In the blizzard of hype and hoopla about all the latest bikes on the market, there may be some value in taking a step back and thinking things through when it comes to picking out your first or next motorcycle.
Ok—if you’ve been down the road a few years and have put some laps on a variety of bikes, this installment may not tell you much you don’t already know, but if you’re looking at your first bike or one of your first bikes or if you’re re-entering the motorcycle market after some years away, there may be some tidbits we can offer to put you on the track to a more satisfying acquisition.
First—and this is a point often overlooked—pick a bike that fits you. That’s right, a motorcycle is the only vehicle that you will buy where you should think about the right fit as carefully as if you’re buying new clothes at designer prices.
Forget all the hyperbole of the advertising and some of the reviews you’ll read. If the bike physically is uncomfortable, it may be a bad investment. All the glowing reviews about horsepower, torque curves, quarter mile times and lap times mean nothing if you realize the seating position sucks and you can’t stand to ride the bike for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
So, how do you get the right fit? First, keep your inseam in mind. That’s right—I said inseam. The distance from the saddle to the ground matters because if your legs are short and the bike’s saddle height is tall, you may find it awkward to manage the machine when coming to a stop, trying to park or back up. Even getting on and off can be problem.
This can make stopping on a hill and maneuvering the bike from the saddle at walking speed very difficult, even to the point of potentially causing the rider to lose balance and drop the bike. Rule of thumb: if your center of gravity is low, so should be your bike’s—and saddle height is an important dimension.
Similarly, if you’re six-foot-six and the bike is designed to really be comfortable for people more around five-foot-six, you may find yourself with a bike that is not only cramped and uncomfortable feeling, but potentially awkward or even dangerous.
Next, think about your sleeve length. Some bikes are physically so large and long that the distance from the saddle to the handlebars requires full arm extension and perhaps even constant forward-lean to reach the grips if the rider is small and has short arms. You might be tempted to think that this really doesn’t matter much if you like a bike’s styling. However, if you intend to actually ride the machine and not just let it sit in the driveway for looks, the importance of this aspect of the bike’s fit to your frame will quickly become apparent. I’ve ridden bikes that made my arms, shoulders and back ache after as little as 20 minutes in the saddle.
Saddle height and handlebar placement are two key factors in rider position. The third factor—one which is often overlooked—is foot rest type and location. There are three basic types of foot rests and three general configurations for placement and some bikes have more than one to choose from.
Foot rests can be foot pegs—essentially a round bar-like peg with a rubber wear surface; wide pegs with a larger, flat wear surface ranging from about two to four inches in width, or foot boards—wide, flat plates large enough to accommodate the rider’s boot entirely on the wear surface.
The Honda VT1100 Shadow Ace pictured above is a good example of bike design that affects how it fits and feels for the rider. It has forward-mounted foot boards, big, wide handlebars and a low, scooped out seating position. While the low saddle makes it easier for short folks like me to reach the ground, the position of the foot boards makes standing on the boards impossible and the wide tiller makes steering feel slow and cumbersome.
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Foot rest position has a major impact on rider comfort and tends to be dictated by the type of riding you prefer to do. Rear-set pegs attached high and rearward on the bike’s frame are common on sport bikes or café racers, generally used in conjunction with low, narrow handlebars, the riding position that results is compact, aerodynamic and very forward-leaning. This is excellent for high performance riding, but not necessarily ideal for day-long rides. This café racer illustrates the rear-set pegs, low bars set-up.
Peg placement roughly amidships or directly down from the seat is common on most conventional street and off-road motorcycles. This location tends to place riders feet almost directly under the seat with the lower legs nearly straight down or slightly swept back or slightly forward. Most riders find this placement comfortable for riding moderately long distances, but tall riders may find this arrangement cramped on bikes that also have low saddle height. It allows for easy changes of position on the seat and for standing on the pegs to stretch your legs, see over view obstructions, and to allow your legs instead of your back to absorb some jolts from rough terrain.
Some bikes do offer very low saddle height, low bars, and sporty styling like this Repsol micro-replica-racer, but this may be taking things to the extreme.
Opposite rear-set pegs is the “forward-mount,” or forward controls, where the foot rests are out near the front down-tube of the bike’s frame. Forward controls are pretty common on cruisers and customs, but may not be a good fit for all situations. For example, they have the disadvantage of making it impossible for the rider to stand on the pegs to help absorb the shock of striking a road hazard such as a pothole, and it may also lock the rider into one riding position.
Other seemingly minor details can make the bike a little less than ideal; things like having a clutch that it tough to pull. Riding around town, no big deal, but on day-long rides with lots of shifting, it can cause a lot of fatigue. Mirrors that show you nothing but your own shoulders no matter how you adjust them can not only become a pet peeve, but be a safety factor as well.
The weight of the bike figures into all this. A bike that is tall, long, and heavy can be a real handful if you have to do something as mundane as moving it backwards up a gravel-covered incline. It may be that more bikes end up down on the road during maneuvers like that than actual tumbles while underway. They rarely result in injury or much damage, but they sure can be embarrassing.
Over the years, when I’ve stopped to check out bikes for sale, a surprising number of people have told me the reason they’re selling their bike goes something like this: “I loved the look and styling of the bike and I thought with more practice, I’d be able to handle it, but it’s just too (varying by seller—big or tall or heavy—or some combination thereof).
So, if you’re in the market for a bike and you think you’ve found the right one, don’t forget to try it on for size before you buy.