The B17 files: Break ins

The B17 is an amazing saddle, and its popularity has gained cult like status.  No doubt the reason this saddle has such an arcane reputation are the plethora of break in methods used to achieve a comfortable ride.

My first B17 was a loaner that I was breaking in for a friend.  He had heard stories of the legendary comfort and was trying all manner of processes to achieve it.  I bought my very first B17 in the year 1999 from Wallingford cycles in New Orleans; it was a special red edition.  I slathered on the Brooks proof hide and rode around in comfort.  I’ve never seen another red Brooks before.

I avoided treating the saddle with any kind of oil and followed the directions, though I probably put a little too much proofhide on, but I never really broke this seat in.  I was working and going to college and didn’t have the time or inclination to ride many miles.  In 2002 I began riding more and at the advice of a friend started using Vasoline as a chamois treatment before rides.  It didn’t really occur to me that the Vasoline would soak into the saddle but it did and in turn it began to get softer and more comfortable, it also began to stretch.  I found the saddle having to much sag and started tightening the tension screw a bit, then a bit more, and then more still, but worse then that the saddle lost its bright red color and became very dark maroon, almost black.

I rode this seat several thousand miles in the next few years and it never seemed to completely break in.  It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it didn’t seem to have the legendary B17 comfort, then when the tension screw was about 1/3rd of the way out it snapped. I tried other saddles and eventually bought another B17 in 2008.  On this new B17 I’ve never used vasoline and instead switched to a water based chamois cream.  I also used proofhide sparingly.  I bought this one off ebay, but I don’t think it had ever been used much it still had the profile of a brand new seat.

The B17 began to develop much differently then the old red one.  It started forming the sit bone dimples which I had been told were the sign of a good break in.  It’s comfort seemed to get better with every ride.  It also began to get noticeably dry, the surface even formed some tiny cracks which I rubbed a very small amount of proofhide into to clear up.  This B17 is my most comfortable saddle.

I’ve formed a theory about my two saddles based on several sources I’ve read.  First saturating your saddle in any oil will soften the leather and cause it to stretch.  For your typical light weigh cyclist this probably isn’t a problem, my friend’s B17 is fine, despite the fact he coats it in vasoline every ride.  A fat cyclist such as me is putting much more strain on the leather and in turn creating much more stretch.  Secondly, when the entire saddle is saturated in oil it stretches everywhere and not under the tailbone to create that B17 custom fit.

So if you want my advice don’t oil your saddle other then very lightly if it starts to get dry and crack.  If you want it to break in just ride it, it’ll take longer but give the best results.  Water can speed up the break in period but with risk.  If the leather is wet it will stretch, but only where it is wet, and only for a short time until the water dries.

If you do have a saddle that is completely saturated getting the oil out is a chore.  I destroyed my old red B17 trying to dry it.

I replaced the the tension screw and tried it again but it was so oily that after a ride my shorts would feel like they had been vasolined.  Riding it with dry shorts would eventually work the oil out, but I wanted to try to tighten up and rework the saddle so after reading an article about heating it in the oven I tried that.  I backed the tension all the way off, stuffted newspaper in to form the original shape and  went 5 minutes at 150 degrees in the oven.  After the treatment it was almost like new, tight and literally had oil running out of it.

I should have been happy and stopped here, but the saddle still seemed a little oily and the color still wasn’t very bright so I tried again.   My wife used the oven in between my saddle treatments after she was done and the oven had some time to cool off I put the seat back in.  This time the oven was switched off and I just wanted to warm it back up a bit and see if any more oil would come out.  I didn’t realize my oven’s ability to retain heat, and the fact my wife had recently used it at 400 degrees.  Since the oven was off I didn’t watch the time that close, but after what I thought was around 5 minutes I found the saddle to be thoroughly cooked.  The leather had pulled so tight the frame was bowed and most of the rivets had pulled out.  Oil had actually started bubbling out of the leather and was bubbling away.

After it had cooled the leather was brittle it tore apart from the tension of the saddle frame.  I regret my stupid mistake, but  am glad for trying because, if I hadn’t put the saddle back in the oven I think it would have been like new.  Reshaping old stretched and worn out Brooks saddles is possible, just use care.

About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
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