3 More Things that will Make You a Better Rider

Don’t bother reading this article if you are content with your riding level or if you have to ask why you should bother spending time and energy improving. However, if you want to increase your motorcycling enjoyment (and safety), then read on.

1. Surround Yourself with the Right people

Who you associate with matters!photo: Lance Oliver

Riding Companions

Align yourself with people who help elevate you to improve your skills rather than people who either stagnate your growth or hold you back. Some riders are not interested in growing, some are simply stuck in their ways, while others are unaware of the benefits of improving. Which people are more likely to help you become a better rider?

And associate with others who share the same level of respect for risk as you. Hopefully you cohorts wear protection and ride responsibly.

Internet and Riding Groups

Join groups that not only align with your riding philosophy, but also encourage and support skill development.

And make sure these groups share accurate information from reputable sources and the moderators aren’t afraid to correct well-meaning, but misleading or inaccurate information.

Seek additional sources to make sure group members know what they are talking about. If not, find another group.

Visit New England RIders

Inner Circle

These are your closest riding friends. These like-minded friends are willing and eager to talk about riding skills. Sure, they will talk about the latest bolt-on goodie or the newest model, oil or tire choice. But, at some point they will end up talking about what they recently learned about motorcycle handling, control techniques and the merits of a method they heard about but have not yet tried.

2. Look in the Mirror

The biggest roadblock to any growth is a lack of self-awareness.

Risk Tolerance

Maybe you like the feeling and danger that comes with having only basic riding skills, after all we don’t ride to be safe. But understand that the odds of you suffering the financial and personal costs is much greater than if your skills are advanced.

Ability to Recognize Mistakes

Blaming others is an impediment to growth. Even though “the other guy” may be legally at fault, ask yourself what you could have done to avoid being involved. Maybe nothing, but ask the question of yourself.

And remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. and that we are the worst judge of our true ability. The Dunning Kruger Effect says that the less experience you have at a task, the more you think you know. Don’t be caught out thinking you know what you need to know when you don’t.

Motivation

Hot on the heels of risk tolerance is motivation to grow. If the perceived reward of improved skill isn’t apparent, then motivation will be low. On the other hand, if you’ve been curious enough to discover just how deep the well of enjoyment is with the introduction of advancing skills, then you’re on your way.

Passion

Related to motivation is passion. It takes a lot of courage for beginner riders to make the leap into becoming motorcycle riders. The don’t exactly have passion yet, but they are motivated enough to spend the energy and resources it takes to get into this endeavor.

A certain level of sustained passion is one reason why people stick with riding over the long haul. But, at some point this passion will inevitably level off unless you seek out new opportunities…and growth is the more enduring.

Commitment

You have to be willing to put in some of your precious energy into making this growth happen. Read, watch videos and ask questions. In other words, seek to find out about what you don’t know.

You don’t need to spend money to get this process started, but at some point you should plan on setting aside money to take some training from professionals, which may include advanced parking lot, off-road, on-street or track day training.

Your Learning Style

Some people are impatient and want to cut to the chase, while others delve into the depths of learning something new. Some learn by absorbing information and then applying the technique, others learn best just by hitting the bullet points and then trying it out.

Whichever way you learn, understand that there are not any real shortcuts. Be patient.

3. Practice

Practicing is what converts theory into skills.

Knowledge is the first step, but knowledge alone will not make you a better rider! You must apply the knowledge by practicing.

Courage

You’re going to feel uncomfortable at first when trying something new. You may be afraid to fail or to look like a novice. This is normal. We all go through it. Back to my earlier point…find supportive friends and groups and get some training from a pro organization that has seen it all.

I know that many riders choose not to attend one of my courses or a track training day for fear of embarrassment. Remember, everyone is in the same boat as you. Sure, some will be more proficient or faster than you . So Relax.


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When a Rider’s Actions Make Matters Worse

The difference between a close call and a crash often points to the rider knowing the effect an action has on control. Unfortunately, a lot of motorcycle riders react incorrectly.

When faced with a life-threatening situation we will pull from our knowledge and experience to decide on a course of action. This means that the quality of your knowledge and experience directly affects whether you act correctly or not.

However, it’s important to note that avoiding an incident requires for you to also have sharp skills, well-developed habits and a keen sense of situational awareness to avoid being put into difficult situations in the first place. Without these important mental skills, you will continually find yourself experiencing close calls and poor outcomes.

Smart decisions prevent panic situations to occur in the first place.

Failure to Act

Excellent skills, effective habits and keen awareness still may not be enough. Even with these skills, it is likely that we will react to a life-threatening event with instinctual survival responses.

Human beings are hard wired to react to threats in a similar way our ancient ancestors did when faced with being eaten by a large predator. In this situation it was smart to freeze in our tracks to hopefully go undetected, and if that didn’t work we would run as fast as we could.

