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« A little bit of history sold on eBay | Main | The strange things people do »
Monday
Feb252008

Back in the (Brooks) saddle again


When I started cycling in the early 1950s, all bicycle saddles were leather. Cheap bikes had cheap leather saddles, and the best bikes had a Brooks leather saddle.

Top professional riders worldwide rode on a Brooks. The standard road race saddle was the B17 model. The number two saddle in the world was the French Ideale Company; however, a Brooks saddle would always outlast and keep its shape longer than an Ideale.

Then sometime in the late 1960s, early 1970s plastic saddles started to appear. Much lighter and never losing their shape, plastic soon became the standard racing saddle.

I can never understand why Brooks did not produce a plastic saddle, they had the high end market pretty much sewn up, and people would have stuck with the brand name.

Anyway, they decided to continue with what they did best. It is a tribute to the quality of their product that the company has survived to this day, when all others including Ideale went under.

I decided to try a Brooks saddle again, remembering just how comfortable they were. It seems to me that race saddles get increasingly skimpier as the years go by, as bikes get lighter and lighter.

I decided on the Brooks “Professional” model. You can pay as much as $150, and at this price you get a full money back guarantee; you can return it if you find you don’t like it. This is nice, but I found a brand new one on eBay at a “Buy it now” price of $104.

I noticed that good used Professional saddles were going for around $85 or $90, so I figured I may as well save money initially and should I decide this saddle is not for me, I would only be a few dollars out of pocket if I resold it used on eBay.

My saddle arrived on Saturday and the first thing I noticed when I took it out of the box was the weight. If you are a weight-weenie you will not want a Brooks saddle. You could spring for a titanium-framed model if you are willing to shell out an extra $200.

Weight has never been an issue with me. Back in the 1950s most components were steel and a race bike weighed at least 26 lb. cycling was just as much pleasure back then as it is today. Weight saving may contribute to speed, but to the leisure cyclist the only difference it will make is mainly to your bank account.

If you are riding the latest in carbon fiber then a Brooks saddle would look as out of place as a silver hood ornament on a Lamborghini. However, on vintage steel like mine, a Brooks saddle if anything is an enhancement.

The first thing I did with my saddle was to wrap the outside in aluminum foil, set it upside down, and poured oil inside. I then let it sit overnight an allowed the oil to soak in.

Neatsfoot oil is what is commonly used, but I couldn’t find any and so bought some mink oil at a boot store. Mink oil is another natural leather softener and preservative and works just as well.

I did not apply oil to the top of the saddle as this makes such a mess of the clothing. If anything, I would use a clear shoe cream on the top side. The oil soaks in better from the unfinished underside, and adds protection if water from the road should spray up underneath.

In England, I rode and raced in the rain many times, and my Brooks saddle would get soaked. I found if it was kept well oiled and was allowed to dry out naturally, it came to no harm. No more harm than a good pair of leather boots or shoes would come to on getting wet.

On Sunday I fitted my new saddle and went out for a 40 mile ride. The Professional model is 16 cm. wide; the B17 is 17 cm. wide. Comparing this to my Concor saddle that I was previously using at 14 cm.

I was aware that I was sitting on something pretty darn hard, but there was no discomfort. It seemed the padding in my shorts, and the pair of tights I was wearing over these was enough of a cushion to prevent any soreness.

To me the Brooks saddle seems to be the ideal shape. Wide at the back and fairly flat to support the sit bones, then rapidly narrowing down so there is nothing chafing the inside of the legs.

The Concor saddle was also curved on top, putting pressure on the softer perineum tissue. Previously on a ride, every 10 or 15 miles I would have to reach down in my shorts and re-arrange the family jewels. I did not have to do this once on my Sunday ride.

So first impressions are good; It seems I will get through the break in period of 200 miles or so with very little suffering and discomfort. I will keep you posted on my later impressions.

