Riding motorcycles is challenging enough for those of us who are shorter than the average rider that most motorcycles are designed for. But we sometimes make it impossible on ourselves through simple mistakes that we could’ve avoided by making slightly different decisions along the way.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how I personally overcame the limitations of my five-foot, two-inch size to learn to ride whatever motorcycle I wanted. This article, by contrast, is about the mistakes I see short riders commonly make. I also know that there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes something works for one person, and not another, but these three things often hold back a short person's riding career instead of helping advance it.
Mistake one: Lowering your motorcycle incorrectly
Almost every day I talk to someone who’s shorter (sometimes they’re even taller than me) and is thinking about lowering their motorcycle. I’m not going to tell you not to. That would be presumptuous. But I will tell you what might happen if you don’t do it properly. Yes, your feet are now flat on the ground. How does that help you? How does that hurt you? By reducing ground clearance, you might be sacrificing too much of your ability to lean, and that's just one pitfall to consider.
One of the most common ways to lower a motorcycle is to use lowering links on the rear suspension. That changes not just the ground clearance, but also the motorcycle's geometry. It may completely change the way your input affects how you corner, steer, brake and accelerate. It can even make things even more dangerous, especially at the track.
My friend Ken Hall, owner of SB Suspension is a Suspension God and works with riders of all heights, backgrounds and riding lifestyles.
"Lowering a bike is always a compromise," said Hall. "The key is finding the right geometry. A lowering link doesn’t address how the suspension needs to work. It just changes geometry, but in a negative way. Also, shoving a set of forks (upward) in the triples changes geometry in a negative way. Wheelbase is altered and steering becomes unstable. Most lowered bikes are terrible to ride. I would never want to handicap a rider by taking that route."
Ken has successfully lowered bikes for his customers without compromising on ergonomics, bike geometry and ridability. It’s absolutely possible and achievable to lower it the way you need to. I’m not the biggest fan of lowering, in most cases, but understandably there are times when it makes sense.
Find your local Suspension God (everyone has one somewhere...) or go online and find a suspension tuner who can work with you remotely. There is more than one approach a professional can take. For example, Ken gave me a softer shock that was ideal for my weight and that not only completely changed the feel of my bike, but also immediately dropped me about a quarter to half an inch. With some professional help, you can get the lower ride you want without sacrificing too much.
Mistake two: Skipping really good boots and gloves
It sounds crazy, but the right boots can make a huge impact on how you feel when you put your feet down. If all you have on the ground is one foot, or maybe like me in the photo above, just the ball of one foot, then you need all the traction you can get in that small contact patch. There’s absolutely no way I could’ve ridden that DR-Z400SM without my Sidi Vertigos that day.
Many times I've heard my friend and our Philly Showroom Manager Brian tell customers, “You’ve got to be honest with yourself.” So ask yourself, how much traction do you really have with your sneakers or leather booties?
There are also boots that add a little height, like Daytona Lady Pilots and TCX Drifters. Your feet are are the key to giving you the confidence to put your foot down again and again without losing your footing on the pavement and dropping your motorcycle.
And why do gloves matter? If you don’t have three inches of extra inseam to get a foot firmly planted on the ground with lots of leverage, then it's that much more important to have complete control of your motorcycle through your throttle, clutch, brakes and steering. When you have to brake suddenly or swerve your 500-pound bike because a pedestrian stepped out in front of you, it’s up to you to control that weight and that's mostly done through your hands. You want gloves that give you a good feel for the controls.
Mistake three: Focusing on hardware instead of riding skills
So far we've talked about changing your motorcycle and your gear. That's normal. Most of us like to buy farkles for our bikes (and RevZilla has some great ones to sell you!), but professional instructors will also tell you that money and time spent on your skills always pays bigger dividends than the same amount of money and time spent on parts for our bikes.
How am I riding my husband’s annoyingly tall Triumph? Magic? Leg extensions? The Daytona boots in this photo help a smidge but I still can't get even one foot flat on the ground. So what mysterious solution have I found to make this work without dropping his bike (which I never have)? The answer is me. I became my own solution. I’ll never grow taller, so I have to compensate for my lack of height by perfecting my riding skills, including:
- Incredibly smooth braking
- Perfectly timed throttle and clutch control
- Extra awareness of where I'm parking or stopping, such as avoiding an incline or uneven pavement
Don't be afraid to make up your own rules to ensure your safety and manage the weight of your bike. You might hop off to park and block traffic for 10 seconds instead of looking cool and backing it in, but that's better than taking 10 times longer to do it because you dropped the motorcycle in traffic.
Along with developing skills and strategies, we sometimes have to adjust our attitudes. Sometimes, we perceive things as impossible just because we tell ourselves they are. It’s no different when it comes to motorcycles.
There are people who are riding a cruiser solely because of the low seat height and would like to try something new. If you lack the confidence to make the change because you can't get two feet flat on the ground, you will never move up, literally.
A few small changes, and development of your riding skills, can make a big difference. I know, because if I hadn't made those changes myself, I would still be riding the Honda Rebel 250 I rode in my Motorcycle Safety Class back in 2004. My motorcycling life has since has been a lot more interesting because I did.