• The Custom Saddlemen Seat Experience

    Friday October 2nd 2015

    Last year, I met Tom Seymour on the Cannonball Centennial Ride. He's the founder of Saddlemen Seats. After seeing a number of seats from that company on the ride and being very impressed, I asked Tom if I could get one made for my bike. "Just contact me and I'll hook you up." he said.

    When I got home I contacted him to see who in his company I should talk to about having a seat made for my beloved Blue Oil Burner and asked him what the price range would be. "I really don't want to take your money. How about we make you one for review?" he said. I was humbled and honored.

    Unfortunately, shortly after I received the seat, a series of Very Bad Things(tm) happened which have conspired to stop me in my tracks for almost a year. Because I was so late in getting anything written, I reached out to Tom to offer to pay full price for the seat on two occasions. To say I dislike disappointing people, especially ones who have been so kind to me, is an understatement. He assured me it wasn't a problem and looked forward to what I had to say when I finally got around to saying it.

    So after many thousands of miles in all kinds of different conditions, much internal agonizing, and some key insights I've finally come up with something to say on the subject of Custom Seats By Saddlemen.

    Executive Summary:

    • The ordering and build process is trouble free. You send them a seat pan. You describe what you want and how you ride. They build a seat. If you then find it's not exactly what you wanted, you can send it back once and they will alter it.

    • The degree to which they achieved what I specified is nothing short of impressive. My directions were, "Understated. Clean. Oriented towards two up brisk mountain riding." That is exactly what I got.

    • Is this the best most comfortable seat I have ever owned? Yes.

    • The quality, craftsmanship, design, and durability is top notch. The seat speaks quality and does not feel "custom".

    • Surprisingly, I take much longer rides since getting this seat. It took me a while to recognize that parts of my body that you would think are completely unrelated to the seat hurt much less. This included my legs, knees, feet, hips, and back. The net effect is my shorter day rides have been hovering around 350 miles up from 200 miles and by the time I get home I am much less beat up. This was not something I expected.

    • Contrary to what I would have thought, water drains out of the central channel quickly.

    • Unlike showroom seats, these seats are designed to be sat on for extended periods. Initially I was skeptical about how comfortable the seat would be for extended periods as the seat was quite firm, but after spending time with it I began to understand the wisdom of the design.

    • When you have something custom made to your specifications, it's easy to get caught up in what you hope to do as opposed to what you actually do and this can result in you getting what you ask for but not what you need. In my case, I ordered a seat for sport touring that was easy to move around on. What did I actually do? I spend many hours on the Interstate not moving around and wondering why I hurt more than I had hoped for.
    • When left in direct sunlight, the gel in the seat seems to soak up quite a bit of heat which if you are wearing textile gear can be quite uncomfortable until the seat cools down.

    • Because the seat was made accurately to my specifications, it's more rounded allowing me to move more easily on twisties but that means the edges of the pan tend to cut in my legs a bit when I sit still. On days I spend on back roads I pretty much experience no seat related pain, which I think is amazing. On days when I spend all day tank to tank sitting in the same position, it still hurts. However, it hurts much less than any other seat I spend extended time on. I suspect if I remember to move around just a bit while doing highway miles it would be less painful. I could also have the seat tweaked to bias it more towards long distance riding but I suspect that will compromise it's sport touring nature.

    • Having some more resources available to help the first time novice custom seat purchaser narrow down their requirements would be helpful. A Revzilla style video explaining the options and the typical gotchas would have been very helpful.

    • Is this the most comportable seat I have ever sat on? No. Another Saddlemen Seat is. (see below) I go back and forth as to whether I want to send the seat back to have it tweaked slightly altered to see if it can be made to more closely resemble the GSXR seat I saw. I would also make the passenger portion of the seat flatter and include a slight ridge to prevent the passenger from sliding forward so easily. Sadly, I no longer ride with a passenger so getting a thorough passenger review is something I am unable to provide.

    • I am sold on these seats. I will be buying ones for the guest bike and, if it's possible, also for the DR650SE dual sport.

    Last year as I was traveling across country with the Cannonball Centennial Ride, I metTom Seymourat breakfast one day. Heis the chairman of Saddlemen Seats. Over the next few days, I had the pleasure of talking to him a number of times.

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    I live in somewhat of an abstract world and details often fail me. I had noticed in passing that the seats on many bikes looked a bit unusual in that they had a channel running down the middle, but I did not initially pay much attention to them. My focus was on the ride. After talking to Tom however I did take a much closer look at the various kinds of Saddlemen made seats present on these bikes. I looked closely at the design and craftsmanship. The quality and design made quite an impression. They certainly seemed better made and "much more serious" than any seats I have encountered before.

