Joining the cult of Brooks

Small update-y things: It was so hard to leave Missoula! It has some sort of bicycle gravity.

I had my fifth flat the other day. All but one have been in the rear wheel. And these are supposed to be flat-resistant tires! I’m sorely tempted to buy a tire liner or inner-tube goo or something.

I hate mosquitoes. I mean, nobody likes them (except some kinds of bats and birds, I suppose). But even with DEET on my clothes and the “natural” stuff on my skin, I get bit. And even if they’re not biting, they’re hovering all around you, looking for a spot to land, which starts to drive you batshit crazy. I’m used to them coming out near sunset and then giving up after it gets dark, but the last few days they’ve just been constant, anywhere we stop. And I’ve got at least one bite that isn’t from a mosquito, I don’t know what it is. And it takes a couple of weeks for each bite to stop itching. Gaaaah!!

On the positive side of things, the weather has been good (although last night was rather cold) and the scenery is lovely as we head towards Glacier National Park. We’re in the Flathead National Forest currently. Well, at this very minute I’m in the tiny (but pretty awesome) library in Condon. There are three people in here plus the librarian, and all three of us are bicycle tourists on computers updating blogs/facebook.

But, on to the subject of this post.

As I started this trip, I figured my butt would be sore at first because hello, long days in the saddle when I haven’t done that in a while. And I was right. But rather than my ass getting used to riding, it just generally got worse. On days with long uphills, where I’m spinning the pedals and most of my weight is on my butt, I would have to stop every few hundred feet and get off the saddle just to get the circulation back. It was so bad that it was cutting off circulation to my legs sometimes and making my knees hurt!

And after I thought about it, I realized: this saddle is over two years old. No wonder it’s making my butt hurt. That foam/gel padding stuff doesn’t last forever.

So, I needed a new saddle. But what to do? Should I buy another synthetic saddle that would need replacing in two years, or get something else?

Many of my friends who are serious cyclists love their leather Brooks saddles. I would go so far as to say they’re considered the gold standard for touring especially.

But….I don’t buy leather. I’ve been vegetarian since 2003 and vegan or mostly vegan since 2005.

BUT….part of the reason I went veg to start with, was for environmental reasons. And which is better for the planet, buying a plastic and metal synthetic saddle every other year, or buying one leather and metal saddle I use for years and years? (Then again, nobody is really asking the cow this question, now are they?)

After much mental hemming and hawing, I decided to give a Brooks saddle a shot. And after thinking about it, I decided on a Flyer.

My preference was for the lady’s style, in brown. Do you think any bike shop in Missoula had a Brooks Flyer saddle at all? Pfft. No. Two shops had B17s. That was it. And I really wanted those springs.

But then I remembered: Oh, duh, Adventure Cycling has an online shop! I saw some of the stuff in their office….I wonder if they do all their sales from there?

Sure enough: They do. And yes: you can buy anything in the catalog/online store, right there in the office. So I took a deep breath and bought the first new leather item I can remember purchasing in at least half a decade. A woman in the sales department went back into a surprisingly small room, filled with shelves and boxes to the ceiling, to get it out of a box and hand it to me. I got some Proofide too. Our friend Heather was really thrilled that I bought a Brooks and took a picture!

They didn’t have it in brown (oh well, I have black pants anyway), nor did they have the “lady’s” version. But apparently, the lady’s version is just a little shorter, and not for anatomical reasons, but to make it easier to dismount in a skirt/dress without it catching. Well, the nose of the regular version isn’t any longer than the saddle I’ve been riding, with skirts and all, so I’m not worried.

I’d tried a B67 before and hated it, but it was one that Shawn had been riding for a bit, so it was broken into his butt. And when I complained, nearly everyone said I hadn’t given it a chance.

It’s true that breaking in a Brooks saddle while touring is probably the definition of idiocy, but I’m trying it anyway (and I’m carrying the old saddle with me just in case). I’ve read that it takes five hundred miles to break one in properly. Fifty or so miles down, four hundred and fifty to go?

I’ve ridden with it for a day and a half, and here’s what I’ve discovered so far:

I was right in that the padding in my old saddle was compressed, since it wasn’t my sit bones that were hurting, but the area around them, where the plastic supports were on the old saddle. The Brooks? Yeah, I know exactly where my sit bones are now. Getting back on the thing this morning was wince-inducing.

And I’m having the same problem with this one that I had with the B67 I tried: It’s not nice to my crotch. There’s no pretty way to say this: It’s pushing, hard, on my genitals. I end up riding sitting up as much as I possibly can to avoid putting more pressure on my “soft tissues,” as the bike industry euphemistically calls the area. When I do have to ride in the drops (like for a long descent) I put a lot more weight on my pedals than I used to.

