This was the script for every ride I went on for about two years: It starts as a pinpoint of pain, about halfway up my spine and maybe an inch to the right of center. Nothing to worry about, a little stiffness is all. Keep going.
Then it blossoms from a pinpoint to a circle, growing bigger and bigger, until it radiates to my shoulder and halfway down my arm. The pain is intense, like a passenger slowly pushing an ice pick into my back, and impossible to ignore. It’s hard to hold the throttle steady. Shit, just 10 minutes this time and I’m all used up. Turn around, go home, gobble a fistful of Tylenol, and lie down on an ice pack for an hour. Another wasted ride. Fuck.
There’s a bit of T-shirt wisdom that goes like this: You don’t stop riding because you get old, you get old because you stop riding. But what the T-shirt doesn’t tell you is this: You eventually get old either way. And if the years don’t get you, sometimes bad luck does.
Hang out with any group of old guys and odds are the talk will eventually turn to their medical issues. If those old guys are riders, they’ll just as likely discuss custom seats, bar risers, taller windscreens, lower pegs––all the ways to make a motorcycle more accommodating to bodies with a lot of miles on their biological odometers.
I spent the last 10 years or so modifying bikes to lessen the effects of some bad stuff that happened way back when. I usually succeeded, but only for a year or two before there were no mods left to do, and the problem came roaring back like a bad burrito in the night, and I sold the bike and got another. I even got so fed up I quit riding for a year; I only just got back on a bike, and I felt 10 years younger right away. And the bike I got back on? Surprised the hell out of me.
Soon after a racetrack crash in 1986 sportbikes became a problem for me. A weakened back and shoulder made the lean-forward riding position agonizing. Although I worked at a magazine with garage full of cutting-edge sportbikes—we called it the candy store, and I had the key—I usually rode something more upright home for the night, like a touring bike, a dual-sport, or whatever Harley we had. I more or less successfully talked my way out of going along on any tests that involved sportbikes, especially on racetracks (Willow Springs was my particular bête noire), where I was happy to watch from the pit wall and clean the other guys’ face shields between sessions.
After going freelance, the bikes I owned all mirrored my preference for the sit-up-and-beg seating. The aftermarket is thick with options to accomplish this, but some work better than others. Handlebar relocation is easy on bikes with tubular bars. Just find a bend you like, then make sure the control cables and hoses reach and don’t stretch or kink at full steering lock. The last bar I put on my Bonneville came off a Yamaha Grizzly quad, and required an extended cable and brake hose kit. It took about two hours of fiddling to do the job.
On bikes with separate clip-on bars above the top clamp, you can get risers that raise the bars an inch, give or take. But they don’t change the angle or setback, just the height. Replacement bars are pricey, and some require extended cables and hoses. I have a set of Heli bars on my own bike now in place of the GenMar risers it came with, and they look as good as, and maybe better than, stock, with both rise and setback changes that make them worth the price and the hassle of installation.
Footpegs are more complicated. Lowering them, with either an aftermarket peg kit or by bolting on pegs from some other model, opens up the seating position and is kinder to old, creaky knees like mine. But the shift and brake pedals sometimes don’t have enough adjustability to adapt to the new peg position; they’re left at an awkward angle that requires you to lift your foot off the peg to brake, or reach awkwardly for the shifter.
Seats make a big comfort difference, especially compared to the crappy seats on many stock bikes; they were designed for showroom appeal, not long-haul riding, but sometimes you don’t discover this until the first time you’re hours from home with a numb ass. Off-the-shelf aftermarket seats are miles better than many stockers, but for my money custom is the way to go.
Sometimes the most constructive thing you can do is change your own expectations of what you want from a bike, and the kind of riding you want to do with it. I have a lot of friends in the Iron Butt Association, and went so far as to ride 1,023 miles in less than 24 hours to earn my entrance into the asylum.
After my much-altered Bonnie started hurting me, I decided I was through with long-distance riding; I’d make do with banzai backroad runs to the coffee shop on sunny afternoons––making me a genuine café racer––and the occasional day ride with buddies down the coast and back. I figured as long as I wasn’t going to be on the bike all day, ultimate comfort didn’t matter that much, so I might as well get something fun.
Right around this time my buddy Stephen called. He had a very nice 2000 Honda VFR800—definitely a sportbike, you’ll note, and at the time not at the top of my want list—sitting in his garage that he wanted gone. Years ago I’d told him, partly in jest, that if he ever wanted to sell it he should call me first.
Well, he did, and I thought what the hell, let’s take it for a spin. It had some sensible mods—bar risers, lower Buell footpegs, a Sargent seat, heated grips, a voltmeter—but was otherwise stock, and eat-off-it clean. And the price? Just $2500. I took it for a ride, felt no pain at all, and a week later it was in my garage.
Ever since slotting Screaming Yellow into my stable I’ve been enjoying riding again. I can cram as much fun into 30 minutes on a backroad as I ever did on a weekend on the highway. Even if I’m not going as fast as some pimply testosterone junkie on an CBR600RR, I feel like I am, and that’s what counts.
Whatever physical issues I used to have with sportbikes have either shifted elsewhere or diminished to such a degree that I feel no back pain at all. Period. I have no explanation for this, nor do I require one. I’m just happy to be back on two wheels.
Unlike two previous posters here who said their bikes were the answers to everything on two wheels, the VFR isn’t actually that to me, not entirely. I can’t come anywhere near using its potential, which sometimes makes me feel a bit of a poser, and I’m at an age (and weight) where I look so silly riding it that I avoid passing large store windows in case I happen to see my reflection.
But if the question is what’s the right bike for me right now, then until my aging body throws another curveball at me, the answer is the Honda VFR800.
Jerry Smith has been a motojournalist for…well, a very long time. When he’s not writing about motorcycles, he makes up stories about people who don’t exist. His latest novel, Dents, is about some of those people, and the awful and funny things he makes happen to them.