How to be comfortable on a Motorcycle

A friend made an odd comment last week.  “You look comfortable on that motorcycle.”  That may not strike you as a particularly odd comment, but at the time I was riding a BMW R 1200R roadster across a large field of bumps, hollows, and grass.  Combine this with my oft-stated motorcycle ineptitude on anything other than pavement and odd begins to creep in.

Pause for a rather lengthy sidebar.  There are many snide and sarcastic comments floating about regarding my inability to ride motorcycles off-road. Most of them were authored by… me, and most of them are, to one degree or another, incorrect. Here’s why. 

When attending an “Adventure Camp” three years ago (at the same site I was riding in the paragraph above) I proved to myself that I could ride dirt bikes or dual sport bikes or adventure bikes or whatever term you want to use.  I just did not enjoy it all that much.  Given the limited time each day to ride motorcycles, I’d rather stick to pavement, albeit not literally.

Since my job mission is in large part to take care of customers and make sure they’re having a good time, I soon realized the error of my ways.  People who love to ride dirt bikes simply would not accept any statement that I preferred not to.  They just took it as a sign that I needed more encouragement, unable to digest the concept that a person who loves motorcycles could possibly not love riding in the dirt.  However, they readily accepted any statement that referred to my presumed inability to ride in that dirt. 

To be sure, I would not do well on an extended trip in really rough terrain involving deep mud or sand, or bowling ball sized rocks or downed trees two feet in diameter.  Some adventure riders seek out such challenges, but most dirt riding is much tamer than that.

By leaning my remarks toward really challenging off-road riding and equating that to my relative lack of skills, I created an image customers would accept.  The dirt roads most off-road people ride most of the time would not be a problem, but why get picky and make people feel they have to try harder to make me love their flavor of Kool-Aid?   Expressed ineptitude, even if exaggerated, made everyone happy.

Back to the point (at last!).  My friend’s comment led to days of pondering what we intend to refer to when we focus on being “comfortable” on a motorcycle.  The result was a list of factors that can affect and effect comfort. 

ALERT!  The following consists of my own reflections and conclusions. It is not, nor is it intended to be, words of expertise that will guarantee a positive outcome.    If the lawyers will all be seated, then…

Fitment.     Find a motorcycle that fits you, or alter the bike you have to fit you better. I rode a Josh Hayes edition Yamaha R1 yesterday, and what a motorcycle!  Whereas a BMW S 1000RR is a highly sophisticated motorcycle that will make a good rider great and your average rider a lot better, all while being relatively comfortable, the R1 (this one with a full Leo Vince aggressive exhaust and sound system) is a knuckle-dragging monster with blood dripping from its fangs that would just as soon throw you into a tree as ride to the store.

I loved it immediately, of course. 

However, although the seat to pegs measurement was reasonable, soon came the realization that this rider is simply too old to ride a hyper-bike comfortably. Leaned forward so far the back of my neck began to hurt in 5 miles, the weight on my wrists also grew fatiguing.  Riding in a semi-urban environment without the chance to get to speeds where the wind would help take weight off the wrists did not help, but for me this fine motorcycle would always have pain associated with riding.   Pain does not engender comfort.

You do need to allow time to see if you can adjust to a motorcycle. Many folks alter the bars or seat or pegs or whatever before they have taken delivery, and this is an error. Give yourself a week on a new motorcycle to see if you can adapt your riding position to what is to you a different way of doing things.  Once you’ve given yourself a week, you can explore any adjustability the motorcycle has built into it. The bars can be rotated a few degrees forward or back, for example, which can make a huge difference. Some bikes have adjustable seat heights or foot peg controls. Experiment until you have found the most comfortable combination for you before you conclude further changes are necessary.

Of course, this won’t be possible on a short test ride, or even (as is common) making a purchase decision without a test ride. However, the R1 is going to be uncomfy for a 6’ man of 66 years and 225 pounds, no matter what.  A BMW GS 1200 Adventure bike is going to be too tall for me – forever. Too tall is also a hindrance to comfort, and lack of comfort means increased risk.

Frequency. The more you ride, and the more often you ride, the more comfortable you will be.  The BMW R 1200R I was riding when the comment was made has been my ride for 6 months and 6 thousand miles. It has been a boon companion on trips, winding back roads, and in rain and cold.  My body knows it well, and is relaxed on it from repetition.  My own Triumph Speed Triple, ridden after a gap of weeks or months, feels awkward and clumsy for two days.  This is especially telling because of the 30,000 miles it racked up on it the first 5 years of ownership, because at that time I was more comfortable on my Speed Triple than pretty much anywhere else in my life including bed!

Slow days and fast days.  Ever notice that some days you feel like going fast and some days it just ain’t there?  Can’t be just me. A few years ago I learned to pay attention to what I was sensing and go with the flow for that day. Some days everything clicks, the shifts are firm and smooth, and you arc into sharp corners with three quick downshifts and expertly applied trail braking.  Others, not so much. If you ride to your own feeling for the day, you’ll be far more comfortable.  Also note: on slow days you may discover beautiful scenic vistas you did not take time to notice on fast days. 

The only people who need to be fast, all the time, on any day, are professional racers. You are not one of them.

