In Memoriam: Leather and Brass

The classic, steel-railed Selle San Marco Rolls saddle, in gleaming black leather.

Composites, microfibers, synthetics. They amaze in their qualities; light, strong, durable – unyieldingly stiff or unimaginably suple, depending on our whim. When modern components arrive on my doorstep, upon lifting the unremarkable cardboard box I often wonder whether there is anything at all inside or if perhaps the person on the other end of the postal system had allowed their mind to wander beyond the task at hand and neglected to place the product in the box before sealing it and handing it off to a worker whose uniform invokes the wrath of dogs the world over.

This was not the case when my vintage 80’s-era Selle San Marco Rolls was delivered from deep within the bowels of eBay. The box had a heft to it that hinted at something substantial within its confines. Freed from its cardboard prison, the saddle lay heavy in my hand, its heft signaling an inherent quality about it that only heavy products seem to convey. But the saddle showed its age; the leather was dry and worn, the brass trim and emblems tarnished black.

This saddle isn’t made of synthetics, it was no lost cause. This saddle is made of organic materials that require care and maintenance in order to maintain their beauty. And, when let fall into disrepair, they can often be restored to their original glory. Out came my polishes and waxes, and within a few minutes the leather covering the saddle which had only moments before been worn and gray was now gleaming with a deep, black finish. The brass, touched up with polish and the tarnish wiped instantly from its surface. Within a quarter hour, the saddle was once again a beacon of a bygone era.

These old leather saddles took a few hundred kilometers to ride in; not as long as their all-leather predecessors, but much longer than our carbon-shell, microfiber modern saddles. With time, the rubbing of chamois-clad tooshie polished the leather into a gleaming beauty which whispered of the long journey over which it had carried its rider as they forged their path together along La Vie Velominatus.

Heavy and big as they were, these saddles had character; one would somehow be more comfortable than another which was supposed to be identical. Each would develop its own unique finish as the characteristics of the leather cover and the shape of it’s rider’s backside would reveal its unique beauty over time. The saddles owned by the Pros in the 80’s and 90’s became impossibly shiny; I remember being enraptured by the sight of the gleaming saddle swaying back and forth as Gert-Jan Theunisse moved en danseuse up the Galibier in the 1989 Tour enroute to a solo win atop l’Alpe d’Huez.

If today’s saddles are marvels of lightweight and comfort, these old saddles were a looking glass into the history that rider and machine had forged together.

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104 Replies to “In Memoriam: Leather and Brass”

  1. So many packages currently arriving Chez Deakus please don’t tempt towards ebay….this could end in disaster.  Evokes a bygone era, lovely article!

  2. The Rolls saddle, true piece of cycling history.  Nearly every classic photo I see from the late 70’s through the early ’90’s has one in it.  Love mine on my older steel Merckx.  Perfection in a saddle.

  3. How does one properly care for/polish a leather saddle?  I have one on my ’84 Club Fuji that has lost some color around the apron.  I’m hesitant to use any coloured paste wax/shoe cream for fear that it would rub off on my pants (the Fuji is my around town bike and I don’t ride it in black lycra).  I’ve previously treated it with Sno-seal for moisture protection, but that doesn’t do anything for the colour.

  4. @VeloVita

    How does one properly care for/polish a leather saddle? I have one on my ’84 Club Fuji that has lost some color around the apron. I’m hesitant to use any coloured paste wax/shoe cream for fear that it would rub off on my pants (the Fuji is my around town bike and I don’t ride it in black lycra). I’ve previously treated it with Sno-seal for moisture protection, but that doesn’t do anything for the colour.