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    I talked to a few of the riders who raved about their Saddlemen seats. It was around this time that I started to become aware of just how much I hated the seat on my bike. It was more pain maximizing torture device than cradle and had quickly gotten to the point where it felt more like brick than cushion. The Airhawk Seat Pad I had picked up before the ride turned out to be a big help but it left a great deal to be desired. With the Airhawk it's hard to lean off or feel all that connected to the bike. Fortunately, for the kind of long distance straight road riding I had mostly been doing on this trip, the pad wasn't that much of a hindrance. However, on twisty back roads I find it often gets in the way and if it's particularly hot out I also find it tends to make the ride a bit hotter.

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    I approached Tom and asked how I might be able to get a seat for my bike. Since it's such an old and relatively unpopular bike, Saddlemen didn't have an off the shelf seat for it but Tom said I could ship my existing seat in and they would be able to craft something for me. "Just contact me when you're ready and I'll hook you up." he had said.

    So when I got back home I did contact Tom, as I mentioned above. I was fully willing to pay for the seat but he suggested I do a review instead. I agreed. Tom mentioned that the April June timeframe was their silly season and wondered if I could wait until July. Of course, I could wait. They were doing me a favor and not the other way around.

    July arrived and I contacted him. He said, "I need your seat. Include your address, phone number and a sketch of what you think you would like (higher, lower, wider, narrow at nose, flat seating platform to prevent sliding - that sort of thing.). Our service techs do a verbal interview, but a sketch adds to the process (but not always necessary) - it's the starting point. With a seat and a sketch, or your comments, in front of them it is easy to go through the custom build sheet. We sell 100 "off the shelf" seats for every 1 custom, so most customers select a seat from our customers catalogs (like Parts Unlimited or Drag Specialties who sell to 10,000 dealers in the US) or from our website. We do customs for bikes where we don't offer an off the shelf selection (like your BMW.) "

    I did as I was instructed, but the problem I faced is that I had no experience to determine what features I might like in a seat. I focused on the times where I really noticed my current bucket style seat's limitations. It was hard as a board and had these ridges along the edge that always cut into my legs. So I took a photo of my existing seat and a photo of a seat that I saw on the Cannonball Ride. "Clean. Simple. Sport Touring Functional." I wrote along with the photos. I shipped a spare stock BMW K100RS seat I had from a parts bike to them and shortly afterwards received an email from one of their service techs.

    "I have your seat here at Saddlemen. We are going to customize it for you and I have a few notes in front of me. But If you could please call me or leave a phone number where you can be reached at, I would like to go into greater detail of what you will like in your seat and give you more options. Im looking forward to hearing from you and getting a custom Saddlemen seat on your bike."

    I got in touch with the service tech. He mentioned that most of the seats he builds are for cruisers and wanted to get a much better idea of how I was going to be using the seat. He asked if I wanted to have anything special done with the styling and rattled off a number of options. I replied that I just wanted something in vinyl that was clean and simple, nothing fancy, but that since it was a review if they wanted to plaster a large Saddlemen logo on it that would be fine. We talked for a bit longer and from the conversation I got the impression that he didn't understand the kind of riding I do. "Does that bike of yours lean?" he had asked.

    So I showed him this photo.

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    We talked some more when I mentioned that I also do a tremendous amount of riding with a passenger and showed him this photo.

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    I heard a bit of conversation on the other end of the phone. "Oh, I just called over the other guys to show them this photo. That's pretty cool!" he said. "Yea, she's the best passenger I've ever had." We chatted some more and after a little while I got the feeling he really understood what I thought I was looking for.

    There was a little snafu which caused the build to take a few weeks longer than expected but that was not a problem. The seat arrived almost exactly one year ago today.

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    The seat was professionally packaged and insulated against damage which was good since the shipper had clearly impacted the box.

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    When I pulled the seat out I had a "Whoa." moment. The degree to which the service tech nailed the "Simple. Clean. Sport Touring Functional." was immediately apparent.

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    I don't know what I had expected. When I think 'custom builds' I guess my thoughts go towards 'prototype'. Looking at this seat though I thought, "This doesn't look 'custom' to me at all. This looks like a production seat that's already been through countless revisions." The build quality is simply fantastic. It feels very "solid". It also feels much more like "quality" than even the stock BMW seat did.

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    I flipped it over and one could see who solidly the vinyl is secured to the seat pan. I suspect this is not going to come loose any time soon.

