Ergonomics is the science of making machines and systems fit the user, and not making the user fit the system. A motorcycle presents a tricky problem in this respect because they don’t have much available by way of adjustment and the design of the motorcycle is limited by the physical constraints of making the machine work. Comfort and ease of use, and ultimately your safety, will be determined by the type of bike you choose and this should depend on how you plan to use it. The ideal characteristics for a machine for a daily commute of ten miles through heavy traffic will be quite different from one that will be used for long distance travelling around European motorways. Most of us will not have the luxury of having a different bike for different types of journey, so some compromises will be needed when choosing one. The key thing to think about is what you need from your bike. It’s important to be honest with yourself, image and performance on a race track are one thing, but the reality may be very different. The fit of the bike to the user can be critical in long term comfort. Riders, of course, are different shapes and sizes so a bike that works well for one person may not work for someone else. Ask yourself:
- What are your physical abilities in handling the bike? Does it need to be lightweight and easy to put on a stand? Or heavy so that it is stable in windy conditions? Can you easily get on and off? Are the seat and footrests the right height for you?
- What type of road conditions are you likely to encounter? Are you likely to need good weather protection? Does the bike need to be narrow for ease of parking? Do you need to be highly visible? Do you need the ability to go very fast around corners on the open road, or the ability to change direction and manoeuvre easily around obstacles at low speed?
- Do you need room for luggage? Do you want a high performance bike? Is fuel economy important to you? Do you have a pillion rider? Can you and a pillion and luggage all fit on the bike? Can your pillion rider (if you have a regular one) get on and off easily?
Once you have your bike, correct clothing is a must. Clothing provides your thermal environment as well as a protective function. In the UK, temperatures can vary from below freezing to above blood heat. Unlike cars, motorcycles are not usually equipped with air conditioning or heating systems, neither do they provide a dry microenvironment. You are reliant on clothing to keep your body at a comfortable or in extreme conditions survivable, temperature. If your bike breaks down in a remote area in winter, you may not have immediate access to shelter and the clothing may need to keep you alive in wet, windy and cold conditions. Multiple thin layers are generally better for insulation than a few thick layers and keeping the wind out (e.g. using a one piece suit) is essential to reduce heat loss. Gloves are really important as your extremities can get surprisingly cold which may mean controls are more difficult to operate. Heated handlebars or handlebar muffs can be helpful. Feet can also suffer from cold so boots need to be adequately warm. A well-designed, full fairing can make a huge difference to the effective temperature (some work suggests as much as 15 degrees C).
In summer, the picture changes completely and while long, fairly fast rides can be comfortable due to the cooling wind, arriving in slow-moving urban traffic can allow heat to build up, and the problem then is to remain cool. While removal of clothing is a traditional method to improve thermal comfort, for the motorcyclist there is a trade-off between maintaining an adequate thermal environment and maintaining the degree of abrasion and impact resistance afforded by motorcycle clothing and helmets.
The journey itself is something that may need some thought. When you are on a bike you are in a more fixed posture than when you are in a car and there is little opportunity to wriggle around to relieve fatigue. Plan your journey so that you have breaks, say every 40 minutes or on the hour. Depending on the size of fuel tank and fuel consumption these breaks could coincide well with fuel stops. When you stop, have a move around and get your muscles working again. In winter these breaks can be planned to get you into a warm environment with a hot drink as part of the routine.
As always, ergonomic design and advice can only go so far; it is the rider’s responsibility to ride their motorcycle safely and responsibly.