Last Updated on 08/04/2021
Want a Cafe Racer but worried about the riding position? Building your own Cafe Racer but afraid you’ll be in no shape to reach those clip-ons by the time it makes it out of the shed? Here, Jamie offers advice on how to make a Cafe Racer comfortable for those of us old enough to probably know better.
I wrote recently about my new-found love for all things Norvin, and how I’d sacrifice any future motorcycles to be true to one; a motorcycling version of monogamy, but without the weirdness.
I’ve also written that my knee joints are shot, bits of me don’t work, and that I’m of an age where style is beginning to win out over speed. Specifically, I was answering the question as to whether I’d choose a café racer over a mid-weight sportbike.
Aside from the fatuous answer to end the article, I reached the conclusion that I was indeed more interested in style and comfort, rather than speed and increasingly worsening aches, pains and all things bottom related; in my twenties, older riders complaining of chalfonts and uncomfortable seats made me giggle like a schoolboy, but as a late forty-something, I can empathise. So very much.
But is there anything that can be done to help?
The Café Racer
‘Head down, arse up’ was how café racers were described at one time, before the advent of what we’d call a supersport or sportbike, and with the body-forward, feet rearward style, it’s easy to see why. We must remember that for the main part, motorcycles were still pretty conventional, some may say utilitarian, in that they offered basic comfort, with the same basic layout.
They were transport for the masses, customisation wasn’t really a thing, and for the main part, people were happy with the level of performance and speed – let’s not forget that the average cars of the time were incredibly slow. Jumping on a bike gave that sense of freedom and speed.
But of course, as bikes moved from ‘transport for the masses’ toward ‘making a statement for the rebellious youth’, it was inevitable that speed became an important factor for your placement in the hierarchy of the group. Just as today, we see gangs of scooter riders trying to gain that extra 0.0001mph from a bit of aero advantage, the rebellious youth of yesteryear were the same. Just on proper bikes.
Essentially, the café racer started out with nothing more than a few styling tweaks, mainly to help increase aero efficiency – the very first thing to change was the handlebars. A ‘sit up & beg’ style of bar meant your whole body was one big windsock, so they were done away with in favour of dropped bars, or Ace bars (perhaps in reference to The Ace Café?) or clip-ons (single bars, ‘clipped’ to the fork stanchions).
Couldn’t lay your hands on a set of Ace bars? Just turn your existing bars upside down.
The next popular choice was the seat conversion – a seat hump made it look sporty, but it also meant that no pillions could be carried, and of course, the hump stopped you sliding off the back when you unleashed the full 60-odd horsepower. It also allowed you a little more wriggle room to slide backwards once in the fully ‘head down’ mode. Streamlining!
Finally, at least for positioning, came the ‘rearsets’ – foot pegs that placed your feet slightly rearward, and potentially just that little higher, so as to avoid leaving bits of winklepickers on the road.
Café Racer Styling
Of course there was more to it than that, but they were the essentials that needed taking care of before anything else. Add in an upswept exhaust or two, perhaps some sort of bikini fairing, and your run of the mill Bonneville T120 (or whatever preference you had) was complete.
The whole movement wasn’t so much about turning your road bike into a racer, or even tuning the engine to give you more horsepower than the tyres (or brakes, suspension, and chassis) could cope with, but it was style, in abundance. Exactly the same as today – take the Hinckley-built Triumph Thruxton R for example … still only around 100hp, but bags of style.
A café racer isn’t as extreme as a sportbike, but for those of you (by you, I mean US) that are getting a bit world-weary, that have knees that sound something similar to a kickstart being returned, that at the slightest hint of moisture can ‘feel it’ in the bones, or just start aching at the merest thought of a day’s riding, it’s extreme enough to want to make changes to the comfort levels.
And here’s how:
Tips & Tricks for a Comfortable Cafe Racer
As a bloke, I like to believe that size isn’t everything, but unfortunately, that’s just not true; I can’t ride a Hayabusa (too cramped) for example, but I can ride a ZZR1400. It’s the same with a café racer – the fundamentals have to be right, or at least within a tolerable range, before you start. If it doesn’t work for you as a standard bike, making it fit as a custom will just increase the work needed.
I briefly mentioned handlebars earlier – whether that’s clip-ons or ‘Ace’ bars, and despite being a certain style, it’s surprising the amount of movement and adjustability that they can give you; pulled back slightly for those with a shorter reach, or perhaps not wanting to lean quite as far forward, and then there’s the height aspect (although changing the height of the bars is limited).
Adjustable rearsets are a must have for the café racer. They can usually allow for a range of movement up & down, as well as front to back, which in theory, means that you should find your sweet spot within that range. Of course, the adjustability is limited, which means mounting them right in the first place is essential to making the most of them.
