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Riding Right: Why Is My Bike So Top-Heavy?

We have the answer

By Jerry “Motorman” Palladino


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I must get this question via email five or six times a day, every day: “I just got a brand-new (fill in the blank), and it’s so top-heavy! What can I do?”  

First, let’s get one thing straight: It ain’t the bike. There’s no such thing as top-heavy. It’s simple physics. The bike has two wheels—one in the front and one in the back. If you don’t put the kickstand down, obviously the bike will fall over. If you’re going extremely slow and you don’t keep power to the rear wheel with your clutch and throttle, the bike will fall over. It’s called gravity.    

Some Sportsters have a reputation for feeling top-heavy.
Some Sportsters have a reputation for feeling top-heavy.

Why does the bike feel stable at higher speeds? Why is it that you don’t have a problem balancing a bike above 15 or 20 mph? Again, it’s simple physics. The two spinning wheels create a gyroscopic effect—that is, the force pulling you forward overcomes the force of gravity pulling you down. The faster you go, the more the motorcycle wants to continue going straight. Because of the gyroscopic effect of the two spinning wheels at speeds greater than 15 mph, you must make the motorcycle lean in order for it to turn. If you push forward on the left grip, the bike will lean left and go left. If you push forward on the right grip, the bike will lean right and go right. Again, this is because of the gyroscopic effect.    
 
Certain BMWs feel top-heavy to some riders because of the upright seating position and higher ground clearance.
Certain BMWs feel top-heavy to some riders because of the upright seating position and higher ground clearance.

So the question is, how do you keep the bike from falling over at low speeds? How do you overcome the force of gravity? Thankfully, the answer is very simple. You use the clutch and throttle, i.e., the friction zone. In addition, you put a little bit of pressure on the rear brake. As long as you keep power on the rear wheel and, at the same time, a little pressure on the rear brake, the bike cannot fall over as long as the wheels are turning—even if the wheels are turning very slowly. By “very slowly,” I mean 1 or 2 mph. Anyone who’s watched a slow race has seen this. If you see a motorcycle fall over during a slow race, or if the rider has to put a foot down to keep it from falling over, it’s because of a momentary loss of power to the rear wheel. 
 
If you don’t believe me when I say that there’s no such thing as a top-heavy bike, go to YouTube and watch police rodeo competitions. Notice that the rider’s seat on a police motorcycle sits about 4-6 inches above the frame. The rider’s weight, of course, is on top of that. That should make for an extremely top-heavy motorcycle, but if you watch these videos, you can see these motor officers whipping their bikes through the tightest of turns and maneuvering with ease. They’re able to do this because they know how to use the clutch, throttle, and rear brake. Knowing these simple techniques will allow any rider to ride any motorcycle regardless of its size or weight—even at the lowest speeds—with skill and confidence. You’ll be able to say, “Good-bye, top-heavy bike!”
 
How do you know if you’ve mastered the clutch and throttle? Remember, just having the ability to start from a stop without stalling doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the clutch and throttle. Here’s a simple test: Go to a lined parking lot and make a circle within 2.5 parking spaces. With the motorcycle straight up and no leaning, begin riding around that circle using the clutch, throttle and a little pressure on the rear brake. You should be able to do this at an extremely slow walking pace—that is, 1-2 mph, or just barely moving. Keep your head and eyes up at all times. If you can’t do this, you have yet to master the clutch and throttle. In that case, you should start practicing the slow race in a straight line until you feel confident. Then, start riding the circle.
Here’s a diagram of the circle you should make to practice. It should be 24 feet across.
Here’s a diagram of the circle you should make to practice. It should be 24 feet across.

If you have a couple thousand miles under your belt, you should have this mastered in about one hour. Good luck.
Riding Right No More Wide Turns Jerry Palladino
 
About the Author
Jerry Palladino is the founder of Ride Like A Pro, Inc., a company that produces motorcycle instructional DVDs and books. Jerry also teaches classes to experienced riders who want to enhance their motorcycle skills. Visit RideLikeAPro.com.
 
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Reader Comments


This artcle was helpful. I am brand new to riding and I took a motorcycle safety course and dumped my bike twice. Now I am practicing on my new Kawasaki KLR650 and really want to stay upright!

Jody Magill
Visalia, CA
Monday, October 28, 2013
I am so glad this article was posted. Just bought my first Harley Sportster Low. It does feel a little heavier than my husband's Yamaha. It is true if you look down, you will go down. The lady I bought it from did drop it a few times in her driveway. I am assuming she didn't have enough speed going. So I am a little scared to get on the Sportster for my first time. I will keep all of these suggestions in mind.

Kimberly Wood
Liv Manor, NY
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
After dropping my new Ultra Limited 11 times last summer, I think I've finally figured out what I was doing wrong. For one, going at extremely slow speeds on an incline will definitely lose your balance unless you keep a steady throttle. I think my problem came more when I was trying to turn a circle however.

After several practices, and learning how to use the back brake more, I finally mastered the "stop." Then came learning the curve or circle, and yes, by keeping the throttle and clutch at the right spot you don't lose your balance. I can now come to a complete stop without putting my feet down until I am to a complete stop. That was quite the accomplishment for me.

I also don't feel like it is "too big" anymore. I feel like I am more in control of the bike and that I can keep it upright a lot easier now. Thanks for writing this article. It is so true. I never thought I would be able to ride an Ultra and here I am going on more than 600 miles already!

Brenda Sanders
Bar Nunn, WY
Friday, March 16, 2012
Wow, this article jumps right past the real question to preach today's lesson.

A bike feels top heavy due to several design factors. Steering geometry and center of gravity being the most important. The Buell uses this to its advantage by putting the muffler as low as possible on the bike, under the center line of the wheels. Once moving fast enough to create a gyro effect the pivot point of the bike moves up to the hubs, when you lean left the point that your tires touch the road will move right. Any weight below the hubs is subtracted from the weight above the hubs, giving you less weight that you have to move. This weight + the gyro resistance is what your feeling when you tip the bike in at speed. But all of the bike's weight is felt at a stop, the higher up that weight is the more leverage it has against you. One degree of angle 6 inches up on something 18 inches wide means that very little of the weight is "off center" but move that up to 6 feet and most of it is now off center. Thus a low wide bike will "feel" more stable at a stop.

As for the articles definition of the gyro effect...
http://science.howstuffworks.com/gyroscope.htm
That one is correct. It has nothing to do with forward momentum or force, but everything to do with rotating mass, because your bike is affected by gravity and is in contact with the road your wheels have to rotate to go forward, but if you spun your wheels on a dyno the bike would stand up on its own.

P Patterson
Abbotsford, BC, Canada
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Editor Response
I would agree that a low bike such as a Sportster low, is easier to hold up while at a standstill and tilted slightly to one side or the other, compared to say a BMW Adventure Tourer with it's 34-inch seat height. However, the point of the article is that the center of gravity means little or nothing if a rider knows how to use the clutch, throttle, and rear brake.
Jerry "Motorman" Palladino
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