What do I need to ride safely?
April 13, 2008 9:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm a pretty petite lady (5'3 but my inseam is a ludicrously short 28") and interested in buying a motorcycle and appropriate gear.

I rode dirt bikes as a kid, but that was a while ago so I'm already planning on taking a riding safety course- we're in Oakland so I was thinking about the CSMP, unless anyone has any other suggestions.

I'm looking for a little commuter bike to get me about ten miles to work and back- I've been thinking about the Nighthawk but would appreciate any other suggestions of bikes with a low saddle height. I recall seeing a thread about this a while back but couldn't find it! (My apologies if these threads are more obvious to more competent searchers) My price range is hopefully below 2k.

Additionally, I'm wondering if people can recommend what kind of gear would be good? Is just having boots, specialized pants, jacket, and gloves enough, or should I be considering a turtle shell or other spine protector? How important is it that I get armor in the gear? Is it alright if I get it second hand on craigslist? I'm not sure what to say is my price range here- obviously I want to be safe and am willing to pay what is necessary for that.

Stewie's girlfriend here, btw. Stewiethegreat would like to reiterate that he is not a girl and doesn't really care what his inseam is, but it's more than 28"
posted by stewiethegreat to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm about your size, and had a vintage '60s Honda Hawk cafe racer type bike that was just perfect for me. I think I sold it for about eight hundred bucks, so you should not have too much trouble finding one for a good price. It was also super easy to maintain, and finding a repair manual was a piece of cake.

It was really easy to ride, and I could easily pick it up if it dropped, not that I ever actually dropped it while riding.

Never commuted on it, so I can't speak to gear. My husband used to commute on his bike from SF to Mountain View wearing a leather jacket and his ordinary work pants, but it always made my skin crawl when he did.
posted by padraigin at 10:04 PM on April 13, 2008

Response by poster: thanks, hal_c_on! Knew it was somewhere out there. . .
posted by stewiethegreat at 10:33 PM on April 13, 2008

Here is the classic short bike page; there are no doubt plenty of others, because it is a really common issue.

About gear:

-- Second-hand is fine. In addition to Craigslist, look at motorcycle-specific forums (eg ADV Rider's Flea Market. Don't buy anything that has been crashed in, and I would never buy a used helmet (because you can't see from the outside if the foam has been compromised), but otherwise second-hand can save you many hundreds of dollars.

-- Armor is better than no armor. Good armor is better than crummy armor. That said, there is a trade-off between maximum crash protection, and real-world comfort and utility. Add in questions of waterproofness and ventilation in hot weather, and you will see why many motorcyclists have closets full of gear. None of it is perfect, and the options for women are even more limited. Generally, people dress differently for a run to the store than they do for a ride across country, and differently again when they are going out to act like a hooligan.

-- There are a few companies that specialize in making or selling gear for women; additionally, there are companies like Motoport (warning: worst website in the world, but wonderful gear) and Aerostich that can customize almost every detail of sizing; others, like Joe Rocket, offer a surprisingly deep inventory of women's apparel. Here is a good directory I found via Google. New Enough sells women's stuff, and you can search by things like "short inseam"; their prices are very good. She-Rides is a store I have heard of for a long time, but have never done business with. If you can afford the prices, the BMW gear is good and comes in women's sizes.
posted by Forktine at 10:44 PM on April 13, 2008

Carolyn Boyce is about your size and stature, and rides anything with two wheels.

And then some.
posted by SpecialK at 10:54 PM on April 13, 2008

^^^^ And she's in the South Bay area and is a kind soul that, if you contact her via her website, will likely be happy to give you a hand and hook you up with local resources as she has done for many of her friends. And she might even know of a good shorty starter bike that's up for sale.
posted by SpecialK at 10:55 PM on April 13, 2008

Get the back protector. If you're commuting in traffic, it's worth it. If the big turtle-shell is too much, even one of the minimal foam back protectors (like the "touring" back protector from Aerostich) are better than nothing. I would recommend getting foam armor in whatever gear you get at the minimum. I've crashed my Aerostich Roadcrafter a couple of times now and have been very thankful for that foam shoulder, elbow, and knee armor.

A friend of mine who is exactly your size just picked up a full set of decent gear through NewEnough.com at fire-sale prices. Especially in the small sizes, NewEnough seems to have some excellent closeout deals.

