Brooks B17 Saddles: What’s the Real Difference Between Standard, Short, and Carved?

The Brooks B17 leather saddle has a cult following within the bike touring community. The hard leather, it’s said, molds to your most personal anatomy over many hundreds of miles. The result is a perfect perch for long days and big miles across countries or entire continents.

I’m a proud owner of two B17 saddles myself. My first, the standard unisex model, got me nearly ten thousand miles through Southeast Asia, Patagonia, and across the USA. As a no-so-curvy woman with a mistrust of the “female bodies are made for childbearing” thing, I rode my unisex saddle while proclaiming that “not all women have wide sit bones” (true, but beside the point). I was comfy enough, though during long days in the saddle I sometimes had to grit my teeth and slather on the chamois butter.

Brand new Brooks B17 in northern Vietnam on the tour that started my bike travel obsession.

When I finally killed that saddle via rain, sun, and neglect, I thought carefully. Should I buy another regular Brooks B17 or experiment with its variations? My saddle pain was reasonably controlled, but there was room for improvement. Perhaps I didn’t know what I was missing?

Related: Female Bike Seat Pain: An Awkwardly Comprehensive Guide

I decided to shake things up and order a B17 Carved Short (or B17 S Imperial according to older naming conventions), which Brooks designed with “women and smaller riders” in mind. Lo and behold, despite my narrow hips this version fits my pelvis better and the cutout takes some pressure off sensitive areas. It has supported me for thousands of miles on the backroads of the US, in northern Africa, and more.

Bikepacking in Utah with the B17 Carved Short (S) model

This post explains the differences between the models of the Brooks B17 and why you might prefer one or the other. No one can tell you which saddle fits your body best, unfortunately, so prepare yourself for a bit of rather expensive trial and error. Still, I hope you’ll benefit from understanding the intentions behind the various Brooks leather saddle designs and why you might want to start with one or another in particular.

Though Brooks saddles are very well-regarded, some people just don’t get along with them. They have such a cult following that this can be hard to admit. You might think “Everyone loves this saddle – I guess it’s supposed to hurt this much.” Don’t suffer needlessly! Since getting into off-pavement bikepacking I’ve switched to a different style of saddle and realized that my Brooks put a bit too much pressure on my soft tissue. Brooks saddles are amazing if they work for you, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other options if it’s not a great fit after a few hundred miles.

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B17 S (Short / Women’s) vs. B17 (Standard / Unisex)

Brooks makes both a standard B17 saddle and a version called B17 S. The S, somewhat confusingly, apparently stands for “short” instead of “standard.” This might be why the Brooks website now calls this model the B17 Short.

Most men buy the standard B17 without a second thought, though there’s no reason they couldn’t use the women’s version if it happened to fit them better.

Many women, on the other hand, agonize over the tradeoffs between the the B17 and B17 S. What exactly is the difference?

The standard B17 isn’t necessarily tailored toward men; in fact it’s “unisex.” The B17 Short is, according to Brooks, “for women and smaller riders.” It’s 3.3 cm shorter overall and has a more abrupt contour from wide to narrow.

Brooks B17 on the left, B17 Carved Short on the right.

Why does length matter? Some people on the internet seem to think a shorter nose reduces soft tissue pressure for women. If you’re a woman or have ever been up close and personal with one, you’ll know this makes no sense at all. What the shorter nose does do is reduce the available fore / aft seat adjustment range, slightly reduce control over the bike in some situations (more on this below). Supposedly it also makes it easier to cycle in a skirt.

B17 Short (also happens to be Carved) on the left. Notice the shorter fore / aft adjustment range of the rails.

It’s said that a longer saddle nose offers better control over the bike, and when I bought my Women’s B17 saddle I was worried about giving this up. Now that I’m used to it, I don’t think it’s a problem at all. There is still plenty of nose, and unless you’re mountain biking on technical trails I personally don’t think you’ll notice any issues.

What about width? It’s said that women have wider sit bones than men, thus women’s bike seats tend to be wider. It’s important to remember that this is true on average, but not universally — some women have narrower sit bones than some men. I have small hips and used to assume my sit bones are also narrow, but I’ve since learned that women’s saddles do in fact fit me better.