Soft & squidgy, firm and controlled, or something in-between? Typically, the choice of seat may be dictated by the actual look of the bike – something a little more hardcore will need something similar to a racing style seat – an inch of padding, covered in suede, whereas something softer (or more modern) will usually have something almost standardised.
A café racer isn’t a race bike, it doesn’t need to shake your fillings out over every lump, bump and pothole in the road, equally, you don’t want to feel like you’ve been strapped to a pig wearing roller skates. Much will depend on what type of riding you do, and of course, on what rubber you choose (or can fit).
6. Adjustable Levers
You may think that having to stretch your hands out to cover the brake and clutch levers doesn’t sound too strenuous, and in all reality it isn’t, but when you’re putting in the miles, especially around town, that small adjustment can make a huge difference at the end of the day.
A café racer doesn’t need to be extreme, if you think of it in car terms, it would be a Grand Tourer – fast, a hint of sporting, and comfortable. There’s always going to be an element of uncomfortable-ness; your upper body weight is on your wrists, your back bent over, which is the perfect recipe for squashing your manly bits against the seat (maybe a bit of padding removed!) – also known as ‘Accessory Testicles’ (genuinely).
The key to making a café racer comfortable (aside from staying young and invincible) is getting everything fitting right. Most café racers will have an element of adjustability, albeit small – the bars can be swivelled slightly, suspension can be adjusted, and if you have aftermarket rearsets, they’re likely to have some movement also.
Most of my bikes need the left footpeg altering slightly, I’ve found some great aftermarket footpegs that can be adjusted in increments, usually by only around 1” over standard, but that inch makes all the difference to my comfort.
Understanding The Basics
If you’re looking to get into the café racer ‘scene’, there are some simple things to think about before parting with any of your hard earned – are you going modern retro, or original? Do you intend on building your own, or purchasing something already done?
If you’re planning on going full original ‘60s, what parts are available? And will your budget stretch that far? Also, you need to consider the value of the original donor bike – you wouldn’t necessarily want to chop up an original ‘60s Triumph or BSA for example, unless you consider anything else to be a mongrel.
With that said, there are some fantastic projects out there right now, using a wide variety of donor bikes, everything from AJS though to Zὒndapp, quite literally the A-Z of the motorcycle manufacturers. It really doesn’t matter so much about ‘power’ – as we’ve already discussed, a café racer isn’t about something mega-fast and sporty, it’s about style, mixed with something a little faster than a standard bike.
Besides, even something like a modern-ish 400cc motor will give you the same power levels as an original T120 Bonnie (46hp), and even going back to something like a late-70s Yamaha XS400 will give you close to 40hp, with a nice air-cooled, twin-cylinder look about it (and just think how cheap the insurance would be).
Of course, if we weren’t specifically talking about café racers, there’s a number of other things that we could do to make riding that little more comfortable – gel seat anyone?
So instead of looking at changing the bike setup, what about the rider? Is there anything we can do to make life in the saddle more comfortable as a personal thing?
Let’s put climate aside and pretend that the weather is just perfect for us, so we aren’t dealing with ‘wear extra layers for warmth’ type of thing, there’s still plenty of things that can be changed, and most of the riders I know don’t think too much about them.
When I started riding, earplugs weren’t really a thing, despite the dangers and damage to hearing becoming known. Although I used earplugs and ear defenders in my working life, I never rode with them until I got into my forties, and now I use them all the time.
I’m not yet fifty, but already suffer from Tinnitus, and I’m hoping that nothing get’s worse over the next decade or so. You can buy earplugs that range from a few pence, to a few hundred pounds, and while the cheaper ones do work, you may find that the more expensive ones are more comfortable for longer periods.
A number of guys (and gals) I know always wear tight-fitting or cycling-style Lycra underwear if they’re looking to do some serious mileage. Not only does it help to stop things ‘jiggling’, but usually means that there’s no seams to start digging in and getting in to places you don’t want them.
A number of other riders use compression clothing, with supposedly helps to increase blood flow, keeping things mobile.
Keeping well hydrated is essential for general health, but also helps to keep you alert and switched on, and helps to prevent muscle soreness on long journeys. Of course, you don’t want to be stopping every half hour for a ‘comfort break’, but riding hydrated will make a difference to your riding, and your physical state at the end of the day.
Wearing a hydration pack may not look cool, but most water-bladders can be fitted in a separate rucksack or pack, and most riders I know usually carry some sort of pack with them. Now we just need to think of a way to avoid the frequent stops!
Even the comfiest of bikes isn’t going to be comfortable for a whole day’s worth of riding, you’re bound to get aches and pains somewhere, or at the very least, a sore backside from sitting all day. A café racer could exacerbate the problem – slightly firmer suspension, forward sitting position, curved back and weight on the wrists … all you can really do is change the smaller things, make sure that the bike is as comfy as it can be.
Or perhaps, if you’re looking to do some serious mileage, maybe leave the café racer at home and take the Goldwing!