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Common Tread

Harley Motorcycle Seats 101

Apr 20, 2013

Welcome to Harley-Davidson Seats 101. You're attending this class presumably because your seat is, quite literally, a pain in the butt.

Nearly every H-D rider who rides seriously will buy an aftermarket seat. You know why? Because they are worth every single penny.

I have spent thousands of dollars on Harley seats over the years, and I don’t think I have regretted a single saddle I’ve picked up. If you take one thing away from this document that could be of value, let it be this: A seat is the most crucial piece of equipment to helping you ride longer. You can have gorgeous weather, top-line gear, and a snarling, fire-breather of a bike, and none of it is worth a lick if you or your passenger is too uncomfortable to ride. Watching a beautiful day from a picnic bench in a campground is nowhere near as good as riding through it.

Moto 101

Your seat might be perfectly good for you. What about your passenger? Except for some high-end touring models, seat comfort is not a high priority for the Harley-Davidson engineers and designers, and that's even more true for the passenger. I was not graced with beauty, but whenever I was on a run in my bachelor days, I usually found too-cute pillion riders more quickly if I had a good seat on the back. Coincidence? Not unless I am more dashing than I think I am.

I don’t often care about my own vanity, but let’s not mince words: My bike had better be the nicest one in the lot — any lot. Custom seat upgrades can help your bike look a little more sleek, and you can tailor your heinie-holder to your specific flavor of riding, rather than trusting that Harley knows exactly what you like on your tender parts.

Finally, if your bike does not fit you quite right, you can “tune” the fit with a seat. LePera, for instance, offers Daddy Long Legs Seats, which are great for taller riders needing more room. Saddlemen makes their Heels Down Seats for the other end of the riding spectrum — the shorter rider who needs to move closer to the bars.

So how do I choose? There are so dang many!

What are you doing, and what are you doing it on? What you want out of a seat for your V-Rod could be quite different from what you would want out of a Harley Softail seat. If you consider the multitude of bikes and butts throughout the world, it becomes clear that one or two models are not going to cut it. You’ll want to consider a few things before you select one.

  • Watch your odometer: If you regularly lay down several hundred miles at a clip, as is common with those looking for Dyna seats, you want a nice firm saddle that’s going to support your keister from edge to edge. Conversely, if you’ve got a skinny little seek-and-destroy bar runner, moving around on it in the twisties is going to be difficult if your saddle resembles the rear seat from a 1973 Dodge Aspen, and it will make your bike weigh about as much as that Dodge.
  • Watch your six: If your favorite fender fluff does not enjoy getting a tail tattoo courtesy of your factory surfboard, maybe you’re a good candidate for a seat purchase. Seriously, would you want to ride on the back of your bike? If it’s got a MoCo saddle on it, probably not.
  • Watch the people who watch your bike: If nobody stops to ogle your freedom machine, maybe it needs to look cooler. If you don’t find yourself wandering out to the garage from time to time to simply stare at your machine, a new saddle may help you rectify that lack of attention.

Why are some seats so expensive? What should I look for?

Like everything else in life, you typically get what you pay for, and there are rarely free lunches. (Unless you work at RevZilla, on Tuesdays.) Almost every saddle will offer a few benefits. Let’s work our way from the bottom to the top:

  • The pan: The pan, or foundation of the seat, is like the skeleton. It is the item that gives the whole saddle support. Most pans in the aftermarket are made of plastic, which is light and inexpensive, or steel, which is heavier and more costly to machine. Plastic flexes more than steel, which can lead to saggy seats if not designed carefully. Steel is rigid, which gives plenty of tuchus support. The better makers also use rubber bumpers to isolate the seat from the frame, and carpet the bottom of the pans to protect paint from “rub-through.” Top-notch seat manufacturers powdercoat the pans for resistance to rust and corrosion.
  • The foam: Specifically, the stuffin’ of a seat is what gives it its “feel.” Some manufacturers have proprietary foams that really feel great after a long day. Other makers incorporate gels into their foam. Do you need gel? It depends on what your rump likes. Gel seats aim to reduce fatigue by damping vibration and providing a softer top to the firm foam beneath. However, that extra comfort typically comes at extra cost. Most aftermarket saddles are harder than their stock counterparts, to increase long-term comfort. While it sounds counterintuitive, a hard saddle holds up your posterior better than a softer saddle. The stock saddle has to feel good to a bottom for five minutes in the showroom, so when you sit on it, it feels comfy and you buy the bike. The hidden truth that Harley would never tell you is that the saddle’s foam deforms quickly, leaving you feeling sore and awful after hours on the same seat that felt so good when you took the test ride. That is, of course, directly the fault of wimpy foam.
  • The cover: Better saddles will use either marine-grade vinyl or leather to protect the pan and foam. A motorcycle is exposed to a wide variety of abusive elements: weight, friction, moisture, UV rays, chemicals, and often extreme temperatures. Cheap covers simply don’t hold up. Leather, while requiring more upkeep, often tends to take on a distinguished aged appearance that vinyl never seems to match. Vinyl typically will look fairly new for a very long time if cared for correctly, and requires a lot less maintenance.
  • The look: While not really a direct part of the seat, the overall design and engineering can be a big part of the seating package. If the pan is not sized correctly to the bike, it can make it uncomfortable or aesthetically displeasing. If the seat’s height is not correct, it can make the motorcycle difficult to ride or maneuver. Finally, if you’re looking for a particular style, like a studded saddle or a saddle with pleats, a budget saddle maker might not meet your expectations. Engineering isn’t always tangible, but it’s definitely incorporated into the cost of the seat. Well thought-out seats cost more money, and the difference in quality over a lower-tier seat often justifies the price of the upgrade.

