Short Woman Shopping: bike-hunting tips for shorter riders

by on July 24, 2006
in Commentary

by Janet Green, Editor, Biker Chick News
copyright 2006

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!

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    Comments

    26 Responses to “Short Woman Shopping: bike-hunting tips for shorter riders”
    1. gina says:

      5′-0″, rides ’07 Streetglide…. Has 16 yrs riding experience!

    2. BikerChick says:

      Gina – the other side of this equation that I didn’t even discuss in this article is: how does a smaller/shorter woman “man-handle” (for lack of a better word) a larger bike? The Street Glide weighs over 780 pounds… do you have any trouble maneuvering when, for example, you have to walk it back into a parking spot? Appreciated you stopping by, thanks! ~ Janet

    3. gina says:

      Can be a problem backing up… try not to get high centered… Also, lowered the bike as much as posssible, with out affecting rideablity… Lowered front end, special “reach seat”.. rear end couln’t be lowered more than stock without special bracket for shocks… THEN RAISED ME! (Got a tip years ago from another lady rider) Went to my shoe repair shop… had my riding boots resoled with 21/2″ orthopedic lifts… would you like pics? Now have over 10,000 miles on bike. Riden it up highway 1 and 101 up California coast inot Oregon … From Olathe, Ks.

    4. jade taylor says:

      hello, im completely new to bikes and really want to buy one, im a 5″3 female and could really do with some assistance. its hard to deal with salesmen as they are all trying to push their own products. i want an on road bike, even a dual purpose would be quite cool. i like the look of sport bikes.im not sure which manufactue\rer is the best, in fact i have no clue as to where to star. please advise.

    5. BikerChick says:

      Jade, thanks for reading! I have never tried to shop for anything other than the V-Twin cruisers, so I’m afraid I can’t be too helpful on other types of bikes. If anyone else reading here has some tips, feel free to share!

      A great place for you to start would be to head over to Delphi Forums, and find the “Women Who Ride” forum. There are over 1200 participants in that group, many of whom ride sport bikes and can advise you on which ones fit shorter riders. You will need to sign up with Delphi for at least a free account, but even their paid (ad-free) accounts are very reasonable and well worth the money (I think I pay $15 per quarter for mine). Once you’re signed up, look for “Women Who Ride.” The direct link to that forum is:
      http://forums.delphiforums.com/distaff – this will take you to a login page, which is where you can get your free account.

      Best of luck to you – ride safe and have fun!

      Janet

    6. shelly says:

      I have a lowered ’08 ultra classic that I am loving. Used to ride a lowered Heritage and had no problem being flatfooted. Pulled the handlebars back and rode with a lot of comfort. I am still adjusting the the different ride of the Ultra, but really do like the smoothness of the ride. My only problem with both the Heritage and now the Ultra is reaching the kickstand! I have a bruise on the inside of my lower leg from the floorboards and struggle each time to reach the kickstand. I can ride off of the kickstand most times, but still need to be able to reach and pull it up. Any suggestions for an extension that makes it a shorter reach for a short legged woman?

    7. BikerChick says:

      Shelly, glad to know the bigger bikes can be made to work for shorter riders, my husband rides a Heritage and I have tried it out a few times – yes, I think if lowered it would work well for me except for the kickstand – I can’t reach it either! LOL ‘Course, neither can he… thanks for reading! ~ Janet

    8. nina says:

      Hi, I’m a new short rider (5’2) and am planning an around the word bike trip with my boyfriend. I am trying to find an enduro type bike that will fit me, street cruisers don’t seem to be a problem, but all the dirt bikes I’ve seen are much higher normally. Do you have any suggestions?

    9. BikerChick says:

      Nina, I really don’t know anything about the sport and “Enduro” bikes, except to agree with you that the sport bikes seem to me to much taller than cruisers. I have heard that the Ninja is not uncomfortable, though, even for short riders. As for enduro bikes… Sorry I can’t be helpful.

    10. Bladerider says:

      Hi,

      I’m a sports bike rider, I LOVE them :-)

      I actually asked around the girl forums I am a member of and have published a list on my blog of the different bikes girls are riding. Not just cruisers, but sports bikes like me and also all other kinds.

      The list also includes whether the girls can touch the floor, and any adjustments they made to the bikes to lower the ride height.

      It’s proving very popular and helpful to girls who are looking at buying a bike.

      Bladerider

    11. Janet says:

      Blade, I’m so sorry I didn’t see this comment before now – THANK YOU for taking time to read and comment here!

      Folks, The post below at Bladerider’s blog will give you a couple of links to some very good resources she has created for sportbike riders.

      http://ravenbladerider.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/girls-and-modern-sports-bikes/

      If the link doesn’t work for you, just visit http://ravenbladerider.wordpress.com and click on the “Female Riders” category.

