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Tuning Up Riding Skills


  • Tuning Up Riding Skills

    Great article on refreshing important basic skills (Save and re-read next spring!)>>

    Tuning up all riding skills

    Reprinted from Motorcycle Consumer News © 1997

    Several years ago, our local river went on a rampage plowed itself a new channel through the woods and removed our backyard and half of the hill our house was sitting on. As you might imagine, motorcycling took a back seat for a year or so.

    My motorcycles were hauled to high ground and stored in a friend's garage without any preparation for lay-up. When we finally moved back home and retrieved the bikes, they were in need of some serious tuning-up to get them running again. A few days' work got the bikes functioning again, but by then I was concerned about my riding skills.

    Until that hiatus, I had continuously ridden year-round for 25 years. While I suspected my control skills might have gotten rusty, what really amazed me was how quickly my accident avoidance skills had degraded.

    I had absorbed a sort of "car driver" mentality. Driving my truck everyday, I came to expect that other drivers could see me, and wouldn't make quick left turns across my path. I had forgotten how drivers tend to ignore motorcycles.

    So, when I got back in the saddle again, I had to remember about such motorcycling tactics as positioning to be seen, separating myself from hazardous situations and being prepared for rapid evasive maneuvers.

    That same attitude degradation is likely to occur with anyone who doesn't ride for awhile, whether due to changing circumstances, an accident or simply because the bike is stored for the winter.

    Let's consider how to tune up our skills after we've been "in storage."

    Get Your Head in the Ride

    In my case, my traffic strategies really needed tuning. Remember that most motorcycle accidents are collisions with automobiles, not collisions with the roadside bushes. And some auto drivers are as aggressive in parking lots and alleys as they are at controlled intersections. Roughly one-third of motorcycle accidents occur at four-way intersections, and another third on residential side streets. Believe it or not, one good way to update your traffic predicting skills is to stand on the corner of a busy intersection and watch what's happening. See if you can predict where various cars are going to go, and try to spot clues such as quick glances to the side by a driver, or a vehicle wandering toward the side of the lane. Hopefully, you won't have to witness frightening scenarios, such as a rider in shorts zooming into a busy intersection while fiddling with the gas valve.

    Lethal Lefties

    One of our greatest hazards is an automobile making a sudden left turn across our path at intersections. According to the Hurt Report, 28% of all motorcycle accidents occur with the car making a left turn in front of the motorcycle, and the rider usually slamming into the side of the car and catapulting over the roof. You can help avoid being a victim of Lethal Lefties by getting in the habit of looking farther ahead, watching for vehicles which might turn left in front of you, staying out from behind trucks and busses, and practicing evasive maneuvers such as swerving and quick stops

    Tips and Clues

    When you are back in the saddle again, remember that other drivers often ignore motorcyclists, can't see us or disregard our right of way. We need to be aware of what's happening ahead, and be prepared to change speed or position to stay out of the way of errant and aggressive drivers. You can help other drivers see you in traffic if you avoid hiding behind big boxes such as busses and trucks, but you'll still need to take responsibility for not getting hit. The name of the game for us is, "move it or lose it." We can't depend upon traffic signals, turn indicators and brake lights to tell us what drivers are going to do, but we can learn certain clues. For example, when approaching another vehicle that you suspect could pull out or turn in front of you, monitor the top of the front tire. The top of the tire moves twice as fast as the car, so that's your first clue that the car is actually starting to move. If an oncoming vehicle is approaching the intersection in the left lane, watch the elevation of its nose. If the nose suddenly dips, that's a good tip that the driver is braking in preparation to turn, whether the turn signals are blinking or not. If a car is waiting at the intersection as you arrive, the front wheel turning toward you is a pretty good indication the driver is about to turn. In residential areas, clues such as exhaust puffing from a tailpipe, a front wheel turning out or back-up lights flicking on are warnings that a vehicle might suddenly pull into your path.

