what they are: A stupid idea that doesn't work.

In the Tour de France you may notice all the saddles are basically conventional. There are no holes in them, no "pressure relief channels" and no gimmickry. They are just good (or bad) 'ole hard racing saddles. Day in and day out, for hours a day, the cyclists in the Tour de France sit on normal looking bike seats that closely resemble the same saddles used thirty years ago. Tour de France riders understand more about saddle discomfort (and comfort) than any other group of cyclists, and they know the answer isn't in a bunch of dubious novelty "men's" saddles with holes and slots. The typical Tour de France rider insures saddle comfort, or at least tolerance, through building plenty of miles, using the best shorts possible, using chamois pad cream and selecting a good, firm saddle design without any holes or channels. Does it work? Put it this way: Nine-time tour de France rider Frankie Andreu is expecting his third child. Five time Tour de France winner Eddie Merckx has two kids. Neither of them ever used "men's saddles".

In 1999 and 2000 I tried several different brands of "men's" saddles designed to relive pressure from the arteries leading into the genitals and be generally more comfortable. They felt interesting at first- like they may even be some kind of an improvement- but they all ultimately failed.

Intuitively the saddles with the holes in the middle seem like a good idea. After all, you basically find the part of the saddle that is digging into your crotch and making your dick go numb and take that part out. It seems to make sense. The problem is, as soon as you put weight on the saddle by sitting on it the hole closes up or the "comfort channel" flattens out leaving you sitting in a depression in the saddle with the forward portion smashed firmly against the family jewels. Eventually, the effect actually becomes worse.

When I used a "men's" saddle with a small hole in the middle and a "comfort groove" I got a series of saddle sores on either side of my crotch. Despite using excellent shorts, chamois cream and everything else to provide saddle comfort this "men's" saddle was tearing the skin in my crotch up. I was no more or less numb than when I used a conventional saddle. When I finally went back to a standard racing saddle (Selle Italia Flite) I couldn't believe how much of an improvement it was over the ridiculous "men's" model.

I learned what most cyclists already know: The novelty "men's" and "women's" saddles really don't work. At best, they are a temporary solution for cyclists still getting used to sitting on a bike seat until they get acclimated to sitting on a proper racing saddle that will provide adequate support and disperse load over a wider surface area.

In the mean time Dan Empfield had not given up on his idea of a "triathlon specific" saddle. The need was clear: People who ride on aero handlebars commonly slide forward on their saddles using mostly the nose. The effect is like a two-hour visit to the proctologist while doing a 40-mile ride. The saddle is going up your butt with the nose absolutely crushing your privates. Man or woman, the effect is universal: It hurts. Since so many multisport and triathlon cyclists are new to the sport they were unaccustomed to high degrees of saddle discomfort, let alone that special brand of discomfort from riding the nose of your saddle while in the aero position. These new triathletes were ripe candidates for the current generation of phony "comfort" saddles. Like P.T. Barnum said, "There's one born every minute". Oddly, new triathletes seemed oblivious to the fact that Tour de France riders and elite professional triathletes were not using these ridiculous "man's" and "women's" saddles with the holes and gooves.


"Men's" saddles with grooves and holes seem like a good idea, but really don't work as well as the Azoto. Click here to see specifics.

After several years of contemplating designs and fabricating prototypes Dan Empfield joined forces with one of the world's leading saddle makers, Selle San Marco, to produce the first really effective saddle designed to be used in the aero position: The Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon.

I have ridden the Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon saddle extensively on many different bikes on different terrain and in different clothing. The effect is clear:

The Selle San Marco Azoto triathlon saddle is the biggest contribution to saddle comfort for triathletes ever. It is the most comfortable saddle I have used and the only one that can be effectively and tolerably ridden for extended periods in the aero position. The net result is: Greater comfort and improved performance. Since you don't have to stop pedaling every few hours to let some blood return to your crotch you can keep pedaling, so the seat actually makes you faster.

The Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon saddle is a highly sophisticated design. It uses some interesting materials that make it perfectly suited for the unusual needs of triathletes.

Firstly, the Azoto is designed to be ridden for a long time in the aero position by men or women. Saddles are a highly personal thing. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. But the Azoto has worked for more people than any other saddle solution we have tried. Out of well over 100 saddles sold we have received only one return (from a very small rider about 100 pounds who complained the nose was "too wide"). If we could get more, we would have sold 200+ by now. We even debated the wisdom of publishing this review since supply on the saddles has been short and demand so high. But the Azoto works so well it is destined to be the standard "triathlon saddle".


The thick 5 cm. deep nose of the Azoto Triathlon houses multi-density elasto-polymer gel padding. The only saddle designed specifically for triathletes.

