The Pros and Cons of Low Cruisers

How low do you really want to go?

Pros and Cons to riding low on your cruiser
There are pros and cons to riding low on your cruiser. Do you know how low you are willing to go?Illustration by John Breakey

While other motorcyclists hover somewhere around 31 inches or more off the pavement, cruisers travel about four or five inches lower. After all, low looks cool and makes for a no-stretch connection between boot and bitumen.

But on a stretch of winding North Carolina black-top during one of our rides with readers, I had reason to reflect on the shortcomings of low saddle heights. As we rounded a right-hand corner, the rider in front of me dragged something on his Valkyrie. Although he later told me he was used to scraping footpegs, the presence of a passenger and luggage compressed the rear of his bike far enough that he hit something more solid in this corner, which caused him to straighten up and run across the centerline. Fortunately, there wasn't any oncoming traffic, and the moment passed with nothing more than a surplus of adrenaline. But if this incident had happened two corners and 20 seconds further along in a virtually identical corner, he would have ended up as the hood ornament on a westbound SUV. The Valkyrie has better cornering clearance than most cruisers, and from my vantage point atop a Valkyrie Interstate immediately behind him, I didn't think he was pushing the corner.

This is one of my gripes about cruisers: Many lack what I consider to be adequate cornering clearance, a situation that is worsened when you add another body or luggage. I have had, er…philosophical disagreements on this subject with a number of manufacturers’ reps and quite a few owners, who generally hold that cornering clearance is like any other limitation on a motorcycle. That is, the rider is responsible for learning about it and respecting it. In some cases where we have bitched emphatically about lack of cornering clearance on test bikes, owners have communicated that their motorcycles were not intended to be roadracers and treating them as such merely revealed our total lack of understanding about True Cruising. According to these folks, neither they nor anyone they have ever talked to has even come close to dragging their perfect motorcycles, and you should see how fast some of those guys go around corners. My response has been that there has to be some minimum amount of available lean angle, even on bikes where tipping them way over into corners is not in the job description. While I might not be able to define that minimum precisely, I know it has not been met when I can unintentionally drag things while turning corners in our slick-surfaced, often greasy parking garage floor. Even if a rider doesn’t plan to lean over far enough to drag anything, there should be enough lean angle available to tighten up the line to deal with midcorner surprises.

Low seat height is a primary reason that we run out of cornering clearance. If you move the saddle down, the pieces located beneath it have to compress or drop, and there aren’t many pieces of a motorcycle that compress that well and still function. Therefore, the bottom of the motorcycle must drop too, meaning less clearance between the bike’s undercarriage and the road. Sure, the long wheel­base of a cruiser means that you can spread some of the pieces installed beneath your glutes, but putting more space between the axles actually aggravates the cornering clearance quandary because the longer your wheelbase, the farther over you must lean an otherwise identical motorcycle to ride the same arc at the same speed.

Cornering clearance isn't the only draw­back to dropping the saddle height. Lowering your butt also lowers your eye level, which diminishes one of a motorcyclist's advantages in traffic—the ability to see over other vehicles. Though this advantage is lessened with the sale of every Ford Excursion, anyone who has ever fought traffic on a dual-sport bike such as Kawasaki's KLR650, with its 35-inch tall saddle, knows what a huge benefit this can be. If you have spent most of your motorcycling life confronting traffic on a cruiser, you will be surprised at what raising your eye level by eight or nine inches can do for your situational awareness. And in the event that you torpedo a Buick that turns in front of you, getting launched from a higher altitude would seem to improve your chances of going over the rolling roadblock instead of going through it.

To get a bike low, manufacturers also tend to scrimp on suspension travel, which makes it hard to provide a smooth ride over large bumps. This can be addressed with superior suspension design and components, but such things are quite rare on cruisers. You can also cut down the seat's height by literally cutting down seat height and reducing the thickness of the foam in the saddle—which will bring other comfort penalties. Bumps can be painful. On other bikes you might handle the pounding by standing up and using your legs to cushion the impact. However, when seats come down, footrests move forward. Putting the footpegs almost under the rider (like on most standard-style motorcycles) means your legs will get bent pretty tightly when seat heights drop below 30 inches. So cruiser manufacturers put footrests up front. The problem is that trying to stand up on pegs or footboards that are at the front of the engine can be clumsy and difficult. The suspension travel and seat foam may be all that stand between you and a shortened you.

If you are inseam-challenged, the attractions of a low saddle are tremendous. And the serious custom that stoops to conquer is irresistible to the eye. But before you slam your scooter, consider not only the heads you’ll turn, but also the spine you’ll bend—especially if you ride a lot.

Related:

An In-Depth Guide to Suspension Lowering