Internet rumors seem to think the B17 S is wider than the B17, but according to the specs the current B17 Short model is precisely 1mm wider than the regular. I found this hard to believe so I measured them myself. Guess what: it’s true! They are almost exactly the same width.

B17 S on the left, B17 on the right. Same width!

So if the B17 S isn’t any wider than the B17, why do I feel like the S does a better job of supporting my sit bones and fitting my pelvis? I’m no expert on pelvic anatomy, but I would guess it has to do with the more abrupt curve from the wide rear to the narrow front. This allows my sit bones to rest comfortably on the widest part of the saddle while still letting my thighs move freely. If that has anything to do with wider sit bones or female pelvic structure, so be it! Whatever the reason, the S does seem to work better for me.

So, which one should you get? If you’re a “woman or smaller rider,” as the Brooks website specifies, the B17 Short might be better for you but the only way to know is to try it. Otherwise, may as well get the standard model for the extra control and greater fore/aft adjustment range.

B17 Imperial / Carved vs. Standard

“Imperial” seems to have been Brooks’ classy-sounding euphemism for “has a cutout to take pressure off your private bits.” Current models are called “carved,” which is the same thing as far as I can tell. There is a unisex B17 Carved model and also a B17 S Carved version, which is shorter as described above.

The cutout consists of a slit in the leather that allows for extra flex in the middle, plus lacing around the sides that, when loosened or tightened, allows for more or less flex. More flex generally takes pressure off the soft tissue between your sit bones and places more pressure on the bones themselves. Usually, this is the lesser of the two evils.

My B17 Short Carved saddle from below, showing the cutout and the laces.

Many men find that this takes pressure off the perinium area. Many women, especially those who have an “outie” genital shape (explanation here – you know you’re curious!), find that the cutout helps with soft tissue pain. It’s not necessarily magic though, and for some people the cutout just increases pressure in other places that are equally if not more problematic.

Will the Brooks B17 Carved be more comfortable for you? If you ride a non-cutout saddle and struggle mainly with soft tissue pain (as opposed to sit bone pain), you might be a candidate for the Carved / Imperial. If your soft tissue feels comfy but your sit bones get sore easily, you might prefer the regular. Some people say the cutout makes the saddle less durable, so all other things being equal you might want to start with the regular.

Caring For a Brooks Leather Saddle

No matter which version you have, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

Break it in! Leather saddles are notoriously uncomfortable until they’ve had a chance to mold to your body, so give them time – ideally at least several hundred miles – before heading out on a big trip. You may get lucky and feel comfortable right away, but don’t count on it.

Protect it from rain. While I feel some people take this warning way too seriously – aren’t we sitting on them all day in our sweaty shorts anyway? – it doesn’t hurt to try and keep your Brooks dry. I cover mine with a plastic bag at camp if rain is expected overnight.

No way around it, my Brooks saddle is getting wet here in rainy Patagonia

Adjust sparingly. All B17 saddles come with a special wrench (you might want to pack it for a long tour) that you use to adjust the length of the metal frame, and thus the tautness of the leather. More taut = more pressure on a small area of your sit bones and less on soft tissue. Less taut = deeper indentations for your sit bones to rest, but potentially more pressure on soft tissue.

As the leather stretches with use, sometimes the saddle needs to be tightened to maintain a good fit. Approach with care and do NOT overdo it. Often this doesn’t need to be done for years. When you do tighten, do it gradually, just one quarter turn at a time, and wait to see if it makes a difference. Once you’ve pulled the leather too tight, you can’t necessarily undo it and return to the previous fit.

Which way to turn? With your face oriented nose-to-nose with the saddle, turn the nut clockwise to tighten.

Apply Proofide as needed. Leather does need care from time to time, and Brooks swears that using ANYthing besides their specially formulated, very expensive Proofide leather treatment could harm your saddle. I’m not sure about this, but they scared me into doing it anyway. Whatever you think about this, it’s important to treat the leather when it starts to get dry and less supple, or ideally before. This is especially good to do after you’ve ignored the warning above about keeping it dry.

Protect the saddle from knocks and scrapes. Before I knew better, I used to turn my bike upside down on dirt and gravel to do mechanical work. After turning it back over to a mess of scratches and dents in the leather saddle, I now put down a rag or layer of clothing under the saddle before tackling roadside repairs.

