Friday, November 1, 2013

Brooks Saddles

I kind of lose count of how many bicycles I own. The total is somewhere around 12 or so, but the number changes from time to time. All but a couple of them have Brooks saddles. They are my favorites, and a favorite saddle of Retrogrouches the world over.

Natural leather saddles aren't perfect, but then what in this world is?

Yes, plastic saddles are lighter and require little/no maintenance or care. But maintenance isn't really a concern for me -- in fact, it's one of the things I enjoy about my bikes. Some say that leather saddles require a break-in period, but I haven't found that to be the case -- for most Brooks models that I've used, they feel pretty darn good right out of the box.

The Brooks story is practically legend -- one of those great stories of industry and invention that would have to be created if it weren't already true. The company was founded back in 1866 by John Boultbee Brooks, originally as a manufacturer of horse harnesses and leather goods. According to the company's history, J.B. Brooks's horse died in 1878 and he was unable to purchase another. The story goes that he borrowed a bicycle, but hated the saddle so much that he "vowed to do something about it." He filed for his first leather saddle patent in 1882.

Over the decades, the company has made a range of products for bicycles, and motorcycles for a time, including saddles, shoes, oilskin clothing, cycling bags, and more. The company had expanded into making furniture, and at one point, in the 1930s, had even purchased a motorcycle company! Other leather saddle makers were absorbed by the expanding Brooks company, including Lycett, Leatheries, and Wrights. Some of these continued to be made for a while, though essentially overseen by Brooks.

B-17 Standard. Nicely broken in, about 12 years old.
In 1958, Brooks was purchased by the huge Raleigh Cycle Company, which was then itself taken over by the British Tube Investment Group, or TI -- which also owned Reynolds Tubing and internal-hub gear maker Sturmey Archer. Brooks and SA were joined together into their own division by TI/Raleigh, where they remained until bankruptcy brought down the whole conglomerate in '99. I remember when that happened, and being a bit worried that I might not be able to get Brooks saddles anymore, but it didn't take long before investors stepped up to rescue Brooks from the ashes. In 2002, the company was sold to Italian saddle company Selle Royal, which has done a lot to revive the Brooks name and history. Selle Royal has kept production of the Brooks line in England, and has reintroduced lost saddle models and product lines, like bags, clothing, and accessories. Under this new ownership, it seems that Brooks is thriving like they were in their heyday.

B-17 Special, with titanium rails, and larger,
hand-finished copper rivets.
B-17: My favorite saddle is the B-17. I have a few of these and find them to be the best all-around saddle for most of the riding I do. Brooks calls it their flagship model, and it has been in production since at least 1898. It has a nice flat top across the back, with a good width to fit the "sit bones" of most people (about 17 cm wide - perhaps that's why it's called the B-17?). It has undergone only minor changes since its introduction, though it has also been offered in some different variations over the years. There was/is a narrower version, as well as the Swallow, which is like the narrower version with cutaway sides. It was a favorite among some racers. There was also an ultra-narrow version called the Sprinter that was used by some track racers.

Brooks Flyer -- basically a B-17 with springs.
Today, the basic B-17 is called the Standard, while there is also a slightly fancier version called the Special. The Special features larger rivets that are finished more nicely, leather that has been "skivved" or shaved along the bottom edge, and framework/rails that have been plated instead of painted. A titanium-rail version is also available.

Flyer: Basically, a B-17 with springs. Rivendell's Grant Petersen says the springs don't really kick in unless the rider is over 180 lbs., but I don't agree with that. It certainly doesn't give a bouncy, bobbing kind of suspension -- and that's good because I wouldn't want that. But the springs do take some of the bite out of harsher bumps. I use one of these on my mountain bike -- a vintage Stumpjumper from the early 80s. I also have one on my tandem, which works really well because it's a little harder to unweight for bumps on a tandem.

Brooks Professional, dated from 1972. Later versions have
the leather on the nose a little longer to keep more of the
front tension bolt covered. I like the truncated look of this one.
Professional/Team Professional: For decades, the primary choice for racing bikes was the B-17, but in the 1960s, Brooks offered the Professional, which quickly became the top choice for racers. The Professional was slightly narrower (16 cm vs. 17), and not quite as flat across the top as the B-17. It also seems to use slightly thicker leather, making it a little tougher to break-in. This is the saddle about which people tell stories of crazy pre-treating and break-in rituals, such as soaking the saddle in neats foot oil. Blogger and retired frame builder Dave Moulton posted this article about his most recent Brooks saddle purchase (Back in the Saddle Again). In it, he explains his pre-treatment routine to soften up his new Professional model saddle. The process he describes is pretty similar to what I've heard a lot of riders use back in the day.

