Urban Velo

Brooks B17 Imperial – On Test

Brooks B17 Imperial

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.

Brooks B17 ImperialThe 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.

Brooks B17 ImperialPerhaps 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.

About Urban Jeff

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34 Comments

  1. JeffApril 14, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Kudos for broad product testing, and nice craftsmanship, but F that.

    The 12 people who like them are welcome to call me ignorant and closed-minded in this case, cause this bony ass isn’t touching that thing for a nanosecond.

    In other news, I hear there’s a group of people in Canada who swear their wooden wheels provide the nicest ride.

  2. JoshApril 14, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    12 people!?! Have you ever looked at the Bike Forums Touring or Long Distance forums? You’d think Brooks were the only saddles in existence.

    A regular B17 is on my ever-lengthening list of bike related purchases to make.

  3. Jeff SipperApril 14, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Nice article! I’ve been rocking a Brooks Pro for about 5 years now, and, truthfully, that thing seemed to break in after the first couple hundred miles… I tried to go back to a regular, more modern saddle, but it was not nearly as comfortable as the Brooks!

    I liken it to a pair of good leather shoes. The first few times you wear them they hurt, they might give you blisters (the shoes, not the saddle!), but after they break in, they will be the most comfortable shoes you will own!

  4. MattApril 14, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I’ve used B-17′s for a few years and never had any issues with discomfort.
    I broke in my current road saddle, which I’ve been using for a year and a half, by moistening the leather with warm water and massaging the areas which I know become impressed through use. That technique actually made the saddle as comfortable as anything I had ever ridden without even putting a mile on it. Don’t listen to anyone who recommends soaking in oil, even if they’re Sheldon Brown. Leather needs to absorb moisture and breathe. That’s why Proofhide isn’t waterproof.

  5. locusApril 14, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I’ve also got a nice B-17 on my daily commuter. True, it was challenging to ride it at first. However, I followed the Brooks instructions on how to speed up the break-in process by using Proofide on the topside as well as the underside of the saddle. (BTW, you should only coat the underside at first–subsequent applications only go on top. ) After several weeks, I began to feel it flex. After several more months, I wouldn’t purchase anything else.

    Readers should also note that with the leather saddle, you will not see the same wear and tear on your pants that you’d get with more abrasive synthetic textiles. For those of us who commute in our work clothes, real leather is a definite plus.

    Unfortunately, it also requires you to carry a plastic bag to cover it when you park your bike in the rain.

  6. RaiynApril 14, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Saddle Soap? Umm NO Saddle soap is notoriously alkaline – and alkalinity actually damages leather. With all the great leather care products available at market; (such as Proofhide and Obenauf’s) there is simply no excuse for saddle soap.

  7. andyApril 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    i’ve been on a brooks b-17 for about a year and it is wonderful. it took about 2 monthes to break it in and now i cant even imagine sitting on anything else. for all of you out there who havent or wont make the change, your only hurting yourself.

  8. ChiongApril 14, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Excellent-excellent product these Brooks saddle, my rear end never felt better on a long ride with Brooks swift, swear by it. Only downside the rainy weather and the saddle can be a bit slippery compared to modern saddle.

  9. Joe PeraltaApril 15, 2009 at 5:55 am

    30 years on leather, nothing better, but you can’t shirk maintenance like treating the leather and maintaining proper tension.

    I ride them in all weather, too, and never had an issue, but I never left them out in the rain all day.

    I had an old one fail recently while I was happily bouncing along a woods road. The nose rivets all pulled out. I put a hardwood stick crosswise under the rear, and tied another lengthwise, and it made an adequate perch, but you talk about a hard leather saddle!

  10. Ghost RiderApril 15, 2009 at 9:44 am

    I think they’re beautiful and am so pleased to hear that they’re still handmade as they were in the beginning…but my ass can’t stand them. Perhaps I’m too impatient to wait for the break-in (I don’t have two months of suffering to waste!).

    I also worry about the damage rain can cause — I live in a rainy area and get caught out in it a lot during the summer. My synthetic saddles just shrug it off, but I’d worry about ruining a leather beauty like this Brooks.

  11. terryApril 15, 2009 at 10:18 am

    aesthetics win out over comfort every time…

  12. RaiynApril 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    @ terry
    Spoken like someone who’s never ridden a Brooks.

  13. mikeApril 15, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Who with an identical ass wants to sell me their used one? These look great and seem like once broken in should be amazing.

