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Getting You and Your Motorcycle Ready for Spring

As predicted, Spring has begun to awaken as it has every year. This means that it’s time to dust off the bike and head back out onto the road. But, before you strap on your helmet and thumb the starter, there are a few things you must first take care of.

Hopefully, you put your motorcycle away so it takes minimal effort to bring it to life after its long winter nap. If not, you may be in for some frustrating downtime.

Performing Maintenance

With the help of a motorcycle owner’s manual, someone with moderately competent mechanical skill can perform most of the tasks we are about to discuss. For tasks that are not covered in your owner’s manual, please consult your dealer’s service center.

Fuel System

One of the most common pre-season mechanical problems involve the fuel system. This is caused by riders parking their bikes without adding fuel stabilizer to the gasoline. The problem is that old fuel turns into a gooey varnish that can clog the small passageways in the fuel system. This is a significant problem on motorcycles with carburetors, but even fuel-injected bikes can be affected. The use of Ethanol makes the problem even more likely.

If you neglected this task you may be looking at the time and expense of a thorough fuel system cleaning. If the gas in your tank is old it’s best to resist starting your motorcycle. Instead, drain the old fuel from the tank (and drain the carburetors if applicable). This can prevent stale gas from circulating through the system. If your bike runs poorly even after draining the gas, consult a mechanic and store your bike properly next time.

Air Filter

Check your air filter, as rodents seem to be particularly attracted to building nests in air boxes, which is cozy place with nest building filter material handy. Remove any debris and replace the filter if it’s been chewed or looks particularly dirty.

Tires

Tread wear indicators can be found in the bottom of the tread.

Tire pressure will drop significantly over the winter and nothing affects handling and wear more than very low tire pressures, so be sure to put a gauge on those stems before the motorcycle rolls out of the garage. If the tread is worn near the tread-wear indicators or if the tires show any signs of rot, now’s a good time to replace the old tires with new rubber.

And check the date code found in an oval stamp with 4 number indicating the week and year the tire was manufactured. 5 years is a good guideline to follow even if the tires look okay.

Drive Train

Pull the chain away from the sprocket to check for wear.

While you’re down there, check drive train wear. Sprockets should show no significant signs of hooking and the chain should not pull very far away from the back of the sprocket. Replace the chain and sprockets as a set if necessary. If all looks good, then check the adjustment and give the chain a good lube. Hopefully you lubricated the chain before storage, which means no rust should be present. If this duty was neglected, give the chain a cleaning and lubricate it before the first ride, then perform a more thorough lubrication after the chain is warm.

Engine Fluids

Check your oil level, or better yet, change the oil and filter if you didn’t do it before tucking your bike away last fall. Old engine oil contains acids that are best removed. If your bike is liquid cooled, check coolant levels, including the fluid in your overflow tank (see your owner’s manual).

Brakes

Change brake fluid if it looks darker than apple juice or hasn’t been changed in a couple of years.

Brakes are obviously an important system to maintain. Squeeze the front brake lever and press on the rear brake pedal to feel for a firm application. Look in the sight glass or at the brake master cylinders to see that brake fluid levels are good and plan to replace the fluid if it is the color of apple juice or darker.

Grab a flashlight and take a close look at your front and rear brake pads to see how much material there is remaining. Most brake pads have a notch cut into the pad as a wear indicator. If in doubt, have the pads replaced. It’s cheap insurance.

Brake pad wear indicators

Battery

Weak or dead batteries are another common mechanical issue that can stand in the way of reviving a motorcycle after a long period of dormancy. Hopefully, you kept your battery charged. I use a Battery Tender Junior. If not, then you will likely have to charge the battery before it will start the engine. If it will not hold a charge, then a new battery is in your future.

Lights, Cables & Fasteners

Once your battery is good to go, be sure to check that all of your lights are operational. Check that both front and rear brake light switches illuminate the brake light. Check turn signals, tail light and headlights (high and low beam) to make sure they work.

Confirm that the throttle, clutch and brake cables (if applicable) operate smoothly before heading out. Finally, go around the whole bike with a wrench and screwdriver, tightening any loose fasteners.

Awakening the Rider

Cornering practice

Now that you’ve taken care of the motorcycle you can think about your first ride. But, before you press the starter button, keep in mind that your likely a bit rusty, too. Spending many months in a car can cause you to become oblivious to motorcycle issues like visibility or road surface hazards.

Some riders begin your season by taking a refresher course with their local motorcycle-training program or from an experienced instructor who offers on-street or track day training (like me).