So what are some of the basic styles?

Harley seats in particular usually fall into one of the following categories:

  • One-piece seat: Just what it says! One piece for you and your pillion to sit on. Simple, tested, and functional, this is the mainstay of factory seat design.
  • Two-piece seat: Composed of two sections, the solo and the pillion pad. Some rider seats are designed so you can run solo-only, and some are not. Two-piece seats often allow the ability to pack gear directly onto the fender or show off paint if a solo look appeals to you. Often, this setup allows some interchangeability, so if one of you is comfortable, one of you can change a seat without forcing the other into a change.
  • Extended solo: Designed as a solo seat with a tail that flows into the fender. This is largely created for the sweeping lines that integrate with the bike, and offers enough padding on the fender to act as a temporary “in-a-pinch” seat for an impromptu passenger
  • Sprung saddle: Old-timey! Much like the pogo seats of yesteryear, these seats elevate you off the frame, and put springs between the seat pan and the frame, which helps isolate road shocks. These seats are particularly useful for those running rigid frames. There are several cool types of seat springs to use, too, like clothespin springs or beehives, that can change the overall look of your bike.
  • King-and-queen: Super popular through the 1970s, they are huge-normous. They are sexy in a function-over-form way. It’s a royal throne for you and your love to couch out in.

So how do I know which one is good for me?

Glad you asked. In general, the wider the seat is, the longer your rear can stay parked in it. At the other end of the spectrum, the lower and smaller a saddle is, such as is the case with many seats designed for the minimalist Sportster crowd, the more svelte a bike appears to be, and the easier it is to move about on the seat for spirited riding.

Are we done yet?

Oh, we haven’t even gotten into the really good stuff! Three of the most popular upgrades for a seat are a driver’s backrest, a passenger backrest or sissy bar, and heat. Seats with backrests feel grand. It’s like having a recliner on your scooter. If you’re not sure if you want to drop the extra coin on a backrest, many makers offer a saddle that can accept a backrest later in time if you choose to buy one. Passengers get relief, as well, with the addition of a backrest and sissy bar. The sissy bar also doubles as a convenient spot to lash your gear down on a solo trip. Have you ever seen someone running down the highway with a huge sissy bar? That’s so the rider can tie down his pack, bedroll, and beer. And they look boss.

And finally (drumroll, please!) heated seats. There is no better way of heating one’s core than by toasting the tush. These tend to be more popular among the Harley Touring crowd. It’s important to be mindful of your vehicle’s charging output and the demands you are placing on the electrical system before installing one of these, but once you’ve ridden a heated seat in the cold, you’ll start considering mid-winter runs to Alaska. Heated seats are the Rolls Royce of saddles, and with good reason. I’m fairly certain a nice heated seat has saved more than one rocky marriage.

It's a Harley, so what about looks?

Here are a few of my completely gratuitous opinions:

  • Wide saddles look good on wide bikes. Skinny saddles look good on skinny bikes.
  • Adornments like studs, conchos and fringe can look great — on the right bike. Usually, a classically styled bike (think of a Heritage with wide whites) is the platform for showy, skirted saddles.
  • Spung solo saddles on non-hardtail bikes usually look a little goofy — like a belt with suspenders.
  • Armor All is slicker than greased lightning. Keep it far away from saddles!
  • Buy two! Saddle swaps are so easy and quick on most Harleys. You can get the super-low street cruiser seat for zipping around and looking funky-fresh, and then have a backup road-eating monster for long hauls to make sure you run out of gas before you run out of ass.

Can I install this myself?

Almost definitely. For all the details, see my tips and tricks story and video about replacing your Harley seat. You may have to line up a tongue or a tab, and turn one or two screws or bolts, but nearly anyone can install a direct-replacement saddle. If you have a custom or rigid, or you are switching seat styles, like swapping a solo seat into a spot where a one-piece, two-up saddle used to ride, fabrication like cutting, welding, or painting will likely be required, especially if you’d like to make the installation aesthetically appealing.