Bike seats or saddles generally come with one of two types of cushioning – gel or memory foam. Gel bike seats (or seat covers) are softer and provide better initial comfort. This makes them suitable for casual or recreational cyclists as well as beginners. Memory foam seats take some more time to get used to but provide better overall comfort on long rides. Hence, pro bikers prefer this type of saddle. In this article, we have discussed both types and their differences. We have also included advice about what to look for in saddles and how to find the right one for you.
Gel bike seat explained
A gel bike seat contains one or two bladders that are filled with a flexible, elastic gel. Gel saddles and gel seat covers are quite soft and provide a high degree of comfort. If you are someone who rides on average less than an hour and only a few times a week, then you need something that can cushion the sit bones and contours better to the shape of your body. Therefore, for beginners and casual riders, gel bike seats may be the right choice. However, professional and advanced level cyclists avoid gel saddles because too much plushness is actually uncomfortable for longer rides. Also, the gel tends to get compacted and loses its shape faster than foam.
Pros – soft and comfortable on short rides, no ‘break-in’ period, feels excellent from the get-go
Cons – become uncomfortable on long rides, loses spring-back property more quickly
Memory foam seat explained
Bike seats containing memory foam can come in varying levels of softness. Typically though, foam seats are not as soft as gel seats. Consequently, it will take some time for your body to build up endurance before the saddle stops feeling painful. But once that period is over, they are much more comfortable than gel, especially on cycling journeys that last a few hours. If a seat is too soft it does not feel great after an hour or so. Additionally, foam seats can retain the quality of springing back to shape for a longer time. For these reasons, most seasoned cyclists choose saddles with firm foam. Some of them even opt for no padding at all.
Pros – highly comfortable on even the longest rides, does not lose shape for a longer time
Cons – harder than gel, needs some time to get used to
Difference between gel and memory foam seat
|Gel Seat||Memory Foam Seat|
Comfortable for short rides
Feels comfortable from the beginning
Gets compacted faster
Suitable for occasional riders and beginners
Better comfort on long rides
Takes some time to get used to
Slower to get compacted
Preferred by serious riders
Whether you want a gel bike seat or a foam one, there are some factors that you should consider before making a purchase. These factors depend on your riding position, riding style, sit bones width, and most of all personal preference.
1.Saddle Width and Shape
The best way to sit on a bike saddle is to place your weight on your sit bones. Hence, the width of a saddle should closely correspond to the spacing between your sit bones. Generally for recreational riding, bikes have a wider seat that delivers short-term comfort. Mountain bike saddles are narrower and road bike saddles are the narrowest. This is to get better performance and prevent chafing. Another thing to consider is the shape of the saddle. When viewed from the side, some saddles are flat while others have a wavy shape. When looking down at a top view, some saddles gradually go from wide to narrow, and some change width quite sharply.
2. Amount of Padding
For bike seat padding, not only do you get the choice between gel and foam, but you can also choose how much of it is included. Many people think that the more padding the better. However, this is not the case. Plush padding is only comfortable on short rides that are less than an hour. For longer rides, it’s better to have little or sometimes even zero paddings. Endurance cycling forms such as road biking and cross-country are better done with harder saddles. Meanwhile, urban/recreational bikes relatively have a lot of padding.
Difference in padding
You will notice that many bike saddles have a groove or cut-out down the middle. The rest do not have such a feature. These are provided to keep pressure off the soft tissues and maintain ample blood flow. However, opinions about grooves and cut-outs are widely split. Some riders love them and others hate them. You can only find out which group you belong to after trying out saddles both with and without them.
Saddle with cut out
The outer cover of a saddle is also an important part that can enhance your riding experience. For road cyclists and triathletes, it is important to be in a stable position on the seat and not slip. Therefore, saddle covers that are grippy or have a rough surface are better suited for them. On the other hand, mountain bikers need to move around a lot on the saddle. So, a smooth cover is more apt in this case.
Trying out bike saddle
By now you might have a good idea about what to look for in a saddle. But the only way to find the bike saddle that’s just right is through trial and error. The seat can make or break your biking experience, so it is worth it to take your time. We recommend going to a bike shop and trying out the selection there. The people there will be able to help you and some shops have dedicated testing sections for this.
If this is not possible, then you could order a bunch of saddles online. Try these out at home by trying to replicate your riding position as much as possible. Sitting on a saddle for a few minutes should be enough to tell you if it works for you or not. The perfect one will feel comfortable and there won’t be any pain or numbness. You can simply return the other ones.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. Can I wash a gel bike seat?
Ans.: To clean a gel bike seat, use some dish soap and a brush to scrub off any dirt you see. Follow up by wiping the seat with a damp cloth and letting it dry. If you use a seat cover, then you can just take it off and soak it in cool water with detergent for about 10 minutes. In the end, scrub the cover with a piece of cloth, rinse, and let it dry. Do not wring it.
Q2. What is the best gel bike seat cover?
Ans.: The best gel bike seat cover is one that combines comfort, grip, and moisture absorption. It should also be easy to mount and conform perfectly with the saddle. Moreover, a gel seat cover should not be too soft as that will not provide enough support and become uncomfortable on longer rides.
Q3. Where should I sit on a bike saddle?
Ans.: When properly seated, your body weight should be supported by the sit bones (ischial tuberosities) since they can withstand the load. There should be no pressure on the soft tissues between the sit bones. However, as you lean forward the weight gradually shifts to the pubic rami which are narrower. This is why road and triathlon bikes have narrow saddles. Additionally, this means that getting the right shaped saddle is also important so that it can properly support you in a range of positions.
Sitting positions | Credit: bikerumor.com
As you can see, both gel and memory foam are great options when it comes to bike saddles. Ultimately, it comes down to what kind of riding you usually do and which one you prefer. Your best bet would be to try out different saddles and what works for you. Don’t buy a specific saddle just because someone else said it feels great. Shopping for the right bike saddle can be intimidating, but the extra time and effort are worth taking.