This little guide is in no way attempting to replace lessons from a certified driving instructor, practice with your motorcycle, and in no way gives the reader a license to drive. On the other hand, if you find yourself in some lawless shithole and where the only means to escape is a motorcycle, it is good to have at least a theoretical knowledge of the basics.
Riding a motorcycle is a more engaging activity than driving a car. The rider drives the motorcycle with his whole body and that adds complexity, but in my opinion it also adds pleasure; unless you are running for your life, that is.
While my experience is mainly in supersport bikes and the main focus of the article is blacktop driving, some rules cross over to off-road driving too, like the famous and dreaded – it being the cause of many crashes – target fixation.
What is target fixation? It is a phenomenon where you guide the vehicle you drive towards a danger because you are focusing on it. Remember that I said you drive your motorcycle with your whole body? By locking on a point with your eyes, you turn your body towards it and that steers the motorcycle towards the place you don’t want to go.
How can you avoid that? One trick that worked for me and saved my bacon from the taxis in Athens that brake like there is a baby in the middle of the road when a client signals them, is to always look to your exit route.
You have a vehicle in front of you? Don’t look at its manufacturer logo at the center of its trunk, because if the driver brakes all of a sudden, that’s exactly where you’ll go. Instead, look right next to the vehicle to the open space and keep checking on traffic in general with your near and mid peripheral vision while your eyes always look on open spaces on the tarmac. Also, quick scans that break your point focus work. Driving a motorcycle is a constant mental and physical activity.
Braking is another thing that requires finesse while driving a motorcycle. In a car, you might slam the brakes and the ABS will do the job for ya and let you stop safely while maintaining control of your car. ABS on motorcycles, however, is not that common.
A light squeeze on the front brake lever will allow the fork springs to collapse controllably and the tire to gain some traction with the road as its contact surface with the tarmac will expand. As the weight starts to move forward keep adding pressure in a linear manner. When you hear the tire screech that means it’s close to the point of lockup, but if you add pressure in a linear and calm manner, possible skidding can be remedied by applying less pressure.
Add as much back brake as you like, but the effect it will have on braking distance depends on the type of motorcycle you want to stop. A supersport bike would not gain much, because its weight distribution means that the back wheel would not even probably touch the road in an emergency brake situation. But a Harley Davidson would benefit more due to weight distribution and longer distance between the wheels.
Breaking is fine and all, but the greatest tool a motorcycle rider has in his disposal for saving his or her ass is not passive safety but active safety; and that is your capability as a small and nimble vehicle to avoid the danger in ways a car could not. An important role in that is the technique that is known as countersteering.
On a motorcycle, if you want to go left you need to turn right. Wait, what?
Bear in mind that this starts working at speeds roughly over 10 miles per hour.
Motorcycles do not turn by their steering but by leaning on turns.
Body position, which helps, doesn’t play a major role in that. What does the trick and really allows you to guide your motorcycle with one finger is countersteering. In short, you drive on a straight road, suddenly there is an obstacle on the left side of your lane: if you push the left handlebar forward combined with body position and pressure on the right footpeg, the motorcycle is going to lean right. The slower the speed, the gentler the push must be, at 20 miles per hour, for example, all you really need is a tap. It is the same principle that you used when you rode your bike.
And finally the thing that every motorcyclist fears and dreads: tank slapping
It is a violent wobble in the handlebars created usually by the need of the front wheel to keep moving in a straight line and its inability to do so. For example, you made a wheelie and you landed with your front wheel slightly turned at high speeds. The problem is that it leaves you without control of your motorcycle and could lead to a crash. The wobbling is so violent that people who have tried to muscle it to submission only made the problem worse by transferring the movement to the chassis, amplifying the wobbling even to the point of having themselves thrown off the bike.
The remedy is to ease off the throttle while easing your grip on the handlebars or clip ons if you ride a supersport, and pray that it will calm down. Tank slapping is sometimes reversible and others it is not.
That brings me to my next, very important point: if you crash DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, HOLD ONTO THE MOTORCYCLE. It has more mass than you, and any number of bad things can happen. Let her go on her merry way and look to avoid hitting anything hard with your body.
Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.