How to Ride a Motorcycle Slowly

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photo ©Ken Condon

The ability to keep your motorcycle upright at parking lot speeds won’t necessarily save your life, it may save you from a broken foot (happened to me) and expensive damage. Sure, you can try to balance your bike using your legs, but it’s way better for your confidence and street cred if you rely more on proficient slow-speed maneuvering skill.

How Not to Suck at Slow Speed Riding

As speeds decrease, we lose the benefit of inertia and gyroscopic forces. The slower you go, the greater role you play in keeping gravity from pulling your motorcycle onto its side. This means keeping the Center of Gravity located directly above the tire contact patches (or keep the contact patches directly beneath the Center of Gravity).

To do this, you must constantly adjust the Center of Gravity / contact patch relationship. It’s like trying to balance a broomstick on your palm. It takes continual adjustment to keep the broom’s contact point vertically below the Center of Gravity so the broomstick remains upright— react too slowly and the broomstick falls to the floor.

You must do the same thing when trying to stay upright on a slow moving motorcycle. The difference is that the motorcycle is the “broomstick” and you must move the tire’s contact patch to keep in balance. This can be done by turning the handlebars left and right, causing the steering head– and the motorcycle’s Center of Gravity – to shift from side-to-side.

All photos © Ken Condon

Body Positioning

By shifting your bodyweight, you move the combined Center of Gravity of bike and rider over the contact patches. A limber torso and a loose grip on the handlebars helps maintain balance in this way.

Shifting body weight can help maintain balance.When making tight turns, position your weight on the outside footpeg (the right peg for left turns) while keeping your body upright as the bike leans. This is called counterweighting.

Keep weight on your footpegs so you can lean the bike more-or-less independently of your body (and vice versa). This allows you to quickly shift body weight, turn the handlebars, or lean the bike to regain balance.

Look Like You Mean It

We tend to go where we look and where you want to go. When performing a tight U-turn that is 180 degrees behind you. Turn your head over your shoulder to look at the turn “exit”.

Brake Control

One other reason for keeping your feet on the footpegs is so your right foot can apply rear brake pressure if you need to slow.

The rear brake is also useful for increasing stability. Maintain steady drive while you drag the rear brake to control speed and also give the drivetrain a force to “pull against”. This “tension” steadies drive force and helps pivot the bike around when making tight U-turns.

Drive Control

One of the most critical controls to master when performing U-turns is throttle control. Forward drive must be delivered smoothly, otherwise you risk dropping your motorcycle. It’s really difficult to make a tight U-turn with the motorcycle lurching abruptly from ham-fisted on-and-off application of the throttle.

All Together Now

Let’s put all the parts together to perform a tight, slow speed turn:

  1. Slow to a suitable speed
  2. Once the motorcycle is slowed, release the brakes
  3. Position your butt on the outside edge of your seat and keep your body upright (counterweight).
  4. Lean the bike and turn the handlebars
  5. Turn your head like a barn owl
  6. Roll on the throttle enough to not stall and keep the throttle steady.
  7. Ease out the clutch about halfway, using the “friction zone” for speed control.
  8. Drag the rear brake lightly to refine speed control.
Turn your head, turn the handlebars, lean the bike, slip the clutch, drag the rear brake, and control the throttle. That's not too much to do, right?
Turn your head, turn the handlebars, lean the bike, slip the clutch, drag the rear brake, and control the throttle. That’s not too much to do, right?

You may have to lean quite a bit, but that’s okay as long as you maintain steady drive. Minimize throttle movement by keeping your wrist down and anchoring your thumb or index finger to your handlebar control pod.

Rolling U-Turns

When you can, try to do your tight U-Turns from a rolling start. That way you have stability already under control. You can also utilize the “keyhole” technique of rolling forward and then swerving slightly away from the direction you want to go before making the turn. this gets the bike leaned earlier.

U-Turns from a Stop

This is a bit tougher. To make a tight turn from a stop, you will want to pre-position yourself and your bike before moving forward. This is done by turning the handlebars to almost full-lock while leaning the bike as far as you feel comfortable into the turn. Your right foot should be on the rear brake with your left leg supporting the bike. Turn your head over your shoulder to look at the turn “exit”.

Now, give it a bit of gas while easing out the clutch quickly enough to go from zero stability (standstill) to stable (about 3-5 mph) in as short a time and distance as possible. But, don’t rush. While doing this, maintain the laen angle and handlebar turn. Get it right and the bike hioooks around gracefully.

Speed Equals Stability

Remember, if you start to fall over, just ease off the rear brake or ease out the clutch a bit to get your speed up a little. But, not too much or you’ll run wide.

Slow speed handling doesn’t have to cause anxiety. A bit of knowledge and practice can increase confidence and decrease the likelihood of a slow speed tip-over and possible injury.

Tell me your experiences with slow speed successes and snafus.


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26 Replies to “How to Ride a Motorcycle Slowly”

  1. What about fully integrated brakes. I am looking at a bike now with them. I always used rear brake drag; however, for integrated brakes (full), I think I will need to only use clutch/throttle.

    1. It depends on the bike. Many limit power to the brake that is not being used, so rear brake application still works, just less so. You can still get benefit from this technique, even with full, integrated brakes, just be more gentle and consistent with application. BMW now disables the linked brakes below a certain speed.

  2. I am learning to ride on a CTX700 DCT. (automatic transmission).

    I have been working on slow tight turns for a week, several times a day, and although I am seeing occasional improvement, I have a long way to go. My left turn make a 35ft U-Turn, the right is more. The speed I for the attempt is 10 mph.

    I follow your procedure as best I can.

    What your ideas for me?,

    1. The target to aim for is 24 feet. To get there, you need to slow down. I do my u-turns at 4mph. Yes, the bike will feel unbalanced, but the slower you go, the tighter the turn. If you must go slower because of the DCT