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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.    

why is my bike so top heavy sportster
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.    
 
why is my bike so top heavy bmw
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.
why is my bike so top heavy
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


I traded in my '06 Sportster for a '14 Softail Deluxe last fall. Despite it being a heavier bike, the Softail is so much easier to ride at all speeds, especially low speeds. I feel like it has a much better/lower center of gravity. I live on a road that dead ends, so every time I ride I have to "practice" the slow speed circle turn to get going in the right direction to put the bike in the garage when I come home. Making that tight turn, using the clutch, throttle, and brake have been great practice, just like the diagram in the article shows you. I have the added challenge of the turn around area not being entirely flat and usually full of loose gravel. The new bike instantly gave me more confidence over riding the Sportster.

Donna Wiegle
Swan's Island, ME
Monday, March 23, 2015
I agree with this article. When I took my class, I mastered the clutch-throttle-rear brake method. The problem that I have is on my personal bike, the clutch is awful, much too loose for my taste and I must let the clutch almost all the way out before it engages. This makes me stall out much more frequently trying to get to the friction zone. I've tried to get it adjusted and it's still not comfortable for me. I am not sure if it's because the mechanic thought I was crazy or didn't know what i was talking about or it can't be adjusted any further. I know for my next bike purchase, I will test ride beforehand and ensure that I am able to do this. I am used to a stiff clutch, same with driving manual car.

I wish Motor Man was coming to Maryland.

Doni Graham
Odenton, MD
Monday, March 23, 2015
Practice does make perfect. I know when I changed the spoke wheels to mags and changed risers it made my 1800 feel less heavy, but that was because it changed my riding position to be a closer match to my 1300 VTX. After putting a few hundred miles on it I didn't notice it because I got used to the bike-clutch, throttle and brake -- just like this article explains!

Bobbie Tyler
Anton, TX
Monday, March 23, 2015
I disagree sort of on the phrase "top heavy." If you're talking about riding with dynamics of falling over, yes you can keep it up. But I consider my 2005, a custom Harley, top heavy simply because with my first Harley, also a Sportster was a 1990 with a small tank. Once I jumped up to the 2005 with a much bigger OMG, it's another whole story.

I am a 65-year-old woman and have to wear higher heeled boots to keep this bike upright when backing out of my downhill garage, or parking it on a slope. I can't lift it back up by myself when it leans.

I love my 2005 Harley, but when it's full of gas and I am parking it I cringe on whether or not I am going to lose my balance because it feels heavier on top. Just had to share my thoughts why I use that words "top heavy."

Neva Smith
Longview, WA
Monday, March 09, 2015
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