Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ape Hangers: How to combat the "flying squirrel" effect

Nothing says “badass” like riding with fists in the wind using ape hangers on an American made motorcycle, but like most things that look “cool” the function is definitely less than the form.  Don’t get me wrong, I love apes, they allow me to sit in exactly the position that I want to on my bike with my back straight and at a standstill they tend to be very comfortable.  However once I hit about 70mph into a headwind things can get interesting, my jacket or cut can act like a parachute, I may begin to lose feeling in my hands, I may feel like a weight is being pressed onto my chest and I just might start to wonder “is this really worth it?”   The culprit standing between me and the coolness that abides within the apes?  Wind, baby…and lots of it.  Imagine standing in a 80 or 90mph (speed limit plus a 10-20mph breeze) hour wind gust with your arms raised equal to or above your shoulders and you get the idea, for a few minutes it’s not too bad but after a couple of hours it can be really fatiguing.  The truth is apes can be very comfortable, even more so than the drag bars, beach bars or quazi-buckhorn styles that seem to come stock on most bike makes and models, but you have figure out a way to deal with the wind.

So how do we combat this monster?  Some people turn to the windshield, that humble piece of plastic that separates you from the breeze and yet somehow steals some of that “cool” the apes exude.  Oh sure windshields are effective and even look really good on some bikes, but to my taste when combined with tall apes they almost look like the motorcycle equivalent of socks with sandals, where you can have one or the other on but both together appear odd.  Obviously I’m not the only one who feels this way as there are literally hundreds of different makes and models of removable windshield kits for sale out there.  Windshields can come in all shapes, styles, sizes.  Everything from a flyscreen or bikini fairing to a full blow fairing sized windshield can be had and on some bikes, with some bars the look might work, but for the stripped down “minimalist bad boy” look, the windshield has to go.

This brings me to option number 2, a properly fitted pair of ape hangers.  Fact, not all men are created equal when it comes to height, arm length, chest size, etc.  Some of us need wide grip, 18 inch bars to be comfortable.  Others may require 12 inch narrow mini apes to be comfortable, but one thing is certain, the bars have to be fitted to the individual rider.  I had to go through a somewhat expensive learning process to figure this one out.  When I first bought my Softail it had 20 inch apes on it from the previous owner.  Without going into detail let’s just say I was in way over my head, literally.  I downsized to 16 inch apes and though WAY better, my hands were still going numb, I was still squirming in the saddle trying to hang on and I was still worn out after a ride of more than a half hour anywhere.  I had to downsize again to 14 inch ape hangers which was almost perfect but still needed a little more to take the edge off of the wind but I couldn’t go to 12 inch apes without re-cabling my bike which can be expensive.  Here are some tips I learned:

·        Be honest with yourself.  If you aren’t 6 foot tall with lengthy arms then don’t get the apes meant for the “big guys”.  You have to get what works for you, even if that means something shorter than the bike next to yours.
·        Try to get apes that keep your fists either at or just slightly below your shoulders if you plan on lengthy rides without a windshield.  Some people may prefer higher and that’s fine, but I found if you go higher than your shoulders discomfort and fatigue can begin to play into a ride after a short amount of time.
·        Width makes a difference.  Narrow apes will narrow your profile in the wind and result in less of a parachute effect.  Go for a narrow width if that is equally comfortable to you.
·        Grips are critical.  Granted I have chrome, smoothed out grips that require a death grip on my bars but I will soon be replacing them with something that will hold more friction with my leather gloves in order to keep from having to shift my hands every 30 seconds.
·        For a rough fitting take a coat hanger and mock up a set of handle bars.  Bend it every which way and find the length and width most comfortable to you but remember…what is comfortable while sitting in your garage may be very different from what is comfortable rolling into a 20mph headwind at 70mph.  Be conservative; if you think 16 inches is borderline sitting still try to see if you can live with 14 or maybe even 12.

For me, since the ’14 apes more or less “fit” I knew I needed something more to take the edge off the wind, which brings me to option number 3…positioning, in other words roll those suckers forward.  One of the best ways I have found to combat the wind is to lean into it.  I roll my apes forward and lean into my ride.  This keeps my back straight and prevents that fatiguing backwards push onto my chest.  This may not be the ideal riding position for everyone as it is an aggressive stance but it works for me.  Just a few inches can make a huge difference and if you wear a full face helmet with vents on top, has the added benefit of directing airflow where you need it, on top of your head instead of your chin.

Lastly there is the supplemental air blocking device…or what I like to call the “bedroll”.  Yes I said a “bedroll” but technically it can be a day bag, bug out bag, a coat strapped to your bars, or even a plain old saddle blanket, anything that will roll up tight from about 9 inches to 14 inches in height, that is at least the width of your chest and that can mount tightly and securely to your bars.  If you take a look at my bike you’ll see a custom leather harness with a Mexican blanket strapped to my bars.  When the wind gets tough the blanket seems to divert it up and over or below cutting down on the pressure to my chest and mid section by probably just under half.  Given that this entire rig cost me about $35 compared to a windshield of hundreds of dollars, and given that it (to me) looks cool enough to leave on the bike even when just bar hopping, it’s a clear winner.  It has the additional benefit of holding tools or other items I can roll into it or in the rare even that I actually need a blanket for whatever reason, I have one.  With properly fitted bars and a strategically placed blanket, bedroll, etcetera, you can have that fist in the wind “badass” look without suffering from the infamous “flying squirrel” effect. 

(note the blanket roll)

If you have any experience with apes and would like to share any tips or tricks that might work for someone else, please leave a comment and I promise I will publish them below.


  1. I'm told the apes should be lined up with the fork. That's not just for looks, but for function. When you roll the bars forward, how does that effect steering and handling?

    1. I had 18 inch apes with 2 inch risers. I preferred the look of the bars lining up with the forks and did find it was better riding then with the bars forward.

  2. just look what an eye catching piece of machinery your

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  4. Apart from the engines, these dedicated stores will also provide you with other parts like Harley front end, Harley handlebars, lights, mirrors, speedometer, etc.

  5. a quality seat with rider backrest helps keep me in the saddle....

  6. I have 12" mini apes on a 2013 streetbob want taller apes but don't want cost thinking of just going with 4" risers what do yall think

  7. Ii have 18" apes w) 4" risers. I actually was surprised how comfortable it was for me & I'm just 5'5" w) stock fxstc seat. I have them pretty much in line with the forks as well, I like that look. What I hadn't realized by doing what The Wandering Gypsy does w) the bed roll, is usually during hotter weather I strap my jacket to my handle bars, which may have been helping reduce the fatigue factor. But reality for m being double nickles now, I just sometimes have to make a few more stops to get the feeling back in my fingers lol.