Riding in Comfort: Banishing the Aching Back
Touring motorcyclists are often on the road from dawn until dusk, and riding for days at a time. To maximize enjoyment, riders need a mount that is set up as ergonomically comfortable as possible. Since each person’s body is different, a bike fresh off the showroom floor may not be configured for your personal long distance comfort. Here are some of the key ergonomic considerations in evaluating how well a bike fits its rider and strategies for improving comfort.
- Seat Height from Ground: It’s obviously important that riders be able to balance their bike at stops with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Most motorcycle OEMs and moto-journalists provide seat height specifications on manufacturer’s websites and in bike reviews. Certain types of bikes are typically lower to the ground than some other types. For example cruisers and some of the larger touring bikes usually have lower seat heights than adventure bikes. Some manufacturers equip bikes with adjustable seat heights, and the aftermarket offers suspension-lowering kits for many makes and models.
- Seat Height from Foot Pegs: This isn’t a statistic normally quoted in bike reviews or in manufacturer specifications, but it can be very important to rider comfort. For example, riders with longer inseams may be perfectly comfortable with the seat height to the ground distance, but find the distance to the foot pegs too cramped for long distance riding. Adjusting seat height (perhaps with a custom seat) and/or installing lower foot pegs can help mitigate this type of discomfort.
- Foot Peg Location: The most comfortable position for most foot pegs is usually somewhere directly below the rider’s knee or several inches to the rear of that location. Rear set foot pegs may be the way to go on sportbikes and café racers, but generally they aren’t comfortable for motorcycle touring. At the other end of the foot peg positioning spectrum is the cruiser rider that has his bike’s foot pegs stretched way out front. This position may be comfortable for the legs, but any stretched-out leg configuration, which has a rider on his or her tailbone, probably won’t be conducive to day-long comfort. This position also compromises the rider’s ability to absorb sharp bumps with the legs and transmits any jarring directly up the spinal cord.
- Seat Design: Many manufacturer seats are designed in one configuration to fit all and often do not contain high quality cushion materials. Although a seat that’s either too soft or too hard can be fatiguing, there is much more to comfortable seat design than just those two considerations. If a rider or passenger’s seat is uncomfortable after several hours of riding, an aftermarket or a custom made seat is often the best choice for daylong riding.
- Handlebar Height & Shape: Low bars make sense for sportbikes and they look cool on café racers. High, “Ape Hanger” bars are good for … er, uh what? Don’t know! Handlebars, which are between waist and shoulder high are usually the most ideal for long distance riding. Also, bars that are comfortably shaped and do not make a rider reach too far forward or lean too far back are preferable for motorcycle touring.
- Body Position: Handlebar height and shape are also the prime determinants of a rider’s body position. A slightly forward lean, which avoids weight on the tailbone or the hands, is often the ideal riding position for long distance comfort. This position usually obviates the need for back support. Nevertheless, it is important for riders to keep their back straight and, if some type of back support is needed to do that, then add the necessary support. Oftentimes a waist belt is all that’s needed.
- Hand & Foot Control Positioning: Clutch and brake levers should be in a comfortable position and adjusted to the reach of the rider’s hand size. I’ve noticed that bikes often leave showroom floors with the levers in a position that is level to the handlebar. After squeezing levers hundreds or even thousands of times on a long ride, this flat lever position can cause discomfort and even carpal tunnel issues. Hand controls, however, can be easily adjusted to a slightly downward, more comfortable position just by loosening a couple of bolts on the handlebars. If foot controls are in an awkward position, they too usually can be adjusted slightly to improve comfort.
- Airflow Management: Wind resistance and buffeting on a motorcycle can significantly fatigue riders. The absence of airflow on a hot and humid day, however, also can be deleterious to a rider’s stamina. But, on very cold days, wind chill can cause hypothermia or even frostbite on unprotected body parts. Therefore, getting the right amount of airflow under different riding conditions is highly important for rider comfort and safety. Possible solutions include using: (1) different sizes and shapes of windscreens in summer versus the colder months, (2) detachable wind spoilers, which can move air toward or away from the rider, and (3) windshields with adjustable positions.
- Suspension Settings: Most motorcycle suspensions, at a minimum, allow for the adjustment of rear shock preload and often adjustable rebound damping too. When carrying extra weight, obviously the preload should be increased versus when the bike is carrying less weight. At the same time, a suspension that is set too firm will result in a harsh ride, particularly on rougher tarmac. A too soft suspension, though, can result in poor handling and bottoming out on bumps. Fine tuning suspension settings, particularly when the front forks are also adjustable, can pay big dividends in rider comfort and motorcycle handling. If the stock suspension isn’t up to the task, there are suspension components available in the aftermarket, which can probably solve any lingering problems.
Touring on a motorcycle will never be as comfortable as traveling the same distance in a car, but it’s always much more fun than being in the “cage.” At the same time, there’s no need to have a noticeably unpleasant riding experience when it can be avoided by fine-tuning your bike’s ergonomics.