If you ask the average person, or maybe even the average mountain biker, if a seat without padding could be as comfy as one with padding, they're almost certainly going to say "No." But those people haven't spent any time on Tioga's Spyder Stratum and Spyder Outland (a more flexible Stratum with thin rubber pads) seats that depend on a webbed shell with engineered-in flex designed to negate the need for traditional padding. Truth is, padding has less to do with how agreeable a seat is than one might expect - the shape and how it flexes are what counts - but this is, understandably, a difficult thing to convince people of.
Undercover Stratum Details
• Flexible webbed frame
• Full Carbon; X-Pad SL
• Width: 140mm
• Carbon fiber rails
• Rider weight limit: 200 lbs
• Weight: 145 grams
• MSRP: $195 USD
The brand new Undercover Stratum is Tioga's answer to this dilemma. They applied a thin layer of foam atop the flexible webbed shell to provide a bit more forgiveness, both for a rider's underside and for his or her eyes. At just 145-grams, the Full Carbon, X-Pad SL Undercover Stratum is only a gnat's fart heavier than the ultra-slim Spyder Stratum (also with carbon rails), but the 25-gram weight penalty comes with padding that's sure to be more appealing to many riders.
What probably isn't as appealing is the $195 USD price tag for top-tier Undercover reviewed here, but you can get one with titanium rails for $125, or hollow steel rails for $95 USD. None of those options are what I'd call inexpensive, no doubt about that, but as a cross-country bandit who's on their seat for hours on end, I'd argue that comfort pretty much trumps other factors.
The fancy-pants Undercover Stratum may be light, but that doesn't matter one bit if it isn't comfortable, so here's what Tioga did: Unlike their other 'DualTech' dual-material shells, the Undercover's is made from a single material. ''With the addition of a foam pad, the SpyderWeb shell on the Undercover has a more singular duty - as a "leaf spring" - with the foam pad taking care of conformity and damping duties,'' Tioga's Kai Cheng explained. In other words, the Undercover's padding negates the need for the dual-material shell.
The Undercover's shape is also different, with a wider, flatter surface (140mm versus the Spyder's 135mm) that extends up to the nose. The padding does hide this a bit, but the gist is that it's both wider, flatter, and slightly longer than Tioga's other webbed seats. The webbed shell's shape has also been designed with the foam treatment in mind, too, with a concave to it that allows Tioga to apply more padding where it's needed without building up the seating surface.
I'll let Cheng explain Tioga's approach: ''The thinnest portion of the X-Pad is where the sit-bones would rest. As our sit-bones are naturally able to sustain high pressure, while its surrounding areas can't (this area is mostly soft tissues and blood vessels), too much padding under the sit-bones generally adds to discomfort because when the foam compresses under the sit-bones, the surrounding foam pushes up and into the soft tissue area.''
And speaking of padding, there are actually two different kinds of foam depending on which Undercover you choose. The $95 USD steel rail version gets Tioga's 'X-Pad ReAcvtiv' open-cell foam that they say is softer and more economical, albeit also a bit heavier.
If you spring for the pricey carbon or titanium model, you get their X-Pad SL closed-cell EVA foam that, according to Cheng is, ''denser, lighter, and with better rebounding characteristics, but more expensive.'' I think that's probably enough tech talk about bike seats.
I'm a big fan of Tioga's original unpadded Spyder Stratum, having put about a zillion miles on it, and also the lightly padded Spyder Outland (pictured below next to the Undercover). I've even raced the BC Bike Race on both seats over the last few years and thought it'd make sense to do something similar with the new Undercover model, so I bolted it to my cross-country bike for the Samarathon stage race in Israel. Trial by fire and all that.
Tioga's Spyder Outland saddle (left) compared to the Undercover)
No surprise: with its revised shape and additional padding, the Undercover is a very different seat compared to Tioga's other webbed offerings. The obvious distinction is that it's more usable - the padding, along with the extra length, means that it's less obtrusive when sitting up on the nose or farther back on the tail.
That bit about being able to slide up on the nose is noteworthy because while you can certainly do the same thing on Tioga's unpadded seats, it can sometimes feel as if you've royally pissed off a large-fingered TSA agent. The padding on the Undercover, however, makes this a far less penetrating experience.
As with any lightly padded - or completely unpadded - seat, it's important to get the angle correct. Nose-high and, well, bad things can happen. The Undercover ended up being tipped down ever so slightly more than the other Tioga seats I've used, and I suspect that's to do with how the central portion of the webbed shell flexes under the rider's weight, which can leave the padded nose feeling a touch high if you don't compensate for that by tipping it down a degree or two.
The wider cross-section is noteworthy, too, as those whose rear ends work best with slim seats might find that the flatter, wider profile doesn't gel with them. My backside definitely prefers a slimmer shape - the wider, flatter profile caused a bit of chafing - but the 140mm width worked decently well for me considering my underside isn't yet at its beef jerky-est like it is in the summer. One thing that I would have liked to see is the padding extended over the sides of the shell. As it is, it runs to the edge, and the shell, while less likely to leave you with marks than the unpadded models, can still feel hard. If the padding is there, I feel like it may as well cover the edges of the shell, too.
As far as creaks and groans go, I never heard a peep of protest from the Undercover, and its carbon rails are holding up just fine. Then again, I'm well under 200lbs these days (yes, despite all those donuts), so I wouldn't expect this fly-weight version to give me any trouble.