It’s also smart to take some time on their own to brush up on your emergency skills in a parking lot. Whether you choose to attend a formal rider course or go it alone, we recommend that every rider practice the critical skills by performing some cornering and braking drills.

Spring Roads and Inattentive Drivers

There’s a lot to look for on the street.

Even if you and your bike are fully ready for the new season, remember that the roads may not yet be motorcycle-friendly. Traction-robbing road salt and sand are used extensively in snowy regions to keep roadways ice-free. Keep your eyes peeled for these surface hazards. In many towns and counties, the road sweepers will eventually take care of the majority of the excess sand.

Roadways take a lot of abuse from snowplows scraping the surface and from the effects of repeated freezing and thawing. Expect surface hazards during the early spring until the earth thaws and the road crews can repair the scars.

And remember that drivers aren’t used to seeing motorcycles on the road, so be extra vigilant when riding in traffic.

Your owner’s manual can help you perform these routine tasks so you are prepared for the upcoming season. Taking the time to prepare for the upcoming season can ensure that it is a safe and enjoyable one.


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Motorcycle Sidecar Essentials

I never really understood the draw toward a “motorcycle” that didn’t lean. My mentor, David Hough has been a sidecarist for many years, actively lobbying for the recognition of sidecars and trikes in safety programs.

He gave me my first ride in a borrowed Hannigan rig at Americade back in 1999 and later taxied me around his hometown in his beautiful BMW K1 outfit.

The ride was a lot of fun, but I wondered what the practical aspects of hack ownership were. Here is a list of the essentials you need to know before considering a hack.

Advantages

  • Three-wheelers will not fall over, making slippery surfaces and slow speed riding situations much easier.
  • The sidecar driver doesn’t need to put a foot down to support the motorcycle when stopped, making it possible for short riders and disabled riders to not fear dropping the bike.
  • Carrying a child is less risky, where you can enjoy the piece of mind that they are secure. They may also enjoy the ride more if they can read, color, or play video games.
  • The possibility of riding year-round even in northern climates,
  • The ability to carry a pet,
  • Increased carrying capacity.
  • Sidecars are fun!

Disadvantages

With all good things come some bad and this holds true with three-wheelers, too.

  • Extra weight and girth that effects acceleration, stopping and maneuverability.
  • Novice sidecar drivers fail to “remember the car”, running over various obstacles and curbs before learning to allow more space.
  • Parking may be easy as far as stability is concerned, but a sidecar or trike will take up most of a full-sized parking space.
  • More wear and tear on many of the motorcycle’s components– the frame, engine and brakes must withstand greater stresses.
  • Significant modifications are usually required to obtain a good-handling outfit, including a subframe to provide sidecar attachments, changing the front-end geometry to make steering easier and fitting wheels that will take automobile tires.
  • Converting back and forth is impractical once the motorcycle has been modified to handle well as a three-wheeler.

Hack School

With the inherit stability of a sidecar rig, it’s easy to think that riding one is easy. But attempting to drive a rig for the first time will quickly convince you that a sidecar outfit requires special skills. I decided that the best way to learn how to operate a hack would be to sign up for a sidecar course.

Hack school

The one-day sidecar course was for experienced riders. The course began with sidecar-specific information, such as motorcycle/sidecar attachments, and demonstrated the basics of sidecar operation, including body position, and throttle/ brake techniques.

I realized there was more to riding a rig than I previously imagined. The training company provided Honda 250 Nighthawks outfitted with Velorex sidecars. I learned that sidecars need to be matched by size and weight to the motorcycle to help keep the outfit stable. In general terms, the sidecar should weigh approximately 30% of the naked motorcycle.

Steering

One thing I learned right away is that a rig steers “backwards” from a two-wheeler. While a rigid sidecar outfit corners “flat” like an automobile, it has one less wheel to help resist a rollover, especially in right-hand turns when the car has a tendency to lift off the ground.

There are differences in turning techniques between two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Sidecars turn using “direct steering” (turn left to go left and turn right to go right) as opposed to countersteering for two-wheelers (turn right to go left and turn left to go right).

This 3-wheeler steering process is similar to driving a car, once you get the right messages from your brain to your hands. For an experienced rider, the sensation of cornering without leaning was odd at first, but became familiar within only a few minutes.

Even though countersteering isn’t part of normal sidecar operation, there are circumstances when a sidecar operator will countersteer. Motorcycle control reverts from direct steering to countersteering when the sidecar is “flying” and only two wheels are in contact with the ground.