When Empfield set out to design the Azoto for Selle San Marco he recognized the problems inherent in the current generation of novelty saddles with holes and grooves. He also was more familiar with the saddle requirements of the aerobar cyclist than anyone else. He also knew that triathletes have another unusual requirement in their saddles: Since they get on their bike after a race with wet clothing from the swim the saddle needed to be resistant to water and comfortable when soaking wet and being ridden in only a swimsuit. This was a tall order, but he and Selle San Marco have succeeded in dramatic fashion.

The Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon uses a "nose first" design that incorporates a firm, multi-density elasto-polymer gel well in the nose. This is where triathletes sit on the saddle, grinding their privates down with every pedal stroke and little bump they hit. The gel-well is 5cm. (about 2 inches) deep and extends back 12 centimeters n the saddle to a point behind its lightweight titanium rail forward attachment point. This area of the saddle is covered with a slippery neoprene. The thinking is simple: If you can't put bike short fabric on your body (because you're wearing abbreviated tri shorts or a wet bathing suit) you put that fabric right on the saddle over the gel. It works perfectly. Even thought the nose of the Azoto is blissfully wide and supportive, the sides are smooth and slippery. You can ride the nose for hours without problems.

The shape of the Azoto is another revolution. The nose is squared off as viewed from the front. Unlike other saddles that have a very round cross section in their nose the Selle San Marco Azoto is designed to support weight on its nose. Other saddles are designed to hold the rider's weight on the back of the saddle. Look at an Azoto from the front and you'll see the total surface area you sit on at the nose is almost 30% greater than a Selle Italia Flite or other saddle (including "comfort" or "men's" saddles). Again, the nose is specifically designed to ridden with aero bars.


Profiles of popular saddles compared with the Azoto on the bottom. Click here for more specifics.

Another interesting feature of the Azoto is the weird little chrome-plastic cover under the nose. I don't know if it was intended for this, but the "hook" formed by the protrusion of this weird little chrome piece makes racking your bike from under the saddle in the transition area a breeze!

As you move back on the Azoto saddle the fabric changes to Lorica. Lorica is a space-aged synthetic leather much better suited for triathletes than real leather. Lorica breaths as good as leather, takes stitching better and is much more water-resistant and color fast than dyed leather. This is another stroke of genius on the part of Selle San Marco and Dan Empfield: They selected a fabric that works perfectly when you have on wet clothes after you come out of the water.

The tail of the Azoto saddle has a slight spoiler effect when installed correctly (more on that in a minute). This certainly helps when climbing seated, generally the best climbing posture on a triathlon geometry bike. Since tri bikes have a steeper 78-degree seat angle you really have to push back on the saddle to get good leverage on the pedals when climbing. The Selle San Marco facilitates that by enabling you to push all the way to the rear of the saddle and use the "spoiler" for leverage. This means installing the Azoto is a bit tricky. When we received our first Azoto saddles a few months ago we installed them like a regular racing saddle, using a bubble level to make the nose and tail of the saddle on the same plane, perfectly level. We quickly learned this is wrong. If you orient the saddle perfectly level the nose has the effect of being too high. After hundreds of miles of experimentation we learned the ideal orientation (at least for us) was to have the saddle angled exactly 4 degrees downward toward the nose. This has the effect of making the nose platform flat or parallel with the ground with the tail (Lorica) portion angled slightly up like a spoiler. This is where you get maximum comfort on the nose gel-well and best climbing leverage from the tail of the saddle.

The Azoto saddle measures exactly 126mm wide and 275mm long, or 5mm longer than a standard racing saddle. These dimensions are appropriate. The saddle is 5.5cm. deep at its thickest point, slightly deeper than many current lightweight racing saddles such as the Selle Italia Flite and Selle Italia SLR. The rails are titanium to keep the weight to 273 grams on our test models. Sure, this is a bit heavier than some of the lightest saddles out there, but in the interest of comfort it is weight well spent. If you are more comfortable on the saddle you can pedal a lot harder for much longer and go a lot faster. The saddle sells for around $120.

I currently own three Selle San Marco Azoto Triathlon saddles, one on each of my triathlon bikes. I consider the saddle the biggest multisport specific innovation since the aerodynamic handlebar and triathlon specific frame. In fact, the Azoto saddle is the one piece of equipment that completes the triathlon evolution. Now all the pieces fit together, the aerobars work with the frame and the saddle works with the rider.

The saddle is so much more comfortable than a tradition road or "men's" comfort saddle with holes or grooves that I will never switch back. I can ride flat-out for 40 miles in the aero position with substantially less discomfort, increased power and no numbness. We are hearing similar reports from female cyclists as well. Even in a Speedo swimsuit the saddle is more than tolerable: It is comfortable. On long rides it is luxurious.

If you value your saddle comfort and are sick of phony "comfort" and "men's" or "women's" specific novelty saddles we recommend you try the Azoto. There hasn't been a saddle innovation this significant since the invention of the aerodynamic handlebar.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
Site Designed and Maintained by: Intuitive Business Solutions.

 
pageok