I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time, but one thing I’ve gotten a pretty good hang of is riding motorcycles. I’ve been doing it now for over 20 years (I’m 28 and three-quarter years old) and have picked up a few tips and tricks along the way that have not only helped me become a better rider, but a smarter rider as well.
The following tips, tricks and techniques are all things I’ve learned over the years by either being taught or told at one point, by observing better/faster riders, or by simply having figured it out on my own, and I like to share these insights with others whenever I get the chance. To some, a few of these practices may seem basic or rudimentary, but all too often I see motorcyclists exhibiting bad habits or a lack of fundamental skills that can potentially lead to a hairy situation.
Riding motorcycles is risky enough as it is, so let’s all do each other a favor by practicing some of the following skills and techniques in an effort to become smarter and safer riders. Your mileage may vary on a number of these, but this is how I like to ride.
Two fingers is all anyone needs to effectively modulate the clutch lever. Using all four fingers to operate the clutch is perfectly okay when you’re stopped or if your bike just has a heavy clutch pull, but once rolling, one or two fingers are usually perfect for modulating the clutch as you work your way around town. Granted, I’ve learned this technique more by riding off-road, where more challenging terrain requires you to hold on more to control the bike, but it no doubt translates to the street as well. By using only two fingers (or just one) on the clutch or brake lever, the rider indisputably has greater control over the bike because both hands have a solid grasp on the bars. If you need four fingers to pull your clutch lever, you may want to look into cable lube. Lots of new bikes, like the Versys X 300 for one, have slip-assist clutches with superlight levers that encourage my one or two-finger technique. Using four to hold the clutch all the way back against the grip for an extended period of time is okay, but remember your clutch isn’t an all-or-nothing control.
If you’re a rider that uses all four fingers for every shift, next time you’re out for a ride, try using only two. It might feel awkward at first, but with a little patience and practice, you’ll be clutching like the pros in no time. To help speed the process along, I recommend getting one of those grip-strengthening clasp thingamabobbers to use at home when you’re watching TV, reading or even driving – ha! But don’t get distracted, focus on the road… Most clutches these days have a pretty light pull already, but it’s not uncommon for a rider’s wrists and forearms to get tired after a long day’s ride, or especially if you have to commute and use the clutch often – building your grip strength will help alleviate that. And besides, nobody likes a dead-fish handshake.
In an ideal world, two fingers on the brake lever will always be enough to howl the front tire. In our world, it depends on the motorcycle. Some bikes will have you clamping the brake lever onto your ring and pinky fingers when you need to stop hard if you only use two fingers, and that can be a very bad thing. Know your machine’s limits, and be prepared to squeeze with all four digits if that’s what your front brake needs for maximum decel.
In one way or another, every motorcycle’s clutch friction zone can be adjusted to suit a rider’s preference. Some are adjusted on the cable itself, others can be changed by a dial on the perch, and hydraulic clutches with master cylinders have a knob or screw you can turn to move the lever back and forth. There’s no right or wrong friction zone area so long as the clutch is functioning properly – meaning it’s not slipping by not completely engaging or disengaging. Each rider’s friction zone adjustment can be unique to their personal preference.
For me, I pull the lever in with my index and middle fingers until it’s resting on my ring and pinky fingers. I like the clutch to start engaging as soon as I start to release the lever. In that range, I feel I have a direct and predictable connection without any lapse between the motor and transmission. This technique’s benefits are most noticed in tight or slow speed conditions when precise clutching is most crucial. Also, keeping two fingers on the bars (three if you count your thumb) and two on the clutch or brake will help you steer and operate those controls better independently of one another, rather than just hooking the grip with your thumb with four fingers on the levers.
If you prefer the friction zone further away where you can quickly fan the clutch, that’s okay too. The point here is more so to be aware that a rider can adjust the friction zone to their preferences, rather than just leaving it as is. Play around with it if you don’t already know what you like.
This one might seem too basic or even silly, but this rudimentary exercise will help you immensely. Believe it or not, turning left is generally easier than turning right on a motorcycle. This is true for two main reasons: First off, most people are right-handed and it’s easier to push the handlebar away with your dominant arm. (At higher speeds, of course, pushing on the right bar will cause you to turn right.) Secondly, and the more significant reason, is that the rear brake lever is on the right, which means it’s more difficult to brake and put a foot down if needed while turning right. This is why in racing, motocross and supercross especially (where riders heavily bottleneck into the first corner), the first turn is usually a left-hander so that riders can effectively brake and keep their balance at the same time.
This exercise is best performed in an empty parking lot where you can use the painted lines as a guide. Start off by going in left-handed, counterclockwise circles and practice getting your circles tighter and tighter. Then do the same thing in the opposite right-handed, clockwise direction. You’ll probably realize this way is a little more difficult. This exercise will help you improve not only your balance, but your slow-speed, tight-quarter maneuvering too.
Same idea as above, but now we’re linking the left- and right-handed turns back-to-back. Same drill – start as wide as you need to and progressively narrow it down. You’ve heard motorcyclists talk about the “flickability” of a bike; this is where a rider quickly transitions and “flicks” the bike from one side to the other, fluidly linking right and left turns together. Be sure to start off slow. Practicing any skill slowly will help you perform it faster – we all crawl before learning to walk.
This exercise can be performed in an empty parking lot or open back road, just don’t do it anywhere near traffic. The idea here is to find out just how fast your bike can stop, because you never know when you might have to slam on those brakes. Practice stopping as quickly as you can by accelerating to different speeds to see how much distance it takes to bring the bike to a complete stop. In fact, you never want to actually “slam” on your brakes. You want to squeeze gently initially, with increasing pressure as needed.
Coming to a halt from 25 mph will clearly happen quicker and in less distance than from 60 mph – obviously – but the bike will react and respond in different ways. Stopping quickly from faster speeds will undulate and disturb the bike’s balance more so and differently than from slower speeds, so it’s good to familiarize yourself with what to expect and how to modulate the lever for optimal braking. Furthermore, this exercise will help you find your bike’s limits, hopefully without exceeding them (i.e. washing the front end and crashing).
Additionally, if your bike is equipped with ABS, you should know how and when the system engages. Some ABS systems engage earlier than others with varying levels of feel at the lever. Just remember – ABS is a rider aid, not a safety net.