Throttle

As with two-wheeled motorcycle operation, the sidecar outfit turns more easily and smoothly with some throttle application. Throttle can be tricky while cranking the handlebars from side to side, but the results are quite noticeable. I even started playing around with the throttle a bit more aggressively and spinning the rear tire to help the rig turn the corner. “Drifting” sure was fun!

We also learned some expert sidecar skills, such as simultaneously rolling on the throttle and dragging the front brake, to help control the rig and keep the car on the ground in right-handers.

Body Position

We repeated the exercise, but this time we learned to hang off the seat toward the inside of the turn to help prevent a rollover. It worked like a charm. We were able to negotiate the course with more speed and stability.

Braking

Braking technique is very similar between two and three wheelers– apply both brakes, squeeze the clutch, downshift, eyes up, no skidding– with the exception that you don’t have to put your foot down when you come to a stop.

I noticed with my first practice run into the braking area that the training rig pulled to the left under braking. The trainer I was driving didn’t have the sidecar brake connected. A brake on the car’s wheel can minimize this effect.

I also noticed how much brake pressure was needed to stop the rig. Sidecars add a lot of weight to a motorcycle and that weight adds a lot of braking distance to a stop. This is a good reason why a sidecar operator must recognize hazards early and maintain a greater following distance. Of course, the big advantage is that if you manage to skid the front tire, you don’t fall down.

When a front tire does skid, the rig will continue in the direction it is traveling even though the rider may attempt to change direction by turning the front wheel. If the front tire regained traction while the wheel is turned, the rig would suddenly follow in the direction the front wheel is pointed, possibly veering into traffic.

If you do skid the front tire you have the option of either keeping it locked­ or releasing and re-applying the front brake. If you decide to release the front brake, it’s important to make sure the wheel is pointed in the direction of travel!

Learning to Fly

One of the most fun parts of driving a sidecar is learning to “fly” the car. At first I thought this was more of a show-off technique than something useful. But it actually teaches the important skill of switching from direct steering to countersteering and back.

And there may be times when a hack driver needs to lift the car wheel over a pothole or curb. You want to be able to lift the sidecar wheel about a foot off the ground for extended periods by carefully balancing throttle and steering.

Swerving

Controlled flying is enjoyable, but uncontrolled flying when swerving can be hazardous to your health. Swerving a three-wheeler is not unlike swerving a two-wheeler– two consecutive steering inputs, one to swerve and the other to recover. However, a sidecar needs direct steering and dramatic body changes to keep the rig from flipping.

The driver needs to quickly move body weight from one side to the other just before the steering input. Initiating a right-hand swerve and recovering after a left-hand swerve caused the car to lift into the air even after hanging my body as far over the sidecar as I could reach.

The other issue with swerving a sidecar is that the operator must remember just how wide the outfit is. This requires a much more dramatic swerve so the car can clear the obstacle.

A Unique Experience

As a longtime rider, I’m always looking for more experiences with motorcycles and was glad to have experienced the world of sidecars. If you get the opportunity to drive a hack, just remember that operating a sidecar is not as easy as just throwing a leg over the seat and driving away. But ilike always, a bit of training is worth the effort.

United Side Car Association

The USCA is an enthusiast organization, publishing a bi-monthly magazine, The Sidecarist. The USCA holds an annual rally that is an excellent opportunity to view sidecars and talk with owners. Ask nicely and you’ll probably get a ride, too. www.sidecar.com


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Review: Racer Gloves MultiTop Gloves

Racer’s MultiTop mitts are a comfy and sporty option for all weather street rides.

Motorcycle gloves need to be protective, comfortable, and affordable. Designing motorcycle gloves that measure up is challenging, but it is even trickier when manufacturers also aim to make them waterproof.

The Racer MultiTop easily succeeds in the comfort department with supple cowhide and kangaroo-leather palms. The fingers are naturally curved and include stretch panels that make gripping the bars easy. A textured leather “grip panel” on the palm along the base of the fingers adds durability and provides a secure hold.

The breathable inner “waterproof” liner feels very nice against the skin and provides a level of insulation from cool temperatures, but these gloves aren’t bulky so they still offer good dexterity and feel for the controls. To keep wind from blowing up your jacket sleeves, the gauntlet cinches securely.

Carbon-fiber knuckle and finger protectors and palm and wrist padding mitigate impact injuries while the kangaroo palm and sturdy cowhide shell with Kevlar underlining provide multiple layers of abrasion protection. Two Velcro closure straps keep the gloves in place, and double stitching should keep the gloves intact against tearing forces. Thankfully, I haven’t crash-tested the MultiTop, but they seem to be robust enough for street duty.