In the 1970s, the Team Professional came with larger, hand-finished rivets. Eventually a "Pre-Softened" version was offered (with those very words embossed in the top) although I've heard more than a few people say it didn't make a big difference. I have the Professional on a couple of collectible vintage bikes where it is the right choice for the bike and the vintage -- but for most of my riding, I prefer the B-17.

Swift saddle, in this case with chrome-plated
steel rails, not titanium. I do have a titanium
version, however. The cork is an affectation,
coming out of old track-racing lore.
The Swift: This model is a lot like a Team Professional, but slightly narrower still, with a little more leather cut away on the sides. It also comes with titanium rails. It has a very cool, sporty, minimalist look. Although leather saddles in general weigh more than plastic ones, for people concerned about weight, the Swift is the one to get. This is another one that can take a bit of break-in, but it isn't too bad for a while on shorter rides until that point.

B-67: This is a wide, sprung saddle. I don't use these myself, as it's a good bit wider than a B-17 (205 mm) and more width than I need for the types of riding I do -- it's really designed to be a good saddle for a more upright riding position. But I have installed them on my wife's bike, and on the stoker position of our tandem. She seems to like it and says it works well for her. There is a very similar saddle, the B-66, which has an older style undercarriage with double rails, requiring an older style straight seatpost and clamp system. The B-67 has basically the same shape but with a modern single-rail undercarriage, so it works with the kinds of seatposts most people use today.

B-67 on my wife's refurbished Trek. Wide and comfortable.
Great saddle for a more upright position.
There are, of course, a lot of other Brooks models, but those are the ones I have the most experience with. All the saddles pictured are on my own bikes or bikes I've built.

Maintenance on a Brooks saddle is pretty straightforward. Don't let it get soaked so often, or ride on it soaked, as it can start to sag or splay out. For my commuting bike, I have a saddle bonnet, or rain cover, tucked away in a pocket of my saddlebag that I can use in case of rain. On other bikes, I'll just tuck a rolled up plastic shopping bag and a couple of rubber bands into the saddlebag or pack -- it isn't as pretty as the "official" Brooks rain cover, but it works fine in an emergency.

Use a little leather dressing on it now and then, but don't overdo it. Brooks Proofide is the product that Brooks recommends (of course) and the one that I use, but there are other products out there that do the same basic thing, such as Sno Seal -- but regardless of what product one uses, I don't typically apply it more than once a year or so, though it can vary depending on the kind of use the saddle gets. Sometimes if the saddle starts to sag, people will use the tension nut on the front of the saddle, but it is really easy to go overboard with that. I've seen a few old Brooks saddles where the leather was pulled from the nose rivets by aggressive over-tensioning. One of the better ways to deal with a sagging Brooks saddle is to drill or punch some lacing holes along the bottom edge of the leather, then lace it up like a shoe. Pulling the sides inward tends to restore a little shape to the top because as the top sags, the sides will splay out.

When it comes to comfort -- which is really the main job of a saddle -- it is hard to do better than an all-leather saddle, and there really aren't (and I'd argue never were) any out there better than the ones from Brooks. On a more personal note, another reason I like Brooks saddles is because it is a great way to always have my name on my bikes.

3 comments:

  1. I picked up a NOS B-15N (a new bike take off, probably a Raleigh) from a few decades ago and softened it up with some Proofide (applied and let the saddle sit on a shelf for several months). It is now my favorite Brooks. I also like the B17 and have a "standard" that is quite comfy. A newer "special" is still too hard to tolerate on a long ride, so I pulled it off and out on a Selle Anatomica. Have you tried them? Very comfortable, but not as durable as a Brooks in my own riding experience to date. Thanks for a nice informative posting.

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    1. Thanks for the comments. I haven't tried the anatomica -- it does look like it would be fairly comfy, though.

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  2. I've a few Brooks and prefer the narrow B-17. I find them more comfortable when wearing commuter clothing or even jeans - Lycra and the Brooks are not a good mix for me (too slippery).

    Brooks have become very fashionable and there is a bit of danger that they might disappear up their own you-know-where. They have a trendy "shoppe" in London's Covent Garden where they sell all manner of Brooks-branded items (saddles of course, but bags and clothing at breathtaking prices as well).

    They showed a nice bike multi-tool at a few shows but seemed not to understand that any knife-like object with a locking blade will get the person carrying it a custodial jail sentence in the UK. Eventually, they deleted the blade, but it would seem the company is being guided by non-UK managers now.

    Then there is the "Cambium". I have one (purchased at a discount as I don't think they have sold that well) and it's OK, but nothing special. It does have a nice base, bit I'm not sold on the saddle cover itself as making any progress.

    To be honest, I'm a fan of the old (and still available) San Marco Rolls. But saddles are a matter of fit and personal preference, and I hope Brooks is around another 100 years

    http://blog.brooksengland.com/wps/b1866-london/

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