Welcome to the ultimate riding guide for shorter riders: all you need to buy and ride with confidence, in association with Honda Motorcycles UK.
It’s time to ignore meaningless quoted seat heights and turn a deaf ear to those naysayers who churn out nonsense such as “it’s too a big bike for you”. Our regular contributor Adam ‘Chad’ Child stands 5ft 6¼ ins (168cm) and road tests every type of bike on the market, on and off-road. We’ve also enlisted the help of BikeSocial member, and star of our YouTube hit, What Bike Next? Ep6, Leonie Blakely, who stands 5ft 3.5ins. (161cm).
Take it away, Chad:
In terms of experience, I’ve been professionally road-testing bikes for almost 25 years. I’ve raced at the Isle of Man TT, made land speed record attempts, ridden the craziest racetracks in the world as well as the planet’s most challenging off-road terrain in Peru, Morocco, and New Zealand to name but a few. And during all that motorcycling adventure, speed, and drama, I was short but had to ride the bikes regardless of their size… that’s my job.
Some people see being under 5ft 7ins as a real disadvantage. In fact, I’m regularly asked one particular question. It’s not how it feels to pilot a Harley through downtown LA or thread an electric race bike through Quarry Bends on the TT Mountain Course, but instead, “How on Earth do you manage to ride a big bike?”
Well, the first thing I say is that, yes, I am only 5ft 6 and a little bit, but in the racing world, where men and women master their machines to a degree some of my inquisitors could hardly begin to comprehend, that’s ideal. Most MotoGP riders are my height or less. In fact, at 5ft 11ins Valentino Rossi was considered unusually lanky. At the sharp end of motorcycling, short is good and many of the advantages of being short (and small and light) on the track translate to the road. Don’t think for a moment that just because you’re short, you can’t.
I have to ride every type of bike imaginable; a towering adventure bike one week, a 125cc scooter the next. For most of us who own and ride just one or perhaps two bikes, buying a machine that makes you feel comfortable is of course vitally important, but with experience, all of us can learn to adapt to tall (and often heavy) bikes – learn tricks and techniques that make you as confident on the big ‘uns as the little ‘uns.
Hopefully, you’ll find this helpful, and make the leap to a big bike less intimidating. And don’t forget, we can be contacted directly via our social media channels should you wish to ask us any direct questions. And please note much of this advice can help every rider who might be lacking in confidence with the larger bikes, be they tall, short, or anywhere in between.
First of all, let's look at choosing your next bike…
All too often we simply look at the seat height claimed by the manufacturer on the spec sheet and quickly move on. This is an easy mistake because in many situations the quoted seat height doesn’t tell the full story. We also need to look at the construction and dimensions especially the width and shape of the seat. Some bikes, like the Honda CRF 250 Rally, have a nominally tall seat height (895mm in this case), which on paper can appear intimidating. But in reality, on the road if you like, that seat is narrow, especially towards the fuel tank, which makes it relatively easy for those with a shorter leg length to get a solid foothold on the ground.
So, it’s imperative to sit on bikes in the showroom before discounting them on the grounds of a lofty spec-sheet seat height. And, of course, many modern day motorcycle seat heights can be changed either by lowering the standard seat or choosing a genuine parts low-seat option to replace the standard seat, both of which are options with Honda’s Africa Twin. The CRF 1100L Africa Twin standard seat height can be lowered from 870mm to 850mm, which makes a huge difference, while an optional lower seat can sit at 825mm.
It's important to account for the amount the rear suspension squats when the rider sits on the bike. This ‘laden sag’ is another hidden factor in determining the real-world seat height of a bike and often missed by those looking for a low-seat motorcycle. Again, if we use the example of the Africa Twin: the quoted seat height is 850mm to 870mm but with the weight of the rider onboard the suspension drops (or sags) by 20mm to 40mm depending on the weight of the rider. Some bikes, especially adventure machines with their long-travel suspension, sag more than others. Honda’s Fireblade superbike, for example, will have far less suspension drop. Our advice is to sit on as many bikes on your shopping list as possible.