    I would suggest using something like RM Williams saddle dressing.  This would restore moisturise and nourish the leather.  It is expensive but tin lasts ages.  You would probably find much more cost effective treatments elsewhere but your best bet would be to look up horse saddlery sites or shops, those guys polish leather day in day out to bright new shine and then wear cream jodpurs on it so they probably know more than anyone about it..

    http://www.rmwilliams.com.au/home.asp?pageid=30A4383191C26B9B&departmentproducttypegroupid=FE5F8BFED1A30D1B&productid=72AAD6CBC0E0CEA7&producttypeid=FF50AE8E76E3EBF9

  5. I have a yellow Selle San Marco Rolls acquired when they were the business sometime around 1990 – on the floor of the Man Cave now having been used up until the Fizik took over last spring. They last a long time – there’s still a few years left in it.

  6. Very nice, Frank! That bike is looking classier and classier all the time! I asked the other week, but what tyres? Are those Veloflex Masters?

    I have a sky blue & white checkboard Rolls. I’ve been told it came on Colnagos at a certain point? (Or one model of them?) I bet someone has more info. It is comfortable as but the leather has worn so that it almost just looks white. Oh well. This article has inspired me to retrieve it from my off-site storage facility (my parents house) and get it on one of my bikes. Heck, might just have to go on the #1 and put all that plastic and carbon in its place.

    I’m a big fan of older saddles. Older Flites on my Look, De Bernardi, and Casati, a Regal on my Tommasini, and the Rolls is on an around town bike.

  7. @VeloVita

    How does one properly care for/polish a leather saddle? I have one on my ’84 Club Fuji that has lost some color around the apron. I’m hesitant to use any coloured paste wax/shoe cream for fear that it would rub off on my pants (the Fuji is my around town bike and I don’t ride it in black lycra). I’ve previously treated it with Sno-seal for moisture protection, but that doesn’t do anything for the colour.

    I found a new unused tub (75ml) of Dr. Martens Wonder Balsam: A special blend of natural waxes to restore, protect and condition all types of greasy and waxy leather. Suitable for all colours. Only a small amount is needed. I use it on Lorica and Microtex saddles.

  8. Ahh, lovely, I used to ride a Rolls when I was a young man. I recently went back to a Regal from a carbon and titanium wonder as I just wanted that classic shape again and some padding.

    When did all the padding move out of the saddles and into the shorts?

  9. @unversio They aren’t fastback, they just don’t have massive caps on – fastback are fixed to the back of the tube, not the sides as these are.

  10. What’s with all the ‘in memoriam’ nostalgia – leather saddles aren’t out of business, like hairnets.

    Brooks and San Marco are still going strong and I have Brooks on all my bikes, even the Ridley.

    They’re the most comfortable saddles you can get, and with the Ti versions coming in around 270g they aren’t that much heavier than a Fizik or Selle.

    I have used a Rolls but I find them much less comfortable than Brooks. The Rolls is leather over a plastic shell so it wears but it doesn’t mould the way the Brooks saddles do.

    This was from the early days of my Swift in Honey leather. It darkened a lot because of the sweat here in Abu Dhabi. Copper rivets, titanium rails.

    As for care, yes any saddle (horse) polish like Dubbin will be fine. Brooks sell their own brand saddle cream but it’s much the same stuff I think, from the smell.

    @Alex There is more padding in modern saddles than there is/was in the leather ones. They aren’t padded at all – the leather is the padding.

  11. They were beautiful looking saddles and I do recall having one for a couple of years in the early 90’s. I also recall it being uncomfortable for the first few months, wondering why everyone spoke lovingly of theirs? It slowly softened, getting better over the ensuing months until my arse and the saddle had become one. Unfortunately I probably didn’t take as much care of it as one should. The leather became dry and brittle and it went the way of my downshifters, replaced by the newer. lighter and shinier versions.

  12. @Oli

    @unversio They aren’t fastback, they just don’t have massive caps on – fastback are fixed to the back of the tube, not the sides as these are.

    I see. These fastback seat stays are cool. Here are examples.

  13. @unversio

    @Oli

    @unversio They aren’t fastback, they just don’t have massive caps on – fastback are fixed to the back of the tube, not the sides as these are.

    I see. These fastback seat stays are cool. Here are examples.

    Lovely lovely lug work!

