Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Subtle Surprise: Brooks Cambium C-17

Brooks Cambium C17
Earlier this year Brooks surprised their fans by announcing the release of a non-leather saddle: the Cambium C-17. Selected to be one of the beta-testers, I must have been in the very last wave of recipients, because the saddles have been out for months now and mine arrived only last week. About to head back to Ireland, I threw it in a suitcase and, after several days of jetlag, have now finally managed to get a good look. I have not tried the Cambium on a bike yet, but wanted to post some shots and first impressions, figuring many of you are as curious as I was. And there is good reason to be curious: The Cambium is quite a departure for Brooks of England - a storied manufacturer whose very claim to fame is its leather saddles. 

Brooks Cambium C17
As Brook describes it, the Cambium C-17 is made "from vulcanized natural rubber and organic cotton enhanced by a thin layer of structural textile for added resilience." Considering this is a bike saddle, I'd assumed the fabric would be treated with something to make the surface smooth. But the surface has a distinct texture to it similar to that of artist's canvas or some types of denim. While it's been treated for stiffness and waterproofing, there remains a bit of tooth to it. For that reason I have to admit, I am reluctant to try this saddle with lycra cycling shorts - which can be delicate and abrasion-prone in the seat area. But I'll do it, and will let you know how it goes.

Brooks Cambium C17
As far as looks, the one word that comes to mind in describing the Cambium is "subtle." This is a minimalist, low key saddle, not an ostentatious one. The colour of the cloth is half way between gray and taupe. In person, it can look either charcoal gray, ashy brown or even mauve, depending on what it's placed next to. This is rather nice, in the sense that it will match pretty much any bike. The brooks logo is stamped tone on tone into the rear of the undercarriage and is only noticeable close-up. The metal bits are matte, almost dull. The overall shape is somewhere between a Brooks B-17 and an '80s style vinyl racing saddle. 

While the Cambium's "C-17" label suggests it has the same dimensions as the B-17 touring saddle, this is not the case: The C-17 is narrower (162mm across, compared to the B-17's 175mm), longer (283mm, compared to the B-17's 275mm), and has less height to it (52mm, compared to the B-17's 65mm). The Cambium should be suitable for a more aggressive bike position than the B-17. The weight of the Cambium is 415g (compared to 520g of the standard B-17). The ladies' version - the C-17S - is the same as the C17 in every way, except 18mm shorter and 10g lighter. 

Brooks Cambium C17
I did not receive any special insight into the Cambium's construction from Brooks, so I am just describing what I see. It looks like the undercarriage is modular, similar to Berthoud, with (rivet-shaped) screws instead of rivets. 

Brooks Cambium C17
The matte metal resembles titanium, but it is not labeled or described as such, so I assume it is cro-moly.

Brooks Cambium C17
Stamped "natural rubber vulcanized in Italy," the saddle is extremely flexible - I can easily bend and twist it with my hands. I imagine Brooks was trying to replicate the hammocking/ suspension qualities inherent to their leather saddles, and this was the solution they came up with. I am eager to experience the feel of this on a bike - especially on bumpy roads, chipseal and gravel.

Brooks Cambium C17
The surface layer of cotton fabric is cut to form and glued onto the rubber. While the construction looks to be top notch, one potential problem I can see, is that over time the edges might begin to lift. Only long term use can determine whether this proves to be the case.

As I see it, the potential appeal of this saddle is two-fold: Those who do not use leather for ethical reasons will welcome a non-leather option from Brooks. And those who dislike how much Brooks leather saddles change shape over time might prefer the stability of the Cambium's construction. It is also interesting how Brooks went with natural, rather than synthetic materials in constructing this saddle, in keeping with its usual aesthetics. The C-17 will look good on a wide range of bikes, classic and modern.

Well, that is all for now. I am going to try this saddle on a semi-upright pathrace-style bike, then on my roadbike, and report back in a couple of weeks. If you have any questions in the meantime about the construction, shape or aesthetics, feel free to ask. In fairness to Brooks, I would like to note that I was not asked to write about the saddle on this blog or to publicise it in any way; my role as a beta-tester involves only private feedback. I believe the Cambium C-17 and C-17S will be available for sale in September, as a limited edition release. You can see its full specs, as well as read feedback from those who were in the earlier waves of testers, here.

41 comments:

  1. The limited editions are already shipping. Number 201 is currently on my road bike here inChicago.

    Spot on about the aesthetics. For better (me) or worse (possibly hard core Brooks fans?) the first thing I thought when I opened the box was this is a Brooks as imagined by an Italian.

    Have only had time for two rides so far. I do not wear lycra so cannot comment on abrasion to that material. I found the saddle very comfortable under cotton Swobo and nylon Patagonia shorts.

