22 February 2017

Rubber Matches Leather?

Almost two years ago, I wrote about one of the funniest listings I've ever seen on eBay, or anywhere.  It expresses the seller's loathing for the saddle he or she was trying to sell:  a Brooks Cambium C15.

Now, I am not going to offer an opinion on it, or the C17, as I have never tried either.  I probably won't (unless someone offers me one for free), as I am satisfied with the Brooks saddles I have (Professionals and B17s) and don't want to change.

The idea behind Cambium saddles is, however, intriguing--and not new.  For one thing, Cambiums are certainly not the first saddles to come with canvas tops, though, when they were introduced a couple of years ago, they might have been the first such saddles in half a century or so.

More important, however, is what lies underneath that cloth covering:  a vulcanized rubber base.  That, too, is something that most cyclists who aren't collecting Social Security haven't seen before.  Rubber in a bike seat?  

Turns out, it was once fairly common, or at least not unusual. (Fifty shades of equivocation?)  I was reminded of that when I came across this:

Cyclists of a certain age will recall the name Wolber.  Until the '80's or thereabouts, it was the chief rival of Michelin in the world of bicycle tires.  In fact, to many cyclists, Wolber was even more highly regarded, as they made a more extensive line of tubular tires, which included one of the nicest pairs of tubulars I ever owned and rode. (I can't remember the model name.)  They also improved upon Michelin's "Elan", widely considered to be the first high-performance clincher.

So it's fair to assume that Wolber knew a thing or two about making things from rubber.  The saddle in the above photo was made by Ideale, the premiere French saddle-maker, from a "skin" Wolber fabricated.  The undercarriage appears to be the one used on the Ideale B6, which is remarkably similar to the Brooks B72:  the saddle that came with many classic English three-speed bikes.

A B6/B72 with a rubber top actually makes sense, at least in theory, for commuters and others who ride or park their bikes in the rain.  I wonder how long those saddles lasted.

Perhaps it's not surprising that another leading bicycle-tire maker of the time also made bicycle saddles, or at least the tops for them:

I don't know whether Dunlop made the carriages for their saddles, or whether--as  is apparently the case with Wolber saddles--they were made by a company that made leather saddles.  

Interestingly, Raleigh bicycles came with Dunlop tires, which were considered to be the finest quality (Riders did everything they could to extend the life of those tires!), until Dunlop stopped making bicycle tires in the late 1960s. To my knowledge, however, those same Raleigh bicycles were not equipped with Dunlop saddles:  Instead, they came with B72s or other Brooks models.  

Like the Cambiums, the Wolber/Ideale and Dunlop saddles were constructed of a rubber base layer topped with cloth that was treated with a rubber compound for waterproofing. The Cambium looks more cloth-like than the others--a conscious decision, I am sure, on the company's part.  The Wolber/Ideale has a textured appearance that makes me think of a cross between carbon fiber and leather, while the Dunlop looks like leather, at least from a few feet away.

Although Dunlop hasn't made bicycle tires in nearly half a century, they continue to make tires for motorized vehicles as well as other rubber products.  In the late '80s, Wolber absorbed Super Champion, then the best rim-maker in France (or anywhere else) with the exception of Mavic. (For a few years, Super Champion rims were marketed under the Wolber name.)  Then, a few years later, Michelin took over Wolber!


  1. Fascinating how companies eat each other up and well known names vanish from the scene.

    How I could have done with a rubber saddle in the days when the bike had to remain locked to the railings where I worked come rain or shine. I have always loved the curly springs but do not think that they do a version to fit micro adjust seatposts which have to be one of the best improvements ever over the clicky old clamp fittings. Saddles cost a lot and seems impossible to try one out so do not expect to be getting a rubber ride in foreseeable future.

  2. Coline--Another example of how companies "eat each other up" is the way Sachs took over Maillard, Huret and Sedis during the 1980s. Sachs, in turn, became part of SRAM.

    I agree that a rubber saddle might be good on a lockup bike. I know there's an adapter made that allows Brooks B72 saddles to be used on micro-adjust seatpost. The rails on the saddle in the photo--and of the Ideale B6--look very similar. I wonder whether that adapter would work with the Wolber/Ideale seat.

  3. Justine, yes, the adapter for the B72 works just fine with a micro-adjust seatpost. It may require a few holes drilled here and there for the bolts, but it works just fine. Also, Dunlop still makes one of the finest motorcycle tires in the business. Many riders upgrade to Dunlop when they need new tires.

  4. Wow - it amazes me sometimes to see things like this. I've said many times that there's nothing really new, but it's still surprising - especially when I see something like these saddles -- I did not know these existed.

  5. David--Thanks for the information. I am not surprised that Dunlop's motorcycle tires are so good: They have always made quality products.

    Brooks--I was amazed, too. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, though: After all, as you say, there's nothing really new!

  6. With only a couple of exceptions, all of my bikes get a leather saddle (typically a b17)... until I tried a Cambium. They are exceptional saddles, as one would expect from Brooks, and the benefit of it not needing a leather treatment cannot be denied.
    I still favor b17 saddles, but I cannot honestly say if that's due to better comfort or just inertia at this point in my life.

    If you have a bike that you tend to ride in foul weather, but you're pretty much a stickler for using a b17, you could certainly do worse for yourself than trying a Cambium, IMO. Not cheap, but pretty easily resold for minimal loss.


  7. Wolf--I, too, favor traditional Brooks leather saddles--the B17 and Professional, mainly. As I have no experience with the Cambium, or any other rubber-cloth saddle, I will not recommend or disrecommend it. I am certainly willing to try it, but not if I have to pay $150 for it.

    I wrote my post two years ago only because I thought that e-Bay listing was so funny.