|The Zombie, riding his cronenberged 1967 Hetchins Mountain King in the 2019 Gold Hills Metric Century|
"It's springtime for Hetchins and vintage bikes, it's winter for Surly, so sad!" - To the tune of "Springtime for Hitler", apologies to "The Producers"
One thing I did not mention in my post about the 2019 Golden Hills Metric Century is that I rode it on my newly resurrected Hetchins. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Way back in 2018, in preparation for my first California metric century, The Art of Survival, I decided I had neglected routine maintenance on my poor Surly Crosscheck for so long that I needed to do that ride on my Bianchi Volpe. Until then, the Surly had been my go-to bike, the bike I rode unless there was some reason not to. After that, my Volpe became my go-to bike. Once I took care of the deferred maintenance on the Surly, my Volpe needed maintenance, so I swapped the Volpe for the Surly. This was a few weeks before the 2019 Golden Hills metric century and so the logical thing to have done was to ride Golden Hills on my newly overhauled Surly. But when I rode the Surly, I did not like the way it felt. So a plan was born, I would ride Golden Hills on the Hetchins, even though its gears were not as low as I would like, even though it had attachments for only one water bottle, even though I did not have a rack to carry the warm clothes I would need at the start of the ride.
How did the Hetchins do? It did great! As I have posted before, the lack of low gears on some of my bikes has turned out to be less of an issue than I initially feared, and once again, gears were not an issue on this ride. Some of the other potential issues which I mentioned earlier never materialized; the shift levers never slipped and the "soft" wheels held up fine. As for the lack of water bottle cage and rack, I figured out how to stash both warm clothes and a second water bottle in my jersey pockets. I have come to love the way the Hetchins rides and I continued to enjoy that during Golden Hills. Also, the Hetchins is a remarkable, vintage bike and I got to show it off. All and all, the decision to ride my Hetchins, initially forced on me by circumstance, turned out to be a huge win.
But what was wrong with the Surly? It had been my go-to bike nine years! Well, therein lies a story. It turned out that a lot of what I didn't like about my overhauled Surly was the saddle. I have come to prefer a well broken in Brooks B17 saddle so much so that I almost can't ride anything else. Unfortunately, I only have one of those and at the time my Surly came home from the bike shop, the it was in use on the Hetchins. I had a newer B17, less well broken in, that I put on the Surly, figuring it was close to being broken in and that it was about time to finish the job. So one problem was that the saddle was too hard. I made allowances for the hard saddle, but my intuition told me there was more wrong than that, and it turned out I was right. Another problem was not the saddle itself, but adjustment of the saddle. In my blog post "Saddles and Bike Fit" one adjustment I did not talk about was the tilt of the saddle, the extent the saddle is level, has the nose pointed up, or has the nose pointed down. I always thought that saddles should be level and I don't recall tilting of the saddle ever being an issue before. It was not that the saddle felt wrong on the Surly, it was that I felt like I had way to much weight on my handlebars. That was surprising, because weight on the handlebars is normally caused by low handlebars (relative to the saddle height), and my Surly has the highest handlebars of any of my bikes. When I thought about what else might cause that feeling, it occurred to me that if the nose of the saddle were too low, I might tend to slide forward, putting weight on the handlebars. When I looked back at the Hetchins, I noticed that the saddle was not quite level, the nose pointed up just a bit. Once I adjusted the tilt of the saddle on the Surly with the nose slightly up to match the Hetchins, the Surly became much more comfortable. (A number of cyclists on the Internet note that being more comfortable with the nose a bit up is yet another peculiarity of B17 saddles.) Had I figured this out sooner and/or if I had moved the broken-in B17 from the Hetchins to the Surly, I might have decided to take the Surly to Golden Hills, a decision that, in retrospect, would have been a lost opportunity to enjoy my Hetchins.
My Surly is much more comfortable now than when I brought it home from the shop, but I still prefer my Hetchins - by a lot! Why is that? Again, part of it might be the difference in saddles. The B17 on the Hetchins is well broken in, the one on the Surly still has a ways to go. If so, that should be a self correcting problem, and to that end, I am going out of my way to put miles on the Surly and its still-hard saddle as well as slathering that saddle with Brooks Proofide. However, I think there is more to it than the saddle. Back when I was in High School, the Modesto Roadmen had a belief that different bikes had different feels when ridden, some better, some worse, and that there was no way we could tell by looking at a bike how it would feel. I remember that we found that Raleigh bikes usually rode better than we expected, for example. As a scientist, I have to believe there is no magic to this, and as I have come to learn more about bicycles, I have learned some things that are less apparent but impact ride quality. One set of things, visible but perhaps not obvious, is frame geometry. Another which is entirely invisible to the naked eye but apparently has a big impact on ride quality is the kind of steel tubing used to make the frame; that tubing can be made from different grades of steel and the walls of that tubing can have different thicknesses. I think some of that is going on between the Hetchins and the Surly. Gebhardt at Veloro Cycles has suggested that wheels and tires might be a factor as well. The Hetchins feels quite lively, whereas by comparison, the Surly feels like a brick. This is not new. Although the Surly was my go-to bike for nine years, this was despite it having a bit of an unresponsive feel. Part of the reason this did not bother me more at the time was that the only bike I had to which I could compare it was my Bianchi Specialissima, and the fit of the Surly was so much better as to more than compensate for any difference in frame feel.
