Editorial

March 31, 2017

Chronicle

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I don't know if this an old dog learning new tricks, the wisdom that is promised to accompany an otherwise humbling old age, or if this font of knowledge I seem to have stumbled upon recently was always percolating beneath the surface. Whatever the case, I came to a startling revelation recently, namely that the main reason I buy specific motorcycles over others is because they “fit.”

My primary motivation wasn’t always so rational. In my teen years, mainly because I couldn’t afford any of the superbikes I lusted after, I relied simply on style as the prime determination guiding my affections. Thus, 1973’s (I am, as I noted above, old) Laverda 1000 — the one with the gargantuan front brake and no ignition key — was the poster stuck to my bedroom door, the Italian’s ethos of brawn before beauty perfectly capturing the rage of my youth.

In my twenties, now able to afford actual motorcycles, though still lacking riding talent — or, to be truthful, any of the wisdom I mentioned earlier — I simply worshipped at the altar of speed, horsepower now the purpose that decided where my hard-earned bucks went: thus did a GPz1100 find its way into the Booth garage. In my thirties, thinking myself now more sophisticated, handling and balance were added to the lexicon. I couldn’t afford an RC30, so a used Suzuki GS1000 had to do. Then, the forties brought family and the need to think responsibly, so a slew of BMWs arrived, first an R1100RS because I was still thinking I had something of the Young Turk left in me, but eventually an RT because her ladyship wanted more room for her shoes and less wind mussing her hair.

But, with the recent purchase of my first modern bike — OK, semi-modern as it is 14 years old — in more than a decade, I came to the realization that my most important purchase criterion is now seating position. No, not the seat itself, but the relative relationship between foot, hand and, most importantly, butt. I wanted something that all the old bones — and the very specific cricks they’ve developed over the years — could tolerate. So, after years of evaluating power, handling and features, the purchase of my 2002 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 came down to the fact that it felt right as soon as I sat on it.

Oh, I tried for something more evolved. I’d have loved to find something more modern — say with anti-lock brakes — that accommodated my lower lumbars. Indeed, every time I tested a bike, ostensibly for a review in this magazine or another, I was shopping for myself. And, while I quickly narrowed the field down to something in the adventure touring segment, nothing I tested — from BMW’s R1200 GS to Suzuki’s latest V-Strom — had the immediate rightness of the old yellow whale.

You could have just modified a more modern bike, you’re thinking, the aftermarket offering all manner of adjustable handlebars — HeliBars, et al — and foot peg relocation kits to allow customization of the riding position. Well, I’ve gone that route and found the results, while superior, not entirely satisfactory. Especially since, when you add that cushier but taller aftermarket seat, you have to start all over again. Indeed, over the years I’ve determined it’s a lot easier to modify a suspension — my old V-Strom now rides like a champ thanks to a Race Tech Gold Valve in the forks and a now-out-of-production Elka shock holding up the rear — or engine (Wiseco pistons conquer all!), than to alter the riding position. In fact, the most important service criterion on my old V-Strom is not the fact that it can reliably go 25,000 kilometres between valve inspections, but that I always remember to make a little mark on the handlebar to ensure I can get it back in the exact same position when I remove it to play with the aforementioned Gold Valve.

And that presupposes determining the perfect riding position is a scientific process easily quantified and adjusted. Instead, after testing hundreds of motorcycles over a 30-plus-year span, I am ever more convinced that finding the right seating position is an art form rather than an exercise in engineering. I know some magazines provide diagrams in their comparison tests describing — usually via coloured triangles connecting seat, handlebar and foot peg — the relative seating configuration of the bikes being tested. But I have found these completely useless.

Oh, drawing such a histogram will tell you that a Gold Wing rider will sit more upright than an R1 owner (even when off the bike), but then I think we knew that already. Judging which bike in a specific segment will be more comfortable for you based on an arbitrary measurement that the handlebar is half an inch lower or a quarter inch farther back is, I think, a mug’s game. Until you actually sit on them, you have no idea which motorcycle is going to be comfortable for you. The dimensions of Suzuki’s 2016 V-Strom are all within an inch of my ancient beast, yet I can’t ride the former for much more than an hour at a stretch, but would be happy to take off cross-continent on the 2002 tomorrow.

Nor, I suspect, is this “rightness” confined to specific segments. The only two bikes I’ve managed 1,000-plus-mile days on in recent years have been the aforementioned V-Strom and my old 1983 Honda CB1100R. Two more different motorcycles would be hard to find and yet both left me more refreshed after 18 hours in the saddle than any number of the tourers — from Harley’s Electra Glide to a K1600 BMW — I’ve tested recently. Nick Sanders chose an R1 to ride around the world because he found it comfortable. I — and, I suspect, a few of you — couldn’t get to the local supermarket aboard Yamaha’s superbike without back spasms. The point is, finding a motorcycle that “fits” you is a highly personal — and sometimes tedious — enterprise, and the route to seating position happiness is more the result of subjective art than objective analysis.

Seating position is now the most important criterion to be satisfied before I lay down my hard-earned loonies. Now, whether that remains true as I become ever more geriatric, I don't know.