June 24 2013 by Jason Fogelson
There are three places where your body is anchored to your bike, and all three can be adjusted. We've discussed handlebars in the past. You can swap them out for wider, taller, shorter or narrower bars, with an almost infinite variety of styles and bends. Your foot controls can also be changed and relocated fore and aft, up and down. Before any of those changes take place, though, I would start with the third anchor: The seat. Once you find a seat that is comfortable and that works for you, handlebar and foot control decisions will fall into place.
When you drive a car, you've got the option of moving your seat forward or aft, adjusting the angle of the backrest, and sometimes even moving the seat up and down in order to find the right driving position. On your motorcycle, you're pretty much committed to the seating position that you ride out on. Fortunately, you can easily swap your motorcycle seat for one that works better for your particular physique and riding style.
The Harley-Davidson Parts & Accessories Catalog lists literally nearly 200 seat and pillion options. Seats are model and model year specific, though there is some crossfit. There's also a very active aftermarket for seats, with several big manufacturers responding to consumer demand. Additionally, you might be able to adapt your current seat to make your bike more comfortable. Many small shops and even auto upholsterers can use your seat base to build out a custom seat made just for you.
Here are a few of the characteristics to look for in your next seat:
Material/Covering: The classic leather seat is not the only option, though it is a very good one. A good leather seat will break in and wear well, getting softer and suppler with age. Leather requires attention and care, though. Without proper moisture and protection, a leather seat can become brittle and flaky. Even the best leather seats will fade with time, and will require periodic re-dying or coloring. Vinyl seat coverings have come a long way, and many are difficult to distinguish from real leather, even by feel. Vinyl can be hardier than leather, requiring less care and attention to continue looking good over time. I think bikes look best when their seat material matches or harmonizes with other materials on the bike; for instance, saddlebags. If you use leather saddlebags on your bike, a vinyl seat will stand out as different -- and not in a good way. Similarly, vinyl saddlebags will look dingy next to a leather seat.
Width/Depth: Seats can directly affect the reach to the ground, to foot controls and to handlebars. A seat with thinner cushioning might be a better fit for a shorter rider; a taller rider might choose thicker cushioning. Similarly, the width of the seat affects reach as well. A narrower seat front can provide more leg room, making a significant difference for shorter riders.
Texture: If you ride long distances, this can be a really important factor. That cushion-top seat might look lovely in repose, but after 300 miles on the road, the button and gathered fabric can be torturous, digging in to sensitive skin and causing hot spots. In contrast, a smooth flat seat may be great for giving you some wiggle room on a long ride, but a textured finish may be just the ticket for grip during that canyon run. Think about your riding style, and how much you like to move around on your seat during an excursion.
Stuffing/Cushioning: I'm a big fan of biker gel, a material that you can have sewn into your seat in place of some of the usual foam cushioning. It is supportive and yet moves, providing a much more comfortable perch for long distance riding. Some riders prefer a firm cushion or even no cushioning at all, mounting their seats on a springer post -- like a tractor seat. Everything should be matched to your comfort level and riding style.
Don't suffer with the wrong seat on your bike. Make your bike fit your body, and ride in comfort and style.