MotoMojo: Seat Height & The Factors That Contribute To It

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Kawasaki, BMW North America, Victory, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Triumph

It can be a real hassle to try to ride a bike that's too tall for you - and it also can be very intimidating - particularly for newer riders who may be a little unsteady or nervous about balancing a heavy bike at a standstill. In many cases, a too-high seat is a real deal-breaker, when a potential buyer sits on a bike in the showroom for the first time.

Measuring and Interpreting Height

Seat height is measured from the lowest portion of the bike's front saddle to the ground, with the motorcycle held straight upright on its suspension, not on the centerstand. This number may vary slightly according to suspension settings; if spring preload is increased, it makes the bike - and therefore the seat height - a little higher. Your inseam measurement, for the sake of comparing it to saddle height, is the distance between your crotch and the ground.

A few manufacturers provide seat-height specifications based on a laden motorcycle, that is, with a rider of a certain standard weight in place. This "fudge factor" with the springs and seat cushion compressed typically takes about 2 inches off seat height, allowing a manufacturer to advertise a considerably lower height than competing brands that provide unladen specs, so watch out for this in the fine print.

Height by Motorcycle Type

Seat heights vary greatly among the different categories of motorcycles due to engine types, suspension, styling and other factors. Dual sport, supermoto, and dirt bikes tend to be among the tallest bikes, mainly due to their long suspension travel, which raises the whole bike including the seat. Sportbikes and sport-touring models also have fairly tall seat heights because they need plenty of ground clearance, which allows them to lean over more steeply when cornering. They also tend to have tall overhead-cam engines and large airboxes, which prevent the frame from dipping down in the seat area. Cruisers almost universally have the lowest saddle heights of all categories, as their shorter suspension travels, low-slung chassis and engines combine to allow room for a low seat. Some touring bikes, such as the Gold Wings, also have fairly low seat heights.

Seat Shape and Firmness

The shape of the seats and their firmness also contribute to height. Soft seat padding that compresses deeply will effectively reduce saddle height. Narrow saddles may be less comfy, but make it easier to touch pavement. Conversely, a wide saddle doesn't let your legs drape close to the sides of the bike, so your feet touch the ground further from the bike, which has the same effect as a taller seat.

Bike Weight and Gravity Center

Heavier bikes are more difficult to keep upright and may require you to have your feet flat on the ground, while you may be able to hold up a lighter machine while standing on tip-toes. Another thing to keep in mind, besides simply weight, is that a motorcycle with a high center of gravity will be more difficult to balance and keep upright if it begins to tip, than one of the same weight that carries its mass lower. Also consider that stopping or parking on sloped or uneven surfaces requires additional reach.

Manufacturer Solutions

Most manufacturers have begun to design and market motorcycles for inseam-challenged riders. Harley-Davidson has what it calls "Fit Shops" online and at dealers, and they offer Profile Low Touring Suspension Kits and reduced reach handlebars. Their Fat Boy Low has a ground-scraping laden seat height of 24.25 inches. Victory's lowest seat height is on the Vision 8-Ball, at 24.5 inches. BMW's R 1200 RT, as of this year, now offers a 29.5-inch saddle height as well as several models with adjustable seat heights. Additionally Honda's Gold Wing has a 29.1-inch seat height.

Quick and Easy Remedies

Acceptable seat-height is best determined by your personal comfort level, so don't let specifications rule you. The best way to decide if a bike actually fits is to sit on it. If you like a particular bike, but it feels too high, fortunately, there are a number of remedies. One of the simplest fixes is to wear boots with thicker soles and taller heels. There's an old saying, if you can't raise the bridge, lower the river. Special lower seats are available from a number of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs); a few manufacturers, including BMW, even offer a low seat as a no-cost option on some models. Aftermarket seat companies such as Bill Mayer Saddles, Diamond Custom Seats, Mustang, Russell Day-Long Touring Saddles, Saddlemen, and Sargent thrive on making lower saddles; you can either have your seat re-contoured and covered, or buy one outright.

Pros and Cons of Suspension Adjustments

Many riders lower their bike's suspension to achieve a lower saddle height, which is often done through the use of shorter springs, shocks, and lowering links. There are kits offered by some manufacturers that are designed, built, and tested by the same engineering teams as the original components. Before getting a lowering kit from an aftermarket manufacturer, make sure the product is well designed and made. Keep in mind, however, there are significant tradeoffs to consider.

Lowering your suspension reduces cornering ground clearance, shock operation, and wheel travel, and it changes suspension geometry - all of which can result in diminished ride quality and handling performance. Reduced ground clearance may result in your being unable to lean far enough to make a tight turn, or even run out of your lane in a corner. Shorter suspension travel makes the ride harsher and causes the bike to bottom out more easily on bumps. If you reduce ride height, the sidestand may also be too long to allow the bike to lean to the side. It's certainly possible to ride more slowly, to deal with diminished ride and handling characteristics, but it's best to try to find other ways to solve the height problem first.