THE RIDE

The Yamaha YZ-125 and the KTM 150 SX are marketed to youngsters transitioning out of the 85cc mini-bike class. Yet both bikes have an official seat height of a whopping 39 inches (over three feet unladen). Is it realistic to expect youngsters to be able to touch the ground on these bikes?

For grownups (under 5’6″) there are 250cc and 450cc motocross and enduro bikes with unrealistically tall seats. Even larger capacity dual sport bikes and adventure bikes are designed for riders with inseams of 34 inches or more.  The only off-road motorcycles designed for the less than average in height are mild mannered beginner bikes with soft uninspiring power characteristics and limited suspension travel.

Back in the mid 1970s most Japanese motocross bikes only had eight or nine inches of suspension travel. I could easily swing a leg over my YZ-125 and kick it over with one foot firmly planted on the ground. Over the years as seat heights increased to stratospheric nosebleed territory I learned to adapt without having to purchase the proverbial step ladder, facetiously  recommended by bike magazine editors of the day.

Most people of less than average height looking to purchase their first off-road bike today, will probably get an air cooled beginner bike (especially women). When they upgrade they will have to lower the seat height themselves. Customers looking for performance will mostly turn to quads, low-rider motorcycles or mountain bikes.

The technology exists for bikes with fuel injection, two wheel drive and all sorts of digital gizmos. Why then can’t engineers design bikes with reasonable seat heights without changing other critical dimensions? It can be done. After all Ricky Carmichael and Jeff Ward had mechanics who modified their bikes to lower their seats (both factory riders).

Unfortunately there is a one size fits all mentality in the design department of major off-road motorcycle manufacturers. The exception to this rule are children’s mini-bikes. Minibikes are designed to take into account the child’s changing height and weight requirements as he or she matures.

With different sized wheels and frames; and with engine sizes ranging from 50cc all the way up to 150cc you can find something for everybody. But when it comes to grownup bikes (with grown up power characteristics) it is one size fits all.  I don’t fit either category and I am afraid that I am not alone.

When I get on my bike I have to slide slightly sideways off the seat and reach down with one foot to touch the ground. it. Starting is somewhat complicated because I have to find something to stand on to position my foot far enough over the lever to get a good kick. Also, I cannot dab if I lose control. I need to leap off the bike before I stop to prevent it from tipping over.

This is not normally a problem because I generally ride on fast open trails or on a practice track. However, there are times when I get into trouble because I can’t stop without dismounting.

The other day I signed up for an organized ride and learned first hand that my CRF-450R was not the best weapon for the event. I love that motorcycle and I never tire of admiring its sleek racy exterior and relishing the sensation of raw, violent horsepower which the bike exudes just sitting on its stand.  I did not want to forgo the event solely because it is not an ordinary trail bike. Unfortunately I didn’t foresee the level of difficulty of the trails we would be riding.

I did a little maintenance and when the bike was ready to go I rolled it up the ramp into the back of our pickup truck.

When we arrived at our destination the parking lot was full of pickup trucks, vans and campers. There were motorcycles everywhere although most of them hadn’t been unloaded yet. Almost all of the motorcycles were outfitted with lights, kickstands and bark busters. There were also a few dual-sport bikes. I noticed a few organizers coming back from marking the loop. They were all riding exceptionally quiet bikes.

A little before nine o’clock I went to the riders meeting where we were told that we would have to pass a sound test. Spark arrestors and current registration stickers were mandatory. There would be two loops; an A loop for the more experienced riders and an easier C loop for the others. The true beginners would ride a short loop through the trees not far from the staging area to get a feel for the terrain. We would all be on one way trails and we were warned not to get turned around.

I elected to take the C loop when a friend recommended the easier course, and also because I didn’t want to hold anybody up or create a bottleneck if I ran into any problems. The only section of trail that could be seen from the parking lot was a very tight single track winding through the trees. It was nothing like the open terrain where I normally rode.

After passing the sound test I rode my bike to the staging area. My husband brought my bike stand. It was a flat field and we knew from experience that I would need the stand to get the bike started. Various club members were leading out small groups of riders. When the first group of C riders departed I was delayed for a short time starting my bike (I couldn’t leave it stationary and running for very long without it overheating) but after a few kicks it came to life and I was on my way.

I caught up to a couple of the riders who were stuck on a steep hill, and I had to pull over to wait for them to get out of the way. They both had electric start bikes and so I didn’t have very long to wait. There was a layer of loose dirt over hard-pack where the riders had become stranded. I waited balancing on one foot until the way was clear and then proceeded through the turn and up the trail.  I feathered the clutch a little as my well-worn tires lost their grip. When I unexpectedly got traction again my engine coughed and died and I had to jump off to prevent the bike from tipping over.

I turned the bike around and jump-started it on the downhill. I rode a little bit further back down the trail and repositioned the bike to get a straighter shot at the turn at the bottom of the hill. Then with the rear wheel spinning and a bit of clutch work I made it to the top. Thank God, I thought to myself. I passed the first test and could now ride the trail with the other “C” riders.

Although the trail was narrow, tight and twisty; there weren’t any other spots where I got into trouble. I did have to use my clutch a lot because the high gearing of my motocross bike was not optimum for the tortuously slow single-track. When I got to the top of the ridge I met up with the other riders. They were waiting for the rest of the group to arrive before starting back down.

