Last month I got an email from the folks at Brooks Saddles informing me that I'd been selected to test one of their new saddles. When I got back from my camping vacation last week, I found a box had been delivered from Brooks, and I eagerly opened it up to see what they'd sent. What I got was a bit of a surprise: a B17 "carved" or "Imperial" - the one with the big cutaway in the center. Why was that a surprise? Well, I was under the impression that they were testing a new model, but to the best of my knowledge, the model has been around for over 10 years. If there's something new about it, it must be something that isn't obvious to casual observation. Regardless, I'm happy to use it and give them my impressions, and I may post a bit here, too.
I've got several bikes equipped with Brooks B17 saddles. It's safe to say that they're a favorite of mine. The shape works really well for me, and I typically find them to be pretty comfortable right out of the box - even before they've "broken in" (despite all the mythical horror stories about the brutal break-in period). I've tried the "narrow" version (didn't like it as much) and I've got the "standard" and "deluxe" versions, but I've never used the version with the big cutaway. Another difference is that this model comes with holes punched along the bottom skirt, ready to be laced. Lacing is supposed to firm up a leather saddle by keeping the bottom skirts from splaying out. People will sometimes drill the holes and lace up an old Brooks saddle if the top starts to sag too much (that method is less likely to accidentally damage the saddle than over-tightening the adjustment bolt at the nose). The "carved" or "Imperial" saddle comes laced right out of the box.
Interesting fact about the "pressure relieving" cutaway is that Brooks introduced saddles with that very feature back in the 1800s - for the very same reason as today - The ads said "preventative to all perineal pressure."
Here's the thing: I've always been skeptical of the fear mongering, and I'm generally skeptical of saddles with cutaways, grooves, nose-less designs, or other methods for reducing pressure. I believe there were some serious flaws in that original study that linked biking to erectile disfunction, and there have been numerous studies conducted since then that are far less dire in their conclusions. It really seems to me that a quality saddle that is wide enough to support the "sit bones," and is positioned optimally for the rider (proper height, and angle, etc.) will eliminate most issues, with or without the gimmicks. Also, sensible riding style can make a difference too. Using handlebars that put a rider low and forward can lead to problems, and staying in one position on the bike for too long doesn't help either. But seriously, if you're on a long ride and you start feeling numb or tingly "down there" - get out of the saddle for a bit! And if it keeps happening, re-examine things like saddle shape, angle, and position.
Now, having said all that, I know that suddenly I'm going to start getting emails from people telling me that a grooved or cutaway saddle saved their sex life. Okay - that's cool. But just like diagnosing the source of a creaking noise on a bike can be tricky and inexact, pinning down the exact reason or proper cure for erectile issues can be similarly speculative. Heck, I think I'd rather pin down the creaking noise, as there are far more limited variables.
One concern I've had with pressure relieving saddles is that I wonder if some of the designs might not actually be worse than a traditional design. It's just speculation - but what I mean is that if you look at the nose of a traditional saddle, the curve of the top surface is usually one large, broad curve, with a radius of maybe an inch or so. But on some saddles with a big groove in them, that broad curve over the nose is replaced by two narrow ridges, each with a much smaller radius. So instead of one broad "pressure point," you get two much smaller, sharper pressure points. Does that make sense? I don't know. . .
So getting back to this test saddle. I'll be interested to see how it feels, and what differences (if any) I might be able to detect between this one and the ones I'm more familiar with. I've been on a couple of rides with it already - including two brief rides with unpadded shorts. Was it my imagination, or could I feel the edges of that slot? Not sure. With padded riding shorts, I haven't noticed much difference so far, except that with the skirts being laced, the saddle may have a bit less "give" to it, even accounting for its brand-new, non broken-in condition. Maybe I'll loosen the laces a little. However it feels right now, it's important to remember that it will likely change as it breaks in.
Last thing - and again, I really have no idea, so I'm just curious. Brooks was sold to the Italian company Selle Royal back in 2002, but the Brooks website says that their leather saddle models are still made in England. So why did the shipping label on the box this sample came in list Italy as the point of origin? Curious.