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Ridden and Reviewed: A Saddle Shoot Out

November 14, 2013

“Have a seat.”

That’s what I heard as I walked past the shop’s General Manager’s office some time ago.  So I dutifully walked in and started to sit down as he tossed a Bontrager Paradigm XXX Carbon saddle in my lap.  “Ride this and let me know what you think.  I’ve got some calls to make.”

The Bontrager Paradigm XXX Carbon--comfortable, light, tough.

The Bontrager Paradigm XXX Carbon–comfortable, light, tough.

OK.  You mean, literally, have seat.  Not come in and visit with you.  Gotcha.

So while the visit was short I was happy to walk out of the office with a fancy high-end saddle to test.  But I had some reservations as well:

  1. I already had a fancy high-end saddle that I felt had served me well for a number of months;
  2. I’d never ridden a Bontrager saddle, and wasn’t sure it would be right for me in terms of size or shape;
  3. It’s cyclocross season, so I’m really only riding my ‘cross bike, and the thought of a REALLY light saddle on a bike I’m bound to crash, well….; and
  4. My current saddle is designed as an MTB saddle while the Paradigm is a road offering.

But when duty calls, you take up the challenge.  Especially when the boss man says to.  Who was I to say “no?”  Besides, this is my job.  Or “job” as my wife likes to call it.

So, given the general similarities in the two saddles I’ve been riding, and despite the MTB vs. road aspect of them, a shoot-out of sorts seemed to make sense.

Before we get to the details on the two perches, let me be clear that a saddle, any saddle, is only as good as it is comfortable.  And a saddle is only as comfortable as can be when its position is proper and its shape suits the rider’s physiology and riding style.  So it doesn’t matter too much at all about the material a given saddle is made from, how much it weighs, what it looks like, the density of the padding, or the length of the nose.  If the saddle isn’t right for your body and your bike, you’re going to be miserable with what everyone else may say is the world’s greatest bike saddle.

Luckily, I went through a detailed fitting with a friend of the shop on my ‘cross bike and have detailed notes on all my measurements. I’ve also attended fit seminars and done other fittings with the shop’s excellent fit staff on my road bike.  Years of riding experience and the chance to have ridden lots of great product have also informed me fairly well about what works for me and my riding style.

Armed with all of that information I have been riding the Specialized Phenom MTB saddle for most of my cyclocross “career.”  My first ‘cross bike came with one and friends had told me they had great success with it.  So I set about learning about the Phenom and on that first bike I elected to run a 143 mm width model.  Specialized has a tool—effectually known as, uh, the “assometer”–that’s used to measure a rider’s ischial tuberosity, or sit bones, which I used to help me make my initial size selection.  Once I had the saddle in hand, I consulted my bike measurement numbers and installed my then new saddle based on that.

The Phenom Pro features Specialized’s Body Geometry design, designed to improve blood flow and relieve pressure, and is made from lightweight padding, a carbon shell, carbon rails, and a synthetic cover.  In the 143 mm size that I’ve been riding (it also comes in 130 mm and 155 mm widths) it has a claimed weight of 192 grams. My actual saddle weighed in at only 190 grams on the shop scale.  Win!

I’d ridden a Phenom for all of 2011 and some of the 2012 season and overall felt that it was a solid offering.  I had upgraded to the Pro model this year simply because I was looking to make the bike I was riding this season as light as it could reasonably be and still be ridable both in terms of comfort and the fact that I’ll likely crash, drop, fall on, or otherwise do something to my bike during the course of the season while racing it.

My normal saddle choice, the Specialized Phenom Pro.

My normal saddle choice, the Specialized Phenom Pro.

As it turns out, switching to the lighter offering was completely unnoticeable aside from when I weighed my bike.  And that’s a good thing in my book.  The saddle’s relative comfort and shape wasn’t at all impacted by the switch to lighter materials.  The only nit pick I had about the Phenom since I first started riding it was the width of the middle portion of the saddle—it seemed a bit too wide as it would, from time-to-time, irritate me some on longer rides as a slid about the seat, a habit I’ve developed over the years.  But the Phenom’s main portion was superbly comfortable as was the nose when I was pushed forward trying to go fast—“on the rivet” as they say.  And, the Phenom’s noticeable padding was a presumed welcome addition when trying desperately and repeatedly to fix my horrible cyclocross remounting technique.  Overall, I thought I had found my cyclocross saddle.

