I’ve got a bony bum. (Well that’s what my wife says whenever I go to sit on her lap!). Now, not being in the habit of feeling other people’s backsides, I don’t know whether my rear-end is more bony than average, but being long and lanky I know there isn’t a lot of padding over my pelvic bones. Also, as I’ve mentioned a few times on this web-site, I have a crook back; which tends to limit how far I can travel on a bike. Although what gets sore first are those pointy bones on the bottom of the pelvis. But the two are connected. When the sore-bum sets in it tends to aggravate the back; and if my back is in one of it’s playing-up sessions, those pelvic bones are also sore. So when I saw an add in Road Rider magazine for a seat pad that promised “unsurpassed comfort”, “No more numbness”, and also promised to make “the last mile feel like the first”, naturally I was interested!
The seat they were advertising was the AirHawk. The AirHawk seat is what they term a “dry-floatation” system, consisting of interconnected air-cells which they claim “eliminates painful pressure-points for a longer, more comfortable ride”. They claim this system is better than memory-foam, and better than gel-seats. That was more than enough to get me interested, so I emailed the distributor to find out more about them.
The outer section of the seat is made from a nylon / lycra fabric with a non-slip urethane base. Into this is fitted an air-bladder consisting of a number of interconnected air-cells. These are inflated by blowing into a valve at the rear of the bladder.
The idea is that the air moves between the air-cells, automatically molding itself to your shape and distributing the pressure evenly over all of your posterior, rather than having the bony bits take all the pressure. AirHawk have used computer-imaging to get a picture of how this works – which you’ll see in the photo on the left. (Note that the photo on the left is with a gel-seat; imagine how much worse it would be with your bum sitting directly on the seat!).
Now, there are two downsides about these seats. The first is that they aren’t stocked by bike shops; so you can’t go check them out. Second is that they aren’t cheap. Depending on size and material used for the bladder, prices range from $139 for a small pillion seat up to $224 for a large cruiser seat. The bladder comes in a choice of neoprene or polyvinyl. Neoprene is the better quality material, and generally recommended for riders over 75kg. (Although the distributors say they haven’t had any of the polyvinyl ones fail).
Normally I use a removable sheep-skin pad. On a few occasions when my back was bad I used a piece of 1” high-density foam cut to shape and fitted underneath the sheep-skin. That helped at the time, but wasn’t ideal. So I was certainly interested in these AirHawk seats, but was reluctant to just send away the money and buy one without checking them out first. But I ended up getting one. I’ll tell you how that came about, (because it's kind of funny!).
One day while out with my wife, we were walking along the street and came upon a group of bikes. One of them had an AirHawk seat fitted. So I went over and had a feel of it. I should have gone looking for the owner and asked if I could sit on it, but I just felt it with my hand. My wife asked what I was looking at and I told her, fairly briefly, about it. She asked me what they were called and I told her the name. This happened a couple of months before Christmas, so my wife reckoned that would be a good Christmas present. So she repeated the name in her head until we got back to the car and wrote it down when I wasn’t looking.
During the following weeks she tried to buy one. Phone calls to local bike shops didn’t help, because they didn’t keep them. The best she got was one guy who said he remembered seeing them advertised in one of the bike mags. She then spent a considerable amount of time flipping through the various bike magazines I had lying around. This was about as interesting to her as me looking through dress-making books! (As I told her later, if she’d asked I had an add cut out sitting on top of the filing-cabinet!). Anyway, eventually she found the add in one of the mags and phoned them to order one. The conversation apparently went something like this:
Sales guy: “What type of bike does your husband have?”
Wife: “I don’t know! It’s black and got two wheels, does that help?”
Sales guy: (Laughs) “I need a make and model so I can give you the right one”.
My wife then got my wallet and searched through the various papers and credit-cards until she found my rego papers. Then, armed with the required info, she ordered the seat. The right one for me was a medium size, and with the polyvinyl bladder.
So Christmas came and I was surprised with an AirHawk seat!
As soon as I could, I strapped it on and gave it a try. Although before this I had got onto the manufacturer’s web-site in the U.S. (www.shapefitting.com) to read more about them and how to use them.
I went for a long (for me!) ride to try it. Fitting it is easy, but getting the correct amount of air in it is a bit more tricky. It’s important not to over-inflate them, and it took a bit of fiddling to get that right. Even when I thought it was right I still ended up letting out a bit more air. (They do say it works best with a minimum of air - enough to keep your pelvis about 1 cm off the seat).