    Evasive Action

    Drivers of four-wheelers can be much less proficient than motorcyclists and get away with haphazard maneuvers. For example, if I stomp on my Toyota brakes and smoke the tires, I might drift sideways. But I won't fall down, and I'll stop on the rubber. On my Suzuki dual-sport, if I'm not skillful enough to modulate the front brake lever during a quick stop, I'll take a tumble. Contemporary motorcycles handle so well that most of us can easily punch through the traction envelope without straining a muscle. That's why manufacturers such as Honda and BMW have invested so much research on integrated and anti-lock brake systems. And certainly such systems can be an advantage in the typical street situation if everything is working right. But whether we've got ABS or TCS or whatever on our machines, we still have to make quick decisions about which evasive maneuver is best for the situation. When faced with a car that suddenly turns into my path, I've got just a fraction of a second to decide whether to accelerate, swerve or brake, because most motorcycles don't have enough traction to accelerate and swerve, or swerve and brake at the same time. Maximum-effort swerving assumes I can control the dangerous urges to snap off the gas or jam on the rear brake while I'm pushing hard on the grips. The most reliable evasive tactic for urban situations is a quick stop. Accelerating may be the right answer for situations such as merging freeway lanes, and swerving might be appropriate for getting around a spare tire lying on the pavement, but hard braking should be your automatic choice for such hazards as a left-turning car. The reason: single-track vehicles stop a lot better than they swerve. Brakes on contemporary motorcycles are more powerful than the engine, and motorcycle tires have excellent traction. That's also the reason why it's smarter to stay on the brakes rather than to "lay it down." Always remember: Rubber has a better coefficient of friction (more traction) than steel, chrome or aluminum.

    Swerving Practice

    Of course, there are other, gentler ways to control balance and steering, but a dramatic swerve around an errant car driver or open manhole requires some dramatic shoves on the grip. If you haven't been in the habit of pushing on the grips to control balance and direction, you might want to experiment with counter-steering in some vacant parking lot or on a deserted road. Get the bike up to a modest 35 or 40 mph, and consciously push on the left grip. The motorcycle will lean left. Push on the right grip to steer toward the right. An emergency swerve is just two quick turns close together.

    Occasionally, I practice swerving by myself, if I happen upon a deserted stretch of highway with a dashed centerline. My game is to swerve between the spaces without decelerating, maintaining a path close to the centerline without running over the painted dashes. The trick is to hold a steady throttle, and push hard on the grip toward the direction of the swerve. The steady throttle keeps the engine from becoming an unwelcome brake, so I can use all of the available traction for changing direction. When practicing swerves, I place my weight more on the footpegs and let the bike roll under me. I slow down to a steady 30-mph at first, then gradually increase speed. And if the dashed lines are too close together, I dive between every other one. If it isn't obvious, such antics on public roads may disturb other drivers or attract the attention of Officer Friendly, so I knock it off if anyone comes into view.

    Quick Stop Practice

    Quick stops are also fun to practice. It's pretty amazing how quickly you can bring a speeding bike to a halt, when your techniques are correct. When making a maximum-effort stop in a straight line, of course, it is helpful to have ABS to avoid skidding the tires. None of my bikes have ABS, so I've got to prevent skids with the computer between my ears. The trick to quick stops is simple: apply maximum braking on both wheels, just short of skidding the tires. Naturally, talking about it and doing it are two different things. When I practice quick stops, I try to find a piece of pavement away from traffic, because it is important to bring the machine to a complete stop. Since intersection speeds on surface streets tend to be in the 35-45 mph range, quick stop practice should be from 35-0, not just a slowdown from 65-35. If you haven't practiced quick stops yet, you'll be impressed at how fast 35 mph seems. School or business parking lots are often vacant on weekend mornings, or perhaps you know of an unused street that would be suitable for practice, such as one of those new roads leading into a future development. If you do it right, quick stops won't leave any embarrassing tell-tale skid marks. Pick a braking point where you will commence braking. You can mark it with a cone, a pop can or a chalk mark. Leave yourself lots of run-out room beyond the braking point, just in case you make a mistake. Get the bike rolling about 150' from the braking markers, stabilized in second gear at about 18-20 mph. When your front axle reaches the markers, squeeze the clutch, roll off the gas, and apply both front and rear brakes firmly, but just short of a skid. Gradually increase approach speed on subsequent passes as you gain familiarity. Trust us here; even if you think you could do a perfect quick stop from 35-40 mph, our advice is to try it first from a slow speed and gradually work up the dial.

    Two primary errors many riders make when braking are to squeeze the front brake too quickly, and to overcook the rear brake toward the end of the stop. It takes about one second of braking for weight to transfer onto the front tire, so the front brake lever should be squeezed progressively harder over that first second. You can practice this right now. Make an imaginary brake lever out of your left thumb and index finger. Squeeze the "lever" as you say out loud: "one-thousand-and-one." That's what we mean by "progressive" brake application. If you grab the front brake too quickly, you can slide the front wheel before the weight transfers forward.

    To avoid rear wheel skids, be aware that you must let up on the rear brake as weight transfers forward during the stop. Many contemporary bikes have overly powerful rear disc brakes. If you can't seem to avoid skidding your rear tire during quick stop practice on dry pavement, try stopping with your right foot riding on the passenger peg. On some machines you can stop just as quickly by focusing on the front brake and ignoring the rear brake.

    However, I believe in using both brakes and learning to apply maximum braking short of skidding either tire. Lightweight sport machines will stop on clean pavement with 90% or more of the braking on the front, and very little rear pedal. Heavier touring bikes may require 70% on the front and 30% on the rear. In the rain, on gravel, or when carrying a passenger, brake application for any motorcycle could be roughly 50/50.