Okay, so the MultiTop performs well in the comfort and protection departments, but what about the waterproof claim? The gloves rely on an unnamed waterproof inner liner to keep water out, and during the first two days of a cold, wet multi-day trip the MultiTop fended off rain and kept my hands comfortably dry. That began to change during the third consecutive day of rain as the leather became saturated. However, the inner liner continued to do its job and I never got raisin fingers. Unfortunately, once the shell is soaked the cold wind takes hold, and if I didn’t have heated grips, I’m sure I would have suffered terribly in the 45-degree temperatures.

Overall I really like these gloves. Just keep in mind that any waterproof glove with a leather shell will become soaked at some point, so the waterproof claim needs to be measured with realistic expectations. For shorter spats of wet-weather riding, the MultiTops would certainly hold up fine, and I’m convinced they would have continued to perform well if they had time to dry before being asked to endure another rainy day.

Price:$150
Contact:racerglovesusa.com
RITZ Grade:B+
Summary:Comfortable, protective, and mostly waterproof.

Originally published in Motorcyclist Magazine.


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Knee dragging 101: What You Need to Know

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Most people have seen video or photos of motorcycle racers (or not very smart street riders) dragging their knee while leaned fully in the middle of a corner.

Every motorcycle track day event photographer knows that the money shot that every  rider covets is the one showing the rider’s knee puck solidly in contact with the pavement that confirms a rider’s sport riding prowess.

Showing this gem of a photo to non-riders usually congers a reaction that usually sounds like: “OMG, are you hitting your KNEE?”, “Doesn’t that hurt?”, and “You’re crazy”.

Even fellow motorcycle riders who are not attuned to performance riding may react in a similar way, not understanding the reasons behind what seems to be a stunt or party trick, rather than a useful tool. Read this Article about the Real Value of Knee Dragging.

See the complete list of Riding in the Zone articles here.

Is it Safe?

Those who have never thought about it before may think that dragging a knee would be a foolish thing to do. Surely, no good can come from placing your knee on hard, rough pavement at a high rate of speed. They probably have visions of ripped flesh, torn ligaments and shattered knee and leg bone. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation certainly does not have it in their course curriculum (although some students do ask about it), so it must be unsafe, right?

So, is it safe? Yes and no. Knee dragging in itself will not cause injury. However, there are three situations I can think of where knee dragging can be hazardous:

  1. You inadvertently catch your knee puck on a curbing
  2. You ride faster than your ability allows in an effort to get your knee down
  3. You drag your knee on the street where the environment cannot safely support those kinds of lean angles.

That’s right. only three situations that I can think of. The curbing problem is easily avoided by raising your knee to avoid contact with a curb. The second situation is not as easily remedied. Yes, the easy answer is to not ride beyond your ability, but reason can be allusive to a novice rider who desperately wants to put “knee dragging” on his resume. And finally, attempting to drag knee on the street is not a great way to manage risk. There are too many variables on the street that make knee-dragging lean angles downright kookie.

To answer one of the most common questions laypeople have about knee dragging; “Yes, I wear a special knee puck made of plastic or nylon that is secured by a large panel of hook-and-loop material that skims smoothly across the pavement surface” … “and no, I don’t do it on the street”.


Badge of Honor

I don’t personally know anyone who would do this (as far as I know), but there are those who try to fool their peers by belt sanding a virgin knee puck at home. Believe it or not, I’ve also heard of riders selling used knee pucks on ebay for wannabes to proudly display as their own. I suppose there’s no harm in that. It’s better than the rookie pushing too hard and crashing his or her motorcycle. But, this hoax is rather pathetic. It goes to show how this ability holds a high honor among the sport riding crowd.

Why drag knee?

Me and the MZ in turn 2 at NHMS (Loudon), 2005. www.owensracingphotos.com
MZ Scorpion racebike in turn 2 at NHMS (Loudon), 2005.
www.owensracingphotos.com

It is true that one reason people drag their knees in corners is to say they can and to have the photos and scuffed knee pucks as evidence of their awesomeness. But, the real reason why knee dragging exists is to provide a lean angle gauge. If your body position is consistent from corner to corner, all day long, then you can reliably use your knee as a measuring device. Here are the various things you can measure:

  • How far over you’re leaned…sort of like a lean angle protractor.
  • As a quick-turn gauge: When you touch your knee can measure how quickly you are initiating lean.
  • Your corner speed: How long your knee remains on the ground measures your corner speed and the duration of your established lean angle.
  • How early you are “picking the bike up” as you exit the corner. This can also indicate how early and hard you are getting on the gas.
  • As a learning tool to become faster and more consistent. If you touch down earlier, this indicates that you are getting your bike turned quicker.
  • As a reference point measuring device. After you have a track dialed in, when and where your knee touches down should be consistent from lap to lap.