  14. ChrisO – Something about taking a modern as bicycle and tossing on something old because you love it and it works pleases me. Not sure exactly why, but I find it to be awesome. Can you please share a full photo of your Ridley with a cool leather saddle?

    Also, since we’re discussin’ such things, here’s a view of my Casati. They did something neat and hid the pillar clamp in the ST. Not sure if this style/shape/form has a specific name or not, but I bet someone knows!

  15. @RonYou say the sweetest things…

    Here it is not long after I got it.

    I have apparently become synonymous with the saddle. I met some guys from Dubai for the first time at a race a few weeks ago and they were like “Oh you’re the guy with the Ridley and and the old brown saddle, yeah we know you.”

    They weren’t backing away slowly at the same time so I assume it was OK.

    In retrospect the honey saddle wasn’t the best choice for Abu Dhabi. First because it very quickly became a brown saddle not honey, and second I think that colour stretches a bit more – black would have been better. In fact I now have a black saddle on (also a Ti Swift) and the Honey will go on my Roberts in London.

  16. @ChrisO

    @RonYou say the sweetest things…

    Here it is not long after I got it.

    I have apparently become synonymous with the saddle. I met some guys from Dubai for the first time at a race a few weeks ago and they were like “Oh you’re the guy with the Ridley and and the old brown saddle, yeah we know you.”

    They weren’t backing away slowly at the same time so I assume it was OK.

    In retrospect the honey saddle wasn’t the best choice for Abu Dhabi. First because it very quickly became a brown saddle not honey, and second I think that colour stretches a bit more – black would have been better. In fact I now have a black saddle on (also a Ti Swift) and the Honey will go on my Roberts in London.

    You’ve all got me interested now so I am looking at a Brooks Swallow (seems more akin to a modern shape)…you tried these or are all yours Swifts?

  17. @ChrisO That makes me smile, I know it’s more for it’s fit and confort than looks, but in amongst everybody trying to look pro, that’s pretty cool. Bit like Jenson Button lining up on the grid in goggles and a leather helmet. Chapeau.

  18. @Deakus

    You won’t regret it.

    Swallow is the only one I haven’t tried (I’m more of a reach around guy). I think the Swift is very similar though, but it has the chamfered* edges and the Swift is a little narrower and shorter, but slightly deeper. Very similar to ride on I suspect.

    I have two Ti Swifts – one on the Ridley and one on the Roberts –  a Team Pro on my Colnago Master and a B17 on the fixie.

    Basically if you’ve got a Brooks arse then any of them will be fine.

    My personal experience has been that all this talk about riding for months to break them in is bollocks. If you’ve ridden 200km and it is giving you grief then it will never work, pretty much like any saddle. But if it does work then it will be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever ridden and all other saddles will be like riding on a sack of golf balls.

    *Regular Bike Snob readers may be familiar with Eric ‘The Chamferer’ Murray, a Brooks employee who has become something of a running gag.

  19. @Buck Rogers

    The Rolls saddle, true piece of cycling history. Nearly every classic photo I see from the late 70″²s through the early ’90″²s has one in it. Love mine on my older steel Merckx. Perfection in a saddle.

    I don’t think they were being made in the 70, were they? The Rolls came out in the 80’s, in response to the Selle Italia Turbo (which is another lovely bit of history in itself!)

    Please post a pic of your Merckx STAT.

  20. @Ron

    Very nice, Frank! That bike is looking classier and classier all the time! I asked the other week, but what tyres? Are those Veloflex Masters?

    No, they are Gommitalia Calypso’s, as in ‘We’re bringin’ the storm, beyotch!”

  21. @Nate

    @Ron

    I have a sky blue & white checkboard Rolls.

    You must post a photo of that.

    Seconded.

    @VeloVita

    How does one properly care for/polish a leather saddle? I have one on my ’84 Club Fuji that has lost some color around the apron. I’m hesitant to use any coloured paste wax/shoe cream for fear that it would rub off on my pants (the Fuji is my around town bike and I don’t ride it in black lycra). I’ve previously treated it with Sno-seal for moisture protection, but that doesn’t do anything for the colour.