    High Sides

    Novices tend to be too wary of the front brake, but veterans know that overcooking the rear brake can be more hazardous. If a rider locks up the rear wheel to the point where the rear end starts sliding out to the side, the unfortunate survival reaction may be to let up on the pedal to regain rear tire traction. And if a sideways rear wheel does regain traction, it will snap the contact patch back toward center so violently the rider is catapulted off the bike toward the "high" side. High-side flips are far more hazardous than sliding out and falling on the low side.

    Two Fingers or a Handful?

    From time to time you'll see articles or letters suggesting everyone should always keep four fingers covering the brake lever to reduce reaction time, or that no one should use more than two fingers to avoid over-braking, or various other "must do" or "never do" combinations. What's important is for each of us to be able to stop our specific machine in the shortest possible distance without falling down. Different machines and different situations require different techniques. For example, if you use only two fingers when braking some big oriental tourers, you may mash the other two pinkies that are still wrapped around the throttle. Try different combinations during quick stop practice, to discover what works best for you and your machine. But what's more important is to spot potentially hazardous situations ahead and get prepared to take evasive action. For instance, approaching a busy intersection with several suspicious cars, you should not just be covering the front brake lever, you should already be squeezing the lever to scrub off a little inertia and get the disc warmed up. Reducing speed from 40-30 mph will cut your stopping distance in half.

    Cornering Practice

    While about 75% of all motorcycle accidents are collisions with other vehicles, the remaining 25% represents riders who missed the turn, slid out, wrapped themselves around power poles, jammed their wheels into railroad switches, ran into deer and so forth. Much of this carnage seems to occur in combination with corners. The experts often describe the cause of cornering accidents as, "improper speed selection," although motorcyclists are aware that cornering is much more than speed. Little errors like rolling off the throttle at the wrong time can lever the bike off the tires and squirt you into the wilderness. If you haven't been on the bike for awhile, you are urged to practice some cornering tactics. We're not trying to convince you to become a canyon squid here we're primarily interested in reducing the risks. The focus should be on the tactics, not on scaring yourself.


    One important skill for the two-wheeler is counter-steering. It's easy to head down the highway with the bike on "auto-pilot" ignoring the little details of what you're doing to keep it balanced or change direction. But if you intend to be able to make a sudden swerve, or tighten up your line in a decreasing-radius corner, you need to develop the counter-steering habit. Keep thinking about counter-steering as you ride along. To lean left, push on the left grip. To lean right, push on the right grip.


    Second, remember to scrutinize the road surface before you roll your tires onto it. Look for changes in surface color or texture that indicate a change in traction. If you do spot a potential problem such as loose gravel, plan a line that puts your tires over the most tractable part of the lane, and do your braking before you lean over.

    Plan a Good Line

    Third, plan a cornering line with the "straightest" curve. In a car, your cornering line is limited, but with a narrow bike you can use the whole lane. If you are in the habit of always riding in one wheel track or down the center of your lane, you are squandering traction. Practice entering curves from the outside of the turn. That is, enter a right turn from the left side of your lane. Enter a left turn from the right edge of your lane. Look as far through the corner as you can, and focus on the road where you want your tires to go. See if keeping your eye level with the horizon helps you to get the big picture.

    Brake Early

    Fourth, brake early enough to be off the brakes as you lean over. Sure, some riders trail the brakes deep into corners. But if you're still braking as you lean over, you are squandering traction you might need for turning. The ideal entry speed for a level corner is whatever speed will allow you to roll on more throttle through the rest of the turn.

    Get on the Gas

    Lastly, roll on the throttle as you lean over. If you don't roll on the gas as the bike leans over onto the smaller-diameter side of the tread, the engine will act as a compression brake, stealing traction and decreasing cornering clearance.

    So, What's the Point?

    The point of practicing riding skills is to make them habits. Whatever evasive action you intend to do, in a pinch you will resort to habits. In other words, when faced with a potential collision three or four seconds away, you’ll do whatever you has been practicing and think about it afterwards. If you always use the front brake when stopping, you'll squeeze the front brake lever without waiting for a conscious decision. I have some riding friends who say they read Proficient Motorcycling, but when pressed, admit they never actually go out and practice the riding skills, other than what they can do while riding. Friends, that's fine for strategies and cornering and swerving skills, but do yourself a favor and take the time to practice quick stops at least once each year away from traffic.

    That's especially important if you've been off the bike for awhile, or if you are riding a different machine than you've been riding. And even if you ride year-round, tuning up your skills every spring ought to be as high on your to-do list as tuning up your bike.
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