The Bénard–von Kármán vortex shedding instability in the wake of a cylinder is perhaps the best known example of a supercritical Hopf bifurcation in fluid dynamics. However, a simplified physical description that accurately accounts for the saturation amplitude of the instability is still missing. Here, we present a simple self-consistent model that provides a clear description of the saturation mechanism and quantitatively predicts the saturated amplitude and flow fields. The model is formally constructed by a set of coupled equations governing the mean flow together with its most unstable eigenmode with finite size. The saturation amplitude is determined by requiring the mean flow to be neutrally stable. Without requiring any input from numerical or experimental data, the resolution of the model provides a good prediction of the amplitude and frequency of the vortex shedding as well as the spatial structure of the mean flow and the Reynolds stress.