    Having never been able to ride on the modern synthetic molded plastic saddles, I am very hopeful the C-17 proves itself long term.

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  2. Canvas and rubber saddles have been around. Wolber, Fujita, and Favorit come to mind. Making it work is in the details.

    The vinyl 80s saddles you are thinking of may have had a vinyl top covering, most of the good ones had a leather top. All of them had a nylon base. The grandaddy of nylon saddles was the Unica-Nitor, I think it was 1959. Unica was acquired by Cinelli and the saddles went bigtime when Eddy adopted them.

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    1. Brooks had a rubber and canvas 'Plyflex' saddle in the 1930s. Dunlop also made a rubber saddle around the same time. Just goes to show that there is nothing really new. chris531 has a 1930s Brooks Plyflex saddle on his as yet unrestored Raleigh crossframe:-

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/75395133@N00/2812207134/in/set-72157627793276453

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  3. I'll be interested to hear your review. When I first read about them on the Brooks site I had wondered about the surface and wondered if it was coated enough to level out the texture of the fabric. And if it had a texture I was concerned about how that might effect the wear on lycra. So good to know that it does. I hope you don't rough up any of your good shorts!

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  4. Is this meant to be the Brooks lower end option or what price point does it come in at? The Brooks site seems to be down for the holidays.

    Also as an aside, I am searching for a replacement saddle for a vintage 3 speed Sears bike I just purchased. I need an inexpensive alternative until I save up for a Brooks. Do you have a link on your site for budget friendly saddle recommendations?



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    1. It's not a low-priced option, as far as I can see. The price for a "production" model (as opposed to one of a numbered limited edition of 1000) is £125 sterling, or about USD $195.

      That's a good bit more than a leather standard B17, which in the UK can be bought for £70. The B17 Special with copper rivets costs about £100 here.

      The Cambium therefore sits somewhere in the price range between the B17 Special and the £180 B17 Titanium.

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  5. Perhaps you can start a list of readers who might want to try this and for the price of shipping one can give the saddle a test themselves. It looks like an interesting saddle and one I may be want to purchase but not on the basis of your test (nothing personal), I'd need to test it myself to see how it compares to my Brooks Pro.....A saddle share program :)

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  6. Looks great, but I don't see how this saddle could possibly not be damaging to bike shorts. I wouldn't wear anything expensive if I were you.

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  7. An acquaintance recently likened Brook's release of these saddles to the introduction of "New Coke" back in 1922 or whenever it was.
    Hmmph. As a longtime user of Brooks saddles I want to say the ramifications to the faithful are more like those of Vatican II.

    Those of us that VALUE TRADITION(fear change) want to know...

    1, Will the new saddle, when first removed from the box, still be accompanied by a faint but discernible whiff of Fried Codfish and Guinness?
    I am emotionally invested in the idea that anything bearing the Brooks trademark is being handled by either a shriveled old man of indeterminate age displaying a gimlet stare and prewar wool, or a person(any gender) of 15 or more stone, covered with tattoos and wearing a Motorhead or Sex Pistols Tee shirt and Doc Martens. I want "The Glory That Is England", not post-modern Italy thank you very much.

    2, How, with these new materials, can we expect Brook's renowned cow repelling powers to be retained?

    For those of us accustomed to casually riding rural paths(legal or poached), knowing that all but the most determined charge can be turned by the simple expedient of rising from one's saddle and displaying your Brook's genuine Cow top is a comfort not to be discarded, willy nilly, in the onward rush of "progress".

    3, If the fine riding qualities of the best Brook's are due to the subtle interplay of fabric against bare hide as we have believed for nigh on a thousand years, will the new saddle require us to ride "sans-pants" to achieve the effects to which we are accustomed?

    I can foresee nothing but grief and the further decline of a once great Empire.

    Desmond Spinnington III

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    1. Funny post, but your concerns are realistic... An Italian Brooks? That dog won't hunt. Look what Chinese Docs did to Dr. Martens.. quality is way down, and only a hand full of actual "made in the UK" Docs are available, at ridiculous prices. And, the details/designs of the Chinese Docs are pretty questionable...

      TBF, though, Brooks has been putting out some garish seats lately. Speaking of which, I got a Honey b33 coming via UPS tomorrow. So stoked.

      -rob

      PS- ok, I can't deny it. I do want a tan C17, too.

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    2. My preferred Vegan shoes are Brave Gentleman, made in Portugal. For the most part disappointed with the quality of Chinese made shoes, I have been very pleased with the quality of my Doc Marten vegan shoes.

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    3. Also love the Brave Gentleman shoes, made by Novacas. Interested in trying this saddle out on non go-fast bikes-- maybe my Brompton.

