Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Phoenix Project - Berthoud Aravis Saddle

Background on The Phoenix Project is available here and here.

There never was much question about which brand of saddle would be incorporated in The Phoenix Project.  There really only are about 5 distinct leather bicycle saddle manufacturers in the world as far as I can discern.

The first is, of course, Brooks, the pride of Britain since they gave up on their navy. I've been riding these for years, they are great products.  My only gripe is that they are sometimes a little too self-consciously retro.  I could imagine Paul Bunyan riding a Brooks, with giant oversized copper rivets.

The second is U.S. based Selle Anatomica.  They are a bit cultish with the cutouts.  Beyond the fact that cutouts don't agree with me from my experience with a Brooks Imperial, the off-center Velocity Synergy rear rim included on this Trek 620 is enough Earth Shoe type eccentricity for one bike.

The third is Persons saddles, a subgrade, budget offering from the Indian subcontinent.  These get horrible reviews from everyone except a few miserable cheapskates desperate to justify their parsimony.

The fourth is Generi-saddle, a shadowy operation from somewhere in the Pacific Rim.  They make Brooks knockoffs for places like Gyes, Cardiff and Velo Orange to stamp their brands on them and try to undercut Brooks by 10% or so.  Reviews on these are mixed. Anyplace talking up their "Australian cowhide" is probably selling you a Generi-saddle.

Finally, we have the relatively new offerings from Berthoud in France.  Berthoud is taking the high end route with a new offering that breaks some new ground in the otherwise frozen in amber sector of leather saddle design.

For a premiere effort like The Phoenix Project, it was simply a choice between a snazzy Brooks or a Berthoud.  The Berthoud had the advantage of being a novelty for me and my readers in addition to several other features.

So, I chose the Berthoud.  Berthoud offers two basic profiles, the Aspin for touring and the Soulor for racing.  They also offer otherwise identical titanium railed versions of these, the Aravis for touring and the Galibier for racing.

The racing profiles were clearly out for a Trek 620 and the mandate of The Phoenix Project is to spend the extra dough if there is any tangible benefit, so here is my new Berthoud Aravis, all 425 au natural grams of it

As we would expect of the French, the Berthoud is a bit more of a cosmopolitan, refined product than the Brooks, which, well let's face it, can look a little agricultural at times.

Street Cred

This is a tough one.  I had always considered the leather trimmed bags from Berthoud a bit foppish although they are apparently very high quality.

However, their estimable stainless steel fenders, once a Berthoud exclusive, are now copied by several vendors.  I had a set of these fenders that survived many stick incidents requiring improvised field metalworking and general commuting abuse and so forth until they expired after 9 years of hard duty.

9 years of regular, not-so-careful commuting/trekking riding is a heroic lifespan for fenders, they were a regular Galapagos tortoise.

Overall, Berthoud does seem committed to producing very high end products although I wish they wouldn't lay it on so thick with the leather trimmed bags.

Gizmo Lust

The Berthoud saddles have provoked quite a bit of controversy amongst the leather butt chatterati.  The biggest point of contention is the inclusion of a plastic rear rail and a plastic nose piece.  The second is the rather unconventionial profile when viewed from astern:

I'd be less than forthright if I didn't admit that pictures such as above did not give me pause when considering the Berthoud.  However, since having it in hand, the rear profile and plastic rail doesn't disturb me a whit and is actually beginning to grow on me.

First, the plastic is evidently high quality and there are metal inserts for all the threaded fasteners.  The plastic itself is quite massive and possible even longer lived than a metal rail subject to fatigue.  I have no worries about this now.

Second, the rear profile ends up looking pretty refined and posh on the cycle.  The battleship gray plastic sort of recedes into the background and becomes invisible, which is why battleships were painted gray.  Additionally, you never will be sitting on a rivet.

Other nifty features of the saddle include leather a full 6.2mm thick.  I don't have any of my Brooks around as they've all gone to that big ebay auction in the sky, but I'm pretty sure this is thicker than any of them.

They are also supposedly extremely waterproof.  There are reports on the Internet by people about whom I know nothing that they've ridden these for miles in the driving rain with no ill effects.  That's good enough for me, but apparently not for Berthoud as mine came with a rain cover just to be sure.

Finally, the leather top is easily removed by knuckleheads at home which no doubt is going to cause endless grief for Berthoud.  This disassembly feature is talked about by Berthoud, vendors, and posters on all sorts of forums, but nobody is doing anything about it.  So, Fuji Otaku, in a world exclusive, brings you a picture of a disassembled Berthoud Aravis saddle:

This really simplifies retreating the underside of the saddles as well as making them less of a throw away item when the leather top wears out.  I'm also thinking of making a casting of the top before I ride it so I can later experiment around with snakeskin pattern leather and whatnot.

