Thursday, February 23, 2012

Broken Brooks B17

Update March 15: I've written up some repair-related information in this post.

Last weekend, I did my first long (i.e. over 100km) ride of the year. The weather was alright at 3°C and some sun with clouds and I had a very nice ride out to the L'Île Perrot. Not so nice was the fact that about 85 km into the ride my Brooks B17 Imperial saddle broke: I heard a quick cracking sound and immediately knew that it had to the failure that I had been afraid of for a long time: one of the rails broke, right behind the clamp.

Brooks B17 Imperial: Still in good shape
This problem is widely known, as is the fact that Brooks claims that it's not their fault (and Grant Petersen agrees). Saddles with the tension too low, mounted too far back, or malicious clamping mechanisms supposedly cause the issue, but that seems to be only part of the story. For one, Brooks saddle rails are slightly thinner than standard rails, according to an article in the German bike magazine Fahrradzukunft, resulting in a significant reduction of strength. Due to their hammock principle --  you sit on a piece of leather that is only connected to the frame at the nose and the rear -- presumably a Brooks creates higher stresses on the frame. And it's easy to see how higher stresses plus weaker rails can in some cases lead to breakage. Of course, it is impossible to tell how frequently Brooks rails break. The company itself probably has a good estimate of it, but is not making any figures public. However, on the internet you come across a fairly large number of incident reports. (It's important to keep in mind that Brooks saddles are pretty popular and therefore the number of incidents has to be put into the context of the large number of Brookses produced.)

Just a little asymmetrical...
My saddle had been ridden for approximately 10 000 km and my weight is somewhere around 85 kg. I think it's unacceptable for a saddle to fail after only such a short period of use -- at my current annual mileage I'd have to buy a new saddle for well over 100 dollars every two years! Some people might say, "well, then why don't you just get a nice saddle from a different manufacturer?" Unfortunately, it's not that easy: first, I do need a leather saddle. Despite being vegan and having some weight-weenie tendencies, I can't really give up on leather in this case: I have a slight scoliosis, resulting in me sitting on the bike crookedly. My leather saddles can adapt to that while plastic saddles can't. Second, while Brooks is not the only manufacturer of leather saddles the number of alternatives is limited and they all have their drawbacks, too:
  • Selle An-Atomica: reportedly, the saddles are very comfortable, but the leather stretches very fast. In addition, they carry a hefty price tag of over 200 dollars shipped.
  • Gilles Berthoud offers a range of nice leather saddles and apparently they can be easily repaired at home. Presumably due to their hefty price tag, they are not very common and it's therefore difficult to find reviews. 
  • Velo Orange sells a range of Brooks knock-offs. They're certainly cheap, but who knows long they will last.
So I'm not really sure what to do. I feel very reluctant to spend money on yet another Brooks, especially since breaking rails are not the only problem one can have with a Brooks (my father-in-law, for example, has a B17 that absolutely does not break in).  For now, I have fixed the saddle by using the advice from the Fahrradzukunft article mentioned above: move the saddle forward, so that the broken part is covered by the clamp, and then tighten the clamp bolt to 25 Nm. We'll see how long that is going to last and how long I'll be willing to put up with the less than ideal saddle position.

Repairing the saddle is another option. Since prior to the defect I was very happy with the B17 Imperial and the leather is probably good for at least another 10 000 km, it would be nice to repair the saddle. While Brooks offers all the necessary spare parts, unsprung saddles like the B17 require you to re-rivet the saddle onto the frame. This is pretty tricky and Brooks recommends to have it done by a professional. Which, of course, is pretty expensive. I haven't talked to any of the local Brooks "dealers of excellence" in Montreal yet, but what I've found online is not that promising: at this place, the cost would be over 100 dollars, and I imagine other places will charge a similar amount.
After the temporary repair

So I'm not sure what to do yet, but I'll keep you updated. If you have experience with Brooks saddles breaking or being repaired, please comment.


  1. Hi, Do you know your saddle (every Brooks saddle) has a two-year guarantee? You can just send it back for repair or replacement.

    1. I do know about the guarantee, but from what I've read they usually claim that it's not their fault. Anyway, my saddle was bought in January 2010, so it would be too late. Thanks for the tip anyway.

  2. there is an official repairer in the US based in PHL.
    ask the national distributor Highwaytwo

    1. Thanks. I'm currently in Canada but I suspect that I'll probably have to have the repair done in the US. For the record, this is the website of Highway Two:

  3. Hello! I am Arsenio from the Philippines.I weld for a hobby and from what I have researched welded joints are stronger than the actual metal itself, along with brazed joints. I am no expert, but I do suggest taking it to a local welder or "machine shop" [as we call it here in the Philippines]. Ask for their opinion and assessment(whether the weld is really strong enough to be ridden on).

    I hope this helps!!! And please do update of you do get it repaired :)

    PS. thank you for keeping a cycling blog! :)

  4. What was fix? I'm curious if you tried or considered a weld. Thank you for the helpful tips you linked t above!

    1. I'm afraid I can't offer a good resolution. I tried getting a spare frame a couple of times, but either the dealer/distributor just couldn't or wouldn't get them for me or it would have been too expensive. I still have all the parts of the broken saddle, though, and I'm still resolved to try a fix.