Review Brooks B17
Over the years, I've read so many forum posts about Brooks saddles that I've lost count of the many hundreds of agonised, pain-ridden, joyful, satisfied, happy, or unhappy posts I have read. Many of them are contradictory and you could be forgiven for thinking of Brooks saddles as being a bit “Marmite”; a love or hate thing. An acquaintance told me how uncomfortable my B17 must be because he hated his so much, before he consigned it to the bin. This was despite me clocking up many thousands of pretty comfortable kilometres on mine.
There is a sort of urban myth that you either have a “Brooks Arse” or you don't and some of us are just simply not suited to a Brooks. This of course is not science and all of it is just people’s opinion based on their own experience, and some anecdotal vicarious experience from reviews like this one. I have had three Brooks B17s; one narrow, and two standard, and this is my experience.
Disclaimer…First of all, doing what I have done may have Brooks (and many others) throwing up their hands in horror, and will probably have voided all my warranties. Please don't take this as a recommendation. It is only my solutions and experiences.
At a risk of stating the obvious, Brooks saddles are made of cows, and all cows are different; therefore, we can expect each saddle to be a wee bit unique. Mine have all been different. So…
My first one was a B17 narrow and I meticulously followed the instructions; Proofhide, pain killers, and kilometres. It seemed to break in, albeit really slowly, and became pretty comfortable…eventually. I must say that it was no easy process, and it took a great deal of determination to persevere. On more than one occasion I was considering throwing in the towel. During the first rainy season however, on a bike without mudguards, it took a couple of epic soakings, and transformed almost instantly to a sort of “bum slipper”…it became very, very, comfortable, instantly. It was a revelation.
The second, straight out of the box, I fitted to the bike, turned the bike upside down with the saddle in a bowl of warm water while I ate my breakfast cereal. I then took it out on its first ride, a hilly 90km. It was instantly beautifully comfortable and has been ever since.
In the meantime, my other half was having one of those “I just don't think I'm built for a Brooks” type of experience. After a serious amount of kilometres (several thousand!), it still wasn’t giving in. She was considering taking a razor blade to it when I stepped in.
Before we resorted to surgery, I thought a last attempt at conquest was worth a try. I switched my “bum slipper” for her plank, and she tried it out. We went for a ride; she loved the slipper, and I ended up with a badly beaten up arse. I also developed a sense of empathy previously outside of my experience. I was nearly met with violence when I tried to reclaim my old saddle, and so I set about taming hers.
Next time out, I soaked it in warm water for half an hour, tried it, and it was better, but not slipper-soft yet. About a week later, I gave it a really serious soaking, and rode it hard. It finally gave up the fight and is now a model, well-behaved, much loved, trusty armchair.
There were two factors at work here, I believe. First of all the saddle leather on all three saddles is different. One seemed thicker, and was particularly resistant to breaking in. The second factor, I believe is bodyweight. I weigh a good bit more than my wife, and I'm a bit more bony in the bum department. Of course I couldn't possibly recommend soaking your new Brooks, but warranty isn’t important to me as I'm living in Africa and my nearest Evans Cycles is probably about 8,000 kms away! I did email Brooks for advice, but they didn't reply. So... a good soaking worked fine for us, and we are both now happy. I've even considered setting up business as a saddle-breaking crash test dummy, for people with super sensitive behinds - but there are easier ways of making a living.
It is also worth mentioning adjustment. The adjustment is critical on these saddles. There is very little "fore & aft" adjustment, probably the least on any saddle that I've ridden. Nevertheless, a small adjustment both fore & aft, and saddle height, can make a great difference to comfort. I use 5mm increments for on the hoof adjustment. Also critical is tilt. This is very personal but a slight upward tilt is popular, and works for us. I've never known a saddle needing to be so fine tuned; it makes a huge difference to comfort levels. Be patient. Once it is "dialled in" it will all be worthwhile.
Notwithstanding the breaking-in, and top tips and handy hints thereof, Brooks saddles are the benchmark for touring bicycles. Virtually every other tourer we meet is riding a Brooks of some description. They are the go-to long distance saddle, and there’s a reason for that. If you are spending long hours every day in the saddle (particularly in hot climates), I've never found anything as near comfortable, breathable, hard wearing, or tough; and I've tried a few.
We love our B17s and they just seem to get better with use. I very rarely do anything to them, apart from a cheap shower cap to keep rain off when they are parked up. They are pretty comfortable without padded shorts, but I always wear padded shorts anyway. I have found underpants less comfortable with all their seams and suchlike. I have a pair of padded underpants with the thinnest of Chamois pads, and I can wear them all day with no discomfort at all.
Whenever I hear people saying that they just cannot get on with the Brooks, I admit, I wonder what has gone wrong. Of course there are people outside of anatomical norms, but I don't subscribe to the “Brooks Arse” theory; arses are quite similar by and large; they're not fingerprints! Maybe it’s the leather (differences in thickness or hardness), but I can say that I persevered with the most difficult of mine, chanced my arm with the soakings, and I'm now very, very, comfortable.
I can't really see us touring on any other saddle, we have spent a lot of time on ours and I would not consider swapping my saddle for anything else. The only drawback is an ethical one; that they are made from dead cows. For Vegans, there is the Cambium, which I've heard good things about but never tried. Of course I would very carefully consider the ethics if I was buying again, but the B17s reputedly last a very, very long time, so I don't need to worry about it anytime soon. I would say that my main conclusion is that this is a great value, very comfortable saddle, but as with anything...there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you have already taken the plunge, and If you are suffering out there, don't give up!
...and maybe consider trying something other than pain and paracetamol to break in your Brooks, you won’t look back once it’s right!