Another use for having your knee on the deck is to save a crash if your motorcycle starts to slide. I’ve rarely ever used this tool to save a sliding bike, but having a third point of contact can relieve the overtaxed tires enough to save you from a crash. It doesn’t always work, but it is certainly worth a shot.

Note that this article discusses the specific topic of dragging knee. It is assumed that you already know the purpose of hanging off the inside of the motorcycle.

Read this article on body positioning

Learning to Get a Knee Down

Here I am riding with my friend Paul who is helped get me fast enough to start dragging my knee.
My friend Paul helped get me fast enough to start dragging my knee.
photo by Ken Mitchell

“How do I learn to drag a knee ?” is the age-old question. The answer is that you don’t. Yes, there are body position techniques that need to be learned, but good body position is not unique to dragging a knee, or track riding for that matter. You will need to learn how to hang off a motorcycle properly (but that’s the subject of a future post).

The take away here is that you need to know the fundamentals of expert cornering before you can safely drag a knee. There are people with less than excellent cornering technique that can drag a knee, but they are usually unaware of how close they are to a crash, because they are using enough lean angle to touch knee, but don’t have the skill to ride at those cornering speeds. They are usually riding at near 100%, which almost always turns into 101% at some point and down they go.

The trick to learning how to drag a knee:

  1. Develop your cornering skill. Parking lot drills and track days will get you there over time
  2. Learn proper body position
  3. Do more track days, gradually increasing your cornering competence.

My motto is “Let the ground come to your knee, rather than force your knee to the ground”. Skill comes first, then speed, then knee dragging.

Your turn. What is your experience with knee dragging.  Why do you do it? What helped you?

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10 Tips for Returning Riders

“Returning riders” are usually middle-aged men who decide to get back into motorcycling after a long hiatus. That’s cool. But, a lot of these “Baby-Boomerang” riders end up getting into accidents. Here are some tips to help make re-entry a bit easier.

1. Recognize False Confidence. Many returning riders assume they can pick up where they left off decades ago only to discover that they aren’t quite up to the challenge. Even though the basics of riding hasn’t changed much, smart returning riders decide to get re-trained because they understand that moto-skills are perishable. They do this before they commit to a bike purchase.

2. Buy a Smaller Bike. Older riders usually have enough in their bank account to buy the biggest, baddest machine on the showroom floor. But, a too big, too tall, or too powerful a bike can be the ruiner of fun. Smart RRs put their ego aside and opt for a small or middleweight bike that is less likely to intimidate and erode confidence. A smaller bike will invite fun and provide the opportunity to learn without the stress of having to harness a beast. And instead of slapping down big bucks on a brand new bike, consider a clean late model used bike. It’s even better if it has a scratch or two so you don’t get too upset if you drop it while you get your legs back underneath you.

Advanced training pays big dividends.

3. Take a Course. The easiest and best way to get retrained is to take a course. I suggest that returning riders take a new rider course to ensure they have the basic skills so they can start with a strong foundation. But, don’t stop there. Too many riders think that receiving their course completion card means that they are done learning. That dangerous belief often leads to complacency and inaccurate risk perception. Fatality statistics would improve if more riders saw motorcycling as a lifelong endeavor of learning, practicing and growing. Please plan on signing up for an intermediate or advanced course at some point.

4. Read Skills Articles and Books. There are several great books and tons and tons of articles available that describe techniques and strategies for becoming a highly proficient rider. Google “riding a motorcycle at slow speeds”, “stopping a motorcycle in a corner”, or any other technique that has you stumped and you’ll likely get the information you need to become a better rider. Several articles can be found at RidingInTheZone.com.

5. Gear Up. Returning riders often experience a tipover or two as they regain their composure. With this in mind, it’s foolish not to wear protection. Not only will good riding gear reduce the chances of injury, it also protects you from the elements and makes riding more comfortable and enjoyable. Reasonably priced gear offers decent protection and matches any style. Some people may choose not to wear full gear because of image or peer pressure. Thankfully, returning riders are usually mature adults who can resist having fashion or the opinions of others influence life decisions.

