The lowdown on short riding
Oh, the misery of being short, lusting after a dream bike and realising you have no hope of reaching the ground once aboard. Unfortunately, the list of skyscrapers is getting longer and putting more bikes literally out of reach — especially the mammoth adventure tourers. Seat heights that are already lofty are creeping up even more in the quest for more suspension travel and cornering ground clearance. Mounting footpegs high enough so they don’t scrape on full lean means they have to be set higher on the frame, but to achieve comfortable seat/peg relationships seat heights have to rise accordingly. While short riders are in despair, to their surprise, even some medium height riders are now having difficulty with tall bikes, and we can’t all be Gaston Rahier who pilots a bike with a saddle reaching to his chest!
Sometimes you have to face the fact that your object of desire is just too high for you, learn to live with disappointment then choose another, lower option.
Most seat heights these days are considered low at 810mm, but that’s still 30mm too tall for someone who is only 157cm. And, what’s more, seat height is only part of it because you could have a reasonable seat height, but the saddle might be very wide and you still can’t reach the ground.
Sadly, high seats can deter new riders completely or prevent them from moving up from their learner bike. Or it drives short riders who would really prefer a road bike to low-seat cruisers which can also be a tricky option for them. Even if they prefer a cruiser, for the short-legged rider the stretch to forward-set foot controls and long reach to the bars can do horrible things to your back, brings you too far forward on the seat and puts too much weight on your tailbone — besides compromising your machine control.
One size does not fit all
When you have short arms and legs and small hands and feet you may have problems with handling the controls on a motorcycle, whether it’s tall or not, so here are the things to check before you put down your cash.
Here’s how you check a bike’s handlebars location for comfort and control (this is not just a test for shorties either — everyone should do this exercise).
Ask the salesperson to put the bike on its centre stand, or ask them to hold the bike upright for you. Get on and sit comfortably slumped as you would be when riding — like a sack of potatoes, as the riding instructors like to say.
Close your eyes then raise your arms in front to where you instinctively expect the handlebars to be. Keep your arms still, open your eyes and see how close that is to the reality of the handlebars mounted on that particular bike. You can see the difference between real life and your imaginary ideal bar position. The real bars could be higher, wider or narrower, or they could only be an inch or two different from your eyes-closed expectation. In that case you are in luck. But if not, hopefully, the salesperson standing beside you will be able to tell you if the bike can be modified.
If you have to stretch too far to reach the bars, there are a couple of solutions. You can ask your dealer to loosen the handlebar clamps and rotate the bars and controls nearer so they fit you. If that doesn’t work, then there is a range of handlebar risers that will bring the bars closer to you while maintaining the standard bend, but this could involve changing to shorter/longer clutch and brake cables.
Another important exercise to try is to see if you can turn the bars from lock to lock without having to take your hands off the grips, or having to contort yourself. Of course, you steer a bike by countersteering (push/pulling on the bars), but there are occasions when you want to steer round. Get the dealer to watch you.
Next, if the actual bend of the handlebar itself is way, way outside your eyes-wide-shut exercise, then you may have to consider having new handlebars fitted. Beware, this is not something you should try at home or you will lose your mind.
On a long ride, small hands may also have a problem with handlebar grips that are too big. After you’ve ridden the bike for some time you can judge whether you want new handlebar grips fitted. Alternatively, you can buy an accessory slip on friction flipper that keeps the throttle constant, and we know people with arthritis who use them.
Next, see if you can operate the clutch and brake lever properly with your little-biddy fingers. If you have to rotate your wrist or take too much of your hand off the grips in order to squeeze the brake and clutch levers, then you will not have total control of the motorcycle.
Lots of bikes now have span-adjustable levers, and so you could be in luck because you simply rotate the knob to bring the lever closer in. Also make sure that the levers are neither too high nor too low for correct and comfortable operation. Your elbows should be bent; your wrists straight and your fingers should just be able to flop down onto the levers.
Your bike should have a good range of adjustment for the foot levers, both gear and brake. These must be adjusted so you can sit on the bike with your toes down and slightly out and be able to pivot your foot to the levers. Lots of bikes now have adjustable footpegs so you can raise or lower them to suit you. Cruiser forward controls presenting two problems – how to reach the bars and how to reach the pegs!
The Hyosung Aquila has a neat footpeg setup where simply changing the length of a rod brings the footpegs back far enough for short people. On our Hyosung test, even the taller testers preferred the pegs nearer the seat. The dealer will do this for you. On other cruisers, fitting optional floorboards can sometimes give you a little more room to play with, and you can get tapered floorboards that don’t scrape so readily.
If the bike has a windscreen try to establish whether you will be able to see over it, but make sure that it is not so low that you will get the full blast of the wind on your helmet and you’ll be fighting turbulence the entire time.
BMW has gone to extraordinary lengths to make many models acceptable to a variety of riders by offering seat height options. You can also have stuffing taken out of the standard seat, exchanging a lower seat for butt discomfort.
