What's Cool In Road Cycling

Cheap-Oh!: Vintage Saddle Smackdown

A local bike shop threw away three plastic bags full of old saddles. Mr. CheapOh, never too proud for dumpster diving, found four vintage beauties amongst a lot of crap. The 2010 Pez Cabin Fever Test: vintage saddles vs. my current ride. Why not?

The Find
Stuff that’s been aged in a bike shop has a matchless, musty leather rubber smell. The devout have even cultivated this odor in their own basements, garages or even living rooms (sorry dear). Some cyclists are even adept at sniffing it out in the wilds. Recently, my Vintage Stink Radar discovered four handsome, leather saddles amongst the city’s usual flotsam. The gems are Sella San Marco’s Concor Supercorsa, Rolls and Concor Light and Sella Italia’s original Flite. Despite being 20 to 30 years old, they are in fairly good condition, once the thick (protective?) layer of grime was removed.

The Test
I’d been casually swapping these saddles out on my bike for the past month, when it struck me that if I did some kind of comparison and then picked a “winner”, I’d have a snappy article. It should be noted that this has been a pretty chilly winter, about 95% of my kilometers have been stationarily achieved on the trainer. Too much indoor riding tends to make bad ideas seem worth a shot.

There can be no game and no winner without rules. Hence, the Vintage Saddle Smackdown’s battery of tests include: The Wrong Trousers Exam, The Style Editor’s Take, The Relevancy Quandary and The Reverse Weight Index. The scoring system will be covered shortly.

Disclaimer: saddles are a personal thing – they either work for you or they don’t. At best, we’ll try to explain the differences between them and entertain.

The Wrong Trousers Exam
Sometimes my cheap-ness gets the better of me. A few years ago, I bought winter tights that were made for women. My defense: 1) they fit reasonably well; 2) high quality; 3) warm and 4) they were so damn cheap that I couldn’t refuse. And if it had worked out, I would have readily passed this tip on to my adoring followers. However, the chamois is constructed in such a way (technical description) that after 20 minutes of riding, I feel a distinct lack of blood flowing to my sensitive region, then after another 20 minutes, uncomfortable numbness has settled into the severely shrunken appendage. Riding saddles that don’t fit well exasperates this problem.

My first idea was to take a picture of my penis after each ride and let our readers draw their own conclusions, then a more rational mind considered simply measuring and documenting the results. But that’s much too amateurish, higher journalistic standards require an official scoring classification. In this case, we’ll use The Police Discography System: great band, 5 wonderful albums, each one more sophisticated and ambitious than the last (whether this is a good thing or not is debatable) – Outlandos d’Amour (1978), Reggatta De Blanc (1979), Zenyatta Mondatta (1980), Ghost In The Machine (1981) and Synchronicity (1983). In any case, these albums will designate the scores for my 4 vintage saddles compared to a contemporary and hardy adversary, the fi’zi:k Airone. Pez wrote this review of the Arione, seven years ago, but it still seems right on.

The Concor Supercorsa

Let’s Begin
The first saddle to greet my female chamois is the Concor Supercorsa. The most dominant feature of the Supercorsa is its cradle-like, Corvette Stingray structure. The tall lip at the back and a high nose force you to sit right where it says you have to sit. For those that prefer to change positions while riding, this one isn’t for you. Though the saddle measures a generous 265mm long by 140mm wide, the width is actually at the very back where no one sits. The seat’s sides slope steeply down (alliteration), which gives me a kind of mild wedgie. The last aspect of the Supercorsa is its minimal foam padding covered by a thick suede-ish leather. Underneath, the plastic carriage is strengthened by ribs running its length. It is a pretty firm perch.

You would think that all these “qualities” add up to a pretty small penis, er… Outlandos, but surprisingly that’s not the case. Once my position was tuned in, the lip-cradle-wedgie thing plus the non-slipping suede yields excellent support while pedaling hard. I can easily imagine this being really helpful while climbing. But most importantly, my circulation flows reasonably well, garnering the Supercorsa a 3rd place Zenyatta.

The Concor Light seems to follow the same form as the Supercorsa, but it’s actually a nightmare (Outlandos). The Rolls is cushy, but is unfortunately formed to the previous owner’s cush (Reggatta). The Airone work well (Ghost), but the winner of The Wrong Trousers Exam (aka Synchronicity Big Dick Award) goes to the Flite.

My Style Editor’s Take
Jonas Fox, CheapOh Style Editor, has also been logging the indoor miles this winter and has agreed to share his thoughts about our contestants. I made the mistake of mentioning that Lance uses the Concor Light and that seems to have influenced his opinion adding that, “it’s the coolest, with a neat slope and it’s really light.” Then again, I imagine lots of people choose it for similar reasons. It’s hard to argue with a guy that’s won seven more Tours than me. But I will.