And I know everyone will say the same thing: Oh, you just need to break it in. I’m trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I seriously can’t figure out how that works. When you break it in, the leather contours to your sit bones, yeah? Which means the leather sinks a little under your weight. Doesn’t that make the part that touches my crotch higher in relation to where my sit bones are? Won’t that make it push on my crotch more instead of less?

I wonder how much of it is breaking it in, and how much of it is that people’s riding posture changes so they don’t have any weight on their genitals. ‘Cause right now, if I lean over at all (and my handlebars are pretty damn high), it feels like all my weight is on my poor crotch.

Any other women have this problem with new Brooks saddles? Did breaking it in really help?

In related news: Proofide is SO GROSS. It’s mostly tallow (that would be beef fat) and fish oil. After rubbing it into the saddle I have to clean my hands really good or I’m totally yucked out. I really hope it doesn’t melt in my bag and get on other stuff.

And, last but not least: Adventure Cycling posts the photos it takes of people who visit, on their flickr account! Here it is:

April & Shawn

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15 Responses to Joining the cult of Brooks

  1. FYI, Proofhide is largely vegetable oil and wax; I’ve had pretty good luck just using a combination of jojoba oil and olive oil on my Brooks (all of which I got second-hand), though admittedly I don’t ride them nearly as often as you’re doing now! My biggest issue with using secondhand leather saddles is the animal fats in the treatments for them, so anything you discover I’d love to hear about.

    • Yeah, I thought about using something else, but I’m a bit paranoid.

      I plan to give the saddle until we get to Edmonton or it just gets too painful—I’m still carrying my old saddle around, too, good thing it’s not heavy! If it still hurts after that many miles, I might sell it or try to get it waranteed.

  2. Sue says:

    April, I have the b66 s on my Pashley and I haven’t experienced the problem you’re describing. Would saddle height and handlebar height make a difference? The Brooks website mentions that the for best use the handlebars should be set higher than the saddle. That may be difficult for your touring bike and travel situation, but just thought I would mention it.

    Best of luck to you and your “soft tissues.”

    • My handlebars are definitely higher than my saddle. I won’t ride any other way, actually!

    • Oh, and: I have an old (OLD, I dont’ know who made it) leather saddle on my 1961 Raleigh Sports. And that one is just fine, despite the nose being so high up, because my position is just so upright. It’s not Dutch style, but it’s close, and I think the Pashley gives a similar posture. It was part of why I was willing to give leather saddles another chance, because I love the one I put on my Raleigh.

      Unfortunately, it’s not a good posture for touring, because on upright bars you only have one hand position and it’s nearly impossible to get very far in a headwind. Which isn’t a big deal cycling around town, but try riding 40 miles into a headwind (especially if it’s even the slightest bit uphill) sometime. You’ll want the ability to lean forward, even if only a little.

  3. Jane says:

    I have a B17S on my Brompton and a B67S on my Pashley, and I’ve never experienced the problems you describe. Obviously both of my bikes encourage an upright riding position (especially the Pashley) but I’ve had no problems with pressure on my ‘soft tissues’ at all, and I found both of the saddles comfortable from day one. And that’s not because I’ve got leathery lady bits(!) or a high pain threshold – in fact, I’m a bit of a wimp and in the past before getting the Brooks saddles I always suffered from soft tissue discomfort, and always had to use padded shorts and liberal daubings of tea tree cream to get through even a 10 mile ride. Since I got the Brooks saddles I’ve never had a minute’s discomfort, and I ride 25 miles every day without the need for padded shorts or a jot of cream. Somehow the absence of padding in the saddle makes it more rather than less comfortable for me, and I’ve been amazed at the improvement in my riding comfort. As for breaking in, Proofide is yukky but it does the trick, and your saddle will definitely get more comfortable with time. But if it’s really giving you this much discomfort I’d suggest switching it for a different model or trying to amend the set up of your bike to ensure that you place less weight on your soft tissues. Check out the comments to this post (http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-female-anatomy-and-bicycle-saddles.html) on the Lovely Bicycle blog if you want more suggestions…and good luck!!!

    • I’ve read that post by Lovely Bicycle, I actually commented something like half a dozen times! It’s a favorite post of mine. I might reread it.

      I might move it forward on the rails a tiny bit.

  4. While I love Brooks saddles on upright bikes, I’ve found them difficult to impossible on bikes with drop bars, especially as the height of my bars gets lower and lower over time. The issue is “the front part” of my “soft tissue,” and I’m talking about one specific spot if you know what I mean. And no, the saddle does not “break in” to go easier on that spot; the breaking in period pertains to the sitbones only. I struggled with this for close to a year, before finally selling my non-upright Brooks saddles and buying a Berthoud and Selle Anatomica to replace them. These are working better for me.