6. Reject the Old Myths. Back in the day you may have heard that you should learn to “lay the bike down” and always “avoid the front brake”. These are two examples of techniques that survive from the bad-old-days. Today, only riders who are uneducated in the ways of proper braking consider using these techniques. In almost every case, it’s better to attempt a quick stop or swerve rather than tossing your motorcycle to the ground. The old saw about avoiding the front brake comes from the idea that you will flip over the handlebars like when you were a kid on a bicycle. It also comes from riders who grabbed the front brake lever too hard, locked the front tire and crashed. Today’s grippy tires and controllable brakes are capable of safely stopping a motorcycle in a very short distance, but only if the operator knows how to use the brakes effectively. Another controversial dictum is that loud pipes save lives. While loud pipes get attention, you are much better off using strategies to be seen like selecting lane positions that put the bike in plain sight and wearing bright gear.

7. Accurately Perceive Risk. Everyone knows that the risks of riding a two-wheeler are greater than when driving in a car. However, a lot of people don’t realize just how risky riding is until they experience a close call or crash. Those who ride with readiness in mind have a greater chance of responding quickly and appropriately than someone who assumes the best and is not prepared for the worst.

8. Check Your Attitude. Returning riders may be more mature, but that doesn’t mean over exuberance and bad judgment won’t creep in from time to time. Risk is reduced significantly when the limits of rider ability and the environment is closely scrutinized and respected.

9. You’re Not as Young as You Were. Motorcycling isn’t tolerant of people who are weak of mind or muscle. If you aren’t able to maintain a certain level of sensory sharpness, coordination, strength and mental competence you are putting yourself at greater risk of a crash. And if you do crash you are more likely to get hurt; a 20-something will bounce while a 50 year old will break.

10. Improve your Strengths. It’s possible to perform as well (or better) as when you were younger if you can remain relatively fit, learn to be physically and mentally efficient and capitalize on the wisdom that comes with age.

Be smart about your return to riding and you’ll be rewarded with many years of enjoyment. You may even get to meet Lyle Lovitt.

Whether you’re a newly-minted older rider, a returning rider or a veteran codger, you are smart to recognize that you may not know all you need to about staying safe. Get regular training and continually practice cornering, braking and evasive maneuvers. Also, minimize the negative effects of aging by exercising, eating well and visiting your eye doctor. You’ll feel better, ride better and have more fun while reducing the chance of injury

This article has been updated from the original that appeared in Motorcyclist Magazine.


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9 Tips for Being a Perfect Passenger

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Being on the back of a motorcycle can be relaxing and fun, but make no mistake that being a passenger carries with it some significant risk and responsibility. Follow these tips to make the experience safer and more fun.

Insist on Safety

Before you decide to place your derriere on someone’s pillion you must make absolutely sure the person holding onto the handlebars is smart and skilled enough to keep both of you safe. I’d think twice about getting on a bike with someone who brags about riding fast, complains about close calls with “idiot cagers”, or seems to drop their motorcycle a lot. Tell him or her that you won’t play until their survival smarts, control skills and attitude toward safety improves.

ATGATT

You simply must dress for the crash. Even the best riders have mishaps. Always wear full protective gear no matter the temperature (even if your rider chooses not to). To keep comfortable, wear layers against wind chill and changes in temperature. More about riding gear here.

Mount with care

Before you get on the bike, make sure the passenger footpegs are in the down position and then wait until the rider says it’s okay for you to proceed. He should have both feet firmly on the ground with the front brake applied. If you’re tall enough you may be able to swing your leg over the seat with the other foot still on the ground. However, if you have short legs or the bike is tall, then you may have to use the footpeg to step up. This will throw the bike off balance, so make sure you step carefully and that the rider is ready.
Another method is for you to mount the bike first and then scoot from the rider’s seat backward onto the passenger perch. Make sure the bike is stable on its stand with the transmission in gear to prevent the bike from rolling. Try various methods until you find one that suits both of you. When it’s time to dismount, do so carefully so as not to unbalance the machine. Again, experiment to find the best method.

Be still

Once mounted, your job is to be as unobtrusive as possible so the rider doesn’t even know you’re on the bike. Try to relax to let the bike move fluidly beneath you. When riding at slow speeds be aware that even small shifts in body weight can cause balance problems. Also, keeping your feet on the pegs even when stopped makes it easier for the rider to maintain balance.