Motorcyclists who face a serious hazard often freeze. This can result in the rider acting too late, or not at all, does not lean the motorcycle further as needed to stay on the road when a corner tightens.

Incorrect Actions

After a moment of inaction often comes overreaction. A startled rider may overreact in a knee jerk manner by grabbing the brakes too hard or swerving in the wrong direction. Overreaction is often the root of many “I had to lay it down” scenarios. It’s common for panicked riders to stab the brakes when startled by a mid-corner problem, which can easily lead to a fall.

Oftentimes, there is no time to think. In this case, our mind does a split-second evaluation of the scene and signals the muscles and nerves to act. The action that occurs is not necessarily based on logic, and is surely not derived from thoughtful analysis about what is the best action to take.

Unfortunately, what the rushed and panicked brain concludes as a good idea is often a bad idea. Many riders who attempt to avoid a collision fail to execute the proper action. Often, a lack of mental foresight contributes to the poor outcome as your brain must use precious time to process the unusual event.

Target Fixation

It’s human nature for our eyes to fixate solidly on a hazard. This is called target fixation. Since we tend to go where we look, it is important to try to look for an escape, rather than at the threat.

Resisting the natural tendency to look at a threat is not easy. The trick is to condition yourself to look to the solution, not the problem. You do this by finding opportunities on every ride you take to train your eyes and mind to consciously look away from real or imaginary hazards

Panic braking can cause loss of control.

Panic Braking

One of the most common reactions when faced with the prospect of colliding with a car is to grab the brakes. While slowing down is usually a good idea, doing so by abruptly jabbing the brakes can lead to a skid and loss of stopping power and control.

A well-trained and practiced rider may be able to overcome the panic response and brake properly by applying the brakes fully without skidding. But, most motorcycle riders on the road are not that adept at emergency braking, because they don’t practice. This is why anti-lock braking systems are a good idea.

Read How Not to Suck at Braking

A lot of crashes that are the result of over braking occur in corners. This is because available traction is being shared between cornering and braking forces. It’s important to note that most ABS systems do not prevent a skid when cornering. However, bikes with the latest IMU technology take lean angle into account and is able to arrest a skid caused by overbraking while leaned.

Cornering panic is a very common crash scenario.

Cornering Panic

Cornering is one of the most challenging aspects of motorcycling. The act of leaning a heavy machine into a turn is something that challenges most people’s trust in physics. As humans, we are only comfortable leaning about 20 degrees. This comes from our built-in sense of safety.

Regrettably, many riders fail to fully train their brain to accept more extreme lean angles. These riders run off the road when a corner tightens more than expected, because they cannot force themselves to achieve the required angle of lean. Instead, they freeze and run off the road, or grab the brakes and skid to a fall.

Read How to Not Suck at Cornering

Swerving into Trouble

Swerving is a very useful maneuver for avoiding a collision. Unfortunately, well-executed swerves are not terribly easy to do, especially for new or untrained riders, because swerving requires the rider to act with confidence and authority.

Because swerving is an advanced skill that few riders are proficient at and because there is a great potential for error, it is often better to try and slow or stop before the hazard. It’s important to remember that swerving and braking don’t mix well.

Situational awareness is a key skill to master.

Expect the Unexpected

The best outcomes occur when the rider predicts that action is required before it becomes urgent. A rider who fails to predict that a car may turn left across his or her path at an intersection is at greater risk of having inadequate time to react appropriately to the situation.

In contrast, the rider who is continually on the lookout for the possibility of this scenario is already mentally and physically prepared and is more likely to act skillfully, and is less likely to act in a way that makes matters worse.


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Why Motorcycle Crashes Happen

Originally appeared in Motorcycle Consumer News in 2012

As I write this column, I am grieving from the loss of a friend and coworker, taken by a careless driver who ran a red light. Chappie was an avid rider of exceptional skill and was aware of the risks of riding a motorcycle. Many of us can name one or more highly skilled riders who were involved in crashes; some may have even succumbed to their injuries. I am reminded of Larry Grodsky, the safety columnist for Rider Magazine and founder of the Stayin’ Safe on-road rider training program. Larry died when he collided with a deer. Larry fully knew the dangers of animals and took all precautions to avoid being exposed to this hazard. However, circumstances required him to ride later into the evening than he wanted. The chances of encountering a deer may have been elevated, but the risk was probably acceptable. Fate stepped in with a different idea.

