Testing on the Lincoln Highway...
Testing on the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania.
Pastimes seem to come with a price, and sometimes even an ailment. Just look at tennis elbow, runner's knee and baseball finger. Serious motorcyclists pay for their enthusiasm with biker butt.
I've never been in a stock saddle for long before buttache sets in. The bottom line is, stock seats are made to fit your bike and not your butt. Custom seats can fit your behind and your bike, but they might not fit your budget.
Removable butt pads are far more affordable and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and substances. We took six weeks, including a seven-day, coast-to-coast jaunt, to experiment with the five mediums available: air, animal hide, foam, gel and wood. We rode with them pre- and post-ache, in extreme temperatures and on various bikes.
Of course some of us have built-in butt pads. The greater the shape and density of your buns, the longer you can sit smiling in the saddle. Those of us who lack natural padding are gripped by buttache in the first few hours on the road. I fall on the extremely disadvantaged side, therefore I'm an expert on buttache and how to avoid it. People with
a high butt/short back tend to feel pain at two points, the bony ends of the lower rear section of the pelvis known as the ischium. This double bunache also results from poor riding posture, when your weight is carried forward over the saddle. Low butts, and those who sit back or bolt upright, seem to get a centered ache since the coccyx (what's left of our discarded tail) grinds into the seat. The nerve pain some riders encounter down the back of the left leg, is the result of coccyx-supported posture. The pressure is transferred to the lowermost vertebrae which, in turn, pinches the sciatic nerve. The ergonomics of the motorcycle also bear on how you sit on the motorcycle. Motorcycles with their footpegs set rearward cause more of the rider's weight to be taken on by the legs. If you lean forward on the handlebar, more of your weight falls on your hands, arms and shoulders. Cruisers, especially those with fottpegs set up near the front of the engine, put most of the rider's weight squarely on the seat.
Both of these bone-based aches are incredibly intense and feel like you have a bad tooth in your ass. Once you've differentiated your own contact points, changing your posture early in a ride can help distribute the burden and buy time. If you suffer from this acute pain the pads that will benefit you most will have some way to "float" your hard parts, e.g., air or gel.
Blocked circulation is another cause of discomfort and it tends to feel more generalized, an uncomfortably hot, cold or numb sensation. Those ample in the glutes complain of this foremost. Less-endowed riders describe it as a secondary ailment. If your buttache symptoms vanish at the gas station you may want to look primarily at wooden beads or a sheepskin.
Pads that increase circulation are also great for relieving heat-induced discomfort. Buttache is exacerbated by hot weather, and may even lead to stickier, secondary complications. Butt rash is something we don't like to talk about, but all experienced riders have succumbed to it. This kind of skin irritation is caused by heated moisture that clogs pores and softens the skin to the point of fragility. Sweat is most often the culprit, but a leaky rainsuit or one that doesn't breathe can cause a rash too. The beaded seat pad we rode with (and to a lesser degree, the sheepskin) let air circulate and eliminated sticky butt syndrome.
Chafing is an entirely different animal. This is when friction causes enough skin irritation to make sores, which usually occur at the underwear seams or where the edges of the seat contact the thighs. The underwear fix is easy, some of us ride with bicycle shorts instead. The lack of thick seams will be pleasing immediately and the chamois-like padding in the crotch will help draw moisture away from your skin. For those who don't like the elasticized feel or the high cost of riding shorts, both Hanes and Jockey make comfortable thigh-length cotton briefs. If it's the actual seat seams that are causing irritation, a new seat shape may be the only fix. (Although any of the pads discussed here could possibly give you the lift you need.)
Buttache is a universal problem among motorcyclists. In any form it can reach debilitating levels and override the more pleasurable sensations of riding. Finding the right butt pad can make all the difference, in the end.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article was printed, at least one of the companies, Wind-Tech, seems to have disappeared. We have also tested another brand of butt pad, and that evaluation may be found here.
Comfort Line Sheepskin Singles
Sheep's wool is one of nature's marvels. If you stick your fingers into the coat of a wet sheep, you'll find its skin is warm and dry. Yet in the hottest of summers an unshorn sheep will also thrive. A dense underlayer of hair insulates while another finer, longer layer helps the animal to ventilate heat. Unfortunately for the sheep, we (the pilferers of the planet) can't get the full effect of their evolutionary efficiency unless the animal's skin is still attached. Nothing we manufacture comes close.
Sheepskin seat covers are indeed cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It seems odd considering we're sitting on the outside of the hair and hide, yet they still ventilate, insulate, cushion and wick away moisture in much the same way they do for animals.
