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Selle Italia: playing the long game

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3 May 2018
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This feature was produced in association with Selle Italia

Even in a sport with such a rich heritage as cycling, there aren’t many companies that can trace their roots back as far as 120 years. Italian brand Selle Italia is one of them, and has specialised in producing saddles since 1897.

To give some context to the depth of the company’s history, cycling wasn’t even a sport back then – bicycles were seen merely as a means of transportation for the many that couldn’t afford a new-fangled automobile, and had only been invented in their current guise some 12 years earlier, when John Kemp Starley famously unveiled his Rover Safety Bicycle design.

Selle Italia has been there from the start, and thanks to an unwavering commitment to innovation, research and development, it has kept pace with all the twists and turns that have taken cycling to where it is today. 

Humble roots

Selle Italia started in the village of Corsico making simple seats that allowed people to travel by bike in comfort. It’s fair to say that as a business it was unrecognisable to the saddle powerhouse it is today.

But in terms of core values, little has changed since those first few years in that small workshop just outside Milan. Comfort and ergonomics are still the top priorities – it is just the ways in which those attributes are achieved that is different.

For the first 70 years of Selle Italia’s existence, saddle technology remained fairly constant, but when the business changed hands in the late 1960s it marked a distinct shift in the company’s trajectory.

By this point the car had long replaced the bicycle as the primary means of transport and cycling had evolved into a sport, and an increasingly professional and competitive one at that.

Selle Italia already had a huge knowledge base in the fundaments of saddle design so when the Bigolin family took over the reins in 1967 they used this as a platform to build from, investing heavily in research and development.

The company increasingly moved into creating products that catered for the performance side of cycling through the use of new materials and construction techniques.

‘In 1980 we decided to collaborate with Bernard Hinault, which created a connection that fostered technological innovation, resulting in our classic Turbo design,’ says Selle Italia president Giuseppe Bigolin.

‘It was a watershed moment for us, and since we have always looked to take advantage of technological advances in materials, we decided to use nylon in the Turbo’s construction, which kept the weight right down.’

Alongside the use of more modern materials, Bigolin says Selle Italia’s research and development team also introduced new anatomical concepts, the aim being to improve the competitive cyclist’s comfort, creating support zones for the ischial bones.

This level of understanding was not widespread at the time, and helped cement Selle Italia’s reputation among pros and amateurs alike of being at the forefront of saddle design. As such, it has allowed the company to work with some of the biggest names in the sport over the past 40 years.

‘Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi were fun to work with. Miguel Indurain is a true gentleman and Marco Pantani was a real friend to us,’ Bigolin explains. ‘There is something special about saddle design compared to other areas of the cycling market – getting to know comfort helps you get to know the people you are looking to keep comfortable,’ says Bigolin.

Its intensive focus on R&D meant it was only a matter of time before Selle Italia built on the Turbo’s success to produce another groundbreaking release, and that moment came with the launch of the Flite in 1990.

‘I think the Flite was a real milestone in saddles,’ says Bigolin. ‘On this one we worked to dramatically reduce the wings of the saddle which at the time we considered to be an overly rigid element that compromised flexibility and comfort.

When it came out its appearance was revolutionary, unlike anything seen on the market before, and the feedback we got was so good that the Flite is still part of our range to this day, and many other saddles have clearly been influenced by its design.’

But all the clever anatomic shaping and claimed performance benefits in the mean little if they don’t result in a saddle that works with the rider sitting on it, so with the help of sister company Ergoview, Selle Italia has focused heavily on methods to match riders with the best shape for them.

‘It led to the introduction of the IdMatch measurement system,’ Bigolin explains. ‘From there we have been able to develop a tool called the Smart Calliper, which allows us to scientifically pinpoint the ideal saddle type for each person.

‘For us it is imperative to keep innovating on the basis of research. The market is evolving faster than ever so it is essential to work towards finding new concepts and new ideas that result in continuous improvement.’ 

All for this

It’s a sentiment echoed by Selle Italia’s technical and operations director, Giovanni Elardo.

‘In the last few years the cycling market has become increasingly technical. Today’s consumer pays more attention to a saddle’s construction details, and they want to compare different products and solutions before buying. The emotional pull of the product is not enough on its own,’ he says.

This desire to satisfy both the head and heart was the motivation behind Selle Italia’s latest design, the SP-01.

‘We wanted something that looks striking but also offers a unique benefit to the rider,’ says Elardo. ‘It required a huge amount of innovation, so you could say that the SP-01 is the culmination of all Selle Italia’s expertise and experience to date.’

The process began with a finite element analysis of prototypes, followed by hours of lab and real-world testing. The SP-01’s main feature, and the reason for its unique shape, is a concept that Selle Italia dubs the ‘suspension link movement’, where the pressure relief channel extends right out of the back of the saddle.

According to the Italian brand, separating the left and right sides of the hull at the rear of the saddle allows the two portions to flex independently of one another. The two carbon leaf-like springs created by doing this help to ‘support the movement of your pelvis without compromising pedalling stability’.

‘The saddle flexes in response to the alternating movement of each pedal stroke,’ Elardo tells us, ‘so as the cyclist moves left to right it means they are constantly in contact with the saddle, something that isn’t possible with a regular saddle,’ says Elardo.

‘The SP-01’s design allows for three times more lateral flexibility but preserves longitudinal stiffness. This means more comfort, less vibration, but the same solid platform for the rider to perform at their best.’

There is no doubt the SP-01 is an exciting innovation and offers something genuinely different in a highly refined and competitive saddle market. But then, considering Selle Italia has been leading the way for 120 years now, we really shouldn’t really be surprised.

For more details on Selle Italia's extensive range of saddles, go to selleitalia.com.