    Some nice compounds have been mentioned here but I’m not sure any wax etc without pigment will restore your faded leather. I used black saddle polish and rubbed it with a white towel like I was shining a shoe until the towel stayed white, then I put wax over the top of it to seal it in. I’ll let you know after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs if it rubs off.

  22. @Alex

    Ahh, lovely, I used to ride a Rolls when I was a young man. I recently went back to a Regal from a carbon and titanium wonder as I just wanted that classic shape again and some padding.

    When did all the padding move out of the saddles and into the shorts?

    This is an excellent question. Especially since the padding in the shorts only lasts about a season.

    @ChrisO

    What’s with all the ‘in memoriam’ nostalgia – leather saddles aren’t out of business, like hairnets.

    Show me one top-end race bike that comes stocked with one. Any nutter can put a Brooks on their Ridley but that doesn’t make it common practice.

    In Memoriam is to the bygone era when these were commonplace. 

    SSM also has a reissue of this saddle with titanium rails (same for Regal) but its not the same once you modernize it. It also seems the leather is different, but maybe they’re just not old enough yet.

  23. @Oli

    Damn Frank, your TSX sure is looking superfly, I have to say.

    Merci, mon ami. She’s been slowly getting restored to something resembling a classic setup, so long as you don’t look too carefully as the bits are from all over time. Including the 10 speed cluster operated by a 6-speed friction shifter!

  24. @Ron

    ChrisO – Something about taking a modern as bicycle and tossing on something old because you love it and it works pleases me. Not sure exactly why, but I find it to be awesome. Can you please share a full photo of your Ridley with a cool leather saddle?

    Also, since we’re discussin’ such things, here’s a view of my Casati. They did something neat and hid the pillar clamp in the ST. Not sure if this style/shape/form has a specific name or not, but I bet someone knows!

    That Regal is fantastic; I rode one for years and years. I had saved up for ages and then crashed it the very first day I rode it. Ah, memories.

    I actually found photos of it in a photo album at my parents.

  25. @frank

    @Alex

    Ahh, lovely, I used to ride a Rolls when I was a young man. I recently went back to a Regal from a carbon and titanium wonder as I just wanted that classic shape again and some padding.

    When did all the padding move out of the saddles and into the shorts?

    This is an excellent question. Especially since the padding in the shorts only lasts about a season.

    @ChrisO

    What’s with all the ‘in memoriam’ nostalgia – leather saddles aren’t out of business, like hairnets.

    Show me one top-end race bike that comes stocked with one. Any nutter can put a Brooks on their Ridley but that doesn’t make it common practice.

    In Memoriam is to the bygone era when these were commonplace.

    SSM also has a reissue of this saddle with titanium rails (same for Regal) but its not the same once you modernize it. It also seems the leather is different, but maybe they’re just not old enough yet.

    If you ever rode wool shorts with real chamois, you’ll know why saddles had a bit more padding. Basically, they had no padding. Keeping the chamois supple was a major pain in the ass. Literally. Modern “chamois” inserts are so much better and hence require less saddle padding.

  26. @frank

    @Buck Rogers

    The Rolls saddle, true piece of cycling history. Nearly every classic photo I see from the late 70″²s through the early ’90″²s has one in it. Love mine on my older steel Merckx. Perfection in a saddle.

    I don’t think they were being made in the 70, were they? The Rolls came out in the 80″²s, in response to the Selle Italia Turbo (which is another lovely bit of history in itself!)

    Please post a pic of your Merckx STAT.

    Fuck, you’re right.  A quick search of their website says that the first Rolls saddles were relaesed in 1983.  The Concor came out in 1978.

  27. I’d love to put an old brown brooks saddle and brown sew-up leather handlebar ‘tape’ on my dad’s old Schwinn, as it’s red and I think it would look sujper sweet. Alas, that is a project far, far down the pipe.

  28. @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    The all-white v-bibs are reserved for Franks’s 200km rain rides only. He happily allows wheelsuckers on those rides.