Seat firmness, width, and handlebar height
The not-yet-broken-in and thus hard B17 saddle may not be the only problem with my Surly, but it is definitely a problem. I have previously discussed how I position my saddle when adjusting my bikes. Another set of issues that arose while doing those experiments concerned seat width and firmness. Of course, choice of a saddle is a very personal decision, what works for one cyclist may not work for another. What I am going to talk about here is one cyclist (me) and the comfort of the same saddle on different bikes.
I am going to talk about four saddles and four bikes. The saddles are a well broken in leather Brooks B17 (old B17), a second B17 still in the process of being broken in (new B17), a synthetic Brooks C19, and the same saddle in a narrower width, a C17. The bikes are my 2010 Surly Cross Check (Surly), my 2007 Bianchi Volpe (Volpe), my heavily modified 1967 Hetchins Mountain King (Hetchins), and my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima (Specialissima). There are some small differences in the geometry of these bikes which might be relevant, but I have no hypotheses about those so will not be discussing them. What I will be discussing is the differences in the height of the handlebars relative to the height of the saddle on these four bikes. My working hypotheses are:
- A softer, wider saddle can be more comfortable than a harder, narrower saddle.
- A harder saddle can be comfortable if it is wider.
- The lower the handlebars, the less weight will be on the saddle and the harder and narrower a saddle that can be comfortable.
My Specialissima has the lowest handlebars of the four bikes; they are 1⅜ inches lower than the saddle (low). Next is my Volpe with handlebars ¾ inches below the saddle (medium low). My Hetchins has handlebars 1¼ inches above the saddle (medium high), and my Surly has handlebars 2¼ inches above the saddle (high). I broke in my first B17 on my Specialissima with its low handlebars back in 2008, riding rides of up to 2 hours before the saddle was broken in with no bad consequences. In 2019, I rode the 2 hours of Eroica California on my Specialissima and the new B17 with no problem. When I recently put that same saddle on my Surly with its high handlebars and rode 34 miles on it, it felt very uncomfortable and I ended up with saddle sores. On the other hand, the old B17 feels good on all four bikes at any distance I have ridden, including a 10 hour ride on my Surly with its high handlebars. This suggests that low handlebars can make up for a hard saddle.
When I was first setting up my Hetchins (medium high handlebars) after its rebuild, I found that I could not correctly position a B17 saddle on it with the seatpost it had. I tested my C19 which I borrowed from my commuter and found that it could be positioned correctly, and that it felt comfortable during a 1 hour ride. Based on Brooks recommendations, I purchased a C17 for use on the Hetchins (returning the C19 to my commuter) but found that in a 1 hour ride is was less comfortable than the C19, and at the end of a 2 hour ride found it quite uncomfortable. This suggests that the reason the C17 is uncomfortable is a combination of being hard and being narrow. I borrowed a different seatpost so I could put my old B17 on the Hetchins and rode it that way for rides of up to 5 hours in perfect comfort. Noting that my Volpe had lower handlebars (medium low) than the Hetchins, I tried the C17 on it. It felt better in a 1 hour ride on the Volpe than the Hetchins, but not good enough that I would want to try it for longer rides. I then tried the C17 on the Specialissima (low handlebars), and found that it was comfortable for a 1 hour ride, confirming the hypothesis that a harder saddle can be comfortable when paired with lower handlebars.
How long does it take to break in a B17? The consensus of the community seems to be about 500 miles, but that is not my experience with the new B17. I have over 600 miles on it and it still feels much harder than my old B17 (which has well over 30,000 miles on it.) Is it possible that this is saddle to saddle variation rather than a lack of breaking in, that the new B17 will never be as comfortable as the old B17? Brooks leather saddles are known for such variability. Another possibility is that I waited too long to break in the new B17 - I purchased that saddle in 2012 and didn't complete my 500 mile break-in period until 2019. Only time will tell what the future holds for my new B17.
In summary, my experience, though certainly not a scientific study, did I support my hypotheses: a relatively hard C19 saddle is comfortable where an equally hard but narrower C17 is not. A not yet broken in B17 can be comfortable paired with low handlebars but not when paired with high handlebars. And a relatively wide, very soft, well broken in B17 will be comfortable on a wide variety of bikes. Using these parameters will help me pair the right saddle with the right bike depending on how I decide use them, but only time will tell how this will all play out.
* I purchased the C19 for a fifth bike, my Public commuting bike which has an upright geometry not easily comparable with the four road bikes considered here. This bike ought to put more of my weight on the saddle than any of my other bikes. That said, this saddle and bike combination are comfortable for up to 3 hours further suggesting that the C19 is a comfortable saddle, despite being hard.