Hang on

Some riders ask their passengers to hold onto their waist, while others prefer them to use grab rails or a seat strap. Sporty riders may prefer one hand on the back of the fuel tank to brace for hard braking while the other hand grips a handrail. If your partner has a narrow enough waist you may want to look into tank-mounted passenger handle grips.

Anticipate and brace yourself

No matter your method for hanging on, you need to be attentive to what’s going on. Accelerating can cause you to fall backward and braking forces can slam you into the rider, so pay attention and brace yourself.

Lean with the Motorcycle

Motorcycles must lean to turn. Unfortunately, nervous passengers tend to sit upright, causing the rider to work harder when cornering. Instead, lean with the motorcycle. One helpful tip is to look over the rider’s inside shoulder.

Practice

Riding a motorcycle is challenging, which means that it takes practice to get it right. It’s smart to start your rides with a short warm-up session at a local parking lot. Practice braking and cornering to ensure you and your partner become unified teammates.

Say What?

Bluetooth communicators are great for sharing your excitement and alerting him or her of hazards that may not be obvious. Don’t be a backseat rider, but having two pairs of eyes on the job can be a good thing. Check out Sena Bluetooth and Mesh Communicators.

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8 Ways to Avoid Deadly Blind Spots

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Lane position is one of the top strategies a motorcycle rider must utilize to avoid the most common multiple vehicle crashes. Here is a common scenario that illustrates the need to be hyper-aware of blind spots.

Scenario

You and your wife gather your things and pack your bike for a ride to visit family. As expected traffic is heavy, but people are calmly rolling along at about 25 mph. You position yourself in the left portion of your lane to see past a truck in front of you, leaving ample following distance in case the truck stopped quickly.

Suddenly, an SUV just ahead and to your left moves right, into your lane. You have little time to react, but it’s too late. Your front tire makes contact with the right rear bumper and you are both thrown to the pavement.

As innocuous as the situation seemed, you still needed to be aware of the risks around you. The driver who crossed into your lane did so because she thought the lane was clear. She claimed to have looked in her side mirror and even glanced over her shoulder before turning, but saw nothing.

Yes, the driver is responsible for making sure the lane was clear, but you were riding in her blind spot. Not smart.

Here are some ways to help drivers see you easier:

  • Avoid lingering in blind spots. Drive through blind spots when possible (and safe) by traveling a bit faster than surrounding traffic. Filter or lane-split if you can (and if legal).
  • Ride in the driver’s peripheral vision, slightly ahead of the passenger or driver side door.
  • If that’s not possible, then drop back so the driver can see you in their mirrors and to place your bike out of harm’s way if the driver changed lanes suddenly.
  • Never “hide” behind other vehicles where it is nearly impossible for drivers to see you.
  • Position yourself at least 2 seconds behind vehicles you are following. More when following large vehicles.
  • Develop a sixth sense about your environment so you can respond before things unfold. Ask “what’s wrong with this picture”?
  • Predict what actions drivers are likely to make. Look for arm and head movements that can indicate an imminent lane change or turn.
  • Pay close attention to unexplained slowing, drifting or erratic behavior. I call this “vehicle body language”.

Environmental awareness and proper lane positioning are two of the most important strategies for being seen.

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Tips for Deciding Which Brake to Use

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A lot of riders ask about which brake is appropriate for what situations. The short answer is that it depends on speed, desired maneuver and available traction. Here, I’ll discuss proper brake use as it pertains to various situations. Let’s start by defining the characteristics of each brake.

Front Brake

Your front brake is your “power” brake. The front brake is designed to take the burden of getting the bike and you stopped ASAP.  The front brakes include components that provide maximum brake force…two large multi-piston calipers, large vented brake rotors, and brake pads designed to handle and dissipate lots of heat. Even the front brake components on smaller bikes and cruisers with a single front brake are more robust than the rear brake.

Rear Brake

In contrast, the rear brake is the “control” brake. It provides additional braking power at road  speed, but it is the tool you want to use to refine your speed and direction.

Which Brake and Why?

Now that we have an understanding of the basic characteristics of each brake, we can discuss the benefits or disadvantages of each brake in specific scenarios.

Normal braking (street)

When slowing or stopping normally, use both brakes. This shares the braking load between both tires and helps stabilize the chassis.

Emergency Braking

This rider has not practiced her emergency braking.

Use both brakes to get the most braking power for the shortest stop. The caveat here is that emergency braking causes the load to transfer to the front tire, reducing weight on rear of the machine. This means that it’s much more likely to skid the rear tire and is why you’ll engage the ABS on the rear tire first.