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    Clearly the Corbin seat I had, which had quickly turned into a brick, is more oriented towards straight up riding. The edges always cut into my thighs and in general the seat just hurt.

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    I mounted the Saddlemen seat and I noticed another thing I hadn't expected. Not that I pay a great deal of attention to looks but this seat significantly, at least to my eyes, improves the looks of the bike.

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    The plan had been to start putting miles on the seat so I could write a review before winter hit in earnest. As I mentioned above, Very Bad Things(tm) happened in succession and then Winter hit the DC area with a vengeance. I draw the line at ice. All this conspired to prevent me from doing any significant riding until spring time. I only put maybe 50 miles two up on the bike before the season was over.

    My initial impression riding the bike was that the seat at first feels much firmer than one would expect. I had anticipated a softer "initial feel" but after putting some miles on it I realized that "initial feel" is what sells bikes in a showroom but not what works after extended time on road. The seat material is a multi-layer affair including some gel. It feels to me like it "breaks in" a bit as the miles pile on. It is quite amazingly comfortable.

    The pillion position is sloped downward a bit more than I like which causes a passenger, especially if she's wearing textile gear, to slide forward too easily. If I find myself doing significant miles with a passenger again, I'll likely send the seat in to have the pillion leveled out a bit and possibly include a slight ridge to further mitigate the sliding forward issue.

    Spring rolled around and the maelstrom that was my life had not settled down much. I did manage to do a two thousand mile Deal's Gap and Smoky Mountains trip where I met Wayne Busch of America Rides Maps. He showed us an endless array of just wickedly twisty roads.

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    Interestingly, I failed to notice the seat on this trip despite the fact that I was trying to pay attention. A seat is something that is typically, at least after a few hours, first and foremost on my mind. I also failed to notice that I wasn't getting nearly as tired after 90 miles as I normally do. I instituted the "take a break every 90 miles" rule years ago because after about 90 miles everything starts to hurt and if I don't take a break I'll hurt so much that my days get cut short.

    I did notice, however, that riding my bike on these twisty roads was easier. Having less of a ridge on the sides of the seat also made it much easier when flatfooting the bike.

    It was fairly hot on this ride and one time having left the bike out to bake in the sun I noticed the seat got quite hot. I suspect the gel in the seat soaked up the heat. Having textile gear on allowed alot of that heat to transfer to me and it took some time for it to cool down. I think riding through a desert or in other hot climates, I might keep a towel or something to drape over the seat if I leave it in the sun for long.

    One thing I had been concerned about looking at the design of the seat was the water would accumulate in the center channel as I could see no visible drains. To my surprise less water pools in that center channel than would accumulate on my previous seat. If you let it sit for just a little while all the water drains out. Impressive.

    While down at the Gap, John came down to meet us on his GSXR 750. I immediately recognized that the seat was also made by Saddlemen.

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    Compared to the seat on my bike this one has a much more aggressive channel and much more padding. John let me take his bike through the Gap which was tremendous fun. The seat on his bike, at least for the 45 minutes that I was on it is wicked comfortable. (Just last night I was chided on the use of the word "wicked" which from a New Englanders perspective has a specific meaning. I do mean this seat was "wicked comfortable." You may, however, disagree.)

    If you look very closely at my seat you'll notice where the padding gets very thin towards the forward edge of the pan. I find that on extended Interstate travel that edge does cut into my legs a little bit. If I were to have the seat tweaked, aside from the passenger modifications I discussed, I'd likely have the profile adjust ever so slightly to more resemble this seat. I fear however that would raise the height a bit. Everything is a tradeoff.

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    I had intended on writing this post after getting back from the Gap trip but something was nagging at me. I just didn't feel like I had enough insight to write anything meaningful. In July and then again in August, I took the Superslab up to Ontario, Canada. Contrary to how I like to travel, these were trips on a Schedule(tm). I decided to do the 500+ miles in a day but on both trips I got late starts so had to make up time.

    It was on these trips that I noticed several things:

    • My knees, legs, hips, and back hardly hurt at all where as after about 100 miles all would previously hurt. Correlation does not imply causation but as far as the bike goes the seat is the only change I've made. While I do not know for certain, my suspicion is that the center channel is largerly responsible for this improvement. Now when I get on a normal seat, I'm immediately very aware that the center channel is missing and things are getting pressed on.

    • While it was not pain free, I was able to without going into agony ride through two full tanks of gas stopping only to get gas. In all the years I've been riding, I've never done that without the help of a tremendous amount of Advil and that was back 20 years ago. I should note that this seat might be pain free for someone without an autoimmune disease that expresses itself in joint pain.

