Experienced motorcyclists are sometimes the worst people to ask about riding techniques and positions. Complicated things, like countersteering and body position, can become so second-nature that they will wind up saying things like “just relax…” and “steer with your shoulders…” “Just look in the direction you want to go and the bike will do it.” Yeah, ok. They say these things because the actual mechanics have become second nature to them (and so are any bad habits they have acquired). But for those to whom the mechanics of riding aren’t second-nature, or who want to hone their technique, there are three basic principles to body position and riding a motorcycle…
Now the particular body position that is right for you depends on two things: your shape and size, and your bike’s shape and size… In particular, where your torso and arms are in relation to the bars when you are seated square over the footpegs.
So for example, many people think sportbike riders lean forward for a tucked-in position in order to be more aerodynamic… The truth is, that is the only way to lock-in on a sportbike and steer quickly. Here’s what I mean, there are three basic parts to your body position on a motorcycle:
Seating. The purpose of your seating is to lock you onto the bike so that you can turn and brake and accelerate while seated in a stable position. You should not need your arms to at all to stay on the bike once you are seated properly. How do you know you’re seated properly? On most standards and sportbikes, proper seating means you should be able to stand straight up on the pegs and balance yourself…then sit straight down…wherever your butt winds up sitting straight down is the basic seating location for you on that bike. For larger cruisers (where the foot pedals are in front of the seat) it’s even easier. Wherever you can sit and reach the pedals easily while still bending your knees slightly, that is generally the correct sitting position/location for you on the bike.
Arm position. Notice the pivot point on a motorcycle’s handlebars. Many novice sportbike riders sit tall above the bars and hold the bars on a downward angle (note: this guy in the pic is just sitting on a bike at the dealership…but many guys ride like this). The proper arm position for any bike involves having your elbows at or slightly below the level of of the handlebars… So that your forearm is parallel the ground (or bent slightly upward). This is the position in which you have the most control, and the least resistance, where the bars feel lightest and respond most accurately to your steering inputs. (Check out the top pic, Leno has it right).
Torso. So once you are seated properly and have your arms in the right position, the last part of body position should come naturally…your torso position. You should be holding up your torso without putting any weight on the handlebars… You can’t steer something accurately while using it to hold yourself up at the same time. And you will exacerbate steering problems like headshake…not to mention get sore wrists from riding…
Most people can get by with bad riding habits…but what the proper riding position offers is direct control over the motorcycle… When you are locked in the correct position on a motorcycle you can swerve left or right or make emergency maneuvers without having to brace yourself or change your body position… Steering becomes a simple matter of pushing left, to go left, pushing right to go right…this way you can focus on your driving without struggling with your weight or balance.
Now advanced motorcyclists and motorcycle racers on the track do much more with their body positions than just lock-in. They hang off sometimes, tuck in sometimes, etc… But if you study these guys carefully, what you’ll notice is, even though these guys move around on the bike quite a bit, they’re not just moving around… There are three or four basic positions that they lock into for different types of turns or straights. They lock-in to these positions way before entering the a turn, and once they lock-in they don’t move around much until it’s time to lock-in to another position. For street riding there is only one position you need to lock into. Sportbike riders or riders who have clip-ons will have a low (belly on the tank) riding position…Why? Because you need to get your elbows at (or just slightly below) the hand grips in order to be in proper position. Standard and cruiser riders will be able to sit taller in order to have the proper position for their taller bars. But don’t just take my word for it, examine the geometry of how one steers a motorcycle, watch the top riders (not the almost-top riders or the fastest squids in your neighborhood) in action, and experiment for yourself. Cheers!