  14. locusApril 16, 2009 at 9:04 am

    I hope everyone knows that Brooks offers already broken in saddles now.

    Brooks’ “aged line” offers pre-weathered versions of their B17, the Flyer (sprung) and B67 (wider + sprung).

    They’re about the same price, but are less of a pain in the butt to break in.

  15. MatCApril 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I think that the Brooks break-in is myth. I’ll be generous and say that perhaps the saddle was maybe a little stiff the first couple of days. But I’ve ridden thousands of commuter and touring miles on it, and my ass is never, ever sore.

    Maybe it’s because I’m light (140 lbs), or it’s a springer (not much spring, really), or because I know how to ride distances (keep pedaling, you’re lighter in your saddle), but the thing is just perfectly designed.

    Go get one.
    -mat

  16. TomApril 27, 2009 at 8:26 am

    I have been riding Brooks B-17s for the last 38 yrs. They are wonderful after break-in, but it helps to get them wet, like riding in the rain. Break-in can be accomplished in one or two rides.

  17. ascpghApril 28, 2009 at 4:48 am

    Got my first B-17 on a bike I built for riding across the country. Issues kept me from getting it all together until the night before heading to Norfolk, VA to meet my group. From that first 100 mile day it has been the finest choice ever. I’d take it over anything else. Look at what brevet riders and the actual Paris-Brest-Paris riders use. 96 hours on the bike, with a lot of help from Brooks.

  18. tommy moeMay 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I have $50.00 bike and a $125.00 Brooks saddle. It is beautiful to just look at. Oh and I love the ride.

  19. Eric HiltonJune 5, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I’ve been using Brooks saddles for years. They’re by far the best saddles available. As far as breaking in issues go, I’ve had the best results through simply following the directions: use proofide sparingly during the initial breaking in period, and then once every six months or so after the saddle has been broken in.

  20. dentextOctober 27, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    why does a guy who’s putting up a review not know that if you have something w/ a rough edge where you don’t want it, ..if you don’t want a saddle bag, put some reflecting tape or…anything over it.

    weak.

  21. Urban JeffOctober 27, 2009 at 8:46 pmAuthor

    What’s that Canadian TV show where they duct tape everything?

  22. bradOctober 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    The Red Green Show.

  23. Dukke DusseDecember 23, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    C’mon guys – they’re still in business after 120 years !!! Aren’t you just a bit curious, or you assume every single guy who rode it for these last 120 years was a moron paying up to 200 pounds + (of today’s money) for the good looks. I think I’m getting me one ASAP…

  24. bradDecember 23, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    For the sake of argument, Ford Motor Company has been around since 1903 and that doesn’t make their cars any better…

  25. MikeFebruary 23, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    I love em. My first one when I was 16 got wrecked because soaked it in some sort of oil. The next one I broke in on a single 160km ride in the wet. I have a fair few bikes, and most of them have Brooks seats bought dirt cheap off people who gave up on breaking them in!

  26. RobertMarch 6, 2010 at 12:36 am

    My B-17 is fantastic. I rode a Terry Fly four about 5,000 miles and I thought that was an outstanding saddle – then, I bought the B-17. From my experience, the “break-in period” was a non issue. My saddle was SLIGHTLY uncomfortable toward the ends of 20/30 mile rides but after about 250 miles I stopped thinking about the saddle and enjoying the ride; awareness of the seat just vanished it was so comfortable. Now the thing is far more comfortable than the Terry and has far outlasted it.

  27. manderMarch 12, 2010 at 7:20 am

    If the tabs are sharp, file them off a bit.

  28. BenPAugust 6, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I think people need to look at the shape of the saddle more, and find what fits them. Every flat and skinny saddle that came with each of my 4 bikes has been unbearable. They simply do not work for me. The padded, wider WTB with the center channel was a big improvement but left me aching after about 20 miles. I tried a standard B17 and couldn’t imagine going through the break-in period. Just for kicks, we put on the B17 Imperial and it has been the most comfortable thing I’ve ever been on from the very first ride. Looking at the way it is settling in, I think it’s just shaped perfectly for me. If you want to try it out, make sure you go to a good shop that will stand behind it and work with you to find the right one, Brooks or not.

  29. BillOctober 27, 2010 at 10:12 am

    You cut your fingers grabbing the back of the saddle??? Really????