      - Janet/BikerChick

    12. Jade,
      I recnetly read an article on Women Riders Now that listed all of the bikes from major manufacturers that come stock with a low seat height. It might be helpful to you. Here’s the link: http://www.womenridersnow.com/PublicFiles/DepartmentViewer.asp?ArticleID=1187

    13. BikerChick says:

      Mrs. Road, thanks for sharing that link – it also appears in the text of my more recent post that provides an update to this article. It was a Herculean effort from Women Riders Now and VERY helpful! ~ Janet

    14. Tail says:

      I have been thinking about taking a good class and learning to ride but I live in Houston Texas which is a very dangerous place for novice riders so I continue to ride with my husband on our Harley. I prefer the Sportster because it fits me the best and is more compatible weight wise. I am not afraid of my riding abilities it is the people in the cages that scare me there is no time for freezing up due to lack of experience. We have had some pretty close calls that my husband’s riding abilities saved us from. I just recently finished chemo and survived breast cancer so riding a bike is not so challenging anymore.

    15. Janet says:

      T – “no time for freezing up due to lack of experience” – that is a very good point, if you live in a busy city with aggressive drivers, that could be very daunting. I do have lots of gal pals who handle the bigger bikes with no problem, but so far I find my 883 Sporty fits me really well. I just found a great catalog with an interesting new front-end setup that I would love to try – makes it look like a mini-FatBoy! Bet it’s expensive though. Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Janet

    16. Biker chick
      I am 4’11 (quite short) and have a Honda Rebel (not a very big bike), and I’m thinking of graduating to a larger bike, but I have some concerns about the weight of the larger bikes and the arm length, the weight I think I can handle but the real problem as it is I have trouble with my hands going to sleep.
      What do you do to stop this from happening?
      Kat

    17. Corn Dog says:

      Kat, there are two things I can think of off-hand that might cause your hands to go to sleep. One is an incorrect (for you) riding position; the other is vibration in your handlebars.

      Riding position – Because I’m so short, I’ve found that often, the stock handlebar set-up on a new bike creates too far of a reach. This can burn starting between my shoulder blades and all the way down my arms into my hands. The solution is to figure out how much pullback you need in your bars, and see if you can find some risers or extensions that will alter the handlebars into the right position.

      Vibration – I hadn’t heard about vibration being a problem with the Rebel, but on a pre-2004 Sportster, believe me – it’s an issue! So it might be with your bike too. Depending on how the engine is mounted (among other potential variables), the vibration from the engine might be traveling through the bike and creating a buzzing or vibrating sensation in your hands. After some distance of riding, this makes them feel numb and/or puts them to sleep. There may be a deadening insert you can put into your handlebars (I know at least one person who did this on her Sporty), or maybe some kind of padded handgrips might work to reduce the vibe.

      All that said, if you are looking new bikes, definitely research whether vibration is an issue in the bike you’re considering as well as the handlebar position. As a very short shopper, I found that the Honda VLX (which is a 600) and the Shadow 750 Spirit both fit me very well. I owned the Shadow for about 18 months and put padded grips on it (Kuryakyn ISO Grips), and never had a vibration problem. On my 883 Sportster, I changed handlebars a couple times – once for comfort and once for looks – and it didn’t lessen the vibration any but it did make my shoulders more comfortable. On my 1200, the engine is mounted differently so the vibration’s not so noticable, but I got ISO grips for my birthday so we’ll be adding those soon and that should eliminate virtually all of it.

      Other thoughts welcome, so others please chime in!

    18. Kat Kleinsmith says:

      Janet
      Thank you so much, your so very right there is a lot of vibration with the Rebel, I find that it is both my hands not just one, my husband has been at a loss on how to help me as he rides a BMW Cruiser and doesn’t have this problem, the bike actaully fits me through the arm length and height well now that I have lowered it and got boots with heels, the shopping I’ve done has been real fun(still looking) leaning me towards the Honda Spirit, I was looking for a Honda 600 but found out there discontinuing that model, the dealer said people were complaining they were dogs on the freeway and that the larger models were being purchased more readily, so the 750 I checked out seem to fit but a bit heavy, handle bars fit and I really like the looks.
      So were would I find these Kuryakyn ISO Grips handle grips? Are they designed to fit most bikes?

      Kat Kleinsmith

    19. Corn Dog says:

      Kat, the 750 I owned was heavier than the Yamaha 250 I started with, but it was very well-balanced and I had no trouble maneuvering it around, including “walking it” backwards (such as into or out of a parking space). The Kuryakyn ISO grips are made for many makes and models of bikes, you can get them through J&P Cycles from a variety of sources – J&P Cycles and Dennis Kirk are the two sources I used most often when not shopping with my HD dealer. Be sure to spend a few extra bucks and get the “wrist rest” add-on, it’s well worth it… allows you to relax your grip on the throttle while the weight of your hand keeps it open.