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  8. I bet the texture feels good on my crotchless pantaloons

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  9. When I first saw the photos of this minimalist-looking saddle, the first thing that came to mind was "lightweight", and how a truly lightweight road saddle would fill a void in Brooks' lineup. But I'm disappointed to learn that it weighs 415g, essentially the same as a Berthoud saddle with thick leather. So the C17 really is just an alternative for those who don't want leather, but with no weight advantage. It's not going to compete in the lightweight saddle segment.

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    1. Although with the starting weight already lower than the standard Brooks, maybe a model with Titanium rails would bring the weight down further.

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    2. Yes, but what price? Double that of a comparably weighing Ti-railing competitor? If this 415g version is selling for $195, I could see a lighter Ti version going for $300-350.

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    3. Seems to me with a hammock style saddle weight loss comes at the expense of durability.

      Brooks and others make those skinny little race things that do not last all that long.

      Assuming the infused rubber turns out to be the real deal, no doubt there will be similar variants of the Cambium.

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    4. I agree it's strange that this doesn't seem to add anything to the lineup except non-leatherness. Brooks is not going to be the company to say "the future of comfort is here with a revolutionary new composite of rubber and structural textile! Forget leather, this is it folks!" However, I do find it to be a very attractive looking saddle.

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  10. I'm sure other commentators, as of yet not approved, have pointed out that Brooks has made saddles out of other materials in the bast. Some ghastly plastic BMX ones (http://bmxmuseum.com/forsale/86505#.UhBAdX_6_ao) and some chintzy-looking vinyl ones (http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4131/5185294796_20d815e857_z.jpg).

    What I don't understand about the Cambium is the pricing strategy. I get it that leather has started to suck, due to modern cattle-farming practices. I understand that the "select" series is prohibitively expensive. What I don't get is, how does Brooks expect to get more money for the cotton/rubber saddles than it does for the leather saddles? I understand that these may prove more durable than the current "common" (non-Select) Brooks over the long term, but I share your skepticism about the cotton peeling/lifting. I even wonder if it'll end up blistering? But, regardless of the long term, the typical customer is going to see the B17 for $100, and the C17 goes for $160. I think that, when we're talkin' about >$100 saddles, ppl are going for the cache of leather over the Pro-Keds-ness of canvas-on-rubber...(I posted as much on the Wallbike site.)

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    1. Your answer is in your comment about modern cattle farming practices.

      There is a huge glut of cow hide on the world market. Chinese tanneries, bereft of any environmental over sight crank out leather far cheaper than ever. The few high end tanneries in Europe and the U.S.have hides sent to get the basic dirtier work done in China then ship the stuff back to finish.

      Brooks almost certainly makes oodles more profit on the B-17 than the Cambium.

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  11. Lycra abrasion, why worry.

    Saddle sores w/o a pad is more relevant.

    Which is to say overly textured saddles can do that.

    Ultimately, it's just another product whose durability will still be in question once the press gets through with it.

    Comfort over time/distance is the only relevant standard - nearly every other saddle on the market can be tolerated for x time/distance.

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    1. Of course as you say Cambium is new and only time will tell.

      Three rides in now (first comment above before doing a 70 mile ride yesterday) without pads (never use them) and I feel no saddle at all.

      Cannot say the same about some gel molded Fizik I tried a few years back that was murder from the first ride.

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  12. where is the saddle itself made &assembled?

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    1. Infused rubber made and saddle assembled in Italy. Not sure about the frame.

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    2. Its all made and assembled in Italy.

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  13. Looking at some comments vis-a-vis price, I am surprised at people suggesting 300-500 dollar prices. A little thing such a saddle should NOT cost that much. Having said that I DO appreciate that Brooks are probably at the top end of quality, but believe me I have seen a LOT of broken Brooks here in Malta. Deadly combination of heat and high humidity.

    (I honestly cannot believe believe bicycle prices anymore. Next to my Kawasaki 750cc (cost 5000Euro), is an 11kEuro Trek... call it whatever you want, I call it madness.)

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  14. I find the decision by Brooks to make a non-leather saddle puzzling. After all, their claim has always been that the only way to make a saddle really ultimately comfortable is to make it out of thick, hard leather and then spend hundreds of miles breaking it in. There's just no other way, so it's worth the trouble. But if they can make a comfortable saddle without using leather, aren't they opening the door to anyone who makes a saddle using synthetic materials? If they can do it, why not anyone? They're saying, it's not necessary to use leather and go to the discomfort of breaking it in. So why would anyone ride a Brooks leather saddle?

