Spring Training

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Yamaha Motorcycles Street Event - Enumclaw Powersports


Spring Training

by David L. Hough

There are some parts of the country where motorcyclists ride all year round, but most of us put the bike away during the nastier weather months. If your motorcycle has been sitting in the garage all winter, it probably needs a little attention before it's ready to go. And if you haven't been riding for a while, your skills probably need some attention, too. Skills and habits tend to get rusty if you don't use them. And even if you have been riding all winter, you may have gotten sloppy about some basic habits. Let's think about some Spring Training for our riding skills.

Put Your Brain In Gear Before You Ease Out the Clutch

When you get back on the bike for that first spring ride, remember to shift your brain back into "motorcycle."

It doesn't take long driving a car every day for your motorcycling tactics to lose that edge. In a car, you're just part of the vehicular herd, jostling for position in traffic. But that also means other drivers are more likely to see you, since your car is more-or-less the same size as theirs. And if your vehicle of choice has been an aggressive looking SUV or pickup truck, other drivers have probably given you more space. The point is, you may have gotten used to other drivers giving you your road space. Driving a four-wheeler too much has a way of dulling our motorcycling survival instincts.

On a motorcycle, you need to keep your brain in "traffic survival mode". Motorcycles are shorter, narrower, and harder to see in traffic. More to the point, many drivers don't think of motorcycles as "real" vehicles worthy of road space, so it is much more likely that drivers will change lanes on top of you, pull out of a parking lot right in front of you, or make a quick swerve across your path.

If you haven't been challenged for road space recently, the first transgression may get you hot under the helmet. But before you react stupidly, remember that it may not be driver-to-driver aggression, but just a lack of respect for a motorcyclist. Remember, might makes right. Bigger vehicles CAN run smaller vehicles off the road because they are bigger. Sure, you might be able to knock the door off a Geo with your K1200LT, if the driver stupidly opens it into your way, but even heavyweight bikers are going to come out second best in a collision with a full-size truck.

So, before you head out into traffic on your first ride of the season, take a few moments to shift your mental gears back to "motorcycle" again. Remember, motorcyclists are at the bottom of the heap. Some drivers are not going to give you your road space, even if you have the legal right of way. You'll either move it out of the way, or lose it.

To help you remember that, here's a little ditty you can recite to yourself as you ease out the clutch:

"He was right, dead right, as he sped along. But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong."

We might also put in a plug here for the book "Street Strategies" which you might consider reading before strapping on your riding gear.


We constantly remind the faithful that two-wheelers are balanced by countersteering, and we continue to get questions about this. We even get letters from people who deny that it works, and from others who agree intellectually that it must work, but aren't sure they want to try it yet. Let's note that the driver of a four-wheeler doesn't have to balance it, and changing direction is just a matter of twisting the steering wheel. A four-wheeler starts to change direction instantly, just as soon as the front wheels steer towards the turn.

On a two-wheeler, you need to lean the bike over before it begins to turn. And the way we do that is to steer the contact patch out from under the bike to force it to lean over. In a nutshell, to initiate a left turn, push on the left grip. To make the bike lean right, push on the right grip. Or, to think of this in a different way, steer the front contact patch opposite the way you want to go. The point is, you have to get the motorcycle leaned over before it starts to turn, and the most accurate way to control lean angle is by steering the handlebars counter to the way you want to go (counter-steering).

Practice counter-steering to affirm that it really does cause the bike to lean.

Yes, throwing your weight around or putting more weight on one footpeg or hanging off towards the inside will also control balance and direction. Yes, it's possible for the riders of most motorcycles to steer the bike at speed, "hands-off". What may not be obvious is that the motorcycle automatically balances itself by counter-steering.

To remind yourself about counter-steering on your next ride, focus on what you are doing to balance and steer. Before you head out into traffic, get the bike in a straight line at about 30 mph, and push alternately on the left and right grips to steer from one side of your lane to the other. If you are riding a cruiser style machine with "laid back" ergonomics, try pulling both grips towards the direction you want to go. To turn left, pull both grips toward the left. To turn right, pull both grips toward the right. It may take one or two seconds to get the bike leaned. The point is, motorcycles respond to counter-steering, whether their riders realize it or not. We're simply suggesting everyone get in tune with their bikes.