  29. @mcsqueak

    @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    The all-white v-bibs are reserved for Franks’s 200km rain rides only. He happily allows wheelsuckers on those rides.

    Does he prefer them to introduce themselves, lurk quietly in his wake or reach-around?

  30. @Oli

    The next step, by the way, is rebuilding those wheels to the old Mavic tub rims Gianni gave me, and slapping some nice FMB’s on there.

    All this would be even cooler if I rode that bike more. Hopefully all this radness will help make that happen.

  31. @frank

    @Alex

    Ahh, lovely, I used to ride a Rolls when I was a young man. I recently went back to a Regal from a carbon and titanium wonder as I just wanted that classic shape again and some padding.

    When did all the padding move out of the saddles and into the shorts?

    This is an excellent question. Especially since the padding in the shorts only lasts about a season.

    @ChrisO

    What’s with all the ‘in memoriam’ nostalgia – leather saddles aren’t out of business, like hairnets.

    Show me one top-end race bike that comes stocked with one. Any nutter can put a Brooks on their Ridley but that doesn’t make it common practice.

    In Memoriam is to the bygone era when these were commonplace.

    SSM also has a reissue of this saddle with titanium rails (same for Regal) but its not the same once you modernize it. It also seems the leather is different, but maybe they’re just not old enough yet.

    I am not sure I agree here for a couple of reasons.  The current trend is for the weight weenies to rule everthing, as an old friend said to me the other day…Deakus the cheapest kilo you can loose sits around your midrift my friend.  The current obsession with weight in pro cycling is probably lessening.  Modern bikes can now be produced way below the UCI weight limit and as such weight of componentry is becoming less of an issue..in fact they are actively adding back on kit that is heavier i.e. Electronic groupsets where they perceive the benefit is worth it and they can just have a lighter frame and heavier kit to make the limit.  Who knows the days of Brooks saddles on race bikes could be returning….after all The Prophet and Fausto Coppi used to ride Brooks and apparently at the end of each season the bike would be replaced and the saddle moved to the next bike.  Like shoes, it could be that comfort starts to rule all when weight is not longer and issue, titanium frames also help narrow the gap.  The age where riders carry their saddles in their hand luggage along with their shoes could be returning….here’s hoping!

  32. @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    Indeed. Just checking to make sure you are paying attention!

    @mcsqueak

    @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    The all-white v-bibs are reserved for Franks’s 200km rain rides only. He happily allows wheelsuckers on those rides.

    +1

  33. @Chris

    @mcsqueak

    @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    The all-white v-bibs are reserved for Franks’s 200km rain rides only. He happily allows wheelsuckers on those rides.

    Does he prefer them to introduce themselves, lurk quietly in his wake or reach-around?

    He prefers they grab his seatpost to introduce themselves.

  34. Deakus,

    I have a Brooks Swallow on my tandem (yes, I know, I know, but depending on the stoker’s mood, climbing on that thing can be a whole new kind of HTFU), and I love the saddle.  It has a remarkably similar feel to the Sella Flite on my single.

    If you are like me, you may find that you have to tolerate a slight rule violation as it seems that the nose must be tilted up above level a bit more than other modern saddles to get the same feel.

  35. Chrome lugs on Italian paint!

    What I love about the road bike is that the sport and industry are always looking forward in design, weight, nd materials, yet – the past is never forgotten. In fact it is revered for its beauty. I follow Colnago’s FB feed just for the user/Friend pictures, both of new and vintage bikes. I love rebuilding a set of wheels or working on vintage bikes for my clients as much as working on the latest $10k speed demon.

    Great article Frank

  36. @frank

    Some nice compounds have been mentioned here but I’m not sure any wax etc without pigment will restore your faded leather. I used black saddle polish and rubbed it with a white towel like I was shining a shoe until the towel stayed white, then I put wax over the top of it to seal it in. I’ll let you know after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs if it rubs off.

