Even with care, over time a motorcycle’s seat could get ripped up or torn with enough use. Seat covers are often the most tortured items on a motorcycle. They have to contend with your bum on it every time you ride, and when you’re not on it, it’s exposed to the elements.
Rain or shine, motorcycle seats have to be hardy and not crack, rip, or puncture. Seat material also has to be grippy enough for the bike to remain comfortable and to keep you planted as you ride. That being said, if you’re looking to replace the seat material on your bike’s saddle, here are some things to look out for.
Parts of a seat
There are typically three layers to a motorcycle seat. The first layer is a backing plate or a plastic molding for the chassis of the bike. This part is the skeleton of your motorcycle’s seat, and it will evenly distribute the pressure and provide a mounting point for the other layers on the seat. In the case of more track-oriented super sportbikes, the base of a seat will likely be a fiberglass or carbon fiber material for lightness and added rigidity.
Following that, the next will be the foam layer or otherwise referred to as the comfort layer. Most bikes will have one layer, while others will have more. Some manufacturers, custom, and aftermarket brands fit motorcycle seats with a robust and supportive foam layer along with a gel layer to help make the bike comfortable. Some cafe racers will feature very peculiar seat shapes with multiple layers of foam supplemented by a cowl. Other bikes will already have a gel insert or a big portion of foam. You'll commonly find thicker seats on cruisers or on adventure tourers.
Lastly, we have the seat cover or the upholstery. This is the outermost layer of the seat, and it protects the other layers and serves as one of the main contact points between a rider and his motorcycle.
Vinyl, Leather, and other Synthetics
Vinyl is an affordable and durable option that most manufacturers use. It conforms to you well enough, but being a man-made material, it has the benefit of being less prone to cracking and fading over time. There are vinyl covers, however that are made to mimic leather. These materials will offer the look of a crafted leather seat, but with none of the extra care needed. The drawback of this material is that you will have to be a bit picky with the quality, as a subpar choice can lead to premature cracking and damage.
Leather, on the other hand, offers supple and premium comfort in contrast to vinyl. Being a natural material, it will develop wear marks and patina over time, which can be a good thing for some vintage bike owners that like a worn look. It’s also more expensive than vinyl, and it can degrade in the rain. However, if you buy the right leather, there are several modern treatments that prevent the finish from wearing out and prevent it from cracking and getting affected by the rain. If you plan on getting a leather seat for your motorcycle, you have to take proper care of it. With leather conditioners and cleaners.
Motorcycles can utilize a variety of foams. The most common is polyurethane, which can be made with a range of densities. In particular, you want open-cell polyurethane foam for your bike’s saddle for comfort, but closed-cell polyurethane is better for more extreme applications like racing because of its support and firmness. It’s a cost-effective solution if you’re looking for a replacement or for your bike’s seat. However, it’s not going to be as comfortable as the other options available.
Memory foam is a more premium foam option that can pad anything from your bed to your pillow. On a motorcycle, the foam will conform to your buttocks, giving you a molded fit and added support. However, the material alone is only comfortable at the start. Over time, the foam will feel dense and hard, that’s why it’s usually complemented by other materials in the comfort material of the seat.
Motorcycle seats are usually padded with a layer of foam. Some seats are thicker than others, and others are thinner than some. To add an extra bit of comfort, you can add an extra gel layer on the top of the seat to help relieve pressure.
Check for a fitted gel insert for your bike. Either that or you can buy a whole seat that has a gel insert already fitted in. If not, then you can buy a generic insert, then take your bike to an upholstery shop to shave the seat and place the insert in. You will have to give up a bit of foam for this to fit properly, however.
What’s the best?
It all depends on what you want out of your motorcycle’s saddle. If you’re looking for a replacement for the stock seat material because it’s on the way out, then you can just go for the most durable and hardiest options available. Open-cell polyurethane is the most common option, and most manufacturers and seat tailors use this material as a base layer or as the only layer in a seat. Going with the standard option is completely valid unless you are looking to upgrade.
If you have specific needs, then you might want to change things up a little. If you’re going racing, we recommend that you go with the firmer closed-cell polyurethane foam and pair it with a vinyl seat cover. It won’t be that comfortable, but on track, you will be moving around on your bike anyway.
For long-distance tourers, adventure bikes, and sport-tourers, we recommend that you go with a multi-layer foam and gel seat with a vinyl cover or the stock cover. Dealers may also carry in-house options as is the case with BMW and their premium seat offerings. Typically, these options will have a combination of polyurethane, memory foam, and a gel insert, and potentially a more premium seat covering perhaps some extra stitches or a bit of design.
If you are on a budget and looking to enhance your bike’s comfort, then you could just buy a gel insert then install it under the cover and shave a portion of the seat for it to fit. The gel insert is by far the most recommended option that you can use without replacing the foam in the seat.
Then, if you’re more appreciative about a beautiful bike, then you can definitely go for a leather seat cover and perhaps a combination of comfort layer materials to really give your bike a bespoke and custom look.