Practice Braking

Driving a four-wheeler, you've probably had to jam on the brakes once or twice to avoid collisions. Squealing tires? What do we care? All you have to do is jam down the power brake pedal with your foot, and hang on.

Back on a motorcycle, you need to remind yourself that you can take a tumble if you don't brake skillfully. And on a bike, it's important to focus on the front brake lever, not the foot pedal. Even if your bike has ABS, linked brakes, or integrated front/rear brakes, the front brake is still the most powerful.

If you intend to stop in minimum distance, whether in a straight line or in a curve, you need proficient braking skills, and that means practice. First, make a point of covering the front brake lever whenever you're approaching a potentially hazardous situation. If you aren't covering the front brake, you may forget to use it, or it may take so much reaction time to get on the brake you can't avoid a smasho.

Consciously use the front brake during every stop, and as part of your cornering sequence. When slowing for a turn, squeeze the front brake lightly, to help make that a habit. Approaching a busy intersection, dab on the front brake enough to slow the bike a few MPH and get the discs heated up.

Second, get in some serious quick stop practice now and again. Braking is a fine art, and you can't expect to be good at it if you don't practice. Find some vacant strip of clean, level pavement away from traffic, and practice quick stops for an hour or two, at least once each year. Get the bike up to speed in second gear, and at the braking point, squeeze the clutch, roll off the throttle, and smoothly apply the brakes. Concentrate on applying both brakes firmly just short of skidding the tires, shift down to first gear before stopping, and bring the bike to a complete stop with your left foot down and your right foot on the rear brake. Start your initial braking runs at 20 mph, and gradually work up the dial as you gain confidence.

At least once each year, put in some serious braking practice.

For older bikes and those without ABS, it's important to modulate the brakes just short of skidding the tires. If you skid the front tire, you can avoid a fall by immediately releasing the brake lever, and then squeezing a little less aggressively to stop the bike. Skidding the rear tire is more likely, and potentially a lot more hazardous. If you skid the rear tire out to one side and then panic and let off the brake, you could flip the bike into a "high side" that launches you into a short flight.

If you do slide the rear sideways during a quick stop, it's critical to restrain your survival instinct to let up on the pedal. Stay on the pedal until the bike comes to a complete stop. The solution is to learn to use as much rear brake as you can without skidding the tire, and that only comes with practice. For sports bikes with short wheelbases and sticky tires, you'll have to modulate the front brakes short of full power to keep the rear wheel on the ground.

Aggressive sport bikes typically require greater braking skill than other machines. A short wheelbase combined with forward weight bias, powerful front brakes, and sticky tires conspire to make it very easy to lift the rear wheel off with a modest squeeze on the front brake lever. So, there is less risk of sliding the front tire out, but greater risk of flipping the bike end over end. The solution is to get in plenty of braking practice, to build "muscle memory" for aggressive stops while still keeping the rear wheel on the ground.

Ride The Twisties

Aggressive riders need no encouragement to find a twisty road. Timid riders may need a little shove. Even if you see yourself as a conservative rider, it is worthwhile to spend some time on twisty roads, because that's really the only way to get skillful at quick changes in direction. Sure, you can practice emergency swerves in a parking lot, but in a crisis such as a left-turning car, you will probably resort to habits. And the most practical way to develop the right habits is to ride a twisty road that requires you to change direction quickly and frequently. But let's emphasize the importance of practicing the RIGHT habits.

On your next ride on a twisty road, ride at a slower pace well within your perceived limit, and concentrate on specific cornering techniques. For instance, concentrate first on achieving an entry speed that allows you to roll on the throttle all the way around the turn, then concentrate on a better line, then on keeping your eyes level, and so on. Use your front brake to help slow the bike to cornering speed, look as far through the turn as you can to plan a "delayed apex" line, and then ease on the throttle as you countersteer the bike into the turn. Keep your head up, your eyes level with the horizon, and your nose pointed in the direction you want the bike to go.

Cornering control starts with the right steps in the right sequence.

The point is, get more familiar with leaning the bike over, and gain some confidence in your tires. If you can also smooth out your braking, throttle control, countersteering, and cornering lines, those are additional payoffs that you can use for either more enjoyment, or keeping more traction "in the bank".

Reading The Surface

The natural resting position of a motorcycle is horizontal. The key to staying upright is to learn to read the road surface.