Control the Rear

So, how to get the maximum brake force without skidding? Reduce rear brake pressure as you increase front brake pressure. This isn’t easy to get perfect, but is worth practicing. If all you can manage in an emergency is to use one brake, use the FRONT BRAKE! That’s where the majority of your brake power comes from. Do it firmly and progressively for maximum effect.

Consider that short wheelbase sportbikes will pitch onto their nose earlier and easier than a long and low cruiser or a heavyweight tourer. This means that the rear brake is more effective on these machines in an emergency.

Passengers

The rear brake is much more important with a passenger on board.

The rear brake is much more useful and effective when carrying a passenger or heavy luggage, because of the extra weight on the rear wheel. This is true no matter what type of bike you ride.

Normal Stops at Intersections, etc.

For the smoothest, controlled “normal” stops, like at an intersection, taper off the front brake and finish with the rear brake. Reduce brake pressure and speed progressively. Avoiding abrupt stops is especially appreciated by passengers who hate having to brace themselves to avoid the unwelcome “helmet bonk”.

You can execute a smooth stop by using the front brake, but it takes more finesse and effort. Keep the right foot on the rear brake until completely stopped. This avoids rolling past your desired stopping point. This may sound obvious, but I see a lot of riders surprised when the bike keeps rolling.

Poor Traction Surfaces

Favor the rear brake on sketchy surfaces.

When riding on gravel, sand, wet leaves or slick construction plates, use the rear brake. This is because the powerful front brake is much more likely to skid when traction is sketchy and a skidding front wheel means a crash is imminent.Whereas a skidding rear tire is less likely to cause a crash unless it fishtails violently.

The MSF says to ride out a rear tire skid to avoid the rear tire hooking up when sideways and causing a highside. But, chances are that you’ll be okay if you release the rear brake before the rear kicks out too far. ABS reduces this risk significantly, but keep in mind that some less sophisticated ABS systems aren’t very effective at slow speeds, so you may end up with a skid that lasts a foot or two.

Slow Speeds

Use the rear brake only in slow speed turns

Favor the rear brake when creeping along in traffic, stopping smoothly from a slow speed and making tight u-turns. Be very gentle with the front brake, or avoid it altogether when speeds are below, say 8-10 mph; the front brake is too powerful for slow speeds and you risk stopping the bike abruptly which will cause imbalance. I like to lightly “dab” the rear brake as I make very tight u-turns. It gives me more speed control and feel.

Trailbraking

Trailbraking is when you carry some brake force past the turn entry to allow more time to refine your entry speed. Light trailbraking (and/or deceleration) also helps the bike lean into the curve. Read all about trailbraking here.

There is a belief that trailbraking is using the rear brake only. But, you can use front only, rear only, both brakes, or even strong engine braking (what I call “trail-deceleration”) to get the desired speed reduction and easy turn-in.

Tight, Slow Corners

I just described a simple use of trailbraking. However, a skilled rider can fine tune their speed and direction control with a finely orchestrated use of the brakes. Start by using both brakes to slow into the curve, but about halfway around (this varies depending on the radius of the curve) smoothly release the front brake but keep a bit of rear brake applied.

This helps “hook” the bike around the last section of the curve and helps refine speed. Ideally, at this point you don’t want to slow anymore, so brake lightly. For uphill tight turns where momentum is important, I often overlap acceleration against that last bit of rear brake force to execute the smoothest transition I can. A bit of late rear brake also helps manage the effects of gravity in downhill curves.

Linked Brakes

Some larger bikes, particularly tourers link the front and rear brakes. While this limits the proportioning the rider has control of, many manufacturers design their brakes to give more or less power to the front or rear depending on the input of the rider. In this case, thee techniques still apply, but the effect is lessened.

Racetrack

On the racetrack and when riding fast and hard, it makes sense to concentrate on using the front brake only. Yes, you’re giving up the advantages of the rear brake, but brake forces are considerably higher where the rear wheel is barely in contact with the surface.

Track days are excellent for skill development.

Professional-level racers develop their rear brake technique to help with direction control, but track day riders and amateur racers are usually better off keeping it simple.

Practice

Like most skills, braking skill is perishable and needs regular practice just to maintain proficiency. You don’t need anything more than a large parking lot or a straight piece of remote roadway. Brake hard from speed to practice emergency stopping and work on trailbraking when in appropriate corners. However, the best place to improve all of your skills is at a track day.

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