    • I find it's much easier to shift around on the seat sliding forward or backwards and that after a few moments if I happened to be experiencing any pain it would dissipate as long as I moved. The key seems to be not to stay in any one spot for any length of time.

    • The pain I did feel was mostly the narrow contact points where ass meets seat. Sometimes being in significantly less pain gets you, irrationally, to overfocus on the small remaining pain. Slightly more padding with a flatter profile might help in this long haul context.

    On these longish superslab trips, I found myself troubled that this seat that I regarded so highly was not "Ironbutt Ready". As I keep reminding myself, context is key. Change the context ever so slightly and you have to reexamine all your assumptions.

    I had only talked about Deal's Gap and cornering with the service tech. I talked about leaning, moving around on the seat, and riding in a spirited fashion. At no point did I think to mention that I only do that for maybe one or two weeks a year and that at times I might sit for endless hours on Superslab. I had described to him the riding that I like to do but not the riding that I actually do.

    It was on the second Ontario trip that I realized I had, in fact, gotten exactly what I had asked for. I had asked for a sport touring seat molded for the purpose of carving mountain roads and this is exactly what I received. It was around this time that I also began to understand that a "review" would not be appropriate. A "review" is relevant for a commodity. I buy a thing and review it so that you can read the review and gain some understanding of what you might experience with whatever is being reviewed.

    This however, is a custom seat created according to my specificiations. Telling you that I have a 4.5 out of 5 star seat is in large part just telling you about how I view my design decisions and where I did not think clearly. So this is more a description of an experience.

    Professionally, I write largeish one off custom software systems. There are quite a few parallels between what I do and the buiding of a custom seat. My customers typically are not experienced 'custom software purchasers' so there is an education step. There's a great deal of communication involved where I try to understand not only what they are trying to convey but also what they are not telling me. I have to use imagination and experience to anticipate that unspoken needs my customers have. Inevitably, it's a trial and error process as we get to know one another. As I build versions of software, they get a better understanding of what's possible and their requirements then get adjusted. So we iterate against a moving target. This is how it always is.

    So, to view a custom seat as a "product" where a company magically "get's it right the first time" is not a constructive model. It's probably more constructive to think of a custom seat builder as a provider of a professional service. They service tech takes your requirements as you describe them and their experience in an attempt to deliver something that meets your spoken and unspoken needs within the constraints of the stock seat pan you send them.

    Given how little experience I have with ordering custom work and how little I described, it's amazing to me how well they hit this target. Is this seat an Iron Butt seat? No. But I did not ask for an Iron Butt ready seat. I think if I had the resulting seat would have compromized on it's sport touring character. Any choice involves a tradeoff between competing requirements, in this case long haul comfort versus sporting usability.

    So as I was logging all those Interstate miles wondering why it was not completely pain free I realized that I need to take responsibility for my own choices and understand the tradeoffs I had asked for. I also believe this is where the wisdom of "one free alteration" comes from. Customers, myself included, rarely know what they actually want. You have to give them something that helps them frame what they want. I do it in software. Saddlemen does it with seats.

    Towards the end of July Duncan and I restarted our weekend day rides. We had remarked a number of times on these rides that I was able to go much further before complaining that I was tired or hurting too much. While before we used to do 200 miles we were now regularly clicking off 300+ and I was hardly feeling like I had spent any time on the bike. On this last ride, we did 430 miles of hill and mountain roads and by the time I got home I was in no pain. Of course, on these roads I am moving around a fair bit.

    "This seat is perfect for the mountain road context." I found myself thinking, and it is.

    In conclusion, this is the best seat I've owned. For the purpose I asked it to perform, Saddlemen has executed to near perfection. Just like the myth of the four seasons riding suit, a seat for all purposes is likely also unattainable. Make something sportier it's going to compromise it's long haul use. I may just need to have two seats for my bike and switch them.

    If I had it to do over again I would:

    • pay more attention to the full range of riding I do. For a single seat, I would probably compromise and decide to go with a slightly more touring oriented seat and then complain about how it isn't perfect down at Deal's Gap.

    • research more existing seats. If I had encountered the GSXR seat prior to having my seat made, it would have influenced what I asked for. Additional research may have also provided me a better vocabulary to use.

    • be more willing to go through the alteration experience. It might be interesting to see whether or not there's a better compromise to be made for my use case.

    In conslusion, do I like the seat? Yes.

    Do I think it rocks? Yes.

    Do I think it's perfect? It perfectly matches what I asked for.

    Would I buy one? Yes.

    Will I buy one for my other bikes? Hell Yes.

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