Ask the doc: I need help getting on the motorcycle

Q: I have arthritis in both knees and am having problems getting on and off the motorcycle as a passenger. We recently purchased a Fat Boy with a sissy bar. Even standing on the foot peg, I can't get my leg over the seat or sissy bar. Any suggestions? I don't want to have to give up riding along.

A: This problem is not uncommon, and the causes are nearly legion. Riders and passengers may have trouble mounting and dismounting the motorcycle because of physical limitations or medical conditions, but fortunately there are some straightforward solutions.

There are different opinions as to how passengers should mount with regard to the use of footpegs or floorboards, or whether they should only use those after already getting onto the pillion pad. As Lemmy advised in his recent story on tips for passengers, the key is communication, so both rider and passenger know what to expect. So let's look at the kinds of issues people face regardless of how they prefer to get on the motorcycle.

Passenger physical limitations

There are dozens of reasons that people have a hard time getting their leg up high enough to mount a motorcycle: the combination of a shorter passenger and a taller motorcycle, large-joint arthritis, tight tendons, and prior large-joint injury with reduced range of motion, for example. In this reader's case, her arthritis pain may be managed with a host of pain medications, but they do little to impact reduced range of motion. The major repair for that is surgery to replace some or all of the joint, but there are other things your orthopedic surgeon can do, as three relatively straightforward things may be involved: excess joint fluid that can be aspirated, insufficient fluid that can be replaced with SynVisc (artificial joint fluid), or joint mice (little bits of broken off cartilage) that can be removed.

Tight tendons are common (if you cannot touch the floor while bending at the waist with your knees locked and your feet together this is likely you). Routine stretching, yoga and for many, physical therapy can all help improve flexibility. The key is to make this a routine because occasionally stretching just prior to riding is not very effective. Most physical therapy programs have a passive program followed by an active phase that includes motion against gravity as well as resistance; there are a host of variations and your Physical Therapist will tailor one specifically to your issues.  

Hip flexibility may be supported by routinely sitting on the floor or squatting to reach low items or things that have dropped instead of bending at the waist. Dull or achy pain on the outside of the hip might also be a gluteal (buttocks) tendinopathy (tendon inflammation), for which there are physical therapy regimens, as well.

Of course physical therapy won't help your height disparity, if your inseam is 28 inches and the pillion height is more than 33. While some boots have fairly tall heels, five inches is a lot to span with a pair of appropriate boots. Since Spurgeon enjoys what appear to be 1970s-style “mod” sunglasses, he may be able to suggest some platform shoes that would work.

Passenger medical conditions

Sometimes, after hip joint replacement, range of motion is reduced, and on occasion, one leg is shorter than the other as a result of the surgery, despite efforts to preserve limb lengths equal. This limb length difference can create back pain as you lean more to one side, induce muscle spasms, and the inability to lift one leg high enough to clear the seat since it makes your back hurt. A shoe with a lift or a higher heel can help with limb length disparity, reduce pain, and make mounting easier.

If you have back pain without having a hip or knee joint issue, you may have the commonly noted lumbar (low back) disc disease and should be specifically evaluated for whether your discs (they separate the bones of the back and act as shock absorbers) are out of place (slipped disc) and are pressing on your nerves (pinched nerve). There are many therapies for this, ranging from physical therapy, anti-inflammatory agents, steroid injections, and a host of surgeries. Evaluation by a spine surgeon and a physical therapist helps guide treatment decision-making.

Motorcycle equipment

Two pieces of bike-related equipment can be helpful: center stands and mounting blocks.

Center stands offer superior stability and maintain the bike in a vertical position. Some, such as the EZ UP from Wheeldock, which is specifically designed for Harley Touring models, allow the bike to be stable enough for the passenger to mount independent of the rider and use the passenger footpeg or floorboard on the left side. After the rider mounts, the duo simply ride off of the center stand. The Equalizer was a center stand that was motorized and integrated with the bike’s electrical system and served as a putative theft deterrent, as well. More recent versions were produced by MRI (Matt Risley Innovation), capitalizing on linear actuation to raise and lower the stand. The common feature is that the bike is stabilized by two points from the center stand and one from a tire. This tripod configuration is quite stable.

stepsPerhaps most commonly and simply, a mounting block helps the passenger. The most readily available one is the curb. This offers only a few inches of aid, but that may be all that is needed. I have seen park benches, truck bumpers, trailer hitches and things mounted to them used, as well. When regular aid is required, a portable mounting block, such as those used to mount horses, offers a perfect solution. The blocks have two or three different step heights to allow for individual variation and need. Some are portable and made of strong plastics, while others are devised from wood or stone. Unlike horse mounting blocks, that are designed for the rider with reins in hand and a saddle onto which to hold, mounting blocks as an aid for a motorcycle passenger mounting might benefit from a handrail to help ensure that the passenger has an additional point of balance other than the rider. Such an aid is useful when the rider has already mounted and is stabilizing the bike while the passenger mounts (i.e. not using a center stand). The mounting block is also useful as a “dismounting block” when the ride is done.

Cruisers suit my 29-inch inseam quite nicely. Despite well preserved hip flexibility, I find the current crop of “approachable” dual-sport bikes and ADV bikes not so friendly for me, and I don't think any of Spurgeon’s platform shoes are sized for my feet, either. What else do you recommend — and what has not worked very well for you?

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