Read: When Motojournalists Die

Just last week, I answered two letters from readers looking for explanations to why they crashed or almost crashed. Both concerns had to do with traction loss in a curve. After reading each letter, it appeared that both riders were doing nothing that would have increased their risk and that each was fully aware of the long list of possible hazards before them. I answered their letters by mentioning the conditions that can exacerbate traction loss and how to spot surface hazards. What I didn’t include in these replies was a statement that sometimes crashes happen and that even the most knowledgeable, conscientious, and diligent rider can become involved in a mishap. Fatigue, a slip of concentration, or a slightly mistimed maneuver may be responsible, but sometimes the cause is a force or forces completely outside our control.

As someone who has dedicated much of his life to rider training, this does not sit well. Even though continual learning and purposeful practice improves my odds significantly, nothing can absolutely guarantee my safety.

Possible versus Likely

I do believe that “out of the blue” mishaps that befall alert, skilled riders are rare and that the vast majority of crashes are preventable. I also know that sometimes crashes happen, even when the rider has taken all precautions. To ride a motorcycle well we must ride with knowledge of this fact. We all must understand the risks we are taking by riding a two-wheeler so that we can do what is necessary to increase the likelihood that we live a long and healthy life. This means doing all we can to minimize the risks of riding.

The odds of getting hurt or dying as the result of a motorcycle crash are illustrated in statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2010, there were 4502 fatalities nationwide with a fatality rate of 24.39 per 100 million miles traveled. In comparison, drivers of all vehicle types died at a rate of 1.11 per 100 million miles traveled. NHTSA summarizes by saying: “Per vehicle mile traveled in 2010, motorcyclists were about 30 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a motor vehicle traffic crash and 5 times more likely to be injured.”

These statistics are upsetting. But, if this is news to you then you haven’t been paying attention. Motorcycling has always been riskier than driving a car. And it’s been riskier (statistically speaking) during some years and less risky during others. The reasons include: a surge of new riders during good economic times and/or when fuel prices are high; good weather that leads to more vehicle miles traveled; increases or decreases in safety initiatives at the government level. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

So, does that mean that the more you ride, the more likely you are to crash? Not necessarily. Statistics suggest trends, not absolute outcomes. The chance that flipping a coin will result in heads or tails is 50/50. But, you can flip a coin ten times and it’s possible to get heads all ten times. That doesn’t mean that the odds of getting tails have now gone up; it’s still 50/50. Let’s say the odds of crashing are 1 in 100,000. If we ride 99,999 times, does that mean we will crash on our next ride? No, because the likelihood of you crashing is not based on past rides.

It can be argued that the more you ride, the less likely you are to crash, because you’ve learned how to ride well. However, this only holds true if you have actually become more skilled, as opposed to simply having ridden more miles. It may be less likely that you will crash if you are skilled, but crashes still happen. The fact that we ride means that we are exposed to that risk. So, what can we do to reduce the chance of being involved in a crash? Excluding any mention of bad luck, or fate, or acts of God, we are left with our ability to manage the risk.

Why Crashes Happen

The reasons why crashes happen are not numerous: inattention, alcohol or drug impairment, lack of traffic-management strategies, poor risk perception, lack of mental preparedness and attention, and inadequate cornering, braking and slow-speed skills. Sure, there are other reasons we could add to the list, but you’ll find that this list covers a huge percentage of why crashes happen. You’ll notice that 5 of the 6 reasons I list are mental skills. Not being in the right mental condition to effectively and accurately evaluate the environment puts you at high risk of being involved in a crash.

The physical skills of cornering, braking and keeping a slow-moving motorcycle upright are also critical. It is necessary to have the highest possible level of ability to control your motorcycle, but often it is the lack of mental proficiency and good judgment that gets us into trouble. Poor mental skills require us to use superior physical skills to survive.

Single-vehicle Crashes

About half of all fatalities are the result of single-vehicle crashes and the vast majority of those crashes occur in a curve. Riders often fail to negotiate a corner because they enter the turn faster than they can handle (a lack of mental skill). This usually is followed by an inability to corner effectively at this higher rate of speed (a mostly physical skill). Had the rider used better judgment about entry speed, the corner would have passed without incident.

Single-vehicle crashes can also be the result of road surface hazards. Motorcycle stability relies on traction. Add sand, gravel, oil, anti-freeze, or water onto the pavement and you’ve got the potential for a crash. While the existence of road surface hazards are not in our control, we must learn to spot these hazards before they become a problem.

Car drivers do not need to pay any attention to trivial things like sand or gravel or tar snakes. That’s why many new riders crash as the result of surface issues. Veteran riders learned long ago the dangers of surface hazards and have developed a keen eye for spotting potential problems. However, even experienced riders can find themselves on the ground, having failed to identify a patch of sand or fluid spill.

