In the 1980s and early '90s, a bike seat was just a bike seat, with only a few styles from which to choose. Many were uncomfortable, but that was the reality of cycling.
Then, in the late '90s, the industry for seats, also called bike saddles, exploded, says Mike Skiles of Suck Creek Cycles.
"Nowadays, there's 20 or 30 different saddles to choose from in each category of cycling," Skiles says.
For example, competitive racing saddles incorporate elements such as carbon fiber — and can get costly, ranging in price from $80 to over $300. Meanwhile, a quality casual saddle can cost as little as $40. In order to optimize both your comfort and your spending, choosing the right saddle is paramount.
Here are some details to get you started.
Road Racing: A good racing saddle is slim so that it won't chafe or cause pain on extended rides. Racing on a wider saddle inhibits leg movement and could lead to discomfort and friction on your thighs, which can ruin your time in a race. A good racing saddle should push the rider's position forward, increasing handling via their lower center of gravity and making them able to endure mile after mile due to their more even weight distribution.
Mountain Biking: Cyclists interested in tackling mountain biking trails need something very different from a racing saddle. Just as mountain biking requires stronger shocks and tires, more padding in the saddle is generally a good idea for navigating gnarled roots and bumpy terrain. Saddles for mountain bikes tend to be wider, as chafing concerns take a backseat to rider comfort. Still, saddles for mountain biking can be designed for racing and competition. How wide your saddle can be while remaining comfortable varies from person to person.
Casual Cycling: If most of your cycling is a short distance on asphalt and tarmac, say a casual family ride or a trip to Publix, ask for a wide-set, cushioned saddle. The saddles on the bikes in Chattanooga's bike share program fit this bill well: very wide and padded, so regardless of what you're wearing you can ride comfortably. "Cruiser" saddles can fall under this category, if that's the style of your bike.
Cycling for Women: Some women might find bike saddles made for men uncomfortable and not wide enough, forcing them to press their knees closer together as they pedal and causing discomfort over the course of a ride. Many companies make saddles specifically for women across all cycling disciplines.
Try before you ride: Just like a shoe store has equipment to measure your feet, most bike shops have measuring equipment to help you figure out what saddle would be best for you. It might take a few saddles before you find the one that's best for your needs. Luckily, many stores accept returns if the bike saddle they measure you for in the shop doesn't translate to comfortable, solid performance while you're cycling. Be sure to check with your local bike shop or retailer about return policies.
Nobody's Perfect: Some saddles are more comfortable than others, but no saddle will have you floating on air. There will always be some small level of discomfort when cycling for exercise or distance. Mike Skiles from Suck Creek Cycles has a platitude about saddles that he borrows from a former co-worker: "None of them are comfortable, but some hurt less than others."