The Brooks B.17 Saddle


I was going through some stuff that I had written a while back, and this story popped up. It is a first draft of a review that I wrote years ago for Cyclingnews.com, extolling the many merits of the Brooks B.17 saddle.  

It was a little weird.   

I came THIS CLOSE to pulling the trigger and sending it to the editors as it appears below.  Common sense prevailed, however, and what I eventually sent them was shorter and slightly less strange.  That said, I think that it is still the most long-winded product review that they ever ran.  My review pops up from time to time on Google, so I still occasionally get e-mails about it, fielding questions regarding the comparative merits of the Brooks B.17. 

Anyway, I thought that I would share the original version it because, well, it is very odd and features a detailed apology for providing the reader with a topographical description of my butt.   


Review: Brooks B.17 Saddle 

Most reviews of bicycle saddles that have hitherto appeared in the popular cycling-related press have approached the subject with some trepidation. Comfort is a subjective measurement, impossible to quantify or measure with any certainty, and there is probably a no more subjective a topic in the cycling world than the relative comfort of a bicycle saddle. Indeed, while a review that discusses the technical features of a saddle may be marginally helpful to the careful and thoughtful cyclist, it is common wisdom among experienced riders that most written reviews of saddles are relatively worthless. It is an all too common occurrence that a glowing review for a bicycle saddle from one rider frequently does not translate into comfort out on the road for another, differently-configured rider. 

I respectfully submit that the blame for this dreadful state of affairs may be placed entirely at the feet of timid reviewers who completely ignore what our own eyes can readily tell us: that human buttocks are like snowflakes in that no two are shaped exactly alike. Because the human rump is not yet standardized, and because a reviewer’s opinion of a particular saddle must necessarily be colored by the configuration of his or her own lower anatomy, a key piece of information that should be included in any review of a bike saddle is, of course, a complete and accurate description of the posterior that is being used to conduct the actual saddle testing. 

Most writers are, from a misplaced sense of decorum or modesty, loath to discuss the finer points of their rump in print, leaving the bike saddle consumer to guess what sort of bum the author has been endowed with by his or her Creator. Does he or she have the broad, flat backside of a sprinter, or have they been blessed by nature with the trim, greyhound-like fanny normally found on a climber? Or is it something in between? 

Product reviewers who decline to provide their readership with the necessary anatomical information needed to convey a meaningful and intelligible comparison have done the cycling public a great disservice. In short, the educated bike saddle consumer must have at least a nodding familiarity with the rump under discussion before a reviewer’s opinions regarding a particular saddle are to be trusted. 

So I shan’t apologize to you, the Gentle Reader, for the discussion of my hindquarters that will appear during the course of this product review for the Brooks B.17 bicycle saddle. Such information is presented strictly out of journalistic necessity, and not from of any sense of pride or vanity (however justified) on the part of the Author. 

The Brooks B.17 bicycle saddle is perhaps one of the longest-lived bicycle components on the planet. Just when you think that progress has finally overtaken it and it has been rendered extinct, the leatherly Brooks arises from the depths like a prehistoric coelacanth, upsetting our preconceived notions about what to expect or demand from a bicycle saddle. 

Indeed, the recent resurgence of the Brooks B.17 requires us to call into question what, if any, real progress has been made in the area of cycling comfort over the last 80 years. 

There is one a very good reason, however, that explains why the B.17 has lasted this long.  It’s comfortable.  Damn comfortable, in fact.  

Yes, the Brooks B.17 is big.  Yes, it weighs as much as a compact car. Yes, you have to occasionally slather it with a greasy and foul smelling preparation in order to keep it supple. No, they don’t like getting wet.  But after a couple of thousand miles perched upon a Brooks, I have come to appreciate the comfort – nay, luxury! – afforded by the Brooks B.17. 

First, some history. Founded in 1866 as a saddle maker, Brooks began the manufacture of bicycle seats around 1885. Offering a full line of traditional leather saddles, Brooks has been producing the B.17 model since the early 1900s. The design of the B.17 has remained essentially unchanged for over 80 years, and each one is still made by hand at the factory in Birmingham, England. 

The attraction of a Brooks B.17 (or any traditional leather saddle) can be hard to grasp. To the generation of riders who have earned their wheels on svelte plastic/leather confections like the Flite and its progeny, a leather saddle like the Brooks is hopelessly old school. And then there are the horror stories passed down from our cycling ancestors about the miseries of slowly breaking-in leather saddles – six months of suffering while the hard polished leather slowly duels with your backside to see who will give up first. 

