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:

Cruiser: Handlebars on this Victory Vegas are reasonable but the footpegs are way too far forward for control.
Cruiser: Handlebars on this Victory Vegas are reasonable but the footpegs are way too far forward for control.
Standard: Good handlebars again, but the footpegs are too far back. In the Standard position your feet should be right under the line of your knees.
Standard: Good handlebars again, but the footpegs are too far back. In the Standard position your feet should be right under the line of your knees.
Racer: Effective only at racetrack speeds. Horrible for the street.
Racer: Effective only at racetrack speeds. Horrible for the street.

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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Comments 33 comments

Jeff 9 years ago

Hal,

Handlebar question. My rides have been a HD sportster, Triumph bonneville, HD dyna superglide and now a 2007 HD Electra Glide. I've always ridden the sit up and beg position and have never had problems up to now.

The new Electra glide puts a horrible cramp in my back right below my shoulder blades everytime I ride it. Ive changed to a Mustang seat and rotated the bars away from me and towards me. The only difference I can see from my other bikes is the angle of the grips/controls. Instead of being parallel to my body they are almost perpendicular like an old set of Schwinn bars. Do you think this could be doing it?


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 9 years ago from Toronto Author

Hi, Jeff. Sorry to be so late in replying but I didn't get my usual comment notification! By all means don't listen to the detractors of SUAB, as the bolt upright position has always been the most comfortable for me. I went cross country on a Yammy FJ1100 once that had unreplaceable low handlebars and I darn near traded it in halfway across the continent as I couldn't bear being stuck halfway through a pushup all day long, day after day!

I believe that the tractor handlebars on your FL may be causing your problem. Are those the original bars? Whether they are or not, you should never have your handlebars at less than 40 degrees angle. The way to measure that is to note the angle of the handgrips compared to your body. If the angle is less than 40 degrees or more than 80 degrees, throw them out ASAP and get something else. Either that or just bend the bars to a more comfortable position. My dining room chair exercise is a really good way to determine where your "proper" ergonomic stance is, and your bike should be modified to fit you, not the other way around!


David Panton 9 years ago

Dear Hal,

I'm an automotive design student at university, and am currently designing a three wheel wheel t-rex/ atom motorbike, i'm looking at ergonomics and was wonder what would be the most comfortable position for two people siting one behind the other? would a normal car seat position be best? or some way between a car and bike seat to save space and give the rider a more racy motorbike feel? I would greatly appreciate your help if you could? would it be possible to send yr reply to me by email?

i'll show you the final designs and you can see what you think when i get there?

Kind regards

David Panton


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 9 years ago from Toronto Author

Hi, David.

Thanks for asking for my input on this. I appreciate it. My belief is that in a trike layout the most comfortable two up position for the passenger would be in a car (or Gold Wing-type rear) seat with the seat top no less than 12 inches from the "floorboards." To save space, the front of the seat could be as close as 14 inches to the back of the driver's seat as long as there was lateral room to keep the legs outboard of the driver. This would only present a problem to the more modest ladies who would be wearing skirts, but it would be quite ergonomically correct for the rest of us. Since you're designing a "reverse trike" a la new Harley-Lehmans, this seating configuration could work well with your triangulated body design as it is narrower at the back and broader at the front. I'll be happy to continue this reply via email. Please let me know your address.

Thanks!

Hal


David Panton 9 years ago

Great thanks hal, i really need extensive ergonomic research in order to decide an altimate position for both comfort, safety, and sheer driving excitement. You say the tourer is the most position on a bike and car seating position would be the best for the vehicle - i guess both are similar and so must be the most comfortable, if you have any information on other peoples expereinces or could put me in contact with those with bikes or issues that hopefully i could resolve within this design project i would most great full! my email is Davidpanton19@hotmail.com if its easier to use?

Cheers

David


azrail 9 years ago

fotolar? görelim


Misha profile image

Misha 9 years ago from DC Area

Great essay, Hal. I could sign under every single word of it :) I just wish more young bikers read this, and at least some of them take this into account...


blake 8 years ago

Hi Hal

I can totally agree with your coments re Fj 1100. As an owner of one I have felt your pain.

I recently found a product on a site called Twisted Throttle that sells an extension for the handles . The extension is only 1" but it is better than nothing .

I am in the market to buy a gold wing this will ease the pain in my wrists and put the pain in my wallet .

Blake


JAW 8 years ago

Hi Hal. How are you?

I recently purchased a 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 650 R. I am 6 feet tall. It is my first bike and I am bored with it after a week. My question is. I have been having knee and hip pain in my left leg. The one I change gears with. Based on research I have figured out that the pegs are too far back for me and my knee is bent back too far. Do you know any sport bikes that is ergonomically ok for someone my height? I know that my leg should be at a 90 degree angle but on my current bike it is way sharper that that. Could that be the source of my knee problem?

JAW


guidebaba profile image

guidebaba 8 years ago from India

Great. I wish to have the Kawasaki Ninja Someday.


earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

Hi Hal. I have a pretty bad back, but interestingly I can ride a motorcyle or even a bicycle without much discomfort.

I need to be leaning forward slightly.

For many years I had a goldwing which was made in Italy. The bars were low-rise, the swing arm was marginally shorter than the stock Goldwing ones and the footrests well located.

I found the slight "sling" position takes the weight off my spine which means I can ride further than I can drive without discomfort.

As a bike shop owner for many years I have ridden hundreds of bikes, and as you know many have lousy location of foot pegs, petrol tanks that intrude on riding position. handle bars that cause too heavy or too light control and racing position layouts on road sports bikes can be crippling on the road.


