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How durable are leather saddles?

How durable are leather saddles? It’s a question we often get with respect to the Berthoud saddles we distribute in North America. Especially now that it’s winter here, and often raining. Will a leather saddle be ruined if it’s ridden in the rain?

The answer is a reassuring ‘No.’ There is only one thing to consider: The underside of the saddle should be protected. If the leather gets completely soaked, the saddle top will lose its shape.

If your bike has fenders, then your leather saddle has little to fear in most conditions. And even on a bike without fenders, a small seatbag can keep the saddle’s underside dry. I took the photo above during our test of the Salsa Warbird in January, where we traversed the Cascade Mountains at the foot of Mount St. Helens during a winter storm. It’s easy to see how wet and muddy the bike was, yet the saddle remained in good shape even after 16 hours of riding in these conditions.

In fact, this is the same saddle that I rode in this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris, where it was comfortable for 56 hours of almost non-stop riding. It’s been on a variety of Bicycle Quarterly test bikes, too, since it’s my favorite saddle right now.

Do you need to protect your leather saddle with a cover? When you park the bike outside in the rain, you shouldn’t leave the saddle exposed. A plastic bag will do the job. When riding, it’s usually not necessary to use a cover, since you are sitting on the saddle. The nose will get wet, but that part won’t deform under your weight and pedaling. If it’s raining so hard that water is sheeting down your rain jacket and onto the saddle, a cover may be a good idea. Few of us ride in conditions that wet. And even if – see the photo above – our saddles have survived intact.

Leather saddles age very well. The saddle on the blue bike above is the 12th Berthoud saddle ever made, way back in 2008. I’ve ridden it daily on my Urban Bike in Seattle, yet it remains in great condition. If you look carefully, you can see scratches that would have ripped through the cover of a plastic saddle. With the thick leather, these scars get polished out when I ride the saddle. As time goes by, the saddle acquires a beautiful patina that synthetic materials can’t match. I look foreward to riding it for another decade or more.

Leather needs a little care: I treat my saddles with Obenauf’s leather preservative once or twice a year – whenever the leather starts to get dry. I also use it on the trim of my Berthoud bags, as well as my leather shoes. It’s natural (beeswax and propolis), non-toxic and pleasant to use. (We sell it, and it doesn’t cost much.)

We love Berthoud saddles not just for their durability, but for their comfort. Leather shapes itself to your anatomy as you use it, so you effectively create your own custom saddle that gets better with time. It’s hard for me to imagine riding truly long distances like Paris-Brest-Paris on any other saddle.

Click here for more information about Berthoud saddles.

11 Responses to How durable are leather saddles?

  1. Bill Stekl December 6, 2019 at 7:25 am #

    When treating the leather with Obenauf’s, should the top and bottom of the saddle be treated?

    • Jan Heine December 6, 2019 at 8:31 am #

      We treat only the top. The bottom is best left open to breathe.

  2. Steven Krusemark December 6, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    We rode 22,000 miles around the world on our Bill Boston tandem in 1986 and rode a Brooks Pro in the front for the captain and an Ideale #92 Diagonale (woman’s version) for the stoker. We took care to use saddle soaps and had fenders, but other than that the saddles saw all types of weather both while riding and while sitting without being covered. We never “broke” them in with any conditioning which I have noticed could shorten the saddle life. We then rode them for another 15-20K. The Brooks is still in use, the Ideal started losing its shape and was replaced. Did they look like new, no, but they had a well-worn look that did not look bad for a well-used touring bike. The new stoker leather saddle we have now has springs to help with the unseen bumps! We are planning another world tour in a year or two and will stay with the leather. I’ll probably replace the captains saddle before that time and will consider one of the Berthoud saddles. It should be noted that the original brand new Brooks Pro that came with the bike broke down in the first few days of our trip due to a defect in the leather. The LL Bean outlet (a bit different then from what it is now) replaced our saddle for free from their stock, even though we did not originally buy it from them.

  3. John S. Allen December 6, 2019 at 7:36 am #

    Yes! — I have ridden only leather saddles since whenever. A couple thought about care and durability: I have used several leather treatments over the years. I don not recommend mink oil, as it becomes moldy; neat’s foot oil (so-called) is a petroleum product, and smelly, but easy to use as it is liquid. The Propolis which you sell appears similar to Brooks Proofide, and the quantity looks more generous. I will heat a saddle gently in a warm oven (no more than 120 F or 50 C, to melt the leather treatment, then rub it into the underside of the saddle. I have heard that RAAM champion Lon Haldeman soaks his saddles in used motor oil, but I’ll bet that he also wears black shorts 🙂

    I have had saddle rails of a couple of Brooks Flyer saddles break in the past few years; But replacement parts are easy to obtain from Brooks. I had a broken rail only once before, with a Brooks B-17 I had been riding for 30 years. The leather was still good and got riveted to another base for continued use.

    I recommend natural-color leather saddles like the ones you show, because dyes can stain clothing, especially with a new saddle in wet weather and/or when leather treatment has been used recently.

    • Mike Opheim December 6, 2019 at 4:14 pm #

      In an interview article probably 30 years ago Lon Haldeman was asked how he broke in his Brooks saddle. In his answer he stated that he used motor oil. Later articles misquoted this interview to read “used-motor oil”. I think it might have been in a Rivendell Reader interview that Lon explained this,

  4. Gunther December 6, 2019 at 8:06 am #

    Which model is the black one?

    • Jan Heine December 6, 2019 at 8:33 am #

      It’s the Aravis, Berthoud’s standard-width saddle with titanium rails.

  5. Steve Kurt December 6, 2019 at 8:43 am #

    A bit of rain now and then won’t be a problem, but when you are caught in a proper midwestern thunderstorm, why not be nice to your saddle and use a cover? I’ve had good results with the Aardvark saddle cover (available from a number of sources). Of course, my assorted Brooks have all been in service for a number of decades, so perhaps I have high expectations?

    • Jan Heine December 6, 2019 at 10:25 am #

      Totally, if you have a cover and it’s a downpour, use it. I haven’t found a cover yet that stays on during vigorous pedaling, so I don’t usually carry one. Berthoud has a cover that we’re testing – hopefully it works better.

      My point is solely that if you don’t have a cover, don’t panic. Your saddle probably will be fine. I’ve ridden my saddles in typhoons in Japan, and they didn’t suffer much.

  6. Greyson December 6, 2019 at 4:14 pm #

    It seems easy to find a lot of articles and discussions on the longevity and comfort provided by both Berthoud and Brooks saddles, but very little info on their ‘open’ counterparts. Leaving comfort aside (as this is always a matter of personal preference), how do the Berthoud Open saddles hold up in comparison to their ‘regular’ counterparts? Do you have any ‘from the field’ data regarding their longevity?

    • Jan Heine December 6, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

      Any saddle with a cutout has less structural integrity, so we expect the Berthoud Open saddles to last not quite as long, but we haven’t ridden them long enough to have data.