So when you purchase a sheepskin for your motorcycle seat you can be assured you'll be more comfortable in just about every area...but only in moderation. It won't circulate blood like the beads, and it won't dampen bone contact like air or gel, but it's an all-around good option -- the good ol' boy of seat pads. Plus, Comfort Line sheepskins are attractive, fully washable and available in beige, brown or gray, in addition to basic black. The Sheepskin Singles are short-haired (three-quarters of an inch long) and come in small, medium or large for $45. Comfort Line also offers a longer hair length in Shaggy Sheepskin (two inches long; $85), which is a full seat cover available in 10 different color styles (including predator tints like fox, grizzly and wolf).
The sheepskin we tested attaches to the seat using a four-point, hook-and-loop system that semipermanently affixes to the bottom of the seat. The pad can be removed and adjusted via four nylon straps running through metal loops on the underside of the sheepskin. This harness was easy to apply and held the pad securely.
We found the Sheepskin Singles to be very pleasant in every riding situation. In fact, Art (who is, shall we say, more comfortably padded than myself) would ride with nothing else, no matter how sore his butt got. Personally, I like it for around town, but something a bit more hard-core is better for longer rides. In fact, in a perfect world, I'd like to strap a sheepskin over a gel or air pad to combine the best of both.
Comfort Line Wood Bead Seat Cover
Back when we were planning this comparison I included the beaded job mostly in jest. It seemed so amusingly masochistic. (And I'd get to make all those bad cab driver jokes, too.) I'm glad we did include it. It broadened my objectivity considerably (about wooden beads, not cab drivers).
If you've never spent time sitting on a mass of wooden beads you don't know what you're missing. Here is one of the great bargains in the world and most everyone turns his or her nose up at it. The idea sounds silly, but that's exactly what makes it so fascinating. (Everyone thought Ben Franklin was a fool to be flying a kite in the rain.) Wooden beads feel great and they work incredibly well.
First, they keep you wonderfully cool by circulating air. In fact, your bottom will get chilled on a cold day. Next, it's better than antiperspirant for your butt. Wind moves so readily through the offset beads, you can feel it draw away sweat. Then there's the "massage effect." Don't get your hopes up, I figured out what this really means is the hard beads put pressure on aching bones and muscles. It doesn't feel rejuvenating, as much as painfully pleasant -- like pressing your fingertips into your temples when you have a headache. Lastly, when you shift your weight around, blood is restored to deprived tissues.
The beaded seat cover fits to your seat just like the sheepskin. Four elastic straps are attached to the underside of your seat using the included hook-and-loop tape, then pulled up through metal rings on the seat cover. They secure and adjust using hook-and-loop material incorporated into the straps. I used the strap system on the cross-country section of this test, where I was on one bike consistently, and it worked well. Now I just fling the beads on whatever I happen to be riding.
When choosing from the five pads I spent six weeks with, the beads were second only to the Airhawk. But compare $200 for the Airhawk with $15 for the beads, and at that price pride is no excuse. You can always throw your jacket over them at gas stops.
These beaded seat covers come in beige, beige with burgundy accents, or black with gray accents. And when you order, be sure to ask about Cycle Crafts' other cool accessories, such as helmet liners, waterproof seat covers and sun shields.
The Airhawk is the Cadillac of butt pads. The technology comes straight from the company's hospital bedding products. It's an elaborate "dry floatation" system that has proven to heal and prevent bed sores...so you can bet it'll perk up your tired, sore butt.
The cushion is a mat of eggshell-like air cells made from durable neoprene rubber. It's fully adjustable via a trick two-way valve. When you take it out of the box you turn the cushion valve counterclockwise, blow it up until the edges curl, and place it on your seat. Then, while seated, deflate it by turning the valve clockwise until you're at a comfortable "immersion" level (a recommended half-inch off the seat).
This seat pad is heaven for a sore behind. When I've used it pre-buttache, it kept the demon at bay. On the cross-country test, I didn't enlist it until I had a red-alert situation and it curbed the pain for the duration. In fact, by the end of the trip it was the only pad I would use. Their trademark slogan is, "How far do you want to go?" I can tell you, when you're sitting on an Airhawk it won't be your butt that decides.
This floatation system suspends the hard edges of the spine and pelvis so they don't come in contact with the seat. At the same time, the eggshell design improves circulation so you don't get any hot spots.
The waterproof cushion is shrouded in a removable, washable, water-resistant nylon and Lycra cover that breathes, so air can circulate through the cell system and wick away moisture. On the bottom of the Airhawk cover there's a nonskid poly and vinyl application intended to prevent the pad from slipping off the seat. However, this is the only method of stabilizing the expensive pad. While it stays put nicely when you're throwing a leg over, it'll slip from side to side if you shift your weight with any zeal. Stand on the pegs for a breather and it'll sail down the road. It would be nice if it actually attached to the seat in some manner.