All too often we simply look at the wet or dry weight given in a bike’s technical data (wet is with fuel, dry is without) when buying a new bike but it’s not just a question of total weight, but where that weight is carried. Honda’s GL 1800 Gold Wing has a quoted weight of 367kg, but thanks to its ultra-low centre of gravity made possible by the low flat-six layout of the engine, those kilos are kept low and manageable by anyone with a little practice. It may look intimidating but is as agile and manoeuvrable as many bikes half its capacity.
A word of caution: a fully fuelled bike can feel very different from a bike in the showroom, which is, we hope, empty. Add luggage, too, and the transformation can be significant. Honda’s Africa Twin Adventure Sport, with its large 24.8-litre fuel tank, has a huge range that’s excellent for smashing out big miles but once brimmed with unleaded might feel on the heavier end of your comfort zone. One litre of petrol equates adds about 1kg to the bike’s mass, so ask yourself if you need a big tank range?
Honda’s standard and smaller Africa Twin, for example, is lighter at 226kg (compared to the Adventure Sport’s 238kg), and the new XL750 Transalp is lighter still at 208kg. The Transalp is only 10bhp down on the Africa Twin and, with a lower seat, easier to manage for shorter riders.
We’ve looked at laden and how much the bike drops when you add a rider or pillion or both. Essentially the more weight you add – luggage, bolt-ons, petrol – the more the seat lowers. But we can also adjust the suspension to meet our needs.
For example, removing pre-load from the rear spring increases that sag which means the rear will sit lower when you add weight. Removing pre-load is a simple way to reduce the seat height. Again, this is very bike dependent, and you’ll see greater gains on adventure-style bikes with lots of suspension travel than with sports bikes.
Removing pre-load is an effective way to help get feet to the ground but can affect the handling of a bike. In general terms, as well as lowering the rear of the bike, it will slow the steering and may reduce ground clearance. If you’re unsure, contact your local dealer who will advise or see a suspension specialist like K-Tech or Maxton who can tweak the standard suspension to meet your specific needs. For example, a short and light rider might need a different spring to a short and heavy rider who gets much more sag (and therefore feet to the ground) when they sit on the same bike.
To test all this theory, we recruited BikeSocial member Leonie, who stands at just 5ft 3½ins (161cm) tall, to jump onboard the Africa Twin Adventure Sports demonstrator. With the rear pre-load wound off in increments (it’s easy to do via a remote pre-load adjuster) and the seat mounted in its lower position, she felt comfortable and could touch the floor. We also removed the panniers to make mounting the bike easier.
We’ve discussed the rear suspension, but not mentioned the front – but similar rules apply (and again, if you are unsure, please contact your local dealer, a suspension specialist, or drop us a question on our Facebook Group: Bennetts BikeSocial).
Obviously, the front of the bike is the business end – controls, bars, levers, etc – and we can we adjust these to make riding the bike easier. I have small hands and can struggle on some bikes that don’t have span-adjustable levers. If your chosen bike doesn’t have adjustable levers, can they be added? Alternatively, what about DCT, which means no clutch and automatic gears, or an up-and-down quickshifter such as that installed on the Fireblade, which means you only need the clutch lever to start and stop.
While we’re thinking about ergonomics, it’s useful to find out if the bars can be moved closer to the rider, reducing the stretch to the bars. Can the screen be reduced in size? Can the switchgear and levers be moved into a more comfortable position? Can we add extras like cruise control to make life easier? All these little tweaks help to make the bike fit the shorter rider better, more comfortable and less intimidating.
I see this all the time at bike shows. Enthused, potential buyers jump on a new model at a bike show and immediately say ‘it’s too tall’. Most bikes on display are mounted on rigid stands with both wheels locked for safety reasons, which doesn’t give a true seat height. Yes, bike shows are great for a quick size up, but that bike will feel very different on a side stand.
Go for a test ride! It’s that simple and they are free! If you’re worried about a bike, ask the dealer for advice. They have vast experience and will be more than happy to lower the seat if possible and even tweak the suspension.
