Posture - the key to smoother riding

I don't like to find fault with other peoples' writings on safety and riding. At the end of the day if they are interested in better riding, then we are in the same business and we ought to support each other. But sometimes something is just so bad I feel I have to say something. If you read this snippet from the riding skills pages of another website you might be forgiven for thinking you were doing it all wrong...

Body Position

As many people will realise as they gain confidence and move around on the bike, the way you sit on your bike has a direct affect on the way the bike handles. Unfortunately many people never learn the correct way to sit.

Sit close to the tank with your "groin" pressed against it! Lean forward and lie across the tank with your head behind the screen. Do not lean on the tank but allow your stomach muscles to support you so that if you take your hands off the bars you are still in the same position. You should try this when stationary to get a feel for it - just let go of the bars and let your stomach muscles do the work.

OK, so why am I critical of this? Unfortunately, the writer seems to have confused advice for the different needs of straight line riding, cornering and braking and left out some important bits altogether. Not least he seems to have completely missed the point that this position cannot possibly work for all bikes and all riders... try that on a Husqvarna 610TE enduro or a Virago or even a Yamaha Diversion. A Goldwing riding friend reported when he tried it:

"I could barely see over the dash, my elbows were behind my back and my wrists twisted at an awkward angle."

and as another (male) riding colleague observed "the occasional pothole would flatten out a couple of things that are supposed to be round". Ouch indeed.

If you are over 6ft tall, you'll not really enjoy sitting like that for very long. I suppose that it is aimed at average shape sportsbike riders but, even so it's far too dogmatic - in short it's one of the silliest pieces of advice I've seen for a long time.

Whilst novice riders on small bikes often sit on the pillion seat with arms straight out in front of them and we do indeed have to correct them on training courses, most larger bikes (and particularly sportsbikes) usually make it fairly obvious roughly where you should sit by means of seat contours or humps, cutouts on the tank and footpeg position. Even so, there is usually an  "envelope" within which there is room to move around and find the position that suits you - there is no single "fixed in stone" position that suits all bikes and all riders. There are some general rules - for instance, I do sit forward on the bike for improved slow speed control and on slippery roads but not at the same time as adopting a racing crouch. I also sit up and forward for cornering and braking, but when cruising down a motorway my main aim is comfort and minimizing fatigue.

However, let's assume that our riding is a bit more focused and that we're out on a nice road to enjoy ourselves. Consider what you need to ride smoothly in a straight line first. We'll leave aside the question of whether you actually need to adopt a racing crouch on the road, so by far and away the most important points are that:

    you find a comfortable position that allows you to operate all the controls and see where you are going
    you stay loose on the bike allowing your legs to act as active suspension
    you keep your elbows from locking allowing fine control over the steering and avoiding feedback to the bars

If footpeg placement allows (and this should be OK on all bikes bar cruisers) keep some weight on the footpegs so that you are riding light in the seat, grip the tank lightly with the knees and keep a nice loose elbow. Leaning on the bars is a killer for fine control in a corner and tends to cause the wobbles in a straight line. Bracing your knees helps you use your thighs as active suspension, and bracing your back helps you keep your elbows and shoulders loose. That way, the forks and rear shock can work away beneath you in partial isolation. Rather like a jockey on a galloping horse, so you are working in harmony with the bike with both having an easier time. The bike responds better to bumps which gives a smoother ride so you are not hanging on for dear life.

If you duck beneath the screen, rather than force yourself into a contortion to follow the writer's advice, you still need to find a relaxed posture, keeping the elbows loose and riding light - a tall rider is going to have to slide backwards towards the seat hump, whilst a shorter than average rider will probably be happy sitting fairly far forward in the seat.

On braking, sit up into a relaxed and comfortable position - precise position depends on the style of the bike as well as how big you are. You might need to slide forward as you sit up (not necessarily with your groin against the tank though) but in any event to a position where you can grip the tank firmly with your knees to take the forces of deceleration. This allows you to brace your back muscles to avoid leaning heavily on the bars. Try not to sit bolt upright on a bike with low bars - under hard braking, you'll probably still take some braking forces through the arms so if you sit too high, you'll rotate over the top of the screen! Even on braking try to take some of your weight through your legs so you are not sitting like a sack of spuds in the seat. The aim is to be in a position that copes the forces of braking and any suspension movement with as little unwanted feedback as possible and allows you to move smoothly into the cornering phase.