If you look closely at the photo above, there are several more things to note.  The first Berthouds received scattered reports of top mounting screws loosening over time and the occasional corn-fed guy causing the saddle to twist a bit.  The aluminum disk on the rails is a fix for the twisting and the screws now all have blue loctite on them.

Those same screws have Torx rather than allen heads.  I'm not pleased with this, as I don't carry torx around but I suppose that deters saddle leather rustlers.

All in all, this is a really impressive product and is running neck and neck with the Royce Titan Venus hubs as the most interesting component so far included in The Phoenix Project.


We have to ding the Berthoud for the plastic saddle parts.  But I'm willing to be a guinea pig.

Tweed Factor

Tweeds are attracted by the leather and Euro-ness of this saddle.  But their innate cheapness for anything but lugged steel frames alternately repels them.  Ultimately, they are waiting for some American guys to spec this out to a Pacific Rim.  They also have to let a few years pass for the idea of the plastic rails to become boring, if not passe.

Phony Accent


Some regular readers may be surprised by the null Phony Accent rating for this French product.  Here at Fuji Otaku we've taken quite a liking to bashing hammered fenders and baguette bags.

But those are typically products where nobody in the design, manufacture, and sale is within an ocean of France.  Furthermore, they are self-conscious copies, often of iffy quality, of products where the originals were in use during the Truman administration.

This is actually a product designed by a French guy to be stylish top quality for his era and made in France.  For good measure, I ended up buying it from a French-speaking vendor in Montreal.

With that, a single instance of this saddle has more kinship with Herse and Singer than a whole container load of decaleurs and mini-front racks specc'ed by Americans and manufactured in Taiwan.

This is truly a French original, if that is what you are looking for.  Me, I just wanted an interesting, durable, good looking saddle and this fits the bill, it just happens to be French and could have been from Taiwan for all I care.

Lily Gilding

Looking at the price tag alone would seemingly justify a huge Lily Gilding factor.  But the features noted above, i.e, super thick leather, very refined construction/finish, and the rebuildability, makes it clear that there is value for the dollar for the amount above a titanium-railed Brooks Professional saddle.

But wait, this saddle was about $40 USD cheaper than the going rate (~$300 USD) for a titanium railed Brooks Professional.  So there...

Nonetheless, we can't let any titanium railed saddle completely off the hook.

Running Tally

$2357 USD

We bring forward $2093 USD from the Pasela Panaracer 28mm Black Tires episode.  This Berthoud Aravis in natural set me back $264 USD inclusive of shipping from this French-speaking Quebecker.

Organ Sales

$104 USD

We bring forward $104 USD and have no new sales to report.

The Sausage Factory

That blasted, damnable, eternally vexatious plastic rail:

Real French artwork by real French artist on real French product packaging for real French saddle.  Oh, the Francophilia...

Starting to look like a bike:


Alex said...

I'm surprised you didn't go with a Brooks on this, but on the other hand a saddle is easy to switch later if you decide the Berthoud doesn't work.

robatsu said...

Well, probably my biggest motivation for the Berthoud was simply a desire to try something new, especially something that takes a bit of a new look at design.

It may turn out to be a bad decision. Once I get this thing on the road, I'll certainly be posting my ride impressions.

Just for the record, I've had plenty of Brooks and always have had very good experiences. That to me is still the sensible, default choice for a leather saddle. These Berthoud's, with their lofty price tags, are clearly a boutique, specialty item.

Dale said...

You slighted both the Royal Navy and Brooks in a single blog entry! Perhaps you would have broken some sort of record if you has also insulted the Queen and British beer. I'll forgive you as you did write some nice stuff about those pretty Royce hubs... :-)

robatsu said...

Actually, Queen, Beer, and Brooks is ok. As for the Royal Navy, I gotta admit I'm a little suspicious of that rum, buggery, and lash thing.

Nah, just kidding. I was a U.S. naval officer back in the day, used to sometimes work w/RN, topflight guys all the way around.

We may still have a British bit or two show up, though the Royce hubs are a tough act to follow. Those guys really should get the word out, they could sell boatloads of the things. However maybe they are selling all they want to make right now.

jht said...

Very nice write up. I'm considering buying the Berthoud, partly because the rails (straight portion) SEEMS to be longer than the Brooks. Can you verify the length of the adjustment of each saddle and post here? Thank you.