  30. E.R.December 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    I’ve been riding a Brooks B-17 for over a year. I was totally ready to embrace the “leather saddle cult.” I have proofhided, gently massaged with water, etc and — It still is as hard as a rock, has leaked dye on one pair of khakis but looks beautiful and is getting “given away.” Yes, you heard me. I’m so desperate to be rid of this groin/ass torture device that I’m giving it to a friend. Good luck, Brooks saddle. See you in hell. That’s just my experience though.

  31. karlAugust 2, 2011 at 10:50 am

    just bought one of these from Wiggle on sale. the cut out looks pretty big, the saddle is heavy/sturdy and the leather is hard! looking forward to breaking this in. looks beautiful.

  32. SergeyOctober 19, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I’ve run into some pretty comprehensive info on usage and testing of Brooks saddles by (AFAIU) some Dutch biker/bike shop owner. Sounds very comprehensive and encompassing to me. Might be worth checking out for those who are considering such a saddle or have some questions. Here it is: http://swhs.home.xs4all.nl/fiets/tests/zadels/index_en.html

  33. johnp77777December 3, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I’ve had my B17 Imperial for almost 2 years now. Put 3500 miles on this this year alone. It took a few hundred miles to break in and yes, the proofhide helped a lot. Expecially if you put it on thick right after a ride when the pores are open and let it bake in the sun for an hour or so.

    It is the only saddle I actually forget about when the ride goes past 100K. I’ve done 8 metric and 2 imperial (sic) centuries this year and still love this saddle. And, I am a Super Clydesdale-6ft, 235+.

    Note on the steel pack hangers…I found the perfect solution to keep from cutting yourself on them…Install a Serfas TL-ST Seat Stay Rear Bike Light. The straps wrap twice through the loops and hold it in a perfect angle for rearward visibility.

  34. joejewelerJune 23, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    I realize this is an older thread,…but i just bought a new Brooks B17 yesterday,….the “Aged” one that is supposed to be “comfortable from day 1″. LOL

    Maybe so,…if you’ve already got a colloused butt!

    At almost 56 i got my 1987 Schwinn Cimarron (bought new then)out of storage a few weeks ago, and have been doing about 5 miles a day on the original Selle San Marco “Mountain Pro” saddle.

    I was a “little” sore with the original seat, but tonight (after going out 3X for a total of maybe 12 miles), i’m really feeling it “between the cheeks”, if you will! :)

    I tried soaking the bottom of the main seat area once today for about 1/2 hour with a wet washcloth before one of my rides, as i read online it’s a way to speed up the breaking in process. It was, however, still pretty hard!

    Maybe my “Aged” B17 version is a bit harder than most of this model,…..but i knew my butt was going to give out long before i ever got it broken in and truely comfortable.

    …..and then i had an idea,….based in part over what baseball players do to a new glove to break it in! They take a ball and continually wack it into the center of the glove to have it form a pocket that fits the ball shape. Usually they use a saddle soap or some other “softening” agent, but DO NOT DO THAT!

    You want a comfortable saddle, not a floppy one! There is no viagara for leather if you add a softening agent(and it’s not recommended by the maker).

    Anyway, since they don’t make a ball shaped like a butt :) i decided to resort to another means to begin the saddle’s loosening up. Final “fitting” can take the usual route with miles over the saddle, but i HAD to get some give into this human torture machine! lol (oh,…and i have a “Thudbuster LT” suspension seatpost under the saddle also, forgot to mention)

    What i did was take a large canvas coin bag and fold it over TWICE.(a folded toweled would do almost as well probably) This gave a total of 8 layers of canvace to protect the top of the Brooks saddle from friction wear i was about to impart.

    That i did with a leather mallet,…..striking the main seat area maybe 200 times with controlled hammer blows to the main seat area, and a lesser amount up the skinny long section.

    If you do this, try to avoid strking on the rivits if you can help it. They would probably survive OK, but it’s the main seat area you want to begin to break down the fibers a bit anyway, the rivits don’t need that.

    I’m happy to report that the canvas folded cover protected the seat just fine, and even happier to report the seat FINALLY has a noticable give to it when i press into it with my fingers. The seat “looks” the same,…..no sag or noticable difference,….but the leather now gives to moderate finger pressure. NICE!!!

    Sore as i am,…i even got up on it in the house while holding down the front brake and leaning against a wall, and the seat is MUCH more comfortable now.

    I am content to try this seat as is, and allow any final form fitting to be done by my bum!

    If after a week or so i feel it needs another beating,…well, i’ll go a few more rounds with Mr.Hardass! :)

    cheers,
    Joe T

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