Motorcycle Ergonomics: Getting That Kink Out
Some Riding Positions Can Cause Severe Strain!
I'd been riding across the country on a Yamaha FJ1100 and had just passed through the Four Corners area (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet) when I determined that I'd had enough. This was one of the very few times in my motorcycling life (going back to a Honda MiniTrail when I was 12) when I just couldn't wait to get off a motorcycle and with any luck, never get back on it again.
There was nothing wrong with the FJ1100. It had the same magnificent, torquey, spin-happy engine that I had enjoyed so much on my Full-Dress XS1100. It was a very competent, fast, good-handling sport-tourer. But there was one design feature that I will never forgive the Yamaha engineers for in a thousand lifetimes. The handlebars were:
1) Not adjustable in any meaningful way.
2) Not replaceable as they were cast metal pieces, not tubes.
3) Torture devices that placed my body in a position that the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada would envy.
I've ridden bikes with racing clipons that were more comfortable than this FJ. At least with the clipons, you're spread-eagled across the bike and can rest your torso on the fuel tank. The FJ caught me as if I was half-way through a push-up. In slow traffic it was agony. At freeway speeds it was numbing. The only time I felt that I wasn't holding up at least half of my body weight on my wrists alone was when I had been blasting through Kansas: From the eastern to the western border of the state averaging 132.6 mph including fuel and pee stops. No, I don't know why I wasn't arrested or killed and have no excuse other than I was younger and stupider, but hitting speeds of 160 mph on that long flat Interstate was the only time that enough wind hit my torso to lift me up enough so that my hands didn't want to fall off my arms.
If anything will teach you the importance of motorcycle ergonomics it's riding across a continent on a motorcycle which is not set up to fit your body. I'd rather have root canal surgery sans anaesthetic than ever ride that FJ1100 again. That's why I'm so surprised when I see riders in all sorts of incredibly awkward positions on their motorcycles. I know some do it to be "cool," but I can assure you that there is nothing cool about slipping vertebra discs.
Motorcycle riding positions range from the Cruiser (derogatorily nicknamed Sit Up And Beg), to the Standard, and all the way forward to the Racer. Every bike you can find will be set up at some degree between these positions.
To my aging butt, the Cruiser is by far the most comfortable. I no longer try to cross Kansas at 132.6 mph averages, so the biggest complaint about the Cruiser position which is that the wind always tries to knock your torso backwards is not a factor. I haven't exceeded the speed limit for years, and the wind factor becomes noticeable only at speeds well over 70 mph. There are two major problems that some riders cause for themselves in the Cruiser position. They place their handlebars too high and/or they place their footpegs way too far forward. The perfect Cruiser position is exactly how you would sit on a formal dining room chair with your feet flat on the ground. Now place your hands directly in front of you in the most natural position and that's where your handlebars should be. If you set up your apehangers so that your wrists are up around your ears and your forward controls so that you look like you're watching TV spread out on a La-Z-Boy, you not only are causing your body to be in an unnatural position but you are severely restricting the control you have over the motorcycle.
There are few bad things that can be said about Standard. As long as the footpegs are not set too far back and the handlebars are not too short (some modern bikes have chopstick nubs for handlebars) it is generally the most ergonomically proper position for around-town and freeway cruising.
Racer is bad. Very bad. It may be fine if you're 17 and trying to win the regional 125cc roadracing title, but for everyday use it's atrocious. First of all, you have almost no proper leverage or control at around-town speeds. Your arms are too busy holding up your body weight to be able to be sensitive enough to the tricky balancing act that the Racer position forces upon the rider with the way set back footpegs. Even at legal freeway speeds the Racer position is not recommended as your eyes are not high enough to see above traffic and having your neck stuck as if you were staring up at the sky for hours at a time can cause very serious strain problems. Yes, if I were racing around the Daytona circuit at 180 mph I'd want to be in the Racer position but for the street? Never.
No matter what position you choose to ride, the seat is a critical aspect of ergonomics. Most seats, especially on dual-purpose, sports and even naked bikes are simply not worthy of the name. They are usually little planks which the scrawniest derriere would find painful. I loved my Kawasaki 650 Tengai, but the seat was so narrow and so hard that I either had to ride almost hanging off the back of the seat or end up in the situation that was well described in the New York Times:
In men, a sheath in the perineum, called Alcock's canal, contains an artery and a nerve that supply the penis with blood and sensation. The canal runs along the side of a bone, and when a cyclist sits hard on a narrow saddle, the artery and the nerve are compressed. Over time, a reduction of blood flow can mean that there is not enough pressure to achieve full erection.
Er... no thanks!
The proper motorcycle seat is shaped like an old tractor seat to accommodate the outer curvature of your hips. This "tractor seat" is doubly important for riders like me whose hips share circumference with a tractor tire. Old time motorcycle seats were welted with a round raised strip around the entire seat. This welt was as hard as steel and would dig into your leg cutting off the circulation. It's hard to believe but you can still buy aftermarket seats with the same welting!
There are some simple changes you can make to your bike to make it fit you much better over the long haul. It's definitely worth getting the wrenches and spending an hour in the garage to "dial in" your bike's ergonomics. Your body will thank you for it!
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