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.
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.
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.
If you have a couple thousand miles under your belt, you should have this mastered in about one hour. Good luck.
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.