The nicest thing I can say about the Light is that it lives up to its name at 218gr, a result of titanium rails, modest padding and a small, narrow 260mm X 128mm form. Despite my best efforts, I can’t find a comfortable position on this saddle. My sit bones just don’t line up with its shape. A hard wedgie is accompanied by either sliding off the front or tipping the saddle far enough back that the nose castrates me. Tough choices here! But this exam isn’t named after me, so the Light takes the Synchronicity. Airone comes in second because it’s “nicely long and silver”, then the Flite because “white with holes is cool”, the Rolls “has a neat name plate and big rear end”, and unimpressed, The Editor assigns the Supercorsa last place.

The Concor Light

The Relevancy Quandary
Until the 70’s or so all racing saddles consisted of a thick slab of leather riveted to a metal bracket ala Brooks. These cows weighed over half a kilo, but once broken in, they fit the rider perfectly. Then someone discovered that stretching a thin piece of leather over a foam covered piece of plastic could shed about 150 grams from a saddle. Not to mention the cost savings, little of which were passed on to the consumer. Bingo, the start of the saddle arms race. Yet the death of the quill stem is really what changed the way we think about saddles. How’s that, you ask?

The quill stem allowed cyclists to easily raise or lower their handlebars. And most riders kept their saddle around the same height or slightly higher than their handlebars. Fast forward to the late 90’s – high saddles and low handlebars, the threadless headset/stem combo as we now know it is the only option. Ironically, this position will not entail any aerodynamic advantages if the rider is unable to comfortably ride in the drops of their handlebars.

This guy won a bunch of races with a quill stem and comfy position.

The high saddle drop of today’s bikes forces the rider to roll their body further forward and down, putting added pressure on areas that prefer to be handled gently. Riding in the drops exasperates this pressure. This explains the widespread popularity of saddles with cut outs, the most extreme example coming from SMP and compact handlebars. Also, companies have seen the need and started offering “sportive bikes” that feature a more relaxed position with taller head tubes. The Relevancy Quandary examines how saddles designed for the Quill Stem Age work on Mr. CheapOh’s contemporary bike.

The Arione is designed for today’s high saddle drop.

Form, flex and padding are the tools of the saddle designer. The San Marco Rolls has lots of all three. It is the biggest and cushiest of the group at 282mm X 143mm. The shape can best be described as classic with flowing transitions from the tail to the nose. There is a noticeable flex when sitting on the Rolls, which results in the sides being pushed out from the rails. This creates an even larger sitting area. The saddle has the most padding of the group. Together with its baroque brass plated rails, plates and rivets, it is the ideal quill stem queen.

The Rolls, sweet and fatty.

While the Rolls works fairly well under today’s conditions, too much flex and padding actually puts pressure on areas that don’t need it. It should be noted that this saddle is the most worn/exhausted of the bunch. I recently tried a new Rolls and it is stiffer with firmer padding, yielding a nice ride. No surprise that the younger of our contestants are also the best. The Airone automatically wins the Synchronicity, Flite comes in second, Supercorsa is a Zenyatta, then the Concor Light and finally the Outlandos Rolls. Or maybe the Rolls is better than the Light. Anyway.

The Reverse Weight Index
This group of saddles actually comprises an interesting cross section of bike history. The Rolls and Supercorsa are the successors to the Coppi-Bartali Epoch and bring us to the end of lugged steel bikes in professional cycling. The Concor Light and Flite see us into the age of TIG welded steel-aluminum-titanium bikes. While the Airone escorts us into the carbon fiber era.

This guy rode a Flite.

The 90’s were a rich time in the pro ranks from a bike development and innovation perspective (not-to-mention the Golden Age of Doping). I find that the great diversity of materials, shapes, colors and trials and errors to be far more interesting than the homogenous/consensus thinking before and after this time period. Sella Italia’ Flite seems to be a pretty good representative from this time period. While its dimensions of 280mm X 140mm are quite similar to the Rolls, gel replaces foam padding, exposed titanium rails substitute for steel and a long, narrow form with minimal curvature (front to back) are all significant advances. At some point, I should confess my history with Flite saddles and that this test is heavily biased in its favor; the race is really between it and the Arione.

The Flite.

In the Reverse Weight Index, the heaviest saddle wins. Why? For the simple reason that I’m tired of lightness denoting superiority, which is an irrelevant debate when considering saddle fit. No doubt here, the old dogs of the group are the heaviest. The Rolls wins the Synchronicity at 386gr while the Supercorsa tips 346gr, Flite 282gr, Arione 246gr and lastly the Concor Light at 218gr.

And The Winner Is…
Well, before I name names, let’s hype the ceremony a bit. I hereby draw a line in the sand and state that everyone’s cycling priorities should be: first, having a proper fitting, well performing frame, second saddle, third wheels/tires and finally the gruppo. The saddle is That Important. Even though gruppos are flash, all of the major ones work very well. However, a poor saddle will make your most precious anatomical parts revolt. And those costly seconds saved with deep aero rims mean very little if you can’t ride comfortably in the drops for an hour. So without further ado…

All of the test results were carefully tabulated and then duly ignored because my sit bones prefer a flatter, bench-like form over a traditional hammock-like one. Therefore, it’s really only a two horse race. And the winner of the Vintage Saddle Smackdown is the Sella Italia Flite. Though the fi’zi:k Arione might be a millimeter better, the butt and wallet have decided to keep the Flite on my bike for awhile.


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