Or you can buy a thinner, better padded aftermarket seat, which many riders have done to their satisfaction. Of course, you can’t do any of this to a sports bike because you are already sitting on the plank from hell and the very idea of skimming or removing more padding is anathema.
The standard option of winding off the preload so the rear sits lower has certain drawbacks which we will tell you more about in an upcoming issue when we discuss having your bike lowered by an expert, like Teknik at Penrith in Sydney’s Blue Mountain region.
You can buy built-up boots, or have yours altered with thicker soles. Gaerne now makes very good ladies riding boots, one pair with high heels, and Rossi Senora Ladies boots sell out quickly. Take a look at these boots in our Fitz section of Pitz, Fitz and Bitz starting on page 29.
Persevere and you will find jackets that are not too bulky and have the correct arm length. Try on as many jackets as it takes. The same with riding pants. Dainese in particular seem to make leathers that fit women. Also, there are some serious racing gloves with full armour now that fit small hands — just make sure you don’t have a fingertip overlap, because when you reach for the brake your empty glove fingertips can get in the way and slow your braking down. Helmets have always been easy, with sizes from XS.
Once you’ve done all you can to make your bike fit you, it’s time to think about the strategies you need to adopt as an altitudinal-challenged (short) rider. Remember, it is not necessary to be able to put both feet flat on the ground. If you can get one foot flat on the ground then you are in with a fighting chance because then all you do is slide one butt cheek over when you stop. And this is where your riding skills come in.
Riding skills for shorties
If you can only put one foot down you must think carefully about situations that long-legged riders take for granted. The rule is “pre-planning” and it often means going your own way rather than blindly following the rest of your riding buddies into situations that could mean a tip-over for you.
1. Before you come to a stop anywhere study the lay of the land. Despite correct form being to keep your right foot on the back brake and your left foot down, you may have to put your right foot down on the high side and use the front brake to steady the bike.
2. Watch out for troughs and potholes and make sure you don’t stop over them. Never stop with one of your wheels on a speed hump or you’ll be sorry! In lines of traffic, ignore the pressure from following traffic to close up the gap and put you in an untenable situation. It’s only five feet. They can wait.
3. Never ride straight into a downward sloping parking space because you won’t be able to paddle out of it, and it may be too steep for you to pull your bike out without assistance, especially if you are loaded with gear.
4. Also, be careful if the parking space has an upward slope because you may be able to roll back out, but you could be caught out by the gap when the back wheel and the front wheel straddle a dip at the same time!
5. Sometimes it’s worth pulling up a few feet from where you want to a park, putting the sidestand down, dismounting and pushing the bike backwards so it’s at the correct angle and faces out for easy take-off when you’ve ready to go again.
6. Watch the camber of the road when parking. Even if all your taller mates can do a u-turn on a steeply cambered road and then comfortably park on a severe slope, you may not be able to do it. Go your own way and find your own flat parking space, even if you have to park across the road. You’re not inept; you’re a smart rider avoiding a graceless fall.
7. When parking on a sloped driveway, park to one side or the other to give you room to turn the bike around. Learn the proper way to push your bike. Lean it slightly into you, head up, eyes front. Often people will try to help you push and they inevitably want to keep the bike upright, away from the support of your hips. Tell them what you want them to do before they wrench the bars out of your hands!
8. When you stop, look for places where you know you can safely put your sidestand down without the bike being too upright because you could accidentally bump it off the stand when mounting up. Sometimes the opposite may happen and the bike will be leaning too far over on the sidestand for you to slide over, put your foot on the ground and heave the bike upright. Where others stop may prove to be a hazard for you, so ask them to consider that when making impromptu stops by the side of the road.
9. Some sidestands require prehensile toes before they will deploy or retract. Others will spring up before you are ready. If your bike has a problem stand, you need to be even more aware or you could be trapped on your bike until someone comes along and helps you. If possible, practice getting off your bike with the stand up.
10. Beware of gravel! Make sure your boots have ultra-grippy soles. Before taking off on gravel, sweep it away with your boot before you mount up and commit to the take off.
11. Servos can be deadly. Always scan the ground for slippery manhole covers, radiator fluid leaks, diesel or petrol spills. Most riders will have problem with these, but if you only have the toe of one boot on which to balance, you may go down.
12. Ride smoothly and anticipate stops. Always stop and put your foot down at roundabouts and junctions because the unexpected speeding driver can force you to brake suddenly, lose your balance and tip over. Keep an eye on traffic behind and make your intention to stop obvious.
13. Never pull up too close to the white line in the right hand lane at traffic lights. Not only will staying back a little protect your front wheel from all those corner-cutting car drivers, but if a bus or truck messes up his turn across your bows the driver will sit there expecting you to reverse the bike to get out of his way, and while it’s his fault, you will feel like an idiot because you can’t paddle back.
14. Mounting up. Very short riders can learn to mount up like horse riders do, especially when you have luggage on the back seat. Step up on the footpeg, (being careful to hold the front brake on), and then swing your leg up and over. Only do this if your propstand has a chunky mounting or it could bend.
15. Practice your slow speed riding skills and develop very good balancing skills.
16. And … learn to make the kerb your friend.