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    1. All Brooks saddles are softened and pre-broken and have been for as long as they've been Italian owned. Maybe longer. You can still find NOS saddles that are hard. Hundreds of miles on the old saddles was not enough to do anything. Thousands.

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    2. As far as I know, anyone can buy cow skin. And in fact many do. There are at least three or four companies out there making budget saddles that look a whole lot like Brooks, as well as one, Berthoud, that makes a high quality leather hammock saddle.

      On the other hand, would not at be at all surprised to learn Brooks (or Selle, more likely) has a proprietary interest - a trade secret if not patent - in the infused rubber.

      In my experience, prior efforts at synthetic hammock saddle material have been failures. If anyone can now make these, bring them on.

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    3. There are different kinds of failure, Matthew J. I regularly see 2 different Fujita canvas/rubber saddles that have been in regular use for 40 years and their owners like them. After all this time they do look sorta like old tires on the scrap heap. You've probably seen some too but you have to look close. At more than 3 feet they are clones of an early Brooks Pro.
      The Wolber "en toile" saddle was in production a long time. They made a leather saddle that was basically identical except for surface finish. Someone liked them.

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    4. "All Brooks saddles are softened and pre-broken and have been for as long as they've been Italian owned. Maybe longer. You can still find NOS saddles that are hard. Hundreds of miles on the old saddles was not enough to do anything. Thousands."

      Brooks Saddles are made in exactly the same way as before Italians owned the company. Source: I work for Brooks.

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  15. Roughness: The most-desired model of the Cinelli/Unica-Nitor line was the Buffalo one, which meant it had a fairly rough suede top. The idea was that some roughness was good and kept your butt in place instead of sliding around. I personally dislike new Brooks saddles until the top stops being so waxy-slick.

    Frame: I like the looks of the tail plate. Are the holes meant to be saddlebag loops? I'd love to see that design offered on the leather saddles too. Along with rails that have a longer adjustment range!

    Rich F.

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  16. Nice write-up. I turned 50 last month, and my wife asked if there was a special gift I wanted. I told her a black B-17 Standard, and I love it. I did, however, consider this new model, and I look forward to your report on its performance.

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  17. A non-leather Brooks? It's a crime against nature!!!

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  18. I have ridden about 200 miles now and it feels like sitting on a plank of wood. The fabric surface gets damp if left in the elements (eg after a cycle tour camp), and being a cotton material, it easily stains - an oily finger having fixed the kids bike chain again has left a fairly indelible mark.

    Really don't recommend them. But they do look lovely ....

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  19. Done a few hundred miles on my new cambium. It looks lovely, but it is very uncomfortable with little give on the material and unlike leather, no satisfaction that each mile in the saddle is heading for greater comfort. The cotton cover is moisture absorbent, so after a night camping, you are faced with a saddle that cannot be wiped dry. It also strains.very easily. An oily finger after fixing a bike chain has left an indelible mark..Not a purchase I would recommend .

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  20. Agreed with Greg Pilley comments, I'm veeeeery disappointed with this saddle after 200km.

    * Stains: it even gets stains from my used jeans! That's ridiculous for a saddle whose target is obviously not racing users (because of its weight).
    * Comfort: not even comparable to my B17, and it won't get better overtime.
    * Moisture: if it rains you end up with a wet saddle, that's it. And it takes a lot of time before it dries completely.

    Avoid this saddle, seriously, worst cycling purchase I've done in years.

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    1. I totally agree with demimismo and Greg Pilley. I received this saddle from my bike shop to test drive it for a week.

      1) the saddle is not that comfortable. It's fine if you take care not to sit too far back. If you do, you sit on the much too big "rivets". That quickly starts to hurt.

      2) Rain is a problem for this Brooks saddle too! I left my bike outside today and it was raining a bit. The saddle was completely soaked, you cannot even wipe it dry. The video on the Brooks website that shows how waterproof it is, must be a fake. In the real world the saddle is more like a sponge. Rain might not damage this saddle as it does with leather saddles, but this is not an alternative.

      It looks good but with those flaws and at such a high price - I wonder if Brooks will sell many Cambium.

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    2. So I've been riding around on the C17 for a couple weeks now.

      Comfort- It got comfortable with playing around with seat height and positioning.

      Stains- this is the worst part. I emailed brooks to see if it stained after reading reviews and they refused to respond. This saddle that was beautiful now has a blue tint from jeans that have been washed and were a year old.

      After getting it comfortable I hoped it would stay pretty but it didnt.

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  21. I do not mean to horn in (I guess I do since I am writing), but I was interested in these saddles because i used to ride Brooks Pro about 25 years ago.

    In fact, I have two of them for sale if anyone is interested. One is black and the other is honey colored. Both are in really good shape.

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  22. So how do you feel about the saddle now?

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