A couple years ago I read that UnicaNitor saddles made a rather flashy debut among the Pros in 1959 when the French teams including Anquetil and Derrigade suddenly adopted them for the TDF and the Giro. These had simple unpadded plastic tops, later modified to a dimpled finish to attempt to quell the slippery feel of the smooth plastic. But, in only a couple years the same teams had returned to the comfort of the alloy framed Ideale, although a bit heavier. Tom Simpson was claimed to have been the first to glue a leather top to his own plastic Unica, but by 1970 the factory was already rolling out saddles with leather covers and with some padding above the plastic shell as well.
I rode with both Brooks (and Ideale) and Unicanitor saddles during the late 1960s through early 70s. The Cinelli Unicanitor was viewed then as the ultimate - just as we might view the latest high-tech San Marco or Selle Italia racing saddles today. They were noticeably lighter in weight than the old fashioned full leather, and were advertised (and endorsed by racers) as being designed for superior comfort... and since they were seen on the bikes of the Pros, they surely MUST be superior - Right?
Well, the Unicas were NEVER comfortable for me. But, I naively assumed I was simply an anomaly and did not even consider that it could have been the fault of the unyielding plastic shell - especially since the padded saddle certainly seemed and felt to the touch like it should be a more comfortable seat than a hard leather top.
By the early 1970s, I suspect even Brooks began to fear the growing popularity of the trendy "modern" racing saddles as more brands and models were being offered every year and were selling for substantially less than a top line Brooks model. They were definitely easier and cheaper, faster to manufacture. And, priced accordingly, they were quickly replacing leather as OEM saddles for new bike sales. The main hold-outs I remember were the mid-range French bikes which still were offered with lower tier stiff leather saddles (Did the Ideale model 39 saddles EVER break in before that UO-8 bike rusted away?).
And, among my crowd, the olde leather was already being viewed as an obsolete relic of the racing past. High end bikes were still offered with a (suitably expensive) Brooks Pro as an alternative to the fancy Cinelli Unicanitor models (which were far more costly than most of the contemporary copies). Unicas were even offered with various leather top finishes. I had a padded black suede model - which I liked only because I never slid on it... but, it was never as comfy as my old Brooks Pros. The clear "CINELLI" imprint in silver at the rear of the saddles added an air of expense and race-proven respectability and mystique to the saddles so we all looked very serious about our bikes.
Brooks eventually began to offer plastic based saddles, and during the early 1970s Ideale was already selling their 2001, 2002 etc. models, so they surely must have perceived a growing threat to their traditional model sales pretty early on and were already hedging their bets.
I think the US became more weight obsessed than many countries as the novelty of race-looking bikes suddenly entered the American consciousness and became so popular during the early 1970s. Even less serious riders who never raced were attracted to any bike which looked lighter and faster then it really was - kind of like the bold "racing stripes" option so popular on Camaro and Mustang cars. Everyone with a 40 pound Schwinn Varsity wanted their campus bike to LOOK as racy as possible and a sleek modern looking saddle helped the illusion.
I think this concern about the appearance of one's road bike has continued right up to today. Now every casual rider wants a too narrow and too uncomfortable saddle which looks cool... and then they complain and suffer or just know no better... and then ride their weekend bikes even less. Do 95% of modern riders really NEED a modern Dura-Ace or Ultegra group over a cheaper 105? My 250 pound 5'8" dentist has full Campy Record 10-speed components on his seldom used bike. I'm sure he has the latest 150 gram racing saddle, too.
I have a modern saddle on my daily commuter bike... so I can leave it out in the rain or snow, and not even worry about the saddle being stolen.
BOB HANSON, ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, USA
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