My experience with Nighthawk 250s or Ninja 250s is that just about everybody outgrows them very quickly. They can be picked up cheap, but expect to sell it again soon for something with a little more steam as your skills improve. My inseam-challenged friend picked up an '89 Honda CB-1 (a 400cc inline-4) for $1200 that runs great but has some cosmetic issues. You can occasionally find an old Honda Hawk (NT650) for about that price, but they seem to have more of a cult following than the CB-1s, and both are hard to find. If you want to go a little bigger or spend a little more, the Kawasaki ZZR-600 has one of the lowest seat heights around. Failing that, older Katana 600s, Ninja 500s, or EX-500s are good, solid bikes that seem to run forever and are very available. As you can tell, my knowledge is sportbike biased and so are my recommendations, your mileage will vary.
posted by hackwolf at 11:21 PM on April 13, 2008

I highly recommend Just Leather in San Jose (near Valley Fair) for gear. The selection is nice, the service is friendly, and they do tailoring / alterations for your size.
posted by Andrew Brinton at 11:29 PM on April 13, 2008

As an alternative to the Nighthawk, you could try a 250 Rebel. It's still a Honda bike, so it'll run forever, and it would definitely fit your frame. My cousin is about your size, and she learned to ride on my dad's old one.
posted by Kreiger at 3:29 AM on April 14, 2008

What kind of traffic? With a 250 in rush-hour highway traffic you might feel underpowered and itching to move up to something bigger, sooner. If highways are the bulk of your riding, wind resistance at 50mph alone will have you looking for more power. I have a BMW F650 (older versions of which had a lowering kit to bring it down another 1-2") and commuted for a while on the Mass Pike, and liked having power when I needed it. I'm also a 28" and I've done fine with the stock height of the 650--I can just about reach tippy-toes and you don't always need both feet on the ground. Another inseam-challenged friend did install the lowering kit and enjoys the extra few inches. I highly recommend a Motorcycle Safety Foundation-approved course.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:58 AM on April 14, 2008

I would recommend a "starter" bike - something that you won't be afraid to drop.

I am 5'5" and started on a 69 Honda CD175. It was a great first bike - small and easy to handle. I found it very important to be able to firmly put both feet on the ground, as it was hard to learn how to balance while you're getting the hang of using the foot and hand controls.

My friend who is a very petite 5'1" started on a Honda Rebel and loved it. I test drove it for her and was surprised by the amount of "nut" it had. I've heard a lot of good things about the bike, and understand that it actually maintains its value because it's so in demand as a starter bike for women.

Motorcycles are so much fun! Good luck!
posted by suki at 5:17 AM on April 14, 2008

I have a friend who is just a bit taller than you that's had her Ninja 250 for a couple years, and loves it. You can even ride it on the highway if you don't mind revvin it up (and that's what sportbikes are made to do).
posted by thedaniel at 5:27 AM on April 14, 2008

As I see it, there are essentially 3 beginner bikes on the market in the US which are suitable for use on the road. (Most bikes under 250cc are too underpowered for riding on streets in most of the US; an underpowered bike is dangerous because you have no acceleration in reserve). Those three are the Honda Nighthawk, the Honda Rebel, and the Kawasaki Ninja 250. (Perhaps someone will suggest something else, but I would strongly recommend a 250 bike for a beginner rather than anything larger).

The Nighthawk and the Rebel are quite similar (except that the former is a standard while the latter is a cruiser); they are good, solidly built bikes that are very suitable for beginners and have low stand-over heights. They also top out near 60 mph, which means you're likely to outgrow them as a rider.

The Ninja 250 is also suitable for a beginner, and I don't think the 28" inseam would be too big a problem. (I have a 30" inseam and have NO trouble having both feet flat on the ground. On many Ninja 250 forums, there are quite short people who ride them with no difficulty. Where I think the Ninja shines is performance. It can go at freeway speeds (at high revs, which are fine). That might not appeal to you now, but when you need to accelerate in a hurry, you'll appreciate it. It's also quite fuel efficient (>60mpg), light-weight (good should you drop it), and quite forgiving. Many people never outgrow their Ninja 250, and they are generally easy to find used. (Hell, they're $2500 new, though I'd emphatically NOT recommend a new bike for a beginning rider).

As for safety gear, the more the better. Seek out better brands; many people told me Joe Rocket is more about style than safety. Given your short inseam, you may either need alterations on pants (consider something like kevlar-reinforced "draggin' jeans", perhaps?) or to try men's pants. (men typically have shorter legs than women). As for helmets, I thought it was worth the difference for a Snell approved (actual testing is performed as opposed to DOT). Definitely try on helmets and get one you find comfortable. And only buy a new helmet. Everything else is ok to get used, I'd say.
posted by JMOZ at 5:56 AM on April 14, 2008

You use different names in the States, but I think a Nighthawk is a CB250? If so, I've ridden both that and it's slightly larger brother the CB400, and I can't say I rate them very highly. Strange buzzing little engines and an odd upright position (granted that I'm much larger than you at about 185cm, so you might find the ride experience rather different to mine).

I can't help but think that if you're going to get a Honda (and you should, they make great bikes), then you would be happier with a bike fitted with one of their V engines - they're absolutely brilliantly smooth, much nicer to ride. (All IMHO, of course.)