Reader Comments (32)

Memories! I went from Brooks to Concor. I've actually got two Brooks saddles to put on Ebay that came off our tandem. I noticed that you are still using straps and clips. I remember searching out Alfredo Binder because they were the best straps.
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Colin Griffiths
Nice article, Dave. I never thought of laying down the oil on the inside of the saddle. Makes sense, though. I've always used the Brooks saddle cream as directed and that has worked very well. I do agree in that it took me many moons to move to a Brooks saddle because it wasn't light, but I've found them to be very nice riders. If my pop were alive today, I'd ask him what he used to apply to the leather seats of his old Jags to keep the leather supple.
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter maltese falcon
someone once commented on the iBob list "a Brooks saddle is like my last marriage. It had its moments but mostly it was a pain in the arse" (or something similiar).
I have the same team-pro and I still find it uncomfortable. Whatever way I set it up I'm either slipping forward or sitting on the the rivets. Why the rivets should be so big I have no idea and mine weren't very well beaten so they each had sharp bits which I had to sand down.
I'll try your trick with the oil maybe that'll improve it.

Thanks
Phelim
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Phelim Burgess
My one and only ti frame got a ti Brooks. Not as comfortable for me as the Pro so the Pro went back on. Convincing friends to use Brooks caused much criticsm but eventually led to pleased pedalers.
My 35 year old Pro is still quite comfortable and sits proudly on a Zeus. Yes I'm a fan of Brooks.
Jack
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
You mentioned that if you apply oil to the top side of the saddle it "makes such a mess of your clothing". This really hit home for me, having recently retired my favorite WTB saddle for that same reason. It was making black streaks on whatever pants touched it, which isn't really ideal for a commuter saddle. There's not much that could be done for my saddle. The finish of the leather was simply worn through. Would a high quality leather saddle like this eventually have the same problem?
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Cafn8
Dave, you realize, of course, that treating your saddle that way is not what Brooks recommends, but that's a whole other debate. The neatsfoot oil I know and use is actually not an "oil" per se, since it's water soluble, so it's not waterproof, but it does rejuvenate dried-out leather. It really worked well on a 40-year-old Brooks Swallow on one of my bikes. I also remember my son having an entry level road bike with a plastic "Brooks" saddle maybe 15 years ago, but it was probably an Asian knock-off using the name without authorization. And Cafn8, that's the reason "real" cycling shorts are black!

johnb
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Minor technical quibble: I'm certain you mean 160 mm instead of cm. I love my B17 on my touring bike / grocery getter.
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I have a B17 on my Brompton and the equivalent sprung saddle on my road bike. I will admit that the first (15-20 mile) ride on the B17 (which I bought first) wasn't the most comfortable thing, but I had ridden 35 the previous day on my Terry and that was no longer working for me. From that point on, I've been completely comfortable on the Brooks saddles, no need to soften them up or anything (although I occasionally put proofide on). In fact, I hope they stay as close to their original shape as possible!
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter william
I rode 215 miles last summer in one day with 4 friends (Seattle-to-Portland).

My B17 treated me so well, I was able to ride the next day without padding or pain. I was not riding fast, mind you, I think I topped out at 10mph.

My friends, on the other hand were unable to look at their bikes for a week.

I understand they are not for everyone, and it can take some time to break in. I think I really settled into mine after I rode one or two centuries on it.

Thanks for all the great information and stories, Dave!
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter nick
Dave,
nice article as always. I agree with your Team Pro comments and thoroughly enjoy mine, but I do understand that saddles are a personal thing. What works for 1 person may not work for another. Chirs K used to sell neatsfoot oil at Velo Orange, but I think you can order directly from Tandy Leather products if VO doesn't stock any longer (http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/products.asp).

Best rgds,
Bob Gong
Granite Bay, CA
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter bob g
I rode an Ideale 90 back in the 1970s, Dave, and it was definitely an improvement when I switched to a Brooks B17. There are 2 or 3 Pros out in the garage now, in various states of decrepitude. I'd love to have another B17. There's this local guy with new old stock...
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Ed W
Dave,

I have had a few Brooks saddles, and the Team Pro is one of my all time favorite cycle components.

That being said, the quality of the leather seems spotty nowadays, and I have completely worn out saddles in less than one season while only using the recommended "proofide", and only sparingly.