Unfortunately, we can’t catch all potential surface hazards, but what we can do is predict the likelihood that sand or some other contaminant may be present. For example, riding near a construction site should prompt you to slow down and scan the surface more carefully. A wet road can make it nearly impossible to see a slick spot caused by oil, so it’s smart to reduce speed and minimize lean angle and brake force.

Low speed tipovers may not seem all that scary, but these seemingly benign mishaps can land you in the hospital with nasty fractures and soft tissue damage. Too many riders ignore their slow speed riding skills, partly because it doesn’t seem that important, but also because learning to control a motorcycle at walking speed can be rather intimidating. Stay tuned for an in-depth article on slow speed riding techniques in an upcoming issue.

The Other Guy

The other half of fatal crashes involves a second vehicle. Too many drivers operate their vehicles with ignorance, complacency, and carelessness. These drivers have no intention of killing anyone, but they do not consider that their behavior is putting all road users, not just motorcyclists, at risk. And it’s not just the victim who suffers. I’m sure the driver who took my friend Dereck’s life is living his own personal hell right now.

One factor that leads to careless behavior is how some people treat other drivers when they get behind the wheel. It’s common for otherwise courteous and thoughtful people to tailgate, or bully, or intimidate other drivers when in traffic. There is something about the perceived safety of one’s own automobile and the righteousness of many drivers’ sense of entitlement that causes them to judge others as incompetent and in the way.

There is also the feeling of safety that many drivers of large vehicles feel as they loom over smaller cars and motorcycles. Their perception of personal risk is reduced and the motivation to drive aggressively when late for work can be difficult to resist.

When it comes to motorcyclists, there is a “de-personalization” that happens when we cover our head and face with a helmet and dark shield. Instead of being perceived as a fellow human being, we can be seen as an inanimate object. Even fellow motorcycle riders can fall into this unconscious misperception. I often start track day rider’s meetings by having the attendees introduce themselves to each other. Then I ask them to remember the people they just met and understand that the person they are sharing the racetrack with is just like them; someone who is here to have fun and has to be at work the next day. It sets a tone for safer passing and more courteous behavior.

Do riders who choose to not wear a helmet fair better, since their head and face is not covered? I don’t know of a study that can confirm that theory. However, there have been studies showing that drivers come closer to bicycle riders who wear a helmet compared to riders who don’t. I’m not suggesting we all ride helmetless so that drivers perceive us more as humans; that would be trading a sure risk reducer (head protection) for the hope that a driver will treat us with more courtesy (wishful thinking). However, it does point out that we are sharing the road with fallible beings whose perception of reality varies. Knowing this, you must take precautions that take these variables into account.

Imagine if this rider were wearing an open faced helmet or no helmet.

A World of Distraction

Another factor that can increase risk is distractions by electronic devices and other sources of stimulation. Music devices, cell phone use, GPS, and texting is at an all time high. It’s common to see drivers wait until they get into their cars before dialing their phone. Even though law-enforcement discourages distracted behavior, the trend of driving while distracted is increasing. More than once, I’ve even seen members of law enforcement chatting on cell phones while driving their police cruiser. What message does that send?

It’s not only electronic devices that distract. Alcohol is the most obvious cause of poor judgment, but there are conditions that we may not consider risky, including having the wrong person in the passenger seat. It’s easy to let a conversation or distracting exuberance lead to poor decisions. The number of teen fatalities with at least one passenger in the car is much higher than teen drivers who are alone. This is why several states allow teens to drive only with immediate family (no joy rides) for the first several months of learning to drive.

What to Do?

Yikes! With so many uncontrollable factors to contend with, it can seem foolish to ride a motorcycle at all. There is good news, however. We can train ourselves to reduce risk.

For instance, knowing that intersections are one of the most likely places where crashes occur, you must approach intersections with the alertness and precision of a hunted animal. Every sense should be heightened to spot anything amiss. Scan aggressively for movements from the side, front and behind that can signal a vehicle about to invade your space. Keep your brakes covered to minimize braking reaction time, and identify possible escape routes, just in case. To help drivers see you, make sure you are aware of lines of sight and use lane positions that ensure that drivers see you. I see too many riders who foolishly ride in drivers’ blind spots or “hide” behind other vehicles so that it is nearly impossible for drivers to see them until it is too late. You must develop a sixth sense about line of sight to ensure the highest level of conspicuity possible.

Another simple strategy is to wear bright colors. High-viz jackets and helmets are very popular lately. Unfortunately, high-viz is not the color of choice for most fashion-conscious riders. Okay, fine. If you choose to wear black, then be aware that you are increasing the risk of not being seen and don’t be surprised if drivers pull out in front of you more often than if you were to wear more conspicuous gear.

Hi viz gets attention- whether you want it or not.

