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Saddles, as most longtime cyclists learn, are a very personal choice. As one of the primary interfaces between human and machine, the right saddle is a real “make or break” component that can spell the difference between two-wheeled bliss or agony. Many cyclists have found a particular saddle that works for them, sometimes after much trial and error. Just as often, saddle manufacturers tinker with the shape of a favorite saddle or discontinue a model, and that hurts (literally and figuratively). I have found two saddles that work for me — the original Selle Italia “Flite”, and the Wilderness Trail Bikes “SST” (in various flavors). Both are similar in that they have a narrow nose and and a somewhat flat top where my sit bones go. The WTB saddle is in current production, but sadly, the original Flite shape is best found on Ebay…and Lord knows I’ve hoarded a few.
The classic leather saddle is a very polarizing item — those who love them speak of them in evangelical terms and wonder how anyone could use anything else. The haters, on the other hand, use terms like “holy hell” or “ass hatchet”, and they wonder how anyone could stand that sort of abuse. I tend to fall into the latter camp. I remember riding around on the back of my grandfather’s tandem, cursing the unforgiving Brooks B17 mounted back there. However, I was very young then and have tried to keep an open mind about leather saddles over the years; if they work so well for so many people, perhaps I was missing something?
When the good folks at Velo Orange offered us a chance to test out their Model 3 Touring saddle, I raised my hand to volunteer. Could this be my chance to finally discover what was so special about classic leather saddles? Read on and see…
The VO Model 3 is made of heavy Australian cowhide, with some kind of laminated fabric underneath to help prevent stretching. The saddle has a pebbled texture over the top and a smooth finish along the sides and back. The lower edges of the saddle’s skirt have been tapered (“skived”, in the parlance of leathermakers). VO chose to punch small holes in the skirt of the saddle, right around midpoint, and lace them with nylon cord. This is a trick other saddle users have employed to prevent the saddle from splaying out over time. All the hardware, including rails, rivets, tension assembly, and bag-mounting slots, is made of gleaming chromed steel. I’ve heard tales that Brooks saddles sometimes have mounting problems — the shorter rails do not offer the user much positioning flexibility. VO makes their rails 10mm longer to help out with that. This is all anecdotal to me; I am not familiar enough with the ins and outs of Brooks or any other leather saddle models.
Out of the drawstring shipping bag, the saddle looks and feels like a quality piece of equipment. Weight weenies need not apply, though — all that thick leather and chromed steel comes at a sizeable penalty of 665 grams. That’s 450 grams — almost a pound — heavier than the gossamer Flite saddle fitted to many of my other bikes. Frankly, though, this saddle is aimed squarely at a market that doesn’t overly concern itself with weight.
Like most leather saddles, there is a provision to tighten the leather over time as it breaks in and sags. VO thoughtfully provided the tools needed to do this, and the tensioning nut is right at the nose for easy reach. No struggling with a proprietary wrench like the “big” leather saddle maker…the allen bolt is easy to access and tension is held in place by a simple nut:
Dimensionally, the VO Model 3 is sized similarly to my preferred saddles…with a width of 170mm and a length of 285mm, the wide part of the saddle spans my sit bones the way a saddle should. If the span is right, that helps eliminate the possibility of numbness down below, and I have not had problems in that way so far. The nose of the saddle is substantially wider than my regular saddles, though –up to a centimeter or more wider — as the nose blends into the rest of the saddle. I am very conscious of the flared nose/skirt rubbing my inner thighs — it’s not painful but certainly uncomfortable over the long haul.
While the saddle “fits” my sit bones, I am a little dismayed at the amount of time it’s taking to break in the top of the saddle. Perhaps I don’t weigh enough, or I don’t sweat enough, but I’ve got well over 300 miles on this saddle and it is just as hard and unforgiving as the day I installed it. That’s none too comfortable. I don’t have a lot of natural padding, and even a thin layer of foam makes a difference in my comfort. Plus, there are so many conflicting methods of breaking in a saddle, from soaking it in oil to heating it, getting it wet and riding on it until it is dry, etc. — I didn’t want to accelerate the process unnaturally and potentially ruin this thing. What I am going to do is keep riding it and see what happens.
For those of you who like to carry your tools and snacks in something other than a cheap zippered under-saddle pouch, the VO saddle comes complete with two bag-mounting slots on the back. Just think of how nice a good saddlebag will look back there!
That brings me to another point: the VO saddles (this one and their other models) are classy…they look and feel like quality stuff. On MY bike, it sort of stands out…an embarrassingly nice saddle on what is otherwise a beater from the junkpile (literally). You want to pretty up your machine? VO may be the way to go — the Model 3 is priced at $85.00, substantially less than some of the other brands but just as nice in my opinion. This model comes in three colors…black, dark brown and honey (the color they sent me). Surely one of those colors will tickle your fancy and convince you to dress up your bike with a new saddle and some matching leather bar tape?
So…what’s the verdict? Did dear Jack see the light and become a devotee to the allures of fine leather saddles? Not so fast…frankly, the jury is still out. I have to see how this thing breaks in over time — I’m not concerned about the long-term durability, for the VO saddle is made from good materials. But the comfort issue will have to play out over the future — the discomfort I experience from time to time does not keep me off the saddle, and in fact I WANT to ride this saddle more to experience that magical moment when the leather forms to me. Still, I like comfort from day one, and this saddle simply doesn’t offer that. In short, I am in no hurry to rush out and replace all my other saddles with copies of this one.