Englishbiker profile image

Englishbiker 7 years ago

Hi Hal,

I am currently spending up to 3 hours per day on a Honda CBF 600 and it is killing my butt!

i have ordered the Airhawk seat cushion, and if this does not work I will definitely buy a cruiser.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

I don't think that the Airhawk is going to do much on that Torquemada Torture Rack known as the CBF seat. Go with a cruiser with a big plush King/Queen seat and realize just how comfortable motorcycling can be! :)


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

I understand the whole comfort issue thing. A few years ago I sold my Ducati 996 and I've been eyeballing cruisers ever since.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

Ah, the Duck 996. The one with the slightly curled silicon spatula blade to sit on. Are you sure you can still have children? :)


Englishbiker profile image

Englishbiker 7 years ago

Yes, i have been looking at the Kawasaki VN 900 or Suzuki Intruder, or dare i say the Honda Silver Wing Scooter.

I used to spend 50 minutes per day on the bike and everything was fine, then i moved and have a much longer commute, up to 3 hours per day and it is killing me. Only been doing it for 2 months and I hope it hasn't done too much permanent damage!


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

I can't possibly be comfortable riding scooters as I've spent my entire motorcycling life using the grasp of my knees on the sides of the tank as part of the control process, but you can't go wrong with either the Kawi or Suzi cruisers!

Hope your nether-regions have survived unscathed! :)


Englishbiker profile image

Englishbiker 7 years ago

you are entirely right about it being a torture device, i haven't ridden for a week and i still feel the pain!

when you look at scooters like the silver wing the seat is very comfortable and padded and you are in the "dining room" chair riding position.

i travel into london everyday and see the couriers on their CBF 500s and wonder how their butts survive 8 hours per day on that machine!


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

I guess that many modern motorcycle seats are contributing to the decline in the birth rate! :)


Englishbiker profile image

Englishbiker 7 years ago

well sadly i did go to the see the doc. then i figured out that it was my bike seat that was giving me the pain. I am going to try and part exchange the CBF this week!

i was considering getting rid of bikes altogether and taking hte train to work, but hopefully a cruiser with a good seat might make the daily commute tolerable and less dangerous!


PowerSportOil 7 years ago

I couldn't agree more that ergonomics are paramount to riders. I wish every manufacturer would offer a fitting for their motorcycles (as you can get with bicycles) and offer to change handle bars, seats, pegs as part of the sale and not expensive add ons at a later date.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

Completely agreed!


bruceswalker profile image

bruceswalker 7 years ago

Great information. I designed my Harley to be ergonomicly correct. LOL After being in a very serioius motorcycle accident that nearly killed me and I was told I'd never ride again. I went to work designing office and teaching ergonomics. I raised my bars, added a custome Harley seat to support my lower back were I broke my sacrum. I now have a gone graph to hold my sacrum together. I sit on the bike as if I'm sitting in my office chair. It's comfortable and fun to ride. I'm back to riding and ride every day.

Just by raising the bars on a bike to bring your back up right and in line makes a world of difference.

Looking forward to reading more of your articles.

Blessings, ride safe, ride free

Bruce


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

Thanks Bruce, and stay safe out there! :)


Sexy jonty profile image

Sexy jonty 7 years ago from India

Very well written hub .....

very much informative ......

Thank you very much for your great hub, for good advice, good wishes and support. Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

Thanks, sexy! Stay ergonomic! :)


nike shox oz 6 years ago

Wonderful site


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 6 years ago from Toronto Author

Thanks!


Chaotic Chica profile image

Chaotic Chica 6 years ago

Great article! My husband and I were just discussing this very topic as I was choosing the handlebars for my XS650 custom rebuild I'm working on. Your views are spot on with what I figured out via common sense and what my husband agreed was ideal.

I also got a kick out of that New York Times article! Very interesting!


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 6 years ago from Toronto Author

Ah... an XS650. One of my favorites among the 37 I've had. I hope you ergonomically enjoy it! :)


snehal 6 years ago

i`m looking for information regarding ergonomic riding posture and health hazards arising out of non correct posture. in approximately what proportion should be the bandlebar, foot pegs and seat should be for comfortable position?


Mark 6 years ago

Great post!!!

For the most part, I've always been a "cruiser" type rider. I did try a Triunph Sprint (Executive model)once thinking the name "Sport Tourer" would actually help with some comfort taking longer trips, and the Executive model having the handlebars up a little higher.

Don't get me wrong, I had a blast on that bike, but after a couple of hours on it, it just got too painful to actually enjoy what I set out to do....ride.

I've gone back to the touring type bike and am teased contantly by my peers about my bike being more of a "Lounger" instead of a cruiser.

I went with a Road King, but immediately took off the stock bars, as they were more of a wheelbarrow type, and with my wider torso, they just caused too much strain. I settled on the Heritage police bars, realizing there may have been some R&D on them, as I couldn't ask for better comfort and angle while riding.

I also went with a Mustang seat, (Similar to a tractor shape) and the rider backrest. That has completed the comfort level on the bike. I can ride literally hundreds of miles without needing to stop, but am forced to stop for fuel every 250 miles or so. That being said, 750 miles days are a walk in the park anymore.

As a side note, this is my first bike with floorboards, I'm not sure if I'd ever go back to pegs again.

I'm just amazed of how long it took me to realize motorcycling doesn't have to hurt at all, and find it more comfortable and pleasuable than riding in my car.

Maybe that's the next step, get rid of the sports car and get a Cadillac...LOL


Mark 6 years ago

I forgot one other important thing to mention which I won't ride without again, a windshield! Mine is a quick disconnect type, it did come off once for a short 40 mile ride ( I actually thought it'd be nice to feel the breeze, and bugs...lol). Never again!

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