By choosing lane positions that ensure good lines of sight and by wearing bright clothing, we can help defend ourselves from careless drivers who may not see us. But, sometimes crashes happen where neither party is clearly to “blame”. Human beings make mistakes and one or two seemingly small mistakes occurring at just the wrong time can suddenly lead to two vehicles coming together. Even though true “accidents” do happen, you should take solace in the fact that there is usually some control you have in preventing mishaps from happening. However, even the most diligent and skillful rider cannot control all situations at all times. We share the roads with people that do not take driving seriously and are often in a daze so that they see what they expect to see and not what is in front of their eyes. This means that we must take more responsibility for our own safety by doing all we can to not let a crash happen to us.

Broken Record

Here I go again touting the need for rider training. The reason is that rider training is the gateway to reduced risk. When I say rider training, I don’t only mean formal training programs. I also mean continual practice, whether that is in a parking lot or at a track day. It can also mean purposefully refining mental strategies and control skills while you are on a typical ride or when commuting to work. The opportunity to become a better rider is always present.

The biggest challenge to effective training is motivation. How many riders take advantage of training opportunities to learn new techniques and to brush up on old ones? Not many. I understand. Spending a weekend rolling around a parking lot instead of touring the beautiful countryside does not appeal to many. However, the time spent focusing on mental survival strategies and physical control skills can mean the difference between making it home and spending several expensive days in a hospital bed, or worse. Even a fractured ankle or foot can change your plans for the rest of the season.

Self-help training is just as valid as formal training, as long as your knowledge and control skills are solid to begin with. Get a copy of “Riding in the Zone” or “Total Control” and find the sections in these books that outline parking lot drills. Then find a clean parking lot to spend a half-hour to practice the skills you think need refinement. Make it a social event by inviting a couple of like-minded riding friends to join you (especially those who really need to work on their control skills). Self-help rider training lacks the feedback of a professional instructor, but the drills outlined in a good book can provide you with the fundamental information to help you raise your skill level.

Even the most proficient riders are involved in crashes. However, there is no doubt that we can tip the scales in our favor, if we become as skillful possible, both mentally and physically.

Training is one of the best ways to minimize the chances of a mishap

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How to Avoid Crashing in Corners

In this article, I will outline the cornering crash sequence that often leads to the dreaded single-vehicle motorcycle crash, aka “running wide in a corner”.

We know that proper lane position, effective visual acuity and strong countersteering skills are crucial for successfully negotiating a curve. However, once the crash sequence starts it’s difficult to halt the cascade of mistakes that lead to cornering mishaps.

Getting in over your head sucks!

The top 10 Cornering Crash Factors

Things often start out okay as you approach the turn, but any lack of cornering confidence sets up the typical cornering crash sequence.

Once the crash sequence begins, it is exponentially more difficult to execute the actions needed to negotiate the curve.

1. Too Fast Entry- You approach and enter the turn faster than your personal level of comfort with leaning or the capability of your bike. Don’t blame the corner. You messed up. Often, a more competent rider could have made the turn with no drama.

2. Poor lane position at turn entry- You enter the turn too close to the inside instead of the outside. Nervous riders who are afraid of running wide often approach corners in the middle-to-inside, making the turn sharper.

3. Narrow angle of view- An inside lane position also limits the view into and beyond the turn.

4. Poor turn-in timing- Countersteering too early or too late and with either too strong or too weak handlebar inputs leads to problems at the exit. (Nervous riders turn in too early).

5. Apex too early- Turn in too early and the bike will be pointed toward the oncoming lane or the edge of the road at the exit. This then requires a second turn input to stay on the road.

6. Mind freeze- When it becomes apparent that things aren’t going well, fear and doubt take over, leading to a shift into survival mode. (We can’t function well in this state).

7. Target fixation- Panic causes rider to look down and at the oncoming car or the guardrail. (Humans are programmed to look at what we fear).

8. Muscle paralysis- Panic leads to ineffective or non existent countersteering and the bike feels like it won’t turn. (It’s common to put pressure on both left and right handgrips as you brace for the worst).

9. Ineffective body position- Poor body position isn’t the most significant cornering failure, but relying on your body to turn the bike (without countersteering) is disastrous. Some riders lean in to try and coax the bike to turn more, while others counterweight for fear of leaning beyond their comfort level.

10. Panic braking- With panic comes the unwillingness to lean more. In response, humans tend to grab the brakes when panicked. Adding significant brake force when leaned leads to traction loss.

What to Do

So, there you have it. Of course, there are other factors that may come into play that aren’t listed here, but this is the most common cornering crash sequence. You can also overly this same sequence to most other crashes where one domino falls and others tumble quickly.

Understand that arresting the sequence is quite difficult once it has been activated. So, enter turns a bit slower and continually learn and consciously practice expert cornering techniques on every ride to prevent this from happening to you!