Not something tall riders have to think about, but we shorties do. Tight kit, trousers especially, will inhibit your movement and make reaching the road with your feet a little bit harder. A tall bike in the showroom when you are wearing lose-fitting jeans will feel different when you’re in bulky winter kit. Boots also make a difference. I struggle in stiff enduro-style boots as they don’t have the ankle flex to help me reach the ground and find it much easier in road or race boots.
Riding off-road helps all of us, regardless of height, with low-speed skills and manoeuvres. Slow riding, figures of eight and U-turns all can be practised and mastered safely off-road. Once you’re used to a relatively tall but light enduro or adventure bike, you’ll be able to transfer those new-found skills and confidence to road riding. Just moving a bike slowly around with the engine off will improve your confidence, and if you do drop it, it’s not your bike and any damage will be covered.
Build up, not down
Many an ego has been dented by choosing a new bike that is too powerful, too tall or too heavy – or all three. Regardless of peer pressure or ambition, start with a bike you’re comfortable and then move up.
Carrying a pillion can be seriously nerve-wracking for short riders, especially if the pillion is taller and heavier. However, there are tips and tricks to make it easier. The rider gets on the bike first, not the pillion. Once you’re on the bike, keep the side stand down, put your foot behind the stand, have the bike in gear, and hold the front brake. Your pillion should then mount the bike from the side stand side only. Using this method, the weight of the pillion climbing onto the bike is taken by the side-stand. Reverse the process for dismounting. Again, start small (if you can!), and build up to taking a heavier pillion.
As a short rider I find it hard to throw a leg over panniers and top box, so if they are empty leave them at home. If you need to carry luggage, try to balance the panniers so they are equally loaded. I usually put heavier items to panniers, keeping the weight low, and lighter items in the top box.
Some shorter riders struggle with tank bags, as a large tank bank can inhibit their reach to the bars. Look at alternative such as a rear rack or a roll bag on the pillion seat.
Plan your stops
This is important every ride and something taller riders don’t even have to think about. Cambers in the road, cobbles and potholes all become a problem when you’re a short rider. Try to plan where you’re going to stop, and where your feet are going to touch down. Roll up to the lights or junction or roundabout and plan where your feet are going. The same applies to unusual situations such as riding onto a ferry or a pub’s gravel car park.
Stopping and moving on a steep incline should be planned. If you have to stop, the back brake is your friend. Some bikes are fitted will a hill assist, which holds the back brake, and is a massive help for shorter riders. Turning on a hill can also be intimidating. If you can’t complete a U-turn then ride the bike into the hill, and use the hill to roll you backwards, like a three-point turn in a car. Sometimes this may require you to ‘walk’ the bike around. Use the engine to push the bike up the hill and allow gravity to help you move it backwards. This is a great skill to practise off-road.
Yoga and warm up
Don’t laugh, it really helps. So many times I’ve seen short riders – me, for example – trying to throw a leg over tall seat or over a high-top box and struggle, just because they don’t have the flexibility or movement. I’ve even seen riders pull muscles trying to get on a bike. Just having more hip movement, stronger calf muscles, and being able to get on and off a bike smoothly really helps with confidence. Just a few simple stretches before a ride make all the difference.
The average height for a man in the UK is 5ft 9ins (and 5ft 7ins for those over 65). Women’s average height is 5ft 4ins, which means we are not a tall nation. Even at 5ft 9ins, some inexperienced riders will find tall bikes intimidating.
The key is confidence, which you gain over the years with experience. But you can improve confidence using these tricks and techniques, while off-road schools will dramatically help. Don’t go too big too soon is key to success too: plan your bike, road trip and adventure, and don’t forget the warm-up. Some of the best riders in the world are short – so enjoy.
If you’d like to chat about this article or anything else biking related, join us and thousands of other riders at the Bennetts BikeSocial Facebook page.
With thanks to Honda Motorcycles UK for helping putting this feature together.