      By the way, on the 600 – I sat on that bike the day I ended up buying the 750. I LOVED the way it felt and fit; the only reason I didn’t buy it was because it was only a four-speed, which my hubby thought would not be enough power on the highway. I bought the 750; later heard mixed reports from others who owned the 600 – some said they never felt like it was lagging, others definitely did. As much as I loved the way the bike fit me, I was glad I bought the 750 instead.

      Have fun shopping!

    20. judith says:

      I can ride any motorcycle,its the stopping flatfooted thats the problem.I had to learn fast to lower all my mcs.I was embarrased thirtysome years ago when I rode up to a 1% clubhouse,did’nt get my feet down right and fell over.
      5′,2″,106 lbs.

    21. BladeRider says:

      Hi everyone :-) I hope you are all well :-)

      I hope you don’t mind me popping back and bunging another link to my site on here. I got a new bike for Christmas, a 1995 Fireblade (Honda CBR900) and had a.. ermm.. little difficulty reaching the ground on it..

      This link – http://ravenbladerider.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/lowering-the-ride-height-on-a-cbr900-fireblade/ – shows how I shaved the foam off the seat of my bike so I could get a bit more foot on the floor :-)

    22. janie says:

      I have a dyna low rider and its to top heavey. I had it lowered but its still to top heavey.I keep dropping it. Do you have any ideas. The dealer want take it back.

    23. flacowgirl says:

      I am 5’1″ and own a Vulcan 500 LTD. With Xelement boots, I fit flatfooted. This is a nice bike for shorter people. It has the Ninja engine which puts it in the class with the 900′s. Fast enough and comfortable. I ride it to work daily and cruise the countryside as often as I can. Cool bike and you can get them really cheap right now since they have been discontinued. About $4200 with windshield and sissybar.

    24. holly says:

      I’ve been riding a ninja 250 for a few months now and I really like it.

    25. desert_prencess says:

      I am also a vertically challenged lady rider. With me being 5’1 ,(On a really good hair day, and without having helmet hair) I too have had a few problems with being able to flat foot bikes.
      For 25 (give or take) years I had only been a passenger. I had ridden (at best) the length of ½ a football field, and even that’s being generous in the length.
      I was blessed to have a co-worker who had bought a 2001, 800 cc, Suzuki Marauder, a few years pryor. He found out that the more he rode it, the more intimidated he became. Don’t get me wrong, he put 3,000 miles on it, But the majority of those miles were done on long runs with friends. So, it sat in his garage longer than it spent on the road. He decided riding wasn’t for him and put it up for sale.
      It’s safe to say I had a lot to learn about riding my own bike. Seven years later, and a few long runs I still don’t consider myself as a seasoned rider and maybe that’s a good thing. If its ok with you, I’d like to share some of the do’s and don’ts I have learned personally.

      Remember that there is two kinds of riders. Those that have wrecked and those that will wreck. If you are a rider and have love ones that ride, purchase a demon road bell to put on there bike. Superstition among us that ride is that all roads have demons that hitch a ride as a biker passes by and begins to cause problems with the bike and rider until they finally wreck. Placing a bell on your bike traps the demons inside it and the ringing eventually drives them so crazy they fall off and die. The bell has to be purchased by someone else and has to be given as a gift or it will have no power. Some say it will only have half the power. I was given one when I first got my bike. I’ve been spared from having an accident, sometimes just by a hair or second, but still spared. These, I practice every time I ride.
      1. Don’t wear Shoes with laces. (tennis shoes) the laces can catch on the foot peg, and when you try to put your foot down, it pulls the bike off balance just enough to dump it.
      Yes. I dropped my bike at a gas station in front of everyone just trying to get a bottle of water I dropped. And because my lace was caught on the peg I ended up with my bike on top of me. Not like being a woman rider doesn’t draw enough attention, right? I did gain some dignity back when I picked it up by myself.

