Code Break - Hanging Off in Style

This column began three years ago with another titled, "Knuckle to Knee Dragging." It tracked the evolution of the five phases that riding styles have gone through from the 1960s to the present. While overviews are great, they rarely solve my students' problems of getting a knee on the ground. The subject needed more study: What are all the elements of current body positioning?

In the '60s, Harley Davidson-began development of the KRTT roadracer based on a 750cc flathead V-twin. By '70 it could go 150 mph. It, and the other bikes of the day, had their seats, tanks, pegs and controls positioned for the straight-up, knees-to-tank riding style of that era. With relatively minor reconfigurations of those components, those bikes would feel as comfortable and as ride-able as anything built today. Bikes from any era can be adjusted to suit all riding styles. But leathers from that period would create serious restrictions to hanging off.

Racing suits have gone through a vast evolution in order to accommodate today's more athletic riding styles. The most obvious are strategically placed stretchy spandex panels, which allow for the freedom of movement required by today's spidery body positions. A small degree of restriction in the wrong place is a killer in the technology of body positioning.

Ill-fitting boots can also have a devastating effect on your flexibility, especially while hanging off the right-hand side of the bike on turn approaches requiring gear changes. Boots with limited articulation can force you back to center saddle for the down-changes before hanging your right cheek off. This becomes distracting and carries an additional liability of potentially upsetting the bike's turn-entry stability.

You can chase your tail trying to make bike adjustments such as raising or lowering the shift lever to compensate for ill-fitting protective gear. But other problems with body position and gear changing can be created once the lever is repositioned. Even an expensive set of perfectly positioned aftermarket rearsets may not solve this problem. The entire combination of bike, leathers and boots must work in harmony.

This comes up all the time at my schools. Riders want to hang off and get their knees down-period. Quite often, trendy, off-the-rack gear looks great in the paddock but performs poorly on-track, leading to a vast array of problems.

Our bodies are fragile and intolerant. They operate well in only a very limited range of motion, easily challenged by misalignment and tension. Restriction on one side of the body brings about misalignment and tension on the other. For example, riders tend to rotate their shoulders unnaturally to compensate for leathers that restrict chicken-wing-type, up-and-down arm movements. The shoulder twist, depending on individual joint flexibility, results in neck, spine, arm and hip rotation. This is accompanied by muscle tension to hold these misaligned positions, making you feel tired and uncomfortable.

The body is strongest in the most relaxed positions relative to the work it must perform. Wrist position as it relates to hand strength is an example. Extend your arm straight out and tightly squeeze your hand into a fist. Next, with arm still extended, rotate your hand upwards and squeeze. Those few degrees of rotation just reduced the ease of use and strength of your hand by a substantial margin. In this regard, both your arm position and your glove fit have a direct influence on comfortable and fluid body positioning. A poorly aligned wrist leads to an unnaturally positioned arm, resulting in compensation by the shoulders, neck, head and back. Net result? It feels awkward and looks stiff and unnatural to a trained eye.

This research began back in '92, when I discovered that body position was more than just style and had a huge effect on a rider's comfort, stability and control. The above are just a few of the 57 individual elements uncovered since. The good news is that once the problem is correctly identified, we've also discovered ways of correcting them all.