Short Woman Shopping: bike-hunting tips for shorter riders
by Janet Green, Editor, Biker Chick News
If you’re under 5-foot-3 and shopping for a bike, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many bikes really do fit you. And chances are, one of those bikes is going to reach out and knock you over the head with its styling, its “cool factor,” and its general overall suitability. But, just in case the bike that speaks to you the loudest doesn’t fit you perfectly the way it sits on the salesroom floor, there are a few simple modifications (“mods”) you can keep in mind that just might solve one of two key height-related problems.
Problem 1: You can’t “flat-foot” the bike.
In order to have the most and best control over the bike at slow or no speed you should be able to sit in the saddle with the bike pulled upright off the kickstand, knees bent, your feet planted flat on the floor. If you’re up on the balls of your feet, or worse, tip-toed, you won’t have complete control when you roll up to a stop and put your foot down or when you’re straddle-walking the bike backwards out of the garage or into a parking spot.
Solution: Lowering the bike.
You can physically lower the bike itself a couple of ways, but they both involve changing the suspension components – namely, the shock absorbers. On most bikes, the shocks are mounted to the frame and to the swingarm. You can purchase a special bracket that will allow you to loosen the mounting bolts, slide the shocks to slide the shock back an inch or so, bringing the frame-with-fender down a bit closer to the tire in the rear, which might be enough to get you flat-footed.
You could also replace the stock shock absorbers with shorter shocks, bringing things down even further. If you go this route, make sure you don’t go so short that the tire is likely to rub on the underside of the fender when the shock is compressed (i.e., you hit a bump, or add a passenger or luggage.)
If that’s still not enough, you can also purchase a kit that lowers the front of the bike by changing the springs inside the fork tubes. Again, make sure you aren’t creating a situation where parts of the bike will rub together that weren’t intended to do so. Alternate solutions: You might be able to flat-foot the bike just by changing out the seat. A bike with a wide seat will spread your legs farther apart before they head toward the ground. A narrow-profile seat might give you just enough extra room to get you flat-footed. And, if you’re just up on the balls of your feet instead of tip-toe, it’s possible you could get by just by purchasing boots with a taller heel and sole.
Problem 2: You can’t comfortably reach the handlebars.
Obviously, being able to reach the handgrips is key to comfortably operating and controlling the bike. From a design stand-point, lots of bikes today have “drag bars” – drag-racing style handlebars that come out in a nearly-straight line from the triple tree, extending left and right but not coming back toward you. These bars can force the shorter rider to hunch forward and reach way out to the right and left, putting body weight on your wrists and causing a burning sensation between the shoulder blades after only a short ride. (Kind of like that old ten-speed you used to ride with the curled-under handlebars – which, not coincidentally, was also originally designed for aerodynamic racing.)
Solution: Different handlebars, or pullback risers.
Depending on how far you have to hunch forward, you can try a couple of things here. Pullback risers are little chromey bits you put in between the tree and the bars to bring the bars up and back toward you in inch-increments. Small risers can make a big difference, so ask your dealer to help you determine how much pull-back you need.
You can also try a different handlebar style altogether. Buckhorn bars (and their next-bigger cousin, mini ape-hangers) bring the hand grips back toward you, and put your hands at an angle on the handgrips so your body sits back a bit and your weight rests on your butt and lower back instead of your wrists. Full ape-hangers will likely raise your arms above shoulder-level, which looks “old-school cool” but might make the upper arms ache. Finally, beach bars form a wide curve back toward the rider – like using half a steering wheel from the city bus. These have a distinct look and bring the grips back toward you, with your hands in a straight position similar to the drag bars (but probably with better weight distribution). Of course, if choosing different bars you’ll want to consider the design and look of your bike, too. Beach bars might look hot on a wide cruiser, but they’ll likely look out of place on a narrower bike.
An important caveat here is that adding risers or changing the bars could also mean you’ll need longer or shorter clutch control cables and/or brake lines to accommodate the adjusted distance.
Shorter riders needn’t fear the bike-shopping experience. While it’s true that making these modifications will change the final price of the bike, it’s also true that making a bike fit you perfectly is actually part of the process – and part of the fun!