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.
1. Two Fingers on the Clutch
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.
2. Adjust the Clutch Friction Zone to Your Preference
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.
3. Practice Turning Left and Right in Circles
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.
4. Figure Eights
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.
5. Practice Hard Braking
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.
Riding on the balls of your feet will help you control the bike better. A motorcycle’s foot pegs aren’t just a place to rest your dawgs. Just like inputs on the handlebar, weighing the foot pegs has an effect on the bike’s handling, too. Pressing down on either side can not only help steer the bike, but it can also help balance and keep it more stable while leaned over.
Another benefit to riding on the balls of your feet is that it essentially adds more suspension. You want your body to act like it’s part of the suspension, not the frame. Moving your feet up or down can help you navigate bumps and turns more assertively with greater control. Additionally, it will give you more ground clearance in the sense that your pegs will touch the ground before your feet do.
But what about the milliseconds you might lose by having to move your foot the brake lever in an emergency? As motorcyclists, we can become someone’s hood ornament in no time, so it’s our duty to be constantly scanning the road for any potential threat. I use the rear brake all the time because it doesn’t upset the bikes balance by causing it to dive as much as using the front can. In congested circumstances, or especially when lane-splitting, yes, by all means cover that rear brake. But under normal riding situations, try to stay on the balls.
7. Scootch Right Up Against the Tank
This one applies more to standard or sportier motorcycles and less to cruisers, however it’s good practice to sit as close to the gas tank as possible – get right up on that sucker. The main reason for this is that it will help balance the bike by keeping the weight as centralized and evenly distributed as possible. Whether braking, accelerating or turning, a balanced motorcycle will handle better.
8. Look Not Where You’re Going, But Where You Want to Go
We all hear this one often, but it can’t be stressed enough. It has a lot to do with target fixation – one of the leading causes of motorcycle accidents. Most often it happens when a rider comes into a turn too hot and rather than looking safely through the bend, the rider fixates on the hazard of running wide, or worse yet, the unforgiving thing he’s afraid he’s going to collide with. Your motorcycle tends to go where you’re looking, so look where you want to go. Target fixation is a natural phenomenon but with practice and repetition, you can become a smarter and faster rider, you just have to consciously force yourself to do it.
9. Correct Lane Positioning
Another simple yet commonly ignored practice is correct lane positioning. As a motorcyclist, a rider is vulnerable and needs to position him or herself effectively to not only be as easily seen as possible, but also to give themselves the most space to potentially maneuver in. I’m not going to go into all the potential situations because they’re limitless, however I’ll mention a few of the most common.
Whether you’re riding by yourself or in a group, the first rider should position themselves in the left portion of the lane. Not only will you be more visible to others on the street, you will have more visibility yourself.
When riding in a group, stagger yourselves in alternating left and right portions of the lane, and don’t crawl up each other’s asses. Give each other room to maneuver in the event of a situation – there’s nothing worse than having one of your buddies run into you because it should have been completely avoided in the first place. Not only is it embarrassing, a biker running into another biker makes us all look bad. Again, always be aware of your continuously changing surroundings by constantly scanning the road for potential threats. If there’s a car looking to make a left-hand turn, just assume they don’t see you and proceed with caution – be prepared.
At intersections, whether it be a stop sign or traffic light, position yourself (again) in the left portion of the lane and try to stick out somewhat without obviously impeding traffic. Let yourself be seen and make those cars consciously go around you. Motorcycles have just as much of a right to be on the road as any car, but that’s not a thing you should ever insist upon.
Oh, and don’t ride in anyone’s blind spots…
10. Stay Loose
Above all else, motorcycling at its core is supposed to be fun. It’s a bond between man and machine, a relationship that will only flourish with care, trust and patience. A rider needs to learn a motorcycle and how it handles. Just like people, they’re all different with their own strengths, weaknesses and unique quirks.
Like everything else on Earth, motorcycles are subject to the same laws of physics we are. The bike is going to move around on you, it’s going to dance and do its thing – let it. Hold on, but don’t death-grip or white-knuckle the thing. Once a motorcycle is in motion, the gyroscopic effect of the wheels helps keep it stable and tracking in a straight line. Little inputs can have big outcomes, so play around with it and get comfortable, learn to trust it. But remember, regardless of whether you’ve been riding for days or decades – shit happens. It’s our duty to try and minimize the risks that come with the territory.
Hopefully these tips, tricks and techniques that I’ve adopted over the years will somehow benefit you. Even the best riders can always further hone their skills, and for riders just starting out, these exercises are a good way to develop your abilities and build trust in your motorcycle.
Be safe, have fun and keep the greasy side down.