    The only acceptable finish for a Brooks saddle is a properly bulled shine applied every evening prior to lights out – Brasso the rivets daily too.

  37. @Ron

    ChrisO – Something about taking a modern as bicycle and tossing on something old because you love it and it works pleases me. Not sure exactly why, but I find it to be awesome. Can you please share a full photo of your Ridley with a cool leather saddle?

    Also, since we’re discussin’ such things, here’s a view of my Casati. They did something neat and hid the pillar clamp in the ST. Not sure if this style/shape/form has a specific name or not, but I bet someone knows!

    Beautiful – do you have a photo of the entire bike?  I’d love to see it.  My next n+1 is certain to have a polished stem and seatpost.

  38. @mcsqueak

    @Chris

    @mcsqueak

    @Chris

    @frank

    …after I ride it in the new all-white V-Bibs…

    Surely you jest as this would surely be a Rule #14 violation of the highest order.

    The all-white v-bibs are reserved for Franks’s 200km rain rides only. He happily allows wheelsuckers on those rides.

    Does he prefer them to introduce themselves, lurk quietly in his wake or reach-around?

    He prefers they grab his seatpost to introduce themselves.

    or his perineum… i mean cranium…
    #SeattleSummerCogal

  39. Regals and Rolls – can’t beat them!  I did have a Cinelli Volare SLX on my Benotto that was pretty damn fine as well.

    Here’s one of my Regal’s on Pla d’Aet

  40. @Deakus I don’t think Merckx ever rode a Brooks as a pro. Pretty sure he used Cinelli Unicanitors from early days – at least I’ve never seen a picture of him on a bike with a Brooks saddle anyway…

  41. @Deakus I don’t think you need to be apologetic for wanting to be comfortable. The Masturbation Prinicple applies, break a rule or whatever, I know running a Selle-Anatomica, made in US which cost a bomb to get to me, that I would not be so comfortable riding 60km after 130km the previous day. My riding buddy was complaining and shifting around on his fizik. The saddle is not very good looking, and weighs a lot compared, but it is the most important upgrade I have added to my bike I think.

  42. @frank Nice bar ends, hadn’t see the black version before.  Any news on when they may be available to the followers?

  43. @Beers

    @Deakus I don’t think you need to be apologetic for wanting to be comfortable. The Masturbation Prinicple applies, break a rule or whatever, I know running a Selle-Anatomica, made in US which cost a bomb to get to me, that I would not be so comfortable riding 60km after 130km the previous day. My riding buddy was complaining and shifting around on his fi’zi:k. The saddle is not very good looking, and weighs a lot compared, but it is the most important upgrade I have added to my bike I think.

    “Before you know it, your saddle will begin showing little depressions where your “sit bones” strike it. This friends is the true definition of “breaking in” a saddle, and when it occurs your backside will feel as if it is being treated to a day at the spa. It is for this reason, as well as leather’s ability to breathe that you’ll see pictures of the great Eddy Merckx using a Brooks saddle long after nearly everyone else had switched to the lighter Unicanitor. Eventually however, you’ll notice that Mr. Brooks feels a little tired. Where once there was a spring now old faithful will look a little droopy, a touch swaybacked. This does not happen overnight. It might take a few years of diligent cycling, but someday the inevitable will occur and you will be forced to turn that nut at the nose of your saddle, thus tensioning the entire apparatus. As with everything else, do this sparingly and don’t rush it. Some of you will not be able to resist turning that nut practically from day one. After all, it’s there isn’t it? Your care kit comes with a wrench, for Pete’s sake, just begging you to start spinning things, right? You know who you are. Don’t rush it.”

    Source: http://reviews.ebay.com/The-Care-And-Feeding-Of-Leather-Bicycle-Saddles?ugid=10000000000884272

    but there are also numerous references to it on the Brooks websites and elsewhere?

  44. @Jamie

    I have a Brooks Swallow on my tandem and I love the saddle makes me feel even more castrated than the tandem already does. It has a remarkably similar feel to the Sella Flite on my actual bike.

    Fixed your post.

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