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The Right Saddle for Mountain Biking – A Guide

On a mountain bike, the saddle is a key element to comfort and fun while riding. We’ll give you tips for choosing the right MTB saddle.

The saddle on a mountain bike is actually somewhat of a paradox. When the going gets tough on your mountain bike, your fears for discomfort are allayed at the touch of a thumb thanks to dropper posts, making way for a good time. However, the saddle can ruin your entire ride if it doesn't fit. Our guidebook gives you tips for choosing the right MTB saddle, so that even the path to the trailhead is chock full of fun!

Often enough, you don't even sit on your saddle when mountain biking...
Often enough, you don't even sit on your saddle when mountain biking...

Often enough, you don't even sit on your saddle when mountain biking...

Whether uphill...
Whether uphill...

Whether uphill...

...or downhill: for more power and more control, you're more likely to stand than sit in the saddle when mountain biking.
...or downhill: for more power and more control, you're more likely to stand than sit in the saddle when mountain biking.

...or downhill: for more power and more control, you're more likely to stand than sit in the saddle when mountain biking.

Not to mention the airtime....
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Not to mention the airtime....

Key for comfort: the right saddle width

Your saddle and your rear end have to go together well, otherwise you won't be able to ride comfortably. The most important and easiest parameter to determine in this respect is the saddle width. On bikes that tend to have a sporty riding position, a significant portion of the pressure rests on the sit bones. If the saddle is too narrow, the sit bones protrude laterally over the seat surface, resulting in pressure peaks and pain. The simplest and cheapest tool for measuring the sit bone distance is the measuring cardboard from SQlab. The determined distance helps you to choose the right saddle, no matter which saddle brand you decide on. Most renowned manufacturers such as Specialized, Ergon or SQlab offer their models in different widths – usually between 12 and 17 centimetres. In particular, if you ride gravity or do a lot of tricks, and handling your bike in a standing position is most important to you, you should opt for a narrower saddle when in doubt. This gives you more freedom of movement. The same applies to you if you are an ambitious cross-country or marathon rider: the high pedal pressure combined with an extremely extended riding position relieves the sit bones, but puts more strain on the hands. However, vanity is out of place when it comes to saddle width: a wide sit bone distance says absolutely nothing about your weight or how out-of-shape you are.

Often overlooked: The saddle length

On a mountain bike, you continuously change your riding position depending on the terrain and your riding ability - even when riding uphill. This is where mountain biking differs from road biking or touring. A long saddle with a pronounced nose helps you put a lot of weight on the front wheel while riding steep uphill by sliding far forward onto the saddle tip. This way you prevent the front wheel from climbing without having to get out of the saddle – which would lead to a spinning rear wheel. So that the extreme sitting position on the saddle nose is not so ridiculously uncomfortable, manufacturer SQlab has developed its Ergowave and Ergolux saddles with a slight stepped shape and a level seat surface. The saddles thus offer two almost-independent seating positions for flat ground and moderate climbs or steep uphill angles.

More isn’t always better: Saddle padding

More padding is always more comfortable, right? Nope, wrong! When it comes to padding, there are two simple things to remember:

  1. If you wear padded shorts, you can forgo saddle padding. This is because you sit better when a soft material deforms on a hard material than when two soft materials meet.
  2. The more sporty and extended your sitting position is and the more power in your legs, the less padding you need. That’s why cross-country sports like to use minimally-padded saddles like the iconic Selle Italia SLR.

On trails, enduro and downhill, however, a little more padding can be helpful – not necessarily on the top of the saddle, but especially on its sides and nose. The padding allows you to comfortably direct the bike with your inner thighs during extreme cornering or a lot of airtime and prevents a sharp or pointed edge from digging into your legs in the event of a botched landing. In addition to classic gel and PU pads, high-tech materials such as the “Infinergy” developed by BASF are increasingly being used for Ergon Core models, and finding its way into (E-)mountain bikes. Some saddle manufacturers specify the padding hardness between 0 and 100 in shore units, the same as with high-quality bed mattresses. The higher the value, the harder the cushion. Otherwise, the thickness, product description and thumb test provide information.

The saddle also helps you to guide your bike. Padded edges are then often more comfortable for your thighs.
The saddle also helps you to guide your bike. Padded edges are then often more comfortable for your thighs.

The saddle also helps you to guide your bike. Padded edges are then often more comfortable for your thighs. © bc GmbH

Light or stable? Take two! Saddle Rails

On mountain bikes, the market is dominated by classic rounded seat stays (rails) with a diameter of seven millimetres, which fit into the clamps of any commercially available seatpost. The best known exception is the i-Beam System from SDG , where a single so-called monorail is clamped. The system allows simple angle adjustment, but is not compatible with modern telescopic seatposts and is therefore predestined for downhill or bike park use. Pivotal seatposts like on BMX bikes or oval rails like on road bikes are not a factor on MTBs.
The material is exciting: on the one hand, carbon rails enable lightweight saddles with a good mix of material stiffness and high self-damping. On the other hand, the material is expensive and relatively sensitive. When mounting, you should always follow the torque specifications of the manufacturer and use carbon assembly paste. Nevertheless, a hard fall or a botched landing can spell the end for carbon rails. Steel is also very comfortable, robust and inexpensive, but it does not break any records in terms of weight. In terms of price and weight, titanium and special aluminium alloys for the saddle rails lie exactly between the two so-called extremes. Many manufacturers offer their most popular models in several rail variants. This way you can also ride your favourite saddle on different bikes with different areas of use. Our filter “Rail Material” will help you with your search.

