Brooks Cambium C17 Saddle: A real Brooks?

The new Brooks non-leather saddle, the Cambium C17, caught my eye recently during a stop at one of my favorite local bike shops, BicycleSpace in downtown Washington.

The off-white woven fabric cover and rubber base was certainly different than the traditional Brooks saddles MG and I use on most of our bikes. The British company is synonymous with leather and has been on a roll in recent years with the growth in urban and non-competitive cycling.

Test model had promotion text by Brooks.

Test model had promotion text by Brooks.

I’m among those who were skeptical when they announced the Cambium line that it would be more than just another uncomfortable racer saddle.

Handling the display model, the quality was higher than I expected. I offhandedly asked if they had a loaner and I was offered a C17 to use for a week. In a few minutes I installed it on my Rivendell SimpleOne singlespeed bike and off we went.

Quick verdict: The C17 is surprisingly comfortable! Brooks managed to get the feel of their mainstay B17 leather model into this saddle, while offering features that should appeal to riders who might not ride leather.

The price is a little steep, however. Would I buy one? Read on.

Cambium atop my Rivendell SimpleOne at the Lincoln Memorial.

Cambium atop my Rivendell SimpleOne at the Lincoln Memorial.

Looks: Let’s address appearance and construction first. I’ve gotten a few questions about what Brooks calls the “organic cotton canvas” cover. It looks coarse but is mostly smooth to the touch and there is nothing noticeable about it when riding. They’ve put a waterproof coating on it, so rain and sweat are not supposed to be an issue.

In any case the cover is bonded to a slightly flexible natural rubber underlayer that can’t be hurt by water, so I’d consider this an all-weather saddle. Brooks includes their signature rivets at the rear and on the nose, and builds in bag loops into the rear frame which I confirmed allow the attachment of a Carradice saddlebag — a nice touch.

Form: Along the top the shape is similar to the leather B17, with a long flat nose and raised rear heel when the nose is level. The widest portion is about 160mm, which is narrower than the 170mm B17 (and equivalent to the Brooks Professional) but the Cambium did not feel much narrower than a B17 when riding.

Brooks B17, left and Cambium C17 right.

Brooks B17, left and Cambium C17 right.

Side skirts are cut away, however, giving this saddle a racy look.

Silver rivets, cut-away skirts, longer rails, rubber base.

Silver rivets, cut-away skirts, longer rails, rubber base.

Comfort: The other similarity to a B17 is flexibility. With a firm downward push, the C17 flexes vertically the same way as a B17. Tooling around downtown urban streets, I found it felt like I was on a nicely broken-in leather Brooks. I think they worked hard to get this right because unlike leather you can’t turn an adjusting bolt to tighten the saddle tension.

Big differences: Besides overall appearance, and the lack of side skirts, the biggest change for current B17 owners is that the saddle is not as tall and the rails are slightly longer and set farther forward.

Different rails: B17 on left, C17 on right.

Different rails: B17 on left, C17 on right.

That means you have to raise your seatpost about a half-inch, and can push the saddle back more than a B17. There is at least 5 mm more rail length, but Brooks appears to have positioned the usable rail length closer to the nose, which allows a little extra rearward positioning.

Finally, the Cambium weighs in well under the B17. I did not weigh mine, but Brooks claims 415 grams for the men’s C17 and 405 grams for the shorter-nose, slightly-wider women’s C17 S. Those weights compare to the B17’s 540g listed weight.

Purpose: Who is this saddle for?

Do you wear form-fitting jersies from a certain apparel maker based in England and ride a spotless racing bike? On appearance alone, the Cambium line should fit your aesthetic. Brooks also makes the Cambium line in a dark slate gray that is more sober if you are into the bike-ninja look.

More seriously, if you don’t use fenders and worry about a Brooks getting destroyed from wheel spray, there is no such concern with the Cambium. On any bike you can still ride in the rain or soak it in sweat without worrying about covering the top.

If you have a hard time getting a B17 or other Brooks far enough back on a given bike, this saddle may also offer a solution.

And, if you don’t want to break in a leather Brooks, the Cambium is ready to go out of the box.

Fears about breaking-in can be overblown, however — Brooks are generally comfortable for us from the first ride and get nicer over time.

We are more likely to encounter our Brooks saddles getting stretched out too much from hot summer rides, brevets and multi-day touring. The Cambium presumably won’t get scooped like our B17 models after a few seasons.

Conclusion: Will I buy a Cambium C17? Probably. I’m put off by the $160 pricetag, but the value of a saddle with the same comfort as a B17, rear bag loops, longer rails and weatherproofing has its attractions.

If Brooks runs a promotion that gets the price down I’ll probably take the leap.

I like that they are trying to create a new saddle that expands the Brooks line and replicates the comfort of leather without some of the care considerations and weight. At last they tried to resolve the issues that come with the short-ish rails on the leather models.

The C17 may find a home on my Ritchey Road Logic racing bike where saddle setback has always been an issue.

See more photos of my test saddle at my Flickr page. Please leave comments on your experience if you have purchased a Cambium.

I want to extend my thanks to BicycleSpace for loaning me the saddle to test. They have an extensive range of Brooks saddles and other fine urban riding gear and a solid service department. If you are in the D.C. area they are definitely worth a stop.