Brooks B17 Imperial – On Test
John Boultbee Brooks was the son of a British saddle maker. Saddles for horses, that is. In 1865 he bought a velocipede (the first incarnation of the bicycle) and promptly decided that its wooden saddle was just too damn hard. By 1866, John had established himself as a maker of bicycle saddles, and the rest is history.
The Brooks company has changed ownership a handful of times over the years, but the factory in Smethwick (near the English industrial city of Birmingham) has continued to create the very same classic saddles for more than 100 years. They manufacture nearly every piece of each saddle in-house, and many of the tasks—including the riveting and trimming of the leather—are carried out painstakingly by hand.
While the cycling industry has abandoned the old-fashioned “stretched-leather and steel wire” saddle design in favor of Kevlar, foam, titanium and carbon fiber, many stalwart Brooks riders continue to tout the benefits of saddles like the Swift, the Swallow and the venerable B17. They’ll tell you no other saddle is as comfortable, lasts longer or looks as good. I’m at least inclined to agree with the last point.
Interestingly, while conventional saddle marketing seems to be saying that pressure-relieving cutouts and gel inserts are the latest and greatest, the Brooks catalog offered saddles with “registered cutting, a sure preventive to all perineal pressure” way back in 1890. The current B17 Imperial is nearly identical to its ancestors, save for a slightly updated cutaway shape.
Perhaps the thing that frightens off most would-be Brooks customers is not the $145 price tag, but the required break-in period. As my friend Ted says, “You gotta earn that saddle,” and no amount of saddle soap can eliminate the inevitable discomfort that comes with breaking in a Brooks saddle. The B17 Imperial does make a few concessions towards a faster break-in period. First, the cutout allows the saddle to flex a little more. It also exerts less pressure on the rider’s soft tissue, which is especially appreciable when breaking in a hard leather saddle. The B17 Imperial also features a lacing system that allows the rider to fine-tune the flex as the saddle does eventually break in.
I have to admit, after several hundred miles, I still don’t feel as though my bony ass has made a dent in the saddle’s hide. I like to think I’ve got a tougher-than-normal butt from eschewing padded cycling shorts for all but the longest rides, but I’ve been finding myself reaching for the Bag Balm after spending any extended time on the Brooks. The B17 Imperial’s not entirely uncomfortable, but it’s certainly not as pleasant to ride as my other saddles. Yet.
My one nit to pick with the B17 Imperial so far is the stamped steel that creates a surface for hanging a saddlebag. Being that I don’t have a saddlebag installed, I’m left with two hard-edged pieces of metal jutting down from the back of my saddle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve grabbed my bike by the saddle, only to wince at the notion that I’ve just cut my fingers open. That said, I’m sure there’s a practical solution in my future…
The B17 Imperial men’s model (on test) measures170mm wide by 280mm long. There’s a narrow version and a women’s version (shorter and wider) available, as well. Stay tuned for a follow-up review once the B17 is broken in. For more info, visit www.brooksengland.com and be sure to check out The Brooks Bugle.