Making your Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Fit You
July 28, 2006
Filed under Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Road Tests: Reviews on Harley Motorcycles, Motorcycle Features: Bikes, Blokes, Culture and Beyond
[Making your Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Fit You was originally published in American Rider magazine]
The first time you throw a leg over your new Harley you are getting on an unfinished motorcycle. In at least one or more ways, that bike does not fit your body. Riding this bike would be a lot more fun to ride if it did. Harley and your dealer have made a pretty good estimate of where the handlebar, hand levers and foot controls should be positioned, but it is only an estimate and the machine needs to be adjusted to your body and how you ride.
This is an important thing to do for three very good reasons: First, a properly adjusted motorcycle can add another hundred miles of comfort to a day’s ride. Second, if the controls are adjusted to be easily used, you’ll have better control and get more pleasure out of a winding road. It’ll also be easier to get around in traffic. Third but perhaps most importantly, you can make emergency maneuvers more quickly and with better control.
I am sure that virtually every Harley rider can benefit from the procedure shown in this article; it’s an exercise in getting the bike to fit. And like a fitness program, the individual steps are easy to do and the results can be astonishing. I have had folks tell me that they were thinking about selling their bike before adjusting the thing to fit them. I think Harley ought to cover this in the owner’s manuals and dealers ought to offer it as a service. Proper fit between rider and bike is as important as tire pressure.
To check your bike’s fit, go for a ride and make note of the fit and feel of your bike. Ask yourself the following questions:
o Do you have to pull against the handlebar when cruising at highway speeds?
o Do you have to move your feet out of the way of the controls when cruising?
o Do you have to lift and turn your foot to reach the rear brake pedal?
o Do you have to strain to raise your fingers so you can reach the brake or clutch levers?
o Do you feel a strain on your wrists or shoulders?
If the answer is yes to any of these, and I am confident it will be, then you need to do some fitting.
How do I make my motorcycle fit me better? Harley Modifications to get you on the road to comfort
You may think that you are perfectly happy with the way your bike is adjusted. That doesn’t mean that it is an optimum fit. Most of us get used to our bikes—our muscles become trained and we end up accommodating the bike. It is far better to take a little time to make the bike accommodate you. It is easier, after all, to rotate a handlebar backward a bit than it is to strain your back or awkwardly bend your arms.
To get an idea of how well your machine fits you, block your bike so it is level and stable, and sit on it in your normal riding position. You should feel no strain anywhere in your body; none whatsoever. After five minutes, if you care to stay that long, you may feel a little stress from holding your arms up. This is as it should be since it is normal to lean on your arms slightly at cruising speed.
Follow these steps. Loosen the handlebar and hand-lever clamps slightly, just enough to allow you to rotate them with hand pressure. Sit on the bike and assume your normal riding position. Take your hands off the handlebar and let your arms down to your side. Now, the important part: close your eyes and reach for a handlebar, not the one you have, but an ideal handlebar. If the actual hand grip location interferes with this exercise, roll the bar forward out of the way and do it again.
With your hands grasping an imaginary handlebar, place them where they feel best, that is: rotate your wrists for the least strain and the most comfort, and spread your hands to a width that feels very natural and comfortable. Now open your eyes and look at your hands and where they are. This is where your bike’s hand grips should be.
If you cannot rotate your bike’s handlebar to fit this newly found hand position, you need a different handlebar. If your handlebar’s width and angles are good, position it and tighten the clamps. Note, however, if you ride without a windshield you’ll need to rotate the bar forward another half-inch to allow for wind pressure.
Hand Lever Adjustment
With your handlebar in its new position or your new handlebar positioned (whichever it is), you need to rotate the hand levers for best fit. Most hand levers are too high for quick and comfortable access. You should not have to strain your wrist and forearm muscles to raise your fingers over the levers and operate them.
Temporarily rotate both clutch and brake levers forward and out of the way for this step. Make your forearm, hand and fingers straight along their upper side, as if you were trying to touch something just out of reach. Rest them on top of the grips, and rotate the levers back until they just touch the underside of your fingers.
You’ll find that this rather forward lever position makes it quicker and easier to reach for and grasp the levers. You’ll also have better control of front brake modulation and clutch release.
You may wish, at first, to move the levers a little farther up than this procedure places them. Almost all of us are so used to having levers way too high that we need time to get used to them being in the best place for quick access and best control. When you are satisfied with the lever positions, tighten them in place.
Rear Brake Pedal
I think you know what is next: It is time to adjust the rear brake pedal for comfort, convenience and control. You should always adjust the rear brake pedal while wearing your riding boots. This is because of the large difference in arch-height between shoe designs.
If you can, you should lower the pedal enough that you do not have to rotate your foot out into the wind to stay off the pedal while cruising. You should be able to merely push your toes down to operate the brake. This position is not only much more comfortable, you can also apply the brake quicker, and it is simpler to do so.