The Airhawk is as sophisticated as a butt pad can be, and what you get for the money is superior performance. It comes with a detailed operations manual, extensive repair kit, and a two-year limited warranty. Cruiser seat-shaped styles come in small, large (what we tested), and a rectangular pillion pad -- all retail for a suggested $200. Roho will also custom-cut a pad to your specifications for an additional charge.
Travelcade/Saddlegel Strap-On Pads
Gel seats are all the rage these days, and with good reason. When an application of gel (a hardened polymer called "viscoelastic") is incorporated into the traditional dual-density foam construction of a custom seat, the resultant feel is quite captivating. It's kind of like sitting on a waterbed without the waves. Simply topping off your seat with a bit of the lovely gel may be a clever and gratifying alternative.
A gel pad encased in fabric has a bit of a wiggly feel when you're sitting on it. In fact, until you've adapted, the peculiar shifting sensation can be unnerving in corners. You lean the bike in and set your posture, then a fraction of a second later your lower body shifts another inch or so.
The Saddlegel pad we tested did feel nice for straight-up touring and gently bolstered the skeletal contact points. When used prior to discomfort, the ache was delayed considerably -- days, in the case of our transcontinental ride. Another nicety of a portable gel pad is it can be cooled or heated prior to a ride, and its consistency won't vary. I put ours in a hotel refrigerator overnight during a summer trip and rather enjoyed it the next day.
For a weekend ride, or a longer journey for those with some personal padding to add to the mix, the gel pad is a worthy installation. If circulation or sweat build-up is your chief complaint, however, gel might not be the best pad option available. But it will certainly be an improvement over a traditional seat.
As far as appearance and application, the Travelcade pads are a winner. The gel is enclosed in an attractive, reinforced cover with thick, breathable nylon on top and durable faux leather on the bottom. A nylon strap attaches across the seat and secures to the seat frame with adjustable, plastic-coated C-clamps. The pad is affixed to the strap using a generous swatch of hook-and-loop material. It stays put, it's unobtrusive, and quickly detachable so you can carry it away and leave the harness on the bike. Of course, at nearly three pounds, the thick, floppy pad is a bit of a burden to lug around. Travelcade offers the Universal Driver and a smaller Buddy pad for a suggested $70 and $54 respectively.
I'll be the first to say there are times when more is definitely better. Not so with foam. Unless your seat is truly torturous -- say, you're riding a Zundapp K800 with a seat like a leather potato chip -- the last thing you need is yet another layer of stiff foam. I once rode through Canada with a decorative rocking chair cushion duct-taped to my seat, and it worked just as well as this pad.
It certainly won't decrease comfort, however, and in the case of some stock seats it may be a considerable improvement. If you're looking to gain an inch-and-a-half or so in seat height -- say to see properly over your windshield -- it works great as a booster (and as a frisbee...boy, it really goes).
In its favor, the Jet Stream is well-constructed and, when properly applied, looks quite ducky on the bike. The foam is covered in corduroy on one side and leather-looking vinyl on the other. It's reversible, but the corduroy side is much more comfortable simply because it's soft, slightly breathable and doesn't encourage sliding. The pad is also the widest we tested and bends downward over the seat edges. So, if your problem is chafing or soreness caused by the seat's edges...here you go.
Wind-Tech's method of strapping down the stiff, wide pad -- and let me tell you, it needs to be strapped down securely -- works fairly well. A cord is drawn beneath the seat and then permanently clipped into barrel locks on the two provided hooks on the other side. The cord supplied is long enough to cut to the appropriate length for your bike. The hook-and-cord assembly then attaches to eyelets on each side of the pad. There's also a swatch of nonslip polyester netting that can be placed between the seat and the pad to further prevent slipping.
Wind-Tech offers the Jet Stream for a suggested $29.95. This is the economy model, so we're optimistic its pricier products may perform better. In fact Wind-Tech is working on a cushion that uses perforated panels to create a cooling air flow. Also to be released is a pad similar to the Jet Stream which uses denim in place of the corduroy. Since denim is more breathable and also absorbent, this should improve performance and offer an unusual visual accent for your bike.
Comfort Line by Cycle Crafts
4340 Old State Rd. #34
Lizton, IN 46149
(800) 770-2689, (765) 676-9173
17801 S. Susanna Road
Rancho Dominguez, CA 90221
(800) 397-7709, (310) 638-1222
(No contact information available)
For additional evaluations of, comparisons of, and shopping advice for motorcycle gear and accessories, see the Accessories and Gear section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.