Depending on the kinds of motorcycle sites you like to frequent, you may come across advice for short riders on occasion (including on this very site). In a way, that term is shorthand for a whole host of characteristics that may or may not be paired with a rider’s full height when standing against a wall. A 5’3” rider with a 31-inch inseam, for example, is going to have a different experience than a 5’3” rider with a 27-inch inseam. (The latter rider in that scenario is me, by the way.)
That’s a full four-inch difference in leg length. When you’re a short rider figuring out how to negotiate with a given bike, every millimeter matters. Arm length and hand size also make a difference—as can torso length, to a degree.
Those aren’t typically talked about as frequently, but most vertically challenged people also tend to have shorter arms and smaller hands, which can affect how a given bike fits you. Longer legs will more easily help you reach the ground, but a longer torso might make your reach to the handlebars easier. We all have our strengths and our challenges; what can I say?
In this video from the UK site Bennetts BikeSocial, admittedly tall motorcycle journalist Michael Mann talks with the 5’6-and-¼" moto journalist (and RideApart contributor) Adam Child, as well as experienced but short rider Leonie, who is 5’3.5” tall. Now, Michael is over six feet tall, so he doesn’t have to worry about the same things that Adam and Leonie do. So, while he asks questions, he mainly lets the two shorter riders guide the conversation.
Both Adam and Leonie give a lot of extremely useful, solid advice. Seat height is one factor, but it’s far from the only factor. Seat width, suspension sag when you sit on the bike (and whether you can adjust the preload) can also play roles. Additionally, whether a given bike has a low center of gravity or is top heavy; has panniers or a top box; or has controls that are too far away from the seat for ease of use can all affect a short rider’s experience in the saddle.
They also discuss the additional mental calculations that come along with being a short rider, including the careful assessment and planning that goes into bringing your bike to a full stop. What’s the ground like where you’re stopping? Are there divots or potholes, is there gravel, is there slippery paint at a road crossing, or perhaps a steep uphill to consider?
How is the road cambered, and where will your bike and the foot (or feet) you put on the ground be placed in relation to that camber? Neither of them mentions the necessity of planning whether your feet go in front or behind the foot pegs at a stop, but that’s apparently the difference between my 27-inch inseam and their 31-inch inseams. If your legs are as short as mine, that’s something else you’ll need to take into account. All of it can be done, within reason—but it requires a whole lot of strategy.
One conclusion they reach by the end of the video is that it’s a lot easier in 2023 to find bikes that fit a wider variety of rider heights than in the past. While that’s certainly true, I would also argue that there’s still work to be done.
Offering a range of low and tall seat accessories directly from OEMs is great. However, if riders can’t throw a leg over a bike with a low saddle in the showroom, how are they supposed to know if it will work for them? People are willing to spend money on things they know will work, but they’re much less likely to do so if they’re not sure.
By the same token, offering low seat height bikes on demo rides is also key. I’ve been to demo truck events in recent years where both BMW and Zero brought along low seat options for riders to experience, which was brilliant. It’s the difference between convincing a short rider that they belong on a bike and leaving them holding someone’s backpack on the sidelines while their taller buddies have all the fun.
Another important point raised in this video is how much of a role a rider’s confidence plays. By making low seat options something that isn’t only available as a special order, a wider range of riders will likely be able to see themselves on a given bike. If you’re a person of any height who learns by experience—as so many are—then it should be easy to understand why.