How to Corner Better

There are several ways to become better at cornering to reduce the likelihood of crashing in a corner. Here are a few options:

Non-Sportbike Track Training Days and regular Sportbike Track Days

Advanced parking Lot Courses

Parking Lot Practice on your own.


This is a rider who sucks at cornering.

Read more:

How not to Suck at Cornering

How not to suck at braking

Vision-Facebook Live

How to Avoid Cornering Panic


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Tips for Using the Throttle in Corners- Webinar

Join Ken in this Facebook Live seminar.


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Learning precise throttle control when cornering is critical for maximum control and safety.

Emergency Swerving on a Motorcycle

Swerving is necessary when a car pulls out in front of you and you don’t have time to stop. Or when an obstacle appears and you need to go around it. But, most riders really, really suck at swerving. So much so that some experts recommend that average riders not even attempt it and just concentrate on stopping.

That’s because untrained riders do not understand countersteering or cannot countersteer with authority. These riders give up slowing or stopping, but aren’t able to get the bike moved over in time (and collide at a higher speed than if they slowed). Even if they do avoid the hazard, they often fail to recover and as a result, run off the road or into another hazard.

That said, a rider trained in swerving has a distinct advantage in that she can choose to swerve, or brake and swerve if necessary. Like in most critical situations, untrained riders better have their life insurance paid up. Just sayin’.

Ask yourself ‘What if?’

Sometimes, you need to decide if swerving is the right choice. Let’s say you are approaching an intersection with a truck in the opposite lane waiting to turn left across your path. What would you do if the truck were to suddenly turn? Where would you go? Would it be better to swerve, stop, or accelerate?

Imagine the scenario in detail and solve the problem several different ways. Then ask yourself whether you have the skills to execute all of the maneuvers required to avoid a crash. If not, then you would be wise to overcome your weaknesses so that when these skills are needed you will be ready.

How to Swerve

A swerve is essentially two consecutive turns; one to avoid an obstacle, the second to recover. One thing to consider is that you must find a safe place to swerve. Look for an escape route. Then execute.

  • Firm push/pull countersteering by pushing and pulling at the same time Read this if countersteering isn’t fully understood.
  • Keep your body upright to let bike flop beneath you. Leaning with the bike will slow the swerve.
  • If you must brake, separate braking from swerving.
  • Brake then swerve
  • Swerve, then brake

Swerving Practice

The only way to increase the likelihood that a swerve during the heat of battle will be successful is to train and practice. Like the military, we train for the worst. We rarely need the advanced training…until we do! Be ready for the time the enemy strikes.

  • Find a clean and open Parking lot
  • Visualize (or place) an obstacle in your path
  • Countersteer with authority! Read this if countersteering isn’t fully understood
  • Keep your body upright let bike flop beneath you
  • Practice in a parking lot first
  • Practice at speed on an empty, straight road using the dashed lines as cones.

Remember that swerving is often more dangerous than emergency braking and can lead to an off road excursion…unless you are trained. So, get to it!


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How Aging affects the Motorcyclist-Live Seminar

How does aging affect our riding? I share my thoughts in this Facebook Live session.


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How to Brake in a Corner on a Motorcycle

Braking while leaned in a corner is usually something you want to avoid. That’s because there is a limited amount of available traction that needs to be shared between both cornering and braking forces. This means there may not be enough traction to brake and a corner at the same time. It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t brake in corners, you just have to do it with care.

Just how much traction you have to work with depends on several factors, including your speed, lean angle, tire condition and the quality of the pavement. Basically, you won’t be able to brake very much if you’re cornering hard or if the surface is dodgy.

One common scenario where corner braking may be necessary is when you round a blind corner and spot debris in the road. You quickly determine that it’s not possible to maneuver around the hazard, so you decide to slow down, reduce lean angle and ride over it. You apply the brakes deftly and maintain control by managing available traction. With speed and lean angle reduced, you safely ride over the debris.

At some point you’ll encounter an emergency that requires you to come to an immediate stop while in a curve. If you panic and abruptly grab the brakes, you’ll likely skid and fall. But, panic can be avoided if you practice your corner braking options.

Brake While Straightening

The first option for stopping quickly in a curve is to brake moderately at first and gradually increase brake force as lean angle is reduced. You can apply the brakes fully once the bike is nearly upright. This option is used when there is a decent amount of time and space to stop.

Brake while you straighten if you can’t straighten first.

Straighten Then Brake

If the situation is urgent, you’ll need to use option two. To get the motorcycle stopped ASAP, immediately reduce lean angle (by pushing on the upper handlebar) to make traction available so you can apply the brakes hard. The problem with this option is that straightening the bike will cause you to shoot to the outside of your lane.