      2. If you have an allergy to venom (bee’s or any stinging creature with wings)
      Make sure you carry an Epi-pen and Benadryl with you at all times, even for a trip to the store. On my way back home from a Vegas run a bee stung me in the chest (cleavage area).Because it was So hot out, I decided not to take mine with me. I didn’t really want to have to carry something that needed to be kept cool all the time. (hot temp. ruins epinephrine).I ended up being medi-vaced off the 177 highway in Ca. to Joshua Tree Hospital. Would have rather had my first helicopter ride be something I could enjoy. I got complacent and Stopped carrying it again and a few months ago (5-6 years later) I road to the store a few miles away and was stung again. That cost me three trips to the hospital in one week.
      3. Riding closer to the centerline (in the part of the road where most cars left tires travel)allows oncoming drivers more aware of their placement in their own lane. You will notice that most drivers will drift over to the right of their lane allowing more space between you, way before you pass by each other. You will learn after a few cars when those idiots who don’t increase the space or who aren’t paying attention are not going to increase the space and you can make that adjustment yourself in plenty of time. Its subconscious thing most drivers do.
      4. Long hair (esp. mine cause its curly too) gets so tangled you might consider dreadlocks instead of getting them out. Braids or low poney tales help. A bandana worn just over the beginning of where your bangs begin helps keep your bangs from getting kinks that stick up like an antenna.(my problem ) And a well ventilated helmet helps keep your head from sweating. Mine has two vents on the top and two on the side, I pull my visor up just a bit and air flows through nicely. This is what I do to keep from getting helmet hair.
      5. Sometimes long rides can be a bit boring and conversating with yourself doesn’t cut it.I always take my mp3 player or ipod with me. The best ear phones to use are the ones shaped like mushroom. BUT ONLY use one. Never have them in both ears. This way I’m able o hear what my bikes doing, and I’ll hear sirens etc.
      6. Centrifugal force causes your bike to lean when you are taking a curve or turning. The sharper the turn the more the bike leans. If you slow down too much, gravity kicks in. Take turns and sharp curves in second gear and Increase your throttle gradually through it and lean with the bike. This allows a smoother curve or turn because the Centrifugal force pushes you into the seat. If you going slower then you have to turn your handle bars a lot more and you’re not very sturdy. If you can learn to relax your body while riding and allow consider yourself a part of your bike (leaning the same as it does) its easier.
      7. Turning in water or gravel can be a bit tricky cause the back tires traction is compromised . I find it easier for me to go through it slow and wider.
      8. When you ride with other people, agree on signals , hand signs, and gestures to use to communicate with each other. This is handy when you want a cigarette or bathroom break, want to stop and eat or just stretch your legs, or see a police car lying in wait.
      9. When cars or trucks pass you make sure they see you. Slow your speed a little to give them plenty of room to move back into the lane. I have been almost creamed by so many cars and trucks trying to pass.
      10. Sharing the lane with other bikes is common. I like riding along side my Boyfriend. But,.. When we approach a fairly sharp curve one of us falls back during the curve and then catch back up with them. This will give you more space to lean into it and gives you more of a cushion in case an oncoming vehicle takes the curve too wide. This is when it’s better to ride in the middle of the road . Oncoming traffic won’t see you and most are concentrating on the curve and their position in their lane, trying not to have use your lane to take the curve.
      11. NEVER pass a car on the left side unless they are stopped or going very slow to make a left turn, and even then it better just to wait.
      12. Believe it or not, I ride in every kind of heel. I actually have a more stability at stop lights, and it makes up the difference for my short legs. I can flat foot my bike but just barely. Platt formed or wedged heal works great and feels sturdy.(and let’s face it, looks hot too.) Spiked heals are not as sturdy and can cause you to wobble and then you and your bike fall over, especially if for some reason and there will be, you are fighting to keep your bike from tipping. High heals hinders you and makes it very hard to keep your bike from getting to that point of no return .Thank God I have not had this happen but I almost did, and I became more careful about stopping in a hurry and getting off my bike.
      13. Realize now that being a woman rider makes a lot of people look. Id say at least 95 % of the drivers and passengers will stare. I admit it’s a kick in the pants, but if they are looking at you, then they’re not looking at the road.
      14. And last … after you put your kickstand down and before getting off your bike, with both feet on the ground and both hands still holding your handlebars kind of wiggle the bike between your legs to insure that your kick stand is firmly holding your bike up. Soft soil, sand and other things are not a good place to park. I wound up diving under my bike as it was going over because the kickstand was slowly sinking into the sand. I found the one small spot about 4” big that wasn’t concrete and put the kickstand in it. It looked the same as the concrete but looks can be deceiving. And again I picked my bike and pride up by myself and rode off.
      Thankfully its been saved from dents and scratches from the foot pegs and handlebars. So it still shines and looks beautiful. Maybe the Bell really does keep the road demons away.
      Ride safe ladies
      Tracy

    26. nottapirate says:

      Wow, I hope everyone knows what crazy and horrible advice that Tracy posted. I know that is a 1+ year old post but I thought it was important that no one takes her terrible and delusional advice about the “demon bell”, riding on the double yellow lines and the horrible advice on how to ride through a corner. She must be a pirate lifestyle rider because she clearly knows nothing about riding. Her horrible advice will get someone killed.