One big concern about riding two-wheelers is maintaining balance, and that depends mostly upon traction. A four-wheeler or sidecar rig can slide the tires without falling down. Sliding either tire on a two-wheeler can quickly result in a crash. Remember, a motorcycle is balanced mostly by steering the front wheel contact patch directly under the center of gravity, whether the front-end geometry automatically does it, or the rider does it. Either way, some traction is required to keep the bike up. If there isn't sufficient traction, the contact patches can slide sideways, allowing gravity to pull the bike onto its side.

All motorcyclists understand this, but not all of us are skillful at reading the surface. First, continue to monitor the road surface far enough ahead to have time to take evasive action. The primary technique is to look for changes in surface color or texture, indicating a change in traction.

Second, practice techniques for managing traction. Next time you're out for a ride on a curvy road, practice smooth cornering lines and smooth throttle control. Plan your line to put your tires over the most tractable surface. For instance, if there is a slippery white plastic arrow on the surface, plan a smooth line to one side of the arrow to avoid making any sudden changes while leaned over.

If slippery surfaces make you nervous, the fix is to get in some riding practice on unpaved roads. Spend a day riding a gravel road such as a county farm road, or a National Forest road. If you're too cautious to ride gravel on your big roadburner, borrow a smaller dual sport machine. But whatever you ride, get in some "dirt" time to gain familiarity. It's not just a matter of being able to handle a detour now and then; it's a matter of learning more about traction control.

Keep Speed Within Sight Distance

Lots of motorists get into trouble because they don't adjust speed to what's happening. It may be perfectly sensible to motor down the highway at 60 mph in clear weather, but that's way too fast when the road disappears into a fog bank. One minor collision can quickly turn into a major pileup as drivers continue to slam into the fog-shrouded wreckage at speed. Most motorcyclists would recognize the extreme hazard of riding into a fog bank on a busy freeway, but some riders don't seem to understand that blind turns are as hazardous as thick fog. Those who are surprised by hazards such as a stalled car or a decreasing-radius curve don't have time to react, and end up contributing to the statistics.

The clever rider adjusts speed so that he can always stop with sight distance.

Next time you're out for a ride, make a point of adjusting speed to sight distance. When your view of the road ahead closes up, immediately reduce speed. Use your front brake, both to scrub off speed, and prepare yourself for a quick stop. That same technique works for intersections where your view of side streets is blocked by a truck, a twisty road where you can't see around the curve, or a hill that blocks your view of what's on the other side.

Keep Bike Speed Within Your Thinking Speed

It's tempting to think that horsepower relates to enjoyment of the ride. A bigger, faster bike should be greater fun, right? Well, there are lots of high-horsepower machines out there to give you the opportunity to find out. We bring this up because springtime seems to get a lot of riders drooling over a newer, faster ride.

What a lot of riders discover is that race-replica bikes are a handful to control on public roads, and not as enjoyable as the price tag might suggest. More than a few riders fool themselves into thinking that more power will make up for less skill, only to crash more expensive machines at higher speeds.

For most of us, the limits are determined more by our skill level than by horsepower. This isn't an indictment of big-power bikes, it's a caution about the importance of keeping bike speed within your thinking speed. If you've been driving a car that takes 8 or 10 seconds to reach 70 mph, your cranial habits may be way too slow for a bike that accelerates up to warp speeds with a half-twist of the throttle.

Symptoms of allowing the bike to get ahead of your thinking include running wide in corners, and panic reactions such as suddenly snapping off the gas or jamming on the rear brake at mid-corner.

If you're scaring yourself too frequently, there are several options other than buying more life insurance or giving up motorcycling. One option is to choose a less powerful, more controllable machine. Even if you're determined to ride a 170 mph bike, it makes sense to learn better control skills on a more forgiving machine. If you're determined to ride a fast bike fast, you might start thinking about riding the track instead of public roads. You can start that journey by taking a few of the track schools.

But one approach that's good for any bike is to learn to control your riding so that you stay well within your own limits. Let Dr. Curve and those more daring riders zip on by, and ride your own ride.

You will go out and practice these things, won't you?

David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series "Proficient Motorcycling" in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into two books Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling, both published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of  Driving A Sidecar Outfit and a pocket riding skills handbook, Street Strategies.

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