    Re leather: I sincerely believe that the production of synthetics systematically kills more animals (via mass contamination) than are killed to make those leather saddles. Consequently, I actually think it is better for the environment and for animals’ lives to buy leather saddles (particularly if they are naturally dyed) than synthetic ones.

    • I’ve had two experiences with Selle Anatomica, and unfortunately both were negative. One was via Shawn, he bought one on craigslist only to find that the rails bent when he rode with it (they weren’t bent before), when he emailed the manufacturer the guy was a total asshole about it. The second is that a friend lent me one, and the leather on it was already too stretched-out–the tension nut was already halfway out, and still, when I sat on it, I could feel the top of the seatpost through the cut-out! Yikes! And if you go to the website for Selle Anatomica, the manufacturer basically says, “that just happens sometimes,” and if it does, tough shit to you. I mean, yeah, sometimes things go wrong with saddles, but a good manufacturer tries to make it right, especially with such an expensive purchase. With the S-A guy, it seems that if you catch him in an off mood he’s just a jerk. I’m not willing to take the risk, honestly.

      I don’t know anything about Berthoud saddles. I can’t remember which model you said you liked, but I remember I looked it up once, and the first three sites listed by google, were your blog posts or flickr entries!

      That’s a good point, on the leather thing, and reminds me of why I decided I was okay with eating honey–the farming/manufacture of white sugar, surely kills just as many insects, if not more…The harm caused by synthetics vs. the harm caused by leather, it’s something that vegans are capable of arguing about for days, no exaggeration. It’s a controversial subject among vegans. Some people just choose to only buy things secondhand (leather or otherwise) and while that does ease one person’s conscience, it doesn’t solve anything. Many people point out that while synthetics cause harm as a side effect, leather manufacturing hurts an animal directly, especially since higher-quality leather isn’t a byproduct of the beef industry but is farmed independently–the cows are killed just for their leather.

      The whole situation bugs me, honestly, since no matter what decision I make, I feel like I’m doing the wrong thing. *sigh*

      • I am sure this has been argued before, but to some extent it’s impossible not to make an impact that harms other creatures. If we live in “civilsed society” the harm we do by merely existing is unfathomable. At some point, I feel that it’s just more worthwhile (for me) to focus on maximising what I am contributing in a positive way instead of minimising the harm I am doing; my energy seems better spent that way.

        Saddles… It just seems to be a matter of expensive experimentation and it’s frustrating. Not even sure how helpful others’ advice is, since we are all so different. Good luck finding one that is right for you.

  5. MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

    I have the B17 on Miss Surly and pushing the nose down a bit helped a lot. Although if I’m wearing anything other than my biking shorts I tend to slide forward on the saddle. But, it made such a huge comfort difference to put down the nose that it is worth the annoyance of having to push back on the saddle every mile or so.

    • I can’t even ride it flat, I slide right onto the nose of the saddle! I have to have it just barely nose-up, unfortunately.

      And I already have shoulders that get sore from riding a bicycle, so I try to put as little weight on them as possible.

  6. MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

    Oh and I really really REALLY wish I would’ve gotten the Flyer. Everytime I hit a bump or a seam at the end of a driveay I wish I had springs in my saddle.

  7. Ron Richings says:

    Hi April, Ron Richings here with a suggestion.

    I feel your pain. Different tender bits, but I have experienced much the same thing. If the Brooks doesn’t solve the problem, you can probably make your old saddle reasonably comfortable. You will need some blue ‘camping foam’, duct tape, a bit of spandex or other cloth (preferably stretchy) and scissors or a knife.

    Basically what you need to do is cut out four ovalish pads of foam, each about 3 by 4 inches. Then stack two together on each side, centered under each sit bone, andf tape them in place. There should be at least an inch and probably more between the left and right side pads – this is critical.

    Once the pads are taped securely in place, try riding the bike. You may need to adjust the placement of the pads a bit for best comfort.

    The pads will lift your butt slightly, and the gap in the middle will reduce or eliminate the pressure on your ‘soft tissues’.

    Once you have adjusted the foam for best comfort and given it a try, you will probably want to cover the improved saddle with a bit of spandex or other cloth. Sitting and pedaling on bare plastic is not really a lot of fun. The cover doesn’t have to be cut closely to size. It can just be stretched over the saddle and taped to the seatpost below. And you may need to lower the saddle a bit to compensate for the extra height.

    I have used this approach on several saddles and it has always been a significant improvement in comfort. Ron Richings

  8. Todd says:

    Too bad your saddle is being a pain on this long trip.

    After decades of leather saddle use – my Brooks have served me well on long trips. One tip: for touring get the B17 upgrade to copper rivets vs the standard steel ones. This helps if you ride without padded shorts.

    Also as for leather saddles – check out the Dutch company Lepper. They have woman’s styles too.

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