Hard shell, soft shell? The inner materials

The core of a saddle is its shell, which usually sits between the rails on one side and the padding or upper material on the other. This shell does much of the work in the saddle and is either stiff or purposefully flexible, depending on the design - providing comfort in minimalist or non-padded saddles. An extreme example is the ultra-light C59 (63 grams) from Selle Italia, where you sit directly on the saddle shell - and thanks to carbon, it’s even quite comfortable. However, carbon as a shell material also has disadvantages, especially with particularly light saddles: in the event of a fall or if you massively overshoot a jump and land with your entire weight on the saddle nose, it can break and splinter with sharp edges. Classic plastic shells tend to bend or not splinter. In both cases the saddle is broken, but the risk of injury is different. The more technical your trails, the more you should accept an extra few grams from a plastic shell.

Natural or artificial: the right upper material

It is best to follow your personal experience and preferences in this case. There is no right or wrong answer. Natural leather saddles are very pleasant to the touch for many people and are easy to clean because of their usually smooth surface, but they do need some care in the form of a leather conditioner or treatment (just like a leather shoe), especially in dirty, muddy, wet or sandy MTB use. If you don’t want an animal product or don’t want to hassle with maintenance, faux leather, polyester or microfibre materials are a common alternative. Basically, the smoother the surface, the easier it is to clean. The more textile and rough the surface, the less you slip.

Men’s saddles, women’s saddles: The controversial question

Do women and men need fundamentally different saddles for anatomical reasons? Different manufacturers offer different answers, including German ergonomics specialists Ergon and SQlab. “Yes!”, says Ergon from Koblenz, because while women’s more sensitive genital area needs to be relieved, men experience pressure peaks in the perineal area as particularly unpleasant. "No!", says SQlab from Taufkirchen near Munich, different saddle geometries are not necessary, anatomical differences can be better compensated for with saddle width and step construction. Both manufacturers refer to their own laboratory tests and university studies. Several other suppliers such as Selle Italia, fizik or WTB position themselves between Ergon and SQlab and offer gender-specific and unisex models alike. Specialized focuses predominantly on gender-specific models, while tune offers unisex saddles.

Do women need different MTB saddles than men? The answer varies depending on the manufacturer.
Do women need different MTB saddles than men? The answer varies depending on the manufacturer.

Do women need different MTB saddles than men? The answer varies depending on the manufacturer. © bc GmbH

With a hole or without: The recess

We can clear up one misunderstanding right away: The assumption that a saddle with a recess is automatically a woman's saddle is wrong. Such models are available from a wide range of manufacturers for both sexes or as unisex. Otherwise, the question of the "hole" in the saddle is a similar contentious issue as the gender distinction. It should be noted that the recess is not a simple hole, but a precisely calculated relief opening designed to keep pressure away from particularly sensitive areas of the body. Opponents of the recess, on the other hand, argue that while the inhomogeneous surface would relieve certain regions, others would be all the more stressed due to punctual pressure peaks, and that an even distribution of pressure over a larger area would therefore be preferable. A compromise is the stepped shaped previously mentioned. In football, one would say: The truth is on the pitch. You can only try it out.

Everything is different: special cases for E-mountain bikes

With the triumph of the E-mountain bike, there are more and more specific accessories, including saddles. Is this marketing nonsense or real innovation? The fact is: posture, the seat height and pedalling biodynamics change significantly with an onboard motor. On the E-mountain bike you sit lower and more upright, and the pressure on your buttocks is reduced by your own pedal pressure. So there tends to be more pressure on the sit bones than with an analogue bike. Therefore, wider saddles with stronger padding really do make sense. In addition, there is a new E-MTB style called “Uphill Flow”: thanks to the extra power, you can climb steep and technical climbs in a fun way on an E-Mountain bike. That’s why the “rear” of E-MTB saddles is slightly raised – so that you don't slide backwards when going uphill.

A straight story: The right settings

The correct saddle setting on a mountain bike is a hotly debated topic. Personal preferences play just as much a role as your discipline, seat height, seat angle, handlebar height, pedal system, etc. That’s why we take a closer look at the topic in our broad-ranging ergonomics and saddle texts. If you don’t want to delve too deeply into the subject, here are a few quick tips that get to the point:

Angle
Ideally start with the saddle surface parallel to the ground. Consider the change in your real seat angle due to the negative suspension travel (sag). A slightly lowered saddle nose is recommended for very steep seat angles. A slightly raised saddle nose helps you to guide the bike in the air or in extreme cornering positions with your thigh.

Horizontal Position
Markings for the permitted clamp range are usually printed or laser-etched on the saddle rails. Stick to it, otherwise you risk damage or breakage! Within this clamp range you can influence your posture relative to the handlebars and thus the real seat angle by moving the saddle forwards or backwards. For example, you can compensate for a flat seat angle by pushing the saddle far forward.

Seat Height
As a starting point, with the knee extended and the pedal in the lowest position (6 o'clock), your heel should be flush with the end of the pedal. In pedalling position (pedal under the ball of the foot) your knee should not be extended in the same situation. From here you can optimise millimetre by millimetre. Note that different pedal systems (clipless pedals / flat pedals) or shoes will affect your seat height.

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