Of course you notice the slight difference in height, but that isn't much of a problem – not for my long legs anyway! Although the difference in height actually feels greater than it is because of it’s shape. The seats are probably made with typical U.S. bikes in mind, and so are shaped more ideally for a cruiser than a sports-tourer. In my case this results in the seat being just slightly wider than the bike’s seat, so wraps over the side slightly, which means that your legs have to go further out as well as further down to reach the ground.
So, does it work? Well, yes it does! Remarkably well, in fact! It really does relieve the pressure on the points of the bum; just as you see in the computer-image. It also smoothes out the ride. Those little bumps from patched bitumen etc that you always feel, even if not harshly, just seem to disappear.
On that first ride I took my sheep-skin cover with me, and after an hour or so I stopped and swapped it over to get a back-to-back (pardon the pun!) comparison of how it felt with it and without it. Immediately I felt the pressure on my pelvic bones and the ride wasn't as "floating-on-air" smooth. So as I said, it definitely does work!
There is a down-side though. As you’re sitting on a cushion of air, there is a slight roly-poly, "sitting on a balloon" type effect. This isn't as bad as you might think, but it does feel a little less positive in corners. Also that slight shift of weight that you do almost unconsciously now doesn't do anything, because it’s absorbed by the air-cells. So there’s an initial impression that the bike’s handling has changed. My test-route included a twisty mountain road and some open flowing country roads. On the mountain road I felt the “roly-poly” effect, but on the more open flowing sections it was fine. Also, this “sitting-on-air” can cause a bit of side-to-side rocking of the pelvis, which actually created a bit of soreness higher up in the back. I noticed this more on the twisty sections, so maybe I was tensing up to prevent this sideways movement, which caused the soreness.
Anyway, after a while of riding on the sheepskin, I stopped again and swapped back to the AirHawk. I also fiddled with the air again, letting even a bit more air out. Again the ride was super-smooth and comfy! But if I thought about it, I could feel the instability of the bum in a side-to-side direction.
When I got back to the mountain section I stopped and swapped back to the sheep-skin again. And I did feel more stable on the bike as I went down through the twisties.
I left it as it was until I stopped at a servo near home. By then the bum was beginning to get fairly sore. I wouldn't have been able to go much further without a break off the bike. I wasn’t far from home, but I put the Airhawk back on again, just to see the difference. And the relief of pressure meant that if I had to, I could have ridden further quite okay.
So, it certainly does work in relieving the pressure, and it also gives a super-smooth ride where you just don't notice those annoying irregularities in the road. But it does create a slight "wobbly" effect sitting on it. It also worked a lot better than the foam I described using a couple of times. The foam did help ease the pressure, but it didn't eliminate it like this did; and I felt there was more side-to-side movement of the pelvis with that than with this Airhawk system.
Since then I’ve used it a lot. But I don’t use it all the time. On shorter rides I generally use the sheep-skin. If my ride is going to be mainly along twisty road, then I’ll also use the sheep-skin. But for longer rides, especially on open roads or even on twisty roads if they’re a bit bumpy, I use the AirHawk. And I’ve been very grateful for it! I recall one particular road that was quite bumpy. It was rough enough that the bumps were jarring my hands through the bars, but the backside remained comfortably isolated from the rough stuff, and my back didn’t suffer – as it normally would have. On a long ride that will include, say, a twisty mountain road, I sometimes take the sheep-skin with me and swap over when we get to the twisty bits. It doesn’t take long to swap from one to the other.
So I don't use it all the time, but I do use it quite a lot, and it certainly allows me to ride further than I would have been able to without it. And on that basis I have no hesitation in recommending them! Although I would add a proviso that it would depend on what type of bike you ride. If you’re on a sports-bike and enjoy blasting through the twisties you probably wouldn’t like it. But if you ride a cruiser I reckon you’d never take it off! For tourers or sports-tourers, well I’ve described that above.
As far as I know there are two places who sell these. The add I first saw was from Aussie Biker Industries. (www.aussiebiker.com.au Ph: 07 5474 1050). Where my wife actually bought it from was The AirHawk Guy. Ph: 1300 783 128). She found them to be very helpful. I have spoken to them since then, and they’re nice people to deal with. I’ve put a link to their web-site on the “Who Am I?” page.
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