This is especially bad if the road is narrow or if your tires are already near the centerline or edge of the road. In this case, you must either use option one or straighten the bike as much as practical and then apply the brakes as much as the tires will tolerate.

Straighten and then brake for the most rapid stop

Saving a Blown Corner

The same techniques can be used if you enter a turn too fast. Many (dare I say most?) times, it’s best to “man up” and lean more to match your corner speed. If you simply can’t muster the courage to lean more, are already dragging hard parts, or are sure you can’t make the turn even with increased lean angle, then you’re probably better off trying to scrub off some speed with the brakes.

If your speed is only a little too fast, you may be able to get away with smoothly decelerating and applying light brake pressure. If your entry speed is way too fast and you’re dragging all sorts of hard parts, your best bet is to quickly straighten the motorcycle enough so you can brake. Once speed is reduced, countersteer to lean the bike and complete the corner. Hopefully there is enough room to stay in your lane.

If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. Even if your timing and execution is perfect, there is no guarantee you won’t crash or go off the road. Extreme lean angles, sketchy pavement and marginal tires all play a role in whether there is enough traction to introduce even the slightest amount of brake power. The real solution is to avoid this situation in the first place by choosing conservative corner entry speeds. Remember that there is no safety penalty if you enter a turn slowly. But, there sure is if you enter too fast!

Technology

If you’re fortunate enough to own a modern, premium model motorcycle, you may have “cornering ABS” made possible with the latest Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU). This device communicates with the bike’s computer to measure not only variations in wheel speed, but also the side forces.

This data allows the unit to prevent skidding while leaned by limiting brake power. I had the pleasure of reviewing this technology on a Multistrada at the Bosch Proving Grounds a few years ago and I can tell you that the system works quite well. Still, it’s best to use proper technique and let the advanced technology lurk in the background as a safety net.

So, train yourself to not need the technology and instead become familiar with these corner braking maneuvers. A little effort practicing in a parking lot or at a track day will reap big benefits. Do it!

You may also like:

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How not to suck at braking

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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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Motorcycle ABS: It’s Better Than You Are

Some riders consider ABS to be a sign of weakness, an unnecessary device for rookies or grandpas. The tough guy philosophy is often something like, “I can brake better without it.”

Guest writer Lou Peck shares his knowledge about Anti-lock braking systems.

I recently stepped into a SoCal dealership looking for an ABS-equipped motorcycle and the salesman tried to convince me that “ABS doesn’t really do anything unless it’s wet, or you’re on dirt,” and “you don’t need ABS on a light bike.” Several knowledgeable riders in my own community also thought ABS was useless. That’s when I realized most riders just don’t know how and why ABS can help…and that needs to change.

As a forensic engineer, I’ve reconstructed hundreds of motorcycle collisions and have a bit of a different perspective on the topic. I’m hired to figure out how a collision occurred and if it could have been avoided. I’m typically tasked with figuring out speeds of the involved vehicles, vehicle locations, and timing. The photo below shows what I usually see when I investigate motorcycle crashes.

Notice the skid mark from the rear tire.

Notice the skid mark from the rear tire of the motorcycle. My colleagues and I see evidence of a skid from a locked rear brake in most cases we work. The famous Hurt Report found that only 22% of riders braked appropriately when faced with a hazard, stating that “most riders would overbrake and skid the rear wheel, and underbrake the front wheel greatly reducing collision avoidance deceleration” [1].  Not good.

How does ABS Work?

The amount of stopping force a tire can generate is related to how much it’s slipping, as opposed to simply rolling. Most people don’t know that optimum traction occurs when the tire is slipping at a rate of something like 15%. Above or below that and you’re not getting max grip for stopping.

Optimum traction is at 15% slip

When tire slip approaches about 20%, ABS automatically releases the brakes a bit and then quickly reapplies. That’s the pulsing vibration you feel at the brake lever or pedal. This releasing and reapplying occurs several times per second, keeping the tire slip in the range shown in the graph.

ABS is Better Than You

Since ABS operates in a range surrounding the peak but not constantly at the peak, professional test riders can often come to a stop in a shorter distance with ABS disabled. Mr. Tough Guy probably heard this and his ego insists he can out-brake an ABS system. The truth is that the vast majority of riders do not have the skills of a test rider. It turns out most riders can only brake at about 60% of the bike’s capability, compared with nearly 100% for test riders.

The Heat of Battle

And performing an optimal braking maneuver on a test track without the threat of an impending collision is a lot easier than trying to perform a flawless emergency braking maneuver on the street. If you don’t get the bike stopped in time you’re in big trouble.