This poor Brooks B17 has seen better days thanks to too much sun and rain and not enough Proofide.

In Conclusion

As you can see, different models of the Brooks B17 offer a variety of fits for different pelvic structures and tissue configurations. Whatever you choose, may it feel as though you’re perched atop a soft puffy cloud as you enjoy warm tailwinds and scenic empty roads. Hey, a cyclist can dream, right?

Read Next: Solving Bike Seat Pain for Women

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    Pictures of Brooks B17 bicycle seats
    Pictures of Brooks B17 bicycle seats

    14 thoughts on “Brooks B17 Saddles: What’s the Real Difference Between Standard, Short, and Carved?”

    1. Thought you’d appreciate my Brooks saddle anecdote. Someone anonymous gifted me a used, somewhat neglected B17 saddle one day. (As in it was on my desk when I arrived to work one day. No note!) Anyway, I Profided it and brought it back to life. Super comfy. It’s on my Pusch single speed bike today. So when my road bike needed a new saddle I naturally looked to Brooks. I figured the Imperial would be a good choice for all the reasons you’d think. (Who wouldn’t want to take pressure on those parts that are just along for the ride anyway?) I was excited to start breaking it in and making it my own. But I very quickly noticed the dynamics of that cut out slot wound up pinching me in a place where most people probably wouldn’t appreciate. No matter how tight or loose I set the sag, it contined to feel like there was a little crab down there who was mighty upset that I was sitting on him. Exasperated, after weeks of hoping the pinchiness would abate, I wrote to Brooks customer service with my tale of ouch. Brooks wrote back something to the effect of: “Dear Sir. You must be using it wrong!” (Sigh.) Maybe that’s what passes for customer service in the U.K. Anyway, I wound up selling it on eBay. No word on whether the case of crabs went away too. I still love Brooks saddles though. I just know now that I am not quite up to Imperial standards!

      Reply
    2. I opted for the Cambium model of the 17 because caring for the leather on my upcoming journey intimidated me. I’m now wondering if I should’ve opted for the leather instead. I can’t imagine the rubber ever conforming to my sit bones but I guess I’ll learn over time! I’m very new to touring, but after meeting dozens of people in New Zealand on tour, and riding about 50KM of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, I decided a bicycle is the perfect way to explore the USA.

      Reply
    3. I never liked my B17 for even a minute during half a year of trying. For some reason I kept on sliding forwards on it, no matter how wrongly upward I adjusted it’s nose auh. That hurted my wrists tremendously in trying to push myself back trying to be in a normal riding position. I prefer SQLab, for almost 3 years now. Just sit and go.

      Reply
    4. I recently bought a brooks saddle On a whim and installing it I realized I know very little abounds these saddles. I didn’t want to do long lengthy research and read through long lengthy articles. Like everyone I knew there was a cult following and there was some daunting maintenance as well as a break in. Perfect I thought when I saw your blog. I can finally find out what the B Is in reference to and the 17 Stands for, I presumed it was Brooks & 17 had something to do with size. I had a pretty good idea the Brooks short was shorter than the Brooks so thank you for confirming that and thank you for confirming not all saddles are for everyone. If anyone has a valid opinion regarding brooks saddles it should be you. Your bicycling career is very impressive, wow. I will definitely be reading your blogs and hoping to hear More about your day-to-day Experiences., what you ate, how many miles a day, what you brought, what you wore, what you thought, etc. etc. etc. anyway if you get time will you please post what the difference is between some of the saddles? for an example my brooks saddle is a 13 and I have seen 15 and of course the 17. Is that the length the width the thickness? Thanks so much

      Reply
    5. I’m surprised you felt the need to scoff at the idea women and men have different anatomy downstairs. Sigh.

      Reply
      • I find this comment odd and unnecessarily snarky (sigh…). In fact I’ve written a lot in other posts on saddle issues for women specifically. Maybe you misunderstood my statement that there’s a lot of variation in sit bone width and not all women have sit bones wider than all men. This is true!

        Reply
    6. I’m a 190 lb man who is riding a B17S on my gravel bike.

      I find the woman’s version much more comfortable than the men’s version.

      Great article, thank you!

      Reply

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