The Bontrager Paradigm XXX Carbon is similarly designed for riders who sit in a more aggressive position due to a fairly high range of flexibility and motion.  The saddle features a cut out like the Specialized offering, which provides soft tissue relief, and also comes in three sizes, 128 mm, 138 mm, and 148 mm widths, but also features size-specific curvature.  The padding, probably where the Paradigm saves most of its weight over the Phenom since it too uses a carbon shell and carbon rails, is multi-density depending on location of the saddle.  To the touch, it almost feels like there’s no padding at all.  And the Bontrager saddle offerings use their InForm Biomechanic design philosophies to aid natural movement.

Minimalist design, maximum performance from the Paradigm XXX Carbon.

Minimalist design, maximum performance from the Paradigm XXX Carbon.

The Paradigm XXX Carbon is REALLY light, with a claimed weight of 150 grams and my demo saddle coming in at 151 grams on the shop scale.  Again, I was concerned that such a light offering might not be suited to the rigors of cyclocross.  I was also concerned that the size of my demo saddle, 138 mm wide, was going to be too narrow and that the minimalist padding was going to prove too uncomfortable even on the shortest of my rides.

As it turns out, there was no need for me to be concerned.

The two saddles feature very similar overall shapes despite being different widths.  While the tail of the Specialized kicks up ever so slightly, the overall curve is similar between the two offerings and the shape of the nose is similar, although the Bontrager’s is a bit longer.  Also, the Bontrager’s middle portion is a bit narrower.  As luck would have it—since I didn’t get to pick the size on the demo Bontrager seat—the slightly narrow 138 mm width works better for me on longer rides.  The middle portion of the Bontrager saddle hasn’t once irritated the underside of my inner thigh regardless of the bibs I’ve ridden, something that had happened on the Phenom on a few occasions, but really on no other saddle I regularly ride.

The feel of the saddles while riding is similar as well.  Both are best experienced with hips rolled well forward aggressively positioned on the hoods or in the drops.  Sitting up and cruising isn’t what either of these saddles was designed for, although I’ve done plenty of that as well on each.  However, the firmer Bontrager Paradigm saddle has actually turned out to be more comfortable to me than the very slightly heavier padded Phenom.  This stands to reason since I’m a fairly lean, boney guy and a firmer saddle will provide me a more stable perch without additional padding pushing up around my sit bones causing uncomfortable pressure.  Here, it’s overall saddle design, not potential inaccurate sizing on my part on the Phenom that makes the difference.  It makes since that I like the firmer Paradigm more since I find the excellent Specialized Romin road saddle—one with minimum padding—to be superbly comfortable and never an issue.

As for durability, both saddles shine.  I’ve managed to crash quite hard twice this ‘cross season, once on each saddle.  The first was during a recovery ride along Lady Bird Lake.  I was riding along at about 6 mph and misjudged a stone step in the path and over the bars I went.  My bike, and my brand new Specialized Phenom Pro, went tumbling down a set of forgotten stairs.  While I had a few scrapes and horribly injured pride, the saddle was great, if a bit dusty.  Weeks later, and days after installing the Paradigm I fell very hard at cyclocross practice, my head taking much of the impact, thankfully on grass and thankfully in a helmet, and my bike hitting the sidewalk I was turning off of.  If there was a solid way to test a 150 gram saddle, repeated cyclocross remounts after throwing it on the cement at 20 mph seems like a good real-world test.  The Paradigm XXX was fine, unlike my helmet.  The things I do for this blog.

Minimalist padding and lightweight materials keep the Paradigm XXX's weight down.

Minimalist padding and lightweight materials keep the Paradigm XXX’s weight down.

So what’s the take away here?  High-end fancy saddles are nice for sure.  But the smallest differences in any saddles’ shapes and construction impact how a they feel.  After years of very firm saddles on road bikes, the switch to an even slightly more padded saddle for cyclocross may have been a misjudgment on my part based on preconceived notions about ‘cross remounts.  Moreover, measure twice and cut–or choose saddle width–once.  Like it makes good sense to have the fit of your bike checked from time-to-time based on how much you’re riding, checking your saddle is a good idea too, something apparently I should do.  You may have improved flexibility, dropped some weight, or changed riding disciplines altogether, each of which alone could warrant a saddle change to maintain or improve comfort and enhance the ride experience.

I’m really liking this Bontrager Paradigm XXX saddle.  It works for me in terms of comfort, which is key, and meets my goal to build up a light but durable race bike.

Now to avoid the GM’s office so he doesn’t call me in and ask for his seat back.

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