Skidding is Bad

A skidding tire makes matters much, much worse. When a tire slip approaches 100% (lock-up), stopping power is reduced by about 20%. Not only does skidding reduce stopping power, it also reduces lateral stability of the tire and with no grip to spare, the tire will slide left or right. For the rear, this means it might step out to the side causing the motorcycle to rotate, sometimes to the point where it just rotates and rolls all the way to the ground in a lowside fall. Locking the front results in the motorcycle almost immediately hitting the deck. Not a good evasive tactic.

You’re Not as Good as You Think

Most riders can only exploit 60% of the bike’s stopping power, and that probably includes you. Below are six solid studies showing the average rider can only hit a deceleration rate of 0.64 g’s when most bikes are capable of about 1.0 g [2-7]. Those studies analyzed 1,200+ braking tests, from over 600 different riders, conducted in controlled environments with no threat of injury or death and no uncertainty of the appropriate response (do I brake, swerve, accelerate, etc.). Even in this controlled environment, locking occurred often [3].

ABS is Your Friend

So, what happens when we introduce ABS? Some smart guy named Vavryn investigated the behavior of 181 riders during 800 tests [4]. The riders performed two tests on their own non-ABS motorcycle, and then two on an ABS-equipped motorcycle. The average braking rate for motorcyclists on their own motorcycle was 0.67 g’s. However, when riding the motorcycles equipped with ABS, that number jumped up to 0.80 g’s, nearly 20% improvement despite riding an unfamiliar machine. Overall, 85% of the subjects improved braking with the ABS motorcycles, and the novice riders achieved ABS-braking rates almost equal to experienced riders.

ABS helped novice riders brake as well as experienced riders.

The Difference Between Whew and Ouch

What’s the difference between braking at 0.80 g’s compared to 0.64 g’s? Say you’re going 50 mph, brake at 0.80 g’s and are just barely able to avoid hitting a left-turner because you’re riding an ABS-equipped bike. Now, let’s say you’re in the same situation, but only brake at 0.64 g’s…you’ll hit at over 20 mph. Ouch!

In 2013, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published an in-depth study of over 425,000 motorcycle insurance claims that directly shows the benefit of ABS [8]. It turns out that motorcycles equipped with ABS saw a 20% reduction in collision frequency (those equipped with ABS and a combined braking system saw a massive 31% reduction). Relative to fatal motorcycle collisions, ABS alone was associated with a 31% reduction [9]!

I used to be an expert racer with a tight and technical home-track that required a lot of hard braking, and I got pretty good at it. However, after seeing what I’ve seen in my line of work, I don’t fully trust myself to fully exploit the motorcycle’s ability when presented with a life-threatening hazard. Fortunately, ABS is there to ensure I don’t lock a tire and lose control and reduce my chances of being involved in a collision. That’s why I own a street-bike with ABS, and I highly recommend you do the same.

Lou Peck

Lou Peck is a Forensic Engineer based out of Southern California. Lou has authored many peer-reviewed technical publications in the field of motorcycle collision reconstruction and regularly testifies as an expert witness. Lou is a former roadracer and track day instructor.

[1] Hurt, H.,Ouellet, J., and Thom, D., “Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, Volume 1: Technical report,” Traffic Safety Center, University of Southern California, 1981.

[2] Hugemann, W., Lange, F., “Braking Performance of Motorcyclists,” 1993.

[3] Ecker, H., Wasserman, J., Hauer, G., et al., “Braking Deceleration of Motorcycle Riders,” International Motorcycle Safety Conference, Orlando, 2001.

[4] Vavryn, K., Winkelbauer, M., “Braking Performance of Experienced and Novice Motorcycle Riders – Results of a Field Study,” International Conference on Traffic & Transport Psychology, 2004.

[5] Bartlett, W., Greear C., “Braking Rates for Students in a Motorcycle Training Program,” Accident Reconstruction Journal, Vol. 20(6), pp. 19-20, 2010.

[6] Muttart, J., Fisher, D., Kauderer, C., et al, “Influence of Riding Experience on Glance Behavior, Brake Response Time and Deceleration Rates by Drivers and Motorcyclists,” Proceedings of the Sixth International Driving Symposium on Human Factors in Driver Assessment, Training, and Vehicle Design, Lake Tahoe, CA, 2011.

[7] Dunn, A., Dorohoff, M., Bayan, F., et al, “Analysis of Motorcycle Braking Performance and Associated Braking Marks,” SAE Technical Paper 2012-01-0610, 2012.

[8] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Bulletin, “Evaluation of Motorcycle Anitlock Braking Systems, Alone and in Conjunction with Combined Control Braking Systems,” Vol. 30, No. 10, April 2013.

[9] Teoh, E., “Effects of Antilock Braking Systems on Motorcycle Fatal Crash Rates: An Update,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2013.


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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?

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


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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.

Anything to add?


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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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