The view was spectacular. I could see the rocky trail winding back and forth through the hills and then disappearing into a thick growth of trees.  I scanned the scene following the contours of the landscape with my eyes. Stray breezes stirred the grass on the hillsides setting off waves of glittering highlights. As we waited along the side of the trail a hawk dove down out of the heavens and swooped skyward again on motionless, silent wings. It was a breathtaking vista.

I was a little nervous and stayed close to the back of the group when we headed back down. The trail was so tight that I had to pull in the clutch to get through a few of the tightest bends. In other places I had to dodge the bike back and forth to avoid hitting branches. When we finally got to the bottom we were told that we had finished the first loop. Some of the riders started riding back towards camp, but I hesitated. I wasn’t ready to pack it in just yet and wanted to keep on going.

As I stood beside the trial, a KTM rider stopped and asked me if I was having a good day. I nodded yes. He made a few comments and then asked me if I got out of the saddle to ride down the steep trails. I told him that I did. Then he said that he was impressed by what I had done so far and asked me if I wanted to try the A loop. He said that he was riding sweep and would not leave me behind if (when) I got stuck.

I replied that I would like to try the harder loop. Then he pointed to a really precipitous trail visible on the other side of the canyon and asked me if I wanted to ride up it. I wondered whether he was trying to scare me out of riding the A loop. I wasn’t sure whether I could make it up such a rough and treacherous track, and asked what gear he used. The truth of the matter is that I meant to ask him which gear to use at the bottom to build momentum approaching the hill (I usually used third, but this was not just any kind of hill but rather a really steep, gnarly trail). He replied all of them and added that there were other easier trails that we could take winding around up the side of the hill.

Then he rode down the trail and over a wooden bridge and I followed him. A little bit later we went down a vertical drop-off into a dry creek bed which abruptly transitioned into a ninety degree embankment and around a tight turn at the top. We spent a little more time on a tricky, winding trail at the bottom of the canyon before we started climbing up the other side.

Some of the bends were perpendicular hairpins. I tried to maintain forward momentum and struggled to stay in control when the rear wheel lost traction in the loose dirt. By trial and error I discovered that the best technique was attacking the side of the hill like a berm and using the throttle to rail around the outside. Sometimes I had to feather the throttle and the clutch as the rear wheel swung wildly from side to side as the bike fought for traction.

When I lost momentum and I couldn’t keep my balance I jumped off. The bike fell on its side and the carburetor flooded. Afterwards it wouldn’t start no matter how hard I tried. After a few minutes my self-appointed escort came back to see what was wrong and offer his assistance. I decided to take him up on his offer and handed over my motorcycle. He used the steep downhill for a jump start and did a quick pivot turn to ride back up past the section where I got stuck. Afterwards he had to walk back down to retrieve his KTM.

He had to help me a number of times along the way. At one point, when I was not able to get on the bike due to the steep incline, I ran along beside it working the clutch and throttle. He took over when I ran out of steam. With his longer limbs he swung a leg over the bike and with both boots planted firmly on the ground he let out the clutch and motored up over the hill.

Sometimes he pulled over and told me to ride up beside him so that he could advise me on mastering a stretch of particularly tricky terrain. One such section was a steep rocky slope with a tight turn at the top. He told me to keep looking up the trail. “Don’t fixate on the obstacle.” On my first attempt I made it to the top but I wondered how well I would have done if he hadn’t prepared me beforehand.

The truth of the matter is that I almost always make a habit of scanning the trail (that is unless I am disconcerted by a particularly scary and unanticipated obstacle; then all bets are off). The operative word is “scan” which means picking a line and following it with my eyes as if I were riding it in my mind as I am approaching it.

I justified my overall  poor performance by complaining that my bike was too tall and too highly geared for conditions. He replied that there were other riders on similar machines and that having the wrong bike was not an excuse.

At one point near the end of the ride I noticed that my radiator was overflowing.  I was afraid that without enough fluid the engine would seize and asked him what I should do. He replied that I should be able to make it back to camp with a completely empty radiator and he guaranteed that there was plenty of fluid left. “You don’t need to worry,” he added in a calm confident tone. I was reassured and stopped agonizing over the possibility of destroying the engine.

After the ride we parted with quick goodbyes and went our separate ways back to our individual campsites. “Who was that masked man anyway”, I said to myself thinking of the Lone Ranger and the grateful townspeople he rescued.  His helmet and goggles hid his features just as effectively as if he had been wearing a mask. I doubted that I would recognize him afterwards but I still wanted to thank him.

I was later told by a friend that at one time my escort had competed in and finished the International Six Day Enduro (ISDE). In my mind he was a low keyed and understated individual and there was nothing about his manner that hinted of such notoriety.

The International Six Day Enduro is the pinnacle of international competition. Competing in the ISDE takes years of mental and physical preparation and requires incredible bike handling skills. It is six straight days of very tough and demanding trail. Besides the skill and endurance needed for finishing the six days, the competitor has to keep the bike running with no outside help.

I was grateful for his kindness and assistance. The club put on a fantastic ride and attended to all the details (other club members stopped to ask me if I needed assistance). To top it off, I was delighted to ride the A loop, even though my riding prowess left a lot to be desired. I still think that many of those difficulties were the result of a short inseam and a towering seat height. The truth of the matter is that I can’t wait to come back and try again on a different bike.

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One Response to THE RIDE

  1. Robert says:

    I enjoyed your story very much. Keep it up!
    Later Robert

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