I have a Team Pro that is still going strong after about two years, but will not replace it with another Brooks product once worn out (it is my fifth Brooks in as many years).
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Jan
Dave...I bought my first Brooks saddle in 30 years only two weeks ago. My first racing bike in the late 70's had a Brooks saddle on it. All I can remember was how comfortable that saddle was. I hope the new B17 lives up to my memories.
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Doug
Dave,
One component different among my ATB, Cross and Road bicycles is that each has a different 'style' seat for it's intended use.
That said, ALL are manufactured by VELO then branded for various bicycle ware vendors.
Applaud their engineer-riders efforts as extensive (daily) use supports their expertise.
Regarding weight - "EAT smart, EXERCISE more, REST soundly!"
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter wrw
I bought a b.17 last fall and I love it, and I put 100+ miles on it every weekend. I have not put oil on it yet, but maybe I should look into that.

I have been thinking of buying some new ones for the hercules bikes that I am restoring.
February 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter cwcushman
i started in the bike biz in the 80's as a young lad when very few Brooks saddles were ever seen on bikes. In fact, for years they seemed to be relics of a bygone era. Now I know better. Having accumulated dozens of saddles over the years by the trial and error process, I finally decided to try one after a good result on a second hand Raleigh Sports with a 25year old B17 that I used in university. Now I'm on my third B17 with none of the discomfort I've had in the past. The added weight is bugger all; the comfort and durability is priceless.
February 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I had a Brooks Pro on my main bike back in the mid eighties. I used that bike for everything, from commuting rain or shine, to training and racing. I didn't own a car back then. The saddle didn't hold up to my abuses. I probably went overboard with too much profide and know I road the saddle wet. It deformed into an unusable sling.

Last year I installed a B17 on my all-arounder. I'm Loving it! I bought a rain cover, went easy on the goop, and so far it's holding it's shape beautifully!

Proper care and feeding is a must.
February 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I switched to a B17 last spring. Before that I had a gel seat I was talked into back in High school. I kept getting sore spots on my legs where my pants were sticking to the fabric on the seat.

Since I broke the seat in last March I have had no such problems.

As far as weight, I carry everything but a kitchen sink when I ride so I wouldn't notice the saddle's weight.

Should I be conditioning the saddle every few months? Just after rain storms?
February 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Bujiatang
I have a 5-gallon bucket full of saddles that for different reasons do not work for me. I have purchased 3 Brooks saddles and have them mounted on the bikes that I ride every day. Two B-17's -- one butchered and tied; the other simply butchered (cut into the basic shape of a swift). I also have the single sprung version of the B-17 on my hybrid/comfort bike.

Excellent ride quality on all of them. I can ride for hours without even thinking about what's under my butt. I can't imagine ever buying another brand of saddle.


I use proofhide -- sparingly. I can't imagine why someone would be able to wear out a Brooks in a single season. I have between 15 and 20 thousand miles on one of mine, and it's actually the most comfortable one in my quiver.

I'd say use the wax/oils sparingly, and tighten the saddles only once or twice a year and just a bit at a time. Tying the saddle lengthens the lifespan of the saddle, imho.


Brooks forever!
February 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter doc
By tying the saddle you mean drilling holes and lacing it right?
February 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Bujiatang
Leather saddles rule! Over time, they will become completely personal, customized to your anatomy; nothing else will do that. It is worth noting that there is a new kid on the block: http://www.selleanatomica.com/ Their saddles are every bit as nice and comfortable as Brooks, they require no break in, and they are completely waterproof (yes, I speak from experience). As for treating Brooks saddles, it is good to know how old the saddle is, as the consistency of the leather has changed rather dramatically in recent years. Older Brooks are much heavier guage leather, and much harder. Traditionally, they require extreme methods (neatsfoot oil, oven treatments, baseball bats) or at least a year of steady riding to break them in. Modern Brooks saddles typically feel pliant and comfortable right out of the box, and should not require any extra treatment. If one is applying any leather treating products, it is usually best to avoid animal extracts such as neatsfoot or mink oil, as they will break the leather down, and cause it to stretch prematurely. With an older Brooks, this will not be a problem, but with a modern one it could be disastrous. Proofide is good, and another product I have had success with is Obenauf's LP ( http://www.obenaufs.com/ ) This paste is primarily beeswax, and will waterproof the leather while only softening it slightly. Ride on! Val
February 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Thanks for your review of the B17 and making some of the arcana surrounding the Brooks legend a little more accessible.
February 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Fritz
With all of the comments on this thread regarding the Brooks saddles, you could almost call this blog...drumroll please.... A Babbling Brook.
February 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter maltese falcon
@ maltese falcon
I think you'll find that your old pop would have used Connolly's Hide Food for the seats in the Jag. (Connolly made the leather that was used for the seats of high-grade British cars like the Jaguar.) It's still on sale in the UK and I use it on the seats of my...Toyota.
February 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
That's a beautiful saddle you have Dave, it should last you decades. As a kid I had 1960's Raleigh fitted with a Brooks saddle. Having lived in a rural area I rode the bike everywhere for days at a time yet never even knew what "saddle sores" were. As a competitive cyclist in the 80s I'd forgotten about the Brooks and spent outrageous amounts of money on the latest and greatest techno-graphite-gel offerings in an effort to find the perfect lightweight saddle that would be comfortable... which, incidentally, I never quite found. Nowadays I ride my trusty old Bianchi Classica fixie, that I've owned since 1985, for the pure enjoyment of it. The bike is fitted with a Brooks B17 that doesn't get babied at all since the Bianchi is ridden everyday as my main mode of transportation in the rain, shine, sleet or snow. The B17 gets sprayed with road grime and soaked through and through on a regular basis. There are times when it doesn't even have the chance to dry out for days on end yet it's still in great shape, comfortable as ever and should outlast the bike. Oh, and what do I use to keep it conditioned? Olive oil.
March 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Jens
My first two true lightweights in the early 70's were both outfitted with Brooks Swallows. Super cool looking and super comfortable, too. Alas, both bikes were stolen.

