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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

Tech review - February 3, 2004

Brooks B.17 Standard: Old school cool

Straight out of the box
Photo ©: Greg Taylor
The stamp of approval
Photo ©: Greg Taylor
170mm wide
Photo ©: Greg Taylor
Simple steel construction
Photo ©: Greg Taylor

As much as most of us men like to think we're all modern-day metrosexuals, there's a little bit of retro in all of us. Team Larbutt's Greg Taylor takes a step back in time with the Brooks B.17 saddle.

The Brooks B.17 bicycle saddle is perhaps one of the longest-lived bicycle accessories on the planet. Think about it: can you name another bike part or cycling-related accessory that has been in continuous production using the same methods and materials for over 80 years? Sure, there's the... um... and then there's the... errr... and of course there is the... uh... Brooks B.17.

One could come up with a lot of reasons why the B.17 should not have survived all of these years. The Brooks B.17 is big and clunky looking. It weighs more than a compact car. You have to occasionally smear it with goop to keep the leather supple. It's reputed that the process of breaking one in can leave you a pitiable cripple. There are lighter, flashier saddles on the market.

However, there is one very good reason why the Brooks B.17 has lasted this long. It's pretty damn comfortable.

Way back when...

First, some history. Founded in 1866 as a saddle maker, Brooks began the manufacture of bicycle seats around 1885. Offering a full line of traditional leather saddles, Brooks has been producing the B.17 model since the early 1900s. The design of the B.17 has remained essentially unchanged for over 80 years, and each one is still made by hand at the factory in Birmingham, England.

For the uninitiated, the attraction of a Brooks B.17 (or any traditional leather saddle, for that matter) can be hard to grasp. The current generation of riders who have earned their wheels perched atop svelte plastic/leather confections like the Flite and its progeny can easily dismiss a Brooks as being hopelessly retro. And it is hopelessly retro, a veritable antique. For some, however, therein lies its charm - for those among us who revel in such things as friction shifters, wool riding shorts and cloth bar tape, it doesn't get any more old school cool than a Brooks.

And, of course, there are those who will be dissuaded from purchasing a Brooks by the common wisdom that choosing a leather saddle means having to endure a miserable breaking-in period - six months of guaranteed suffering while the hard polished leather slowly duels with your backside in an epic test of wills.

What's this thing made of?

Indeed, an inspection of the B.17 seems to confirm the fact it is one tough customer. The basic Brooks B.17, the item that is tested here, consists of formed leather hide that is stretched over a steel framework. The black leather top is attached to the frame by shiny rivets, and the leather is tensioned via a screw adjuster in the nose of the saddle. The thick leather is unsupported from underneath, relying instead upon the stiffness of the leather and the tension imparted to the hide by the frame to keep your backside off of the seatpost. It's a big saddle - 170mm wide at the back, and 280mm long. It's heavy too - Brooks lists it at 528 grams. The B.17 makes a modern racing saddle like a Flite look positively minute. And with the black leather and studs, it wouldn't look out of place bolted on a Harley.

There are fancier, narrower, and lighter versions of the B.17 (even one with titanium rails), but none of those editions seem to capture the rough-and-ready spirit of the long-lived and Puritan-plain original. It's not unusual for a B.17 to last 20 or 30 years with proper care, making the saddle an excellent investment. It is one sturdy piece of gear.

For the unitiated

Taking the saddle in hand and striding over to the test vehicle, a Bianchi touring bike that I use for my daily commute to work, I quickly learned that one does not just slap a Brooks onto their bicycle and then go pedaling off into the distance, derričre softly caressed by fine British leather. No, no, no. There are certain rituals that must be performed first before one is fully initiated into the Brooks cult.

The primary ritual consists of applying a leather preparation, Brooks Proofide, to the top and bottom surfaces of the saddle. Applied like shoe polish, this step protects the leather from moisture and helps with the breaking-in process. After break-in, Brooks recommends a repeat treatment every three to six months.

Then there is the process of getting the thing adjusted. You will need a seat post with a fair amount of setback in order to get the B.17 into a comfortable position. This is because the seat rails on the saddle are fairly short, and the Brooks doesn't have the range of fore-and-aft adjustability possessed by most modern saddles.

Let's get going!

Saddle conditioned, mounted and adjusted, I donned my riding gear and gingerly lowered myself onto the B.17. I pushed off, pedaled a bit, and was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of... comfort. Good Lord, this thing is nice. Right out of the box. Where was all of the pain? Where was the horrible break-in period? Why was I smiling?

The short answer to all of those questions is that the B.17 is well suited for the larger rider. And at a dashingly handsome 6' and 190 lbs., I am a larger rider. One can surmise that the combination of considerable weight, an ample backside, and gravity may have served to dramatically short-circuit the traditional break in period normally required for a leather saddle. In other words, I came, I sat, and I conquered.

The unexpectedly short break-in period allowed me to quickly discover some of the finer subtleties of the Brooks. Like the fact that the relatively flat shape and broad rear dimension of the saddle is a perfect match for my, um, broad rear dimension. The B.17 is shaped in a way that supports a rider's ischial tuberosities - the sit bones - almost perfectly. Of course, saddle fit will vary from individual to individual, but the basic shape of the B.17 and its long-lived career suggests that it fits a broad range of bums.

I was also surprised at the way that the natural leather breathes better than the synthetic covering on my other more modern saddles. This is a saddle that one can sit on all day without numbness or major discomfort.

The verdict

Several treatments with Proofide and lots of miles later, the leather on my B.17 became softer and gradually conformed itself to match the more delicate portions of my anatomy, personalizing the fit and becoming even more comfortable. After six months, my B.17 now carries me over the road perched atop cycling's equivalent of a comfy leather couch. A comfy Edwardian-era antique leather couch. It's a very civilized way to cycle.

At this stage the Gentle Reader will be excused for thinking that, yes, a Brooks is probably a fine choice for the more pulchritudinous cyclist, but that it may not be an appropriate selection for the more diminutive rider. And the Gentle Reader may have a point here. I would not expect a smaller rider to have as easy a time as I had breaking in a Brooks. However, given my experience with my B.17 (and a Brooks Team Professional that I also recently purchased), I now greatly suspect that the horror stories surrounding the break in period for a good quality leather saddle are greatly exaggerated. It may take longer for a B.17 to yield to a smaller cyclist but, if my experience is any guide, the effort is certainly worth it.

Is the B.17 the perfect saddle? Of course not. Based upon its size and weight alone, the Brooks B.17 will not be anybody's first choice when putting the finishing touches on a lightweight racing bicycle. As much as I dearly love the thing, the B.17 has not replaced the Flite on my modern titanium and carbon wonder-bike: it is just too heavy and retro looking. Looks and current fashion do count for something, after all. But for just about any other application where all-day comfort is to be valued more than shaving grams, a Brooks B.17 makes wonderful sense.

Recommended retail price: US$90.00
Pro: Supremely comfortable. Well made, will last forever. The perfect saddle for the Clydesdales among us.
Con: Too big, too heavy, too retro for some.
More information: Brooks England website
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