Indeed, I’d heard those stories too, and so it was with some apprehension that I opened up the box and slipped the B.17 out on to my workbench. It sure as hell didn’t look very inviting. Black leather. Metal studs. It looked more like a piece of bondage gear than a comfortable bicycle saddle. More ominously, there were three small holes punched in the top of the saddle. Drain holes for…blood, perhaps? 

The basic Brooks B.17 consists of formed leather hide that is stretched over a steel framework. The black leather top is attached to the frame by shiny rivets, and the leather is tensioned via a screw adjuster in the nose of the saddle. It’s a big saddle – 170mm wide at the back, and 280mm long. It’s heavy too – Brooks lists it at 535 grams. The B.17 makes a Flite look positively small in comparison. There are fancier and lighter versions (even one with titanium rails), but none of those editions seem to capture the rough-and-ready spirit of the long-lived and Puritan-plain original. It’s not unusual for a B.17 to last 20 or 30 years with proper care, making the saddle an excellent investment.

Oh, and the three holes on the top are supposed to provide ventilation. Those Brits think of everything. 

Taking the saddle in hand and striding over to the test bicycle, a Bianchi touring bike that I use for my daily commute to work, I quickly learned that one does not just slap a Brooks on to their velciopede and then go pedaling off into the sunset, derrière cosseted by the finest British leather. No, no, no. There are certain rituals that must be performed first before one is fully initiated into the Brooks cult. The primary ritual consists of applying a leather preparation, Brooks Proofhide, to the top and bottom surfaces of the saddle. This preparation protects the leather from moisture and helps with the breaking in process. No one, however, can agree on the schedule or method of subsequent applications. Not even Brooks itself provides definitive instructions on this point. Everyone agrees that you should regularly treat the saddle; it’s just that no one knows just how regular you have to be. Too often is bad. Not often enough is also bad. Figuring out what is “just right” is all part of becoming a member of the mysterious brotherhood of Brooks riders; everyone who owns one eventually develops their own closely-guarded theory on when to treat the saddle. 

One other oddity in installing a Brooks saddle: you need a seat post with a fair amount of setback in order to get the B.17 into a comfortable position. This is because the seat rails on the saddle are fairly short, and the Brooks doesn’t have the range of travel or adjustability possessed by most modern saddles. 

Saddle conditioned, mounted and adjusted, I donned my riding togs, mounted the bike, and gingerly lowered myself onto the B.17. I pushed off, pedaled a bit, and was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of…..comfort. Good lord, this thing is nice. Right out of the box. Where was all of the pain? Where was the horrible break-in period? 

The short answer is that my ample hindquarters – best described as the amply-muscled backside of a roleur, twin sinewy globes of alabaster attached to a virile specimen of rampant manhood; broad in the beam but not unpleasingly so – were able to make short work of breaking in a stiff leather saddle.  No skinny climber here,  at 6′ tall and every ounce of 190 lbs, so I surmise that the combination of my large size and the dynamic load generated by my ample-yet-aesthetically pleasing bum served to dramatically short-circuit the traditional break in period normally required for a leather saddle. 

I came, I sat, and I conquered. 

This unexpectedly short break-in period allowed me to quickly discover some of the finer subtleties of my Brooks. Like, for example, the fact that the broad rear dimension of the saddle is a perfect match for my, um, broad rear dimension. The B.17 is shaped in a way that supports my ischial tuberosities – the sit bones – almost perfectly. I was also surprised as the way that the natural leather breathes better than the synthetic covering on my other more modern saddles, further reducing discomfort. This is a saddle that one can sit on all day. 

A couple of treatments with Proofhide and lots of miles later, the leather shell of the seat slowly conformed its shape to create a mirror image of my rump.  There are now two hollows on the top of the saddle that mirrors the shape of my kiester, meaning that my Brooks now carries me over the roads and byways in what is effectively a comfy leather hammock, individually cosseting each meaty ham and isolating it from any unwanted jolts or vibration caused by imperfections in the pavement. It is s a very civilized way to cycle. 

Granted, based upon its size and weight alone, the Brooks B.17 would not be anybody’s first choice for a lightweight racing bike. You won’t see it in the pro peloton any time soon. But for the larger rider, the touring cyclist, or for just any rider who values comfort over light weight, a Brooks B.17 makes wonderful sense. 

Believe me, your ass will thank you. 

Pros: Comfortable, well made, will last forever.
Cons: Big, heavy, too retro for some.
Recommended retail price: varies
More information: Brooks Saddles Website


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