I've got to laugh when I see the current prices for the reissue Swallows. My first Swallow cost a grand total of $15. On the second bike, purchased after #1 got stolen, the owner of the bike shop gave me the Swallow he had on his personal bike.

Interested websurfers can google "butchered and tied" to find several sites dedicated to the art of modifying "plain jane" Brooks saddles into a more "swallowized" profile. I just completed butchering a humble regular B-17 (about $65 new) into a Swallow. I figure I saved about $200 - $250, plus I had fun doing it.
March 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Bill in Pasadena
I really liked reading your experience with these amazing saddles. My own Brooks didn't even need breaking in. While it is still tough, I find it more comfortable than anything else out there. I can't imagine how comfortable it will be when it does finally start to soften!
March 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Bicycle Tutor

Hi Dave
I am the US PR person for Brooks - and I just wanted to thank you for the nice review. Lots of comments!! I also wanted to jump in to comment on the selleanatomica comment posted by anonymous and to let you know that Brooks is introducing, shortly, a similar design. Brooks in fact, was the first saddle company to introduce a saddle w a hole! Our new Imperial is based exactly on original patents for a saddle that was called Climax, then the Imperial and then the B86....and on. I'm still trying to figure out the dates on the patents as they are not dated.
Perhaps when I have a few samples here, you might like to take a look at the new Imperial. Thanks again for the nice review.
Suzette

July 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSuzette

Very much enjoyed your perspective on Brooks saddles. Your description of softening the saddle brought back memories of when my oldest brother put his new Brooks Team Pro in the oven (on "warm"), the inside covered with Brooks Proofhide, and afterwards "pre-softened" it with a rubber mallet. He's been riding that saddle for the last 29 years (and it still looks new). My other older brother still rides on his 32-year-old B17 and, despite being in very sorry shape (the saddle, not my brother), will only retire that saddle when the leather finally parts from its frame (even then, I'm not sure he won't try to fix it and keep riding on it).

Last year, I finally took the advice given by other, more experienced brevet riders (and also that of my brothers), to try a Brooks saddle. I opted for the Swift and have never been more comfortable. Now, all my brevet bikes, but one, are equipped with Brooks (Team Pro and Swift) saddles.

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterVincent

I have a brooks b-17 on a sloping top tube ultegra equiped fairly light road bike. The most comfortable saddle I've ever had. Weight ?. Right now I'm 215. Does it really matter ?.

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDead Squirrel Dave

I have a b-17. Best saddle ever. No numbness, or much less anyway, and very comfortable. Looks? Rad I think. Kind'a Harley meets road bike. Later.

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDead Squirrel Dave

I tossed aside my plastic-and-leather saddles in the early 1980s in favor of a Brooks Team Pro and have never looked back. I've created a Group, Brooks Saddles, on Facebook if anyone is interested. It is not affiliated with the company except for their permission to use a photograph.

http://tinyurl.com/cw2z5t

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMark
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