Having set the suspension up ready for the corner by braking smoothly, a lot of riders then make the mistake of changing position just as they start to turn into the corner, upsetting the balance of the bike again. You should get into position at very latest as you ease off the brakes. Again precise position will depend on the style of the bike, but on a sportsbike aim to have your forearms more or less level with the handlebar grips for maximum leverage. If you are a "Hailwooder" and you corner with your body in line with the bike, maintain this position through the bend with your active suspension legs and arms allowing the bike to work beneath you.

I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of hanging off in this article but if you move your weight to the inside of the corner as I do, the important point is that you must get into position before you reach the corner. Use the outside leg to do the bracing against the tank to allow some weight to be taken through the legs, and that loose elbow to be maintained.

And don't forget - whatever other compromises you have to make, your position must allow you to use the controls smoothly and to turn your head to look through the corner - try doing this flat on the tank in the middle of a bend!

Maintaining a comfortable position is important because it reduces fatigue. Why is staying relaxed and keeping elbows loose so important? Though I've said that you should keep them level with the bars, the precise angle is not so important as the fact your elbows are bent. There are two reasons

a bent elbow acts as a shock absorber (just like bent knees) and allows the steering to shake. The moment you stiffen up on the steering by leaning on the bars, you feed any bumps and shakes from the bike straight back into the handlebars.

it means you can steer using the leverage from your arm muscles. If you have your elbows locked, you are steering from the shoulders and back - almost impossible.

The need to avoid leaning on the bars and staying loose is not intuitive at all... it's something that must be learned. Common sense would seem to suggest that you would need to actively point the bike in a straight line all the time and hang on to the bars. Riders who do this find the bike wobbles when they do, so they just try to hold on harder. I get various blank or disbelieving looks when I talk about self-centering steering, so the clincher on my training courses is usually the hands-off riding demo. My tip to trainees is to remember the bars work like the tiller of a boat - they are for steering and not for hanging on to.

I can find myself leaning on the bars in a number of situations...

    when I've been riding a long time and am tired
    when carrying a pillion
    on bumpy surfaces
    while riding in the twisties so that I am braking hard
    when riding in heavy traffic
    when forced to make a very tight turn at slow speed
    when I get tense -- usually trying to keep up with faster people on unfamiliar twisty roads

The trick is to recognise the tenseness problem and force myself to relax. My self-test when riding is to see if I can wobble my elbows in and out, then I work through a series of muscle flexing and loosening exercises.

We've talked mainly as if staying loose is a sports riding tip - but clearly riding in traffic in towns or motorways can be nerve-wracking, and the inevitable result is that you tense up. Spot the problem, know the solution and relax. Your bike control will improve, just as it will if you make yourself relax before attempting a tight turn. Slow speed control is very awkward if you are hanging on in grim desperation.

We all tend to tense up in the last situation particularly when riding towards the limit of our abilities, and there is one very simple solution - slow down. Once you stop scaring yourself, you'll find it easier to relax, your bike control will improve, et voila, instantly quicker!

As an aside, after the problem of tensing up was discussed on a news group, someone sent me the following message:

"I was watching some old WSB tapes the other day (was starting to get racing withdrawal symptoms!) and noticed something very similar. In a couple of the races, Foggy was dropping back, and not liking it one bit. Looking closer, it appeared that he was making exaggerated moves on the bike... when blipping the throttle for downshifts, his whole arm would move rather than a flick of the wrist, and he would throw the bike into the turns. Basically it looked like "angry riding". Now I realize that his personality doesn't allow him to be happy with anything but first place, but all his moves looked very counterproductive. In a couple of instances, in the 2nd race of the day he would just walk away from everyone after finishing so badly in the first race... but his riding style was completely different. Everything was smooth and graceful. That really emphasized your point about trying too hard."

Interesting observation!