Harleys that are fitted with original equipment floorboards have rear brake pedals that cannot be adjusted to become convenient or quick to operate. The rider must raise his/her entire foot and move it to the top of the brake pedal. Because of this, most FLT and Heritage riders cannot brace their heel on the floorboard while braking. I have modified (cut and welded) the brake levers on these bikes to allow operation with my heel firmly supported on the floorboard. There are products available that help, such as the EZ Brake.
Cautionary note: many 1993 and earlier Harley models (not all of them) had two rear-brake adjustments. One adjusted the brake pedal position and the other adjusted the position of the piston in the brake’s master cylinder. When you adjust the brake lever position downward on these models, you also move the master cylinder piston deeper into the bore of the master cylinder—this can be dangerous! If the piston moves far enough into its bore, the breather port is closed off and the brake can become self-applying. Some riders have crashed because of this. I recommend that an experienced mechanic adjust these older rear brake systems.
Shift Lever Adjustment
This will probably be a compromise. You’ll need to decide whether you want maximum cruising comfort or maximum control over shifting. Shift levers move both up and down. As such, they tend get in the way of your foot one way or the other. If you adjust them down, you may not have to rotate your foot out and away from them while cruising. If you adjust them up for maximum access when shifting both up and down through the gears, they’ll get in the way during cruise. If haulin’ through the hills is your goal, put them in the middle for best all-round access and live with sticking your foot out at cruise.
To get more foot room on Harleys with floorboards, consider removing the rear shift lever. This allows more rearward foot movement, although you’ll need to use you toe to up-shift. I always remove the rear shifter because I don’t own any shoes that can’t stand to get the toe scuffed anyway.
After you have spent an hour or so adjusting the controls, go for a long ride and see how you did. If you are doing all this yourself, you might consider taking the tools you need to make roadside adjustments.
Some of the changes will be immediately noticeable, like the lever positions. Others require time in the saddle to fully evaluate. It may take an hour or more to decide if the handlebar is in the correct position. Give it some time; you are altering the interface between yourself and a machine. If the machine was far out-of-tune to your needs, you developed habits to accommodate the machine. Take the time to develop a new adjustment to the machine.
Clutch: Each rider has his or her “sweet spot” for the engagement point of the clutch lever. That sweet spot varies with the rider. If the clutch engages with the lever too close to the hand grip, shifting might be affected because the clutch is not fully disengaging when the lever is pulled to the grip during shifting. If the clutch engages too far away from the grip, the rider may have difficulty controlling engagement smoothness. Only the rider can determine where the sweet spot is. The clutch needs to be adjusted to the rider’s needs.
Throttle: There should be no more free play in the throttle than necessary to keep it from applying itself when the handlebar is turned fully left or right. I have been adjusting throttle free play to this minimum for 45 years and have never had a problem with doing so; neither have any of my hundreds of customers for whom I have minimized throttle play on their motorcycles. The factory-recommended adjustment of 1?8-inch free play is very loose and makes throttle control a bit jerky at parking lot speeds.
Clutch: Dry clutch cables can cause clunky shifting and poor clutch-engagement control. As you very well know, we pull the clutch lever in before we shift. Few of us—perhaps none of us—pull the clutch lever all the way to the hand grip before we shift. Instead, we make a minimal pseudo clutch effort and then shift. Now, to the point, if the clutch cable’s friction is high, that pitiful little effort does not move the cable very far. Which, in turn, may fail to release the clutch enough to allow smooth shifting. I have no idea how many times I have solved a customer’s shifting problems by lubricating the cable. Lubricate your clutch cable.
Throttle: The less starting friction (or stiction as Cycle magazine’s tech editor Gordon Jennings used to say) the better. If the throttle is sticky, it jerks as you move it. A jerky throttle, one with too much stiction, makes riding in traffic a very tense and tiring matter. That sticky throttle makes your forearm tired from trying to control the jerkiness (is that a word? If it isn’t, it ought to be).
Everything else: In general, everything that you might move to operate your Harley-Davidson needs lubrication. With every oil change I make a point of lubing cables, levers, switches (yes switches), the side stand and things that might rust.
You may very well conclude that your seating position is simply wrong for best comfort and that you need a new seat. Many if not most Harley seats are, in my opinion, designed to look at more than sit on. They tend to be too low, creating a bend at the knee that can become uncomfortable a couple of hours into a ride. They also tend to apply pressure to a relatively small area of the rider’s, er—cheeks.
One of the best seats ever placed on a motorcycle is the old Harley seat that was, literally, taken from a tractor. That seat, which I used on my old ’87 FLST, is shaped to contact as much of one’s backside as possible. And that is the secret: contact area.
If you buy a seat for comfort, make sure that it contacts as much of you as possible. And, it should be shaped so that, when you are seated on the bike in your normal riding position, it applies even pressure over as many square inches as possible.
Once you’ve adjusted the handlebar and the controls, lubed all the cables and lever pivot points to make the control action silky smooth, and replaced the seat with something that suits you better, you are ready to enjoy motorcycling like never before. After investing in a new Harley, taking a little more effort will pay dividends.