Physical.   Probably obvious, but it makes such a difference. Are you dealing with any nagging injuries that impair performance or stamina and/or deliver pain? These issues can be dealt with in many cases, but you must not deny their existence. Are you getting enough sleep?  Eating the right quantities of the right foods? I was surprised to learn from my son that most of the professional triathlon competitors are not only vegetarians but Vegans.  I have not taken things that far, and a good steak with a glass of wine is still pretty much at the top of my menu choices, but watching what Will has done over the past few years as he pursues his avocation has altered what and how I eat, and the results are noticeable.

Mental.  And how are we doing today?  I am quoted in Wikipedia under Motorcycle Safety as authoring the quote “When the helmet drops, the bullshit stops.”  While I did use that phrase in my first book as one way to enhance concentration on a motorcycle, I’m not actually sure I invented it!

Another sidebar:  Here’s another one. For years one of my favorite phrases has been “Some draw a circle to keep others out.  I draw a larger circle to invite others in.” I have credited Emily Dickinson for the line.  My daughter earned a doctoral degree in creative writing, and along the way became something of an expert in Emily Dickinson. She informs me that those sentences appear nowhere in Ms. Dickinson’s works. Searching every on-line source imaginable has not unearthed the originator of this pithy piece of philosophy.   Did I make it up?  Can you find it for me and end a mystery of many years?

That’s the sort of distraction you cannot afford to let your mind wander into while riding a motorcycle.  Other distractions I choose to eliminate are ear buds or bud for music, phone connectivity, intercoms, and even GPS.  What will you do today that requires more focus and attention than riding a motorcycle?

In the rest of your life, are you on good terms with the people you love?  Did you leave home today with a hug from your mate, or at least a friendly cuddle with a pet?  Are you on getting along with the boss at work, or, if you are the boss, is anyone silently fuming with rage that you exist?

In college I had a relationship with a lovely young woman that ended with our wedding engagement, which was the happiest two weeks of my life up to that point. And then she broke it off, which in hindsight was the best thing that could have happened. In any case, at one point in our relationship we had a huge argument on the phone.  I concluded the argument by slamming down the phone and going out to ride my motorcycle in a spouting red haze of rage. I rode like a complete idiot for several minutes and then thought (finally) returned. I’d waited a very long 5 years to have a motorcycle; now my favorite possession.   I’d known the girl, at that point, for a year.  I could replace the girl, somehow at some point (maybe), but I could not replace the motorcycle, which had done nothing to deserve the abuse it was being subjected to. I slowed down dramatically and rode home chastened.  I’ve never ridden angry since.

Mental factors will affect your comfort level on the bike, and if you choose to ignore their existence you will put yourself at great peril.  Not comfortable.

Correct pace.  This is huge topic, and may well be more of a factor in motorcycle crashes than anyone knows of or will admit to. There are several ways you can get sucked into riding at a pace that is incorrect for you. The most common, of course, is going on a group ride where everyone is encouraged, either overtly or tacitly, to ride at the pace of the leader.  If the leader’s pace is too fast for your comfort, there’s a good chance the pace is too fast for the leader as well, but he or she has not yet had the misfortune to learn this.  A pace that is too slow can also lead to disaster.  I was following a group on a Gold Wing-dominated charity ride on one occasion, riding a new Gold Wing, and I very nearly missed a turn because I was actually nodding off!  I ran off the pavement onto a patch of sand (aha – off-road! J) and wiggled back onto the tarmac with the rear end of the bike sashaying back and forth.  I was now WIDE awake!

Another lure to incorrect pace that I experienced for years was caused by youth.  Growing up with parents who were both sports car enthusiasts, I felt the best way to ride a motorcycle on a back road was as fast as possible.  I rode at an incorrect pace for years, and was very fortunate that all it cost was the total destruction on an innocent motorcycle and a broken shoulder.

The correct pace for you for each ride will be determined by your experience, the bike, the road, and the weather conditions. You’ll know what that pace is – you merely need to give yourself permission to ride at that pace and be OK with what your own brain has concluded.

If your head and heart are in the right place, and you’re riding a motorcycle you know well and love at a pace of your choosing, you’ll be having such a wonderful time you’ll be surprised when someone says “You look comfortable on that motorcycle.”


Copyright 2013                                                       David Preston

About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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3 Responses to How to be comfortable on a Motorcycle

  1. Bob says:

    “When the helmet drops, bullshit stops”… GREAT quote! I don’t think I’ve ever been “cruising” on a motorcycle. Or a mountain bicycle as well.

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  2. Damian says:

    Regarding the mental aspect: Riding a motorcycle well—and safely—very much requires that one be “in the moment, ” not distracted by the many available possibilities–nor needless to say by a broken heart (fortunately much rarer :). Like you, I eschew the entertainments of the mp3, perhaps because I’m well aware at this mature age I have only so much attention to focus—and it had best be directed to the road and its other occupants. A young fellow I know offered his reason for riding sans ear buds when he said to me, “The ride itself is the song.” Can’t say it better myself.

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  3. Gary Stebbins says:

    “He drew a circle that shut me out-
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle and took him in!”

    Edwin Markham, from the poem “Outwitted”:

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