Perhaps a VT250 (Magna) would suit? I don't know what they cost in your market. But I'm sure a test ride to compare and contrast with the CB250 can't hurt? It's possible you'll disagree with me entirely on the smoothness, but there you go.

A decent helmet, some good gloves, boots that go past the ankle. That's to begin with.

Jacket is tough, perhaps your aesthetics will dictate to some extent. But I think you're mad not to get something purpose made. I got by very happily for years with a couple (one was stolen from a friends' house) of black leather motorcycle jackets. Of course I never came off, so I don't know if the heavy leather with extra padding in the elbows & shoulders would have kept me from serious injury, but it felt sturdy. If you want more protection, then one of the goretex jackets with strategically placed built in body armor will suit - but I never wore that kind of jacket, so can't really comment on it.

The never coming off is probably why I was very happy riding in ordinary jeans. You could get some nasty nasty scrapes if you went sliding, but I don't think it's quite as important as gloves. Use your judgement as to how much risk you can tolerate there.

(Also, if your little short legs are really really super hot little short legs, then spare a thought for stewiethegreat and at least get some draggin jeans or something.)

If you get the right boots, then depending on what kind of pants you wear, you won't need to lug along a change of shoes every day - I had black leather (purpose built motorcycle) boots that looked pretty much like ordinary leather shoes, so were fine in an office environment - unless I pulled up my jeans.

Second hand is fine for everything but the helmet. Given that a decent (standards approved, but by no means high end) new helmet can be bought in a bike shop here for between NZ$100-NZ$200, I don't see much need to scrimp there. But it's your brain, only you know if need it.

Beyond this, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Sure, you can wear full leathers, and strap on a spine protector, but they won't make much difference if you have a low speed fender bender at the lights and drop the bike on your leg, or if you have a blow out and hit a power pole at 120.

Remember that the buggers are out to get you. Not by accident, they're all intentionally trying to kill you. Which is why you need to be a ninja at all times. Watch for that slight turn of the head as you're about to pass a car - that means they're going to change lanes into you. And they've been planning it ever since you came into view behind them. Because they want to kill you today. And they've been planning it with their other friends for weeks. (That taxi a few cars further up is in on the plan. And the van in front of the taxi, too.)

Good luck, keep the rubber side down.
posted by The Monkey at 6:15 AM on April 14, 2008

You might find the folks at beginnerbikers.org to be quite helpful on this kind of thing.

You can get along fine on a Honda Rebel if you'd like. The Nighthawk 250 (CB250) might not be a good option, simply because it may be too tall given your measurements. My wife measures up similarly, and she can't flatfoot my Nighthawk 250 at all. (The Nighthawk and Rebel share the same drivetrain. And I've put 25000 miles on the Nighthawk. So it'll hold up well.) The Ninja 250 is also a good starter option, but make sure it fits you comfortably. Along the same lines of the Rebel as far as size and power, there's also the Suzuki GZ250.

One other option that often works out for shorter beginning riders is the Suzuki Boulevard S40 (known as the Savage on 04 and earlier models.) It's a single-cylinder 650 cruiser. While 650 might sound like a lot of bike, it's actually a pretty tame engine and is very newbie-friendly. It also has belt drive and it's air-cooled, which in tandem with the single-cylinder engine means less to maintain. It also weighs 352 lbs dry, so it's light, and it sits low, so it's easy to handle.

Some riders will also recommend the Honda Shadow VLX. It's a 600cc, but it's also a tame engine. It does weigh a bit north of 450, so you'd have to test sit one to see if you'd be comfortable starting out with that much weight. But it's an option for shorter riders, and this bike ain't exactly going to win many drag races, so the power won't overwhelm you.

Resist the "oh, you'll outgrow a smaller bike, buy a bigger one instead so you don't have to upgrade" line of thinking. A lot of people will tell you this. Remember this when you're buying: You're buying your first bike, not your last. If you buy used, chances are you can sell the bike for about what you paid for it if you do decide to upgrade.

As for gear, nothing beats leather. But, at the same time, leather is very costly, and can be very toasty in hot weather. (Gear you don't wear doesn't help you!) Since I ride where it's usually at least very warm, if not downright hot, I have a mesh jacket from Joe Rocket. For cooler days, I have a Tour Master Cortech textile jacket. Both have armor in them, although I haven't gotten the CE armor upgrades. Armor is a good thing; anything that ups your chances of escaping injury in a wreck is good. For the whole suite of gear, take a look at newenough.com and check their closeouts. They've usually got some screaming deals. Tonker.com can be good as well.

Taking the course is the best thing you can do. Good luck getting started!
posted by azpenguin at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2008

« Older Trying to be a good sister   |   Plone vs Drupal Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.