As a second-generation-bike-industry dork, I’ve been surrounded by bikes and components my entire life. My childhood basement was fully outfitted with tools and enough new old-stock Campy Record parts to make any collector’s mouth water. Also in that basement was my dad’s 1974 Schwinn Paramount, complete with cloth bar wrap, chrome toe clips with leather straps, and the funniest looking saddle I’d ever seen. “That’s a Brooks,” my dad would say. “Best saddle money can buy. Most comfortable too, after you break it in.”
I’ve heard some version of that line from countless people since then, and have always thought the same thing: I don’t care, I’m still not running one. Why? Because they look like a horse saddle and I’m not a big fan of equestrians. Every time I see a classic Brooks leather saddle, I think of people who ride horses for fun and say stuff like, “Lucky loves it when I ride him, we have a special connection.” Now, there’s no hard science either way here, but my horse sense tells me no, no he doesn’t. Lucky probably wishes he was a goddamn wild stallion running through the plains toward a golden sunset, but instead you locked him in a cage, cut his balls off, and on weekends when you come visit “your friend,” you put a bunch of heavy equipment on his back, throw a metal bit in his mouth, yank on his head with straps, and kick him with sharp-heeled boots. If only everyone could be so lucky to have friends like that.
Also, Brooks saddles are synonymous with hipster-retro grouches, another enjoyable user group. Grouch I’ve got covered, but when did it become cool to ride a bunch of old stuff that was never all that good to begin with? Brazed frames, canti brakes, downtube shifters, and toe clips--people still make “high-end” versions of these things. What on earth for? I’m not quite sure how the Brooks saddle got wrapped up in this world, since it’s something that actually does work. I guess because they’ve been making them the same way since the 1800s.
So, long story long, despite Brooks’ century-long reputation for making the world’s most-comfortable and longest-lasting saddles, I’ve always been too much of a judgmental ass to put my ass on one.
Until I saw the Cambium C13. The thing is absolutely gorgeous. If it weren’t so damn comfortable, I’d say it belongs in an art gallery. I mean, it’s the polar opposite of Brooks, but those telltale rivets make it 100-percent, unmistakably Brooks. Leather Brooks saddles look like they’re made by a cobbler in a castle somewhere, while the Cambium C13 looks like it was developed by NASA.
The Cambium functions on the same principle as all Brooks saddles: Stretch something flexible across two points, and let the material act like a hammock to suspend and cushion you tuchus. That’s what’s been making Brooks saddles so comfy all these years--after they break in, that is. And because you’re not sitting on a hard material like plastic or carbon, there’s no need for foam padding. The Brooks Cambium saddles function the same way, but they use organic cotton-topped vulcanized rubber instead of leather. Again, there’s nothing under the rubber, so the seat can flex freely between the rivets. And since it’s rubber instead of leather, there’s absolutely zero break-in time. The Cambium is supple and comfy the first time your cheeks hit it.
With its sleek, futuristic-looking carbon chassis (I say chassis instead of rails because it’s one part that makes up the rails as well as the rounded back and tip that the top is riveted to), the C13 is the lightest, priciest Cambium in the lineup. At $220, the C13 isn’t cheap, but it’s actually priced aggressively when compared to other carbon-rail saddles. However, like all Brooks saddles, the term “lightweight” is relative. At 280 grams, the Cambium C13 is nearly twice the weight of a WTB Volt Carbon, which for comparison’s sake, goes for $250. Despite the C13’s otherwise feathery aluminum rivets and carbon chassis, vulcanized rubber ain’t light. As any true Brooks fan will tell you though, you don’t get a Brooks saddle to save weight--you get it to save other stuff. Speaking of which, the Brooks also makes the “Carved” version of the Cambium with a cut-out for folks who need a bit of extra pressure relief. It’s also available in three widths, both in the carved and regular tops: 132, 145 and 158 millimeters.
The one I got is 145 millimeters wide, and fits me like a glove. My normal go-to seat is the one I mentioned earlier, the WTB Volt. I usually go for the 142-millimeter-wide Team version because the Carbon is only offered in the narrowest width and I need more cush for my tush. Weirdly, the Brooks Cambium C13 145 I have actually measures 142 millimeters at its widest point, and the WTB Volt Team 142 I have measures 144 millimeters. My butt isn’t a finely tuned caliper, though, so there’s no chance it’s about to feel a 2 millimeter difference in width. On the other hand, what it can feel is the supple, forgiving Brooks, compared to the significantly harder feel of the WTB. And the Volt isn’t a minimalistic race saddle--it falls under the company’s “medium padding” section. It might seem strange that a seat with no padding is more comfortable than one with a significant amount of foam, but to me the Brooks just is. Push on the center of each saddle with your hand and you’ll notice the Brooks is more forgiving--that 6-millimeter thick vulcanized rubber top flexes more freely than the 20-ish millimeters of foam. The foam on the Volt is pushing against a rigid, plastic bottom whereas the rubber on the Cambium is free to stretch, flex and conform. It’s that hammock effect I mentioned earlier.
But maybe ‘hammock’ isn’t the best descriptor. Hammocks are super saggy--they’re supposed to be--but bike seats aren’t--so one might wonder if the Cambium is too flexible, too supple. The answer is no. I’ve ridden saddles that flex so much in the center that they actually increase pressure and cause numbness, sort of like how setting up a hammock too loose causes it to sag so much it hurts your back. Imagine a hammock made of rubber 6 millimeters thick and stretched tightly between two trees. It’ll flex and conform around you a bit. It’ll cradle you, but it won’t bend your back. The Cambium is supportive without being all squishy. I can’t even really feel it flexing, so much as I know it has to be, or else it’d be uncomfortable. It’s like the Tempur-Pedic mattress of saddles. It feels sort of dense and hard, but then you sink into it and it cradles you. But there’s no foam, so it’s nothing like a Tempur-Pedic. Screw it, I’m done with comparisons. It’s a great saddle that’s comfortable, durable, unique and worth every penny. Truth is, the Brooks Cambium doesn’t feel like any other saddle I’ve ridden--because I can’t feel it.
For me, a great saddle is one that lets me forget about it. That’s what the Cambium does. I’ll spend hours in the saddle and never once feel like I need to shift my weight or stand up to relieve pressure somewhere. I don’t notice it until I get off my bike and look at how gorgeous it is. After 6 months, it’s stayed that way. I don’t think I’ve had any big crashes since putting it on, but I’ve ridden in the wettest, muddiest conditions imaginable, and I’m not careful about laying my bike down or flipping it over to change flats. It still looks fantastic.
So I guess I’m a Brooks fan now. Anyone got a set of thumb shifters? I’ve got a box of new old-stock Campy parts in their original packaging that a guy like me has no business having. Let’s work out a trade.