Most of us recognize the importance of at least a perfunctory visual check of our machines before we set out for a scoot, but what many riders forget is that it's just as important to check your body position, too. Out on a one-lane country road 30 minutes into your ride is not the ideal time to be wondering, "Uh, why are my hands tingling? Why are my shoulders tight? And damn it, why does my neck ache?"
But that's often how it goes with riders. Many of us simply don't acknowledge the obvious things-such as the body-to-motorcycle relationship-until it's too late. I found this out the hard way after my 17th back surgery, when my doctor told me I had to give up motorcycling. That wasn't an option I was willing to consider, so I doggedly pressed him for an explanation.
In a nutshell, my doc said every part of the body affects the other parts: Fingers affect the wrist, which affects the elbow, which affects the shoulders and so on. Just think of those "Dry Bones" lyrics and you'll get the point: "With the finger bone connected to the hand bone, and the hand bone connected to the arm bone . . . "
That first line is one all riders should memorize: A motorcyclist's main connection points to his bike are his fingers. And it's no wonder that when most of us ride, those points are usually being tweaked in some very malevolent ways.
The doctor mentioned the following parts as being especially vulnerable:
WRISTS They're often turned to odd angles so the fingers can grip the bar. This puts pressure on the median nerve in the wrist/forearm(carpal tunnel), causing numbness and fatigue.
ELBOWS These are usually extended up and away from the rider's torso and rotated out from the bike, which places stress on the ulnar nerve, or "funny bone."
SHOULDERS They're being constantly flexed and rotated from holding the elbows up, which often exacerbates tendonitis in the rotator cuffs, causing aches and fatigue. Most riders also reach forward to grip the handlebars, rolling the shoulders. This adds flex to the trapezius muscle, placing strain on the base of the neck and between the shoulder blades.
TRAPEZIUS AND NECK Rotating the shoulders means the large group of neck muscles that control spine position is flexing. Constantly working these muscles creates discomfort in the neck and alters the upper spine's alignment. This realignment can also affect the lumbar area of the spine, resulting in lower back pain.
It seems if you experience two or more of those symptoms (like tingling and/or aches) then your position of control is incorrect. The POC is where the contact point of your body meets the control point of your bike, i.e., where your hands grip the handlebar.
So after I broke down all the fancy medical phrases into layman's terms, I was left with these crucial bits of advice:
1 My wrists shouldn't twist and should stay as straight as possible in relation to the forearm.
2 Elbows should point down as much as possible and hang rather than be held up.
3 Shoulders need to be relaxed and dropped rather than suspended or flexed while riding.
4 My reach should be reduced so I don't roll or lift my shoulders to grab the handlebar.
5 I should steer with my arms, not my neck, shoulders or back.
Armed with that anatomy lesson I went back to my workshop. I wanted to figure out a working solution to get my position of control right so I could continue riding. I won't bore you here with all the countless calculations, welding, machining, bending and testing I had to go through, but what I did eventually figure out was this: The most effective way to correct all my body's tweaked biomechanics was through the handlebar. The result of my efforts is the StarBar-an accessory handlebar that for 11 years now has made it possible for me to continue to ride virtually pain-free. For all the talk about risers and grips, it just goes to show you-sometimes it's best to listen to your doctor. I wouldn't be riding if I didn't.
Enjoy the ride.
Editor's note: Vaughan-Chaldy is the owner of Baron Custom Accessories, a company that specializes in aftermarket accessories for metric motorcycles. A series of recurring physical ailments caused him to seek the help of orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors and physical therapists to assist in designing handlebars that would allow Vaughan-Chaldy to continue riding. One such product is the StarBar, an aftermarket handlebar designed to install on most stock classic-style cruisers using stock lines and cables. Motorcycle Cruiser has not reviewed or tested the StarBar; therefore we do not endorse it at this time. Future installmens of the Street Survival column will address other ergonomic solutions as well.