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The pain of being short and trying to ride big bikes is something too many of us know all too well. Bikes aren’t designed for people short of stature. They’re designed to ride well and to fit the average customer. The endemic problem with average is that most of us aren’t.
However, one of the greatest things about motorcycles is that size doesn’t matter. Plenty of the greatest riders to ever walk our planet were a long way from average. If you need some inspiration, take a look Gaston Rahier. The Belgium native won the Dakar twice on a behemoth BMW, despite being 5’3”.
Just because your feet dangle wildly at thin air on a regular basis doesn’t mean it has to be like that. We dragged our small/medium bike testing friend and Off Road Skills Instructor, Chris Northover, into the woods to demonstrate and explain his top tips for keeping upright and comfortable.
Balance is absolutely everything. As well as keeping you upright on a daily basis, understanding the balance of the bike is paramount to making the machine do what you want. You see, inherently, all bikes are stable. When we cuddle them tight and are heavy handed, they’re unstable because we are unstable. Learning to be balanced in our bodies and gentle with the bike is a huge step forward on our journey to keeping everything more balanced. As you can see in the pictures below, Chris is barely touching his R 1150 GS Adventure and it’s upright, stable and no hassle.
The key to keeping the bike upright is to reduce the amount of input we put in. It’s a great metaphor for your riding too; gentle soft inputs give us much more control. As you can see in the image below Chris is holding the bike upright with the tips of his fingers.
When the bike is bolt upright it’s a light as a feather. When it starts to lean away from the balance point it quickly becomes heavy and hard work. Understanding this and learning to keep the bike in that sweet, light spot is very helpful.
The method to learn.
The end goal of the lesson is to increase comfort and understanding. The bigger point of learning to control the balance of a static bike is to improve your confidence. Knowing you can hold and move your bike without feeling like you’re going to drop it is a huge boost. By learning that you’ll reduce your fear level and it’ll increase your enjoyment of riding. The end goal is to learn to handle your bike gently and keep it upright without the need to be close to or hold onto your bike.
The first step is to hold the bike in your hands. Take it off the side stand and get it upright. Now turn the steering away from you until it touches the lock stop. The direction doesn’t matter for balance. By having the steering against the lock stops you make the bike more stable. This is because the steering won’t move as the bike moves from side to side and that keeps the balance point consistent and predictable.
With your bike upright, feel for the point at which your bike is weightless and easy to hold. Move it both toward you and away from you, so you can feel where it’s light and where it’s heavy. Now try and take a walk around the bike, holding on to bits you’d never normally touch.
Keep those touches light too. You don’t want a death grip. You’re not trying to open walnuts by hand. It’s more like trying to squeeze a grape without bursting it. Take a step away from where you want to be and where you think you should be. Like the pictures, you can see that Chris is a long way from the bike. Giving yourself that extra space will help with your balance massively.
The final tip is that you don’t need to hold your bike by the handlebars to do this well. You only need to hold something solid. That can be a grab rail, a pannier rail, a mirror or a fuel cap.
Anyone who isn’t over 6ft tall will at some point have struggled to put both feet on the floor. Having both feet down is something we’re taught and encouraged to do for comfort right from the moment we start riding. You can get away with habits like that if you’re tall but if you’re not it can quickly end up with you and the bike being upside down.
Using both feet to maintain balance is inherently unstable. A quick trip to anywhere in Asia or any dirtbike race will highlight this. Think of sitting on a bike with both feet out like a four legged stool. Two of the legs (the wheels) are long and the other two legs have been cut very short. Sounds like something you’d never do, right?
The goal of this exercise is to become comfortable using one foot on the ground and the other on the footpeg. In the end, being able to choose your foot and have either a left or right foot down as you choose is probably the best thing you’ll ever do for your slow speed and static riding confidence.
The method to learn.
Learning to sit on your bike with one foot down and becoming comfortable with it will transform your confidence. The ultimate goal it to create a habit out of it, so pulling up at the lights, stopping in car parks or at the petrol station all become stress free. You’ll no longer have to think about stopping, you’ll always have your balance and it’ll mean any size bike becomes a realistic proposition.
To start the learning, we’re going to have to work on a few old habits that’ll need changing. First up, leave your bike in gear. It’ll mean you don’t need to shuffle about to get to the gear lever. You’ll be able to pull the clutch in, push the starter and ride away from every situation. Neutral is only needed to push our bikes around and to oil the chain.
Secondly, we’ll need to hold the concept that your bum never needs to be in the middle of the seat. You can sit with one cheek on and one off. Doing this will give you a LOT more leg length.
Thirdly, you don’t need both feet down. What you really need is one foot down on the high ground. If the ground is cambered, always move toward the high side and put that foot down. Sometimes that means your uncomfortable, irregular side needs to touch the ground.
Now that we’re down with those three ideas, you’re ready to try it out. Start with a nice flat piece of ground. Get yourself on your bike and comfortable, in gear and with side stand up. Decide which foot you’re going to balance on and shuffle your bum across the seat toward it. That means, if your left leg is down, you only need some bum/thigh from your right leg on the seat. See how much leg length you have now?
Next, turn the handlebars away from your leg that is on the ground. So if the left leg is down, turn the bars right. This tips the bike and the balance point ever so slightly toward your grounded foot, making life a fraction easier.
From this point, if the bike is in gear, you’re good to ride off into the sunset, confident in your ability to touch the ground. Make sure to practice this on both feet, so no matter the lie of the ground you’re always able to manage.
//Preparing to stop.
Pulling up with confidence is one of the most challenging parts of riding. The aim of our final tip is to making stopping anywhere, anytime a comfortable habit that requires no thought. The previous two steps are the progression to reaching this goal. It might sound simplistic, but the confidence that it’ll bring can take your riding to a whole new level.
By now, you should be a little more comfortable with being sat on your bike, with a single foot on the ground and the other on the footpeg. If you’re not, get out into the garage and practice ’til you’re crazy bored. An hour of work on this will transform you.
The key to stopping confidently, efficiently and without drama is about planning well. Through using our vision, our pre-learned balance skills and a few small tips, we’ll arrive at the point where you can pull up comfortably, get your foot to the ground and remove a huge stress from your riding.
The method to learn.
There are three elements to stopping confidently. The first is picking the point you’re going to stop at and being able to consistently achieve that spot. That falls under braking control. The second is using your vision to plan your stop and choose a piece of ground that is elevated. This could be for example, a rock, a kerb (sidewalk) or even the higher side of a cambered road. The closer the ground is to your foot the less leg length you need.
The braking portion is relatively simple and will improve quickly with practice. The idea is to be silky smooth with the brakes. By this, we mean using constant pressure to slow the bike down until it stops. You never need a sudden extra application of brake to stop your bike and aggression with the bike will always upset balance. You can practice this on any flat ground by riding at a constant speed and then applying your front brake with gentle, constant pressure. Try to slow down to below walking pace on the same mark repeatedly. It’s worth practicing this in a carpark until you’ve got it perfect. Again, an hour of practice doing this will be enough to transform your skills.
When it comes to planning, picking the high ground is absolutely key. Get your eyes up and looking for the thing you’ll plant a foot on nice and early. You can see in our images that Chris has used a big ‘ol rock and it makes his life unbelievably easy. If you’re doing this stood up, keep your eyes on the target. If you look at it, you’ll get your foot on it. If you look anywhere else, you won’t.
If you’re approaching the stopping point sat down, then the biggest advantage you’ll gain is in moving your bum on the seat. Once you’ve decided where you want to put your foot, move your bum toward that side of the bike like we talked about in the previous lesson. It’ll give you that extra leg length, but more importantly it shifts your balance toward that side of the bike too, meaning the bike is infinitely more likely to tip in the direction you want it to.
And there you have it. Three small lessons to make life as a short rider massively easier. Like all things, these tips will take a little practice, but we do really mean a little. A full hour of your life spent on each one, in a car park, will quite literally transform your riding and your comfort. Not quite convinced? Watch the video below to see just how quick you can learn new skills.