Friday, March 06, 2009

More on the bicycle seat...

Okay, so a couple of weeks ago I was whining about bicycle seats, and about this new bicycle seat I'd gotten called the Spongy Wonder. After I posted that entry, I got some advice from friends of mine who are serious bicyclists. Jym accused me of not getting my science right; I'm not entirely convinced that he has his right either, but be that as it may, I think his basic observation that I probably wasn't doing something right was correct.

Joe recommended that I consult the late, much missed Sheldon Brown for advice on bicycle saddle adjustment, and somewhat grudgingly I did. It turns out that I think Mr. Brown's advice is probably spot on. He considers saddles like the Spongy Wonder, which have been available since the turn of the twentieth century but have never caught on, to be somewhat useless. I'm not sure he's entirely correct, but he might as well be for my purposes.

When I ride around town I see a lot of people going slow. This is something I am constitutionally incapable of - I generally go as fast as feels comfortable, and possibly a bit faster. I think that seats like the Spongy Wonder must be aimed at the people who are going slow. If you are going slow, particularly if you are sitting up, you're basically putting your full weight on the saddle.

One of the studies on the health risks of standard saddles was done on bicycle cops, and I suspect that they spend most of their time going slow, although the ones I've seen look like they could probably go fast if they really wanted to. I'll never forget Officer Lois chasing down a car driver on her bicycle in Noe Valley one morning when I was sitting outside of Spinelli's enjoying a latte. But I digress.

The point is that I am not convinced that Joe and Jym and Sheldon Brown are right that these saddles are useless. However, I think they are right that they are useless for me. Sheldon Brown's advice is basically this: if you haven't been riding for a whole season (in my case, it's been years), you aren't in shape. You can probably do a twenty-mile ride, because anybody who's in reasonable shape can, but you will be wrecked afterwards. So you have to start out slow, and work up to it.

This matches my experience. I was getting a bit disgusted with myself for being so out of shape, and so I started riding, and I thought I was taking it easy, only going maybe ten miles a day. Sheldon says you have to go only a few miles, not ten miles, until you're back in shape. Otherwise, you will be putting too much weight on your saddle, and you'll have problems.

The ride that motivated me to buy the Spongy Wonder was a twenty-mile ride I did up to La Encantada. It was a really nice ride, but afterwards I was quite sore, and kind of concerned about my long-term health prognosis if I kept riding. That was about a month ago.

When the Spongy Wonder arrived, I tried it out, and put quite a bit of effort into getting it adjusted right, but by the time I had it adjusted for my style of riding generally, my riding position was so badly compromised that I didn't feel like it made sense - I have a racing bike, not a mountain bike or a cruiser, so a strictly upright riding style is hard to set up on it, and what I did set up didn't feel right. Every time I tweaked something, something else was wrong.

So after a few rides, some fairly long, I decided to try the old saddle again to compare its feel with that of the Spongy Wonder, thinking I might switch back again fairly quickly. I haven't gone back. Over the course of the month, I've run a lot of errands and done a few six-mile rides, but haven't really pushed it, and I haven't had any soreness.

Today I pushed it. I did the same twenty mile ride I'd done a month ago (except I got lost up in the hills and had to backtrack, so I think it was more like 25 - the iPhone Google Maps application came in really handy once I admitted that I was turned around and probably wasn't going to be able to just follow my nose back to the correct path).

I have no saddle soreness at all. I do not feel like I was putting much weight on the saddle, and I do not feel like I put much weight at all on the sensitive areas that I was concerned about after the last 20-mile ride. It was a really nice day for a ride, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm a little sore because I stood and powered up some short hills, and I think overdid it on some of those muscles, but my patoot is intact.

The reason I wrote up my original observations about the Spongy Wonder is that I hadn't been able to find anything out about it online. At this point I think I'd have to say that it's a quality product - well built, and probably pretty durable. If you are a slow biker who sits down hard on the saddle, and you want to be able to ride longer distances slowly, it's probably not a bad choice - that or one of the other similar products, of which there are many to choose from. But if you're basically a gung-ho bicyclist who's out of shape, I am not convinced it's the right choice. I think it's a little too highly-optimized for a slow, sit-up style of riding.


Blogger Nick Barnes said...

Old-style (i.e. narrow, fairly hard) bike saddles are the way they are because they work well for people who ride a lot.

Friday, March 06, 2009 9:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Ted, have been curious about the Spongy Wonder. I commute on a mtn bike and sit fairly upright. Have tried many saddles, none quite right. Want to loan it to me so I can give it a try? I'm up in Tempe AZ.

Friday, March 06, 2009 10:52:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Sure, I'd be curious to see if it works out for your riding style.

Friday, March 06, 2009 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph J. said...

Thanks much for your real-world review. I've been all over the web researching these type of seats, but your considered opinion seems the most complete. It helped me realize these type of seats are really best for upright riders (I didn't find that information anywhere except in guesses taken by some who never tried these saddles), and would put extra pressure on the wrists.

Friday, April 24, 2009 2:18:00 AM  
Blogger Bad Decision Maker said...

Hi - I know I'm several months late to this thread but just found it searching for reviews about the spongy wonder seat.

Any thoughts on how it would work for an in-between rider? I have a commuter hybrid with flat handlebars, it's not completely upright but not a racing bike either. Often I book it medium or fast though traffic, sometimes I ride slower.

The reason I want the seat isn't just basic soreness - I am content to have sore sit bones. What I'm worried about is pressure on the perineal nerve and general pain/muscle tension/vulvodynia issues, and I don't want to give up my favorite mode of transportation, which is by far funner, faster, and cheaper than my other options.

Sunday, September 13, 2009 9:29:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I can't really answer that without knowing what motivates the question. Are you experiencing discomfort now, or just worried that you might?

You might want to read this page on

Sunday, September 13, 2009 9:40:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Hm, just to clarify, the reason I recommend that page is that I followed the advice there, and it worked for me. The spongy wonder turned out not to be suited to my needs, unfortunately, although I think Mr. Brown may have been a little too dismissive of it - I suspect it really does have its uses.

Sunday, September 13, 2009 9:41:00 AM  
Blogger Bad Decision Maker said...

Yes, I just read that page of Sheldon Brown's as linked in your original post.

I do currently have discomfort, and don't want it to get worse. I wouldn't even be thinking about cutting back drastically on biking if I wasn't!

Thanks for responding so quick!

Sunday, September 13, 2009 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Bad Decision Maker said...

PS To address what you and Sheldon Brown mentioned, being out of shape for biking isn't the issue in my case, I have been riding a lot this summer, 50-100 miles a week for the last 3 months

Sunday, September 13, 2009 9:58:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

What kind of seat do you currently have? Are you experiencing numbness, or soreness?

Sunday, September 13, 2009 6:44:00 PM  
Blogger Bad Decision Maker said...

Currently I am experiencing a worsening of a previously existing issue (not caused by biking; had it during a 3 year period when I was biking only a few times a year)... too long/personal of a story here but I would call it a combination of decreased sensation, pain, muscle tension, and irritation. ocassional numbness as well.

Any thoughts about the usefulness of this seat with a hybrid type bike for commuting and longer (20+) mile rides? Will I not have enough control with this seat? Too far back of a riding position?

Sunday, September 20, 2009 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

The seat is weird. You will find yourself putting more weight on your hands. Control isn't the issue - you get used to the new configuration pretty quickly.

The problem I had was that it would dig into my rear thigh muscles (dunno what they're called, just below the gluteus) on the downstroke when I pedaled. I was never able to get the angle of the seat such that it didn't dig in. You could get used to it, and I don't think it would cause any damage, but it was annoying.

This is why I say a slow, upright rider on a cruiser might find it useful - it was because I was using so much force on the downstroke that I think it was so uncomfortable.

If what I've said doesn't sound like a dealbreaker to you, I think the only real option is to just buy one and see how it works for you. They aren't all that expensive as seats go.

Sunday, September 20, 2009 9:46:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

The Spongy Wonder is fantastic so long as you dial in your seat hight, stem length and handlebar height. I'm a former mountain bike racer who suffered a nasty cross bar injury. Fortunately I'm healed, but a traditional saddled starts to hurt almost immediately. Because I, too, like to ride very fast, the thought of riding with my handlebar higher than my seat was never an option. So after putting the SW on my "city-fied" Mtn. Bike (slick tires, rigid fork) I put on a shorter stem (by 2cm) and a two-inch riser bar (I had been riding a straight bar). Now my seat height is just a hair higher than my handle bar (used to be about 3 inches) and my riding position is now at 45 degrees (previously 30 degrees). I'm still totally fast (only serious roadies ever pass me) and any sacrifice I've made in aerodynamics (which I can't say I really notice) has been made up in comfort. I have no wrist pain and can ride for hours. So yes, buy the SW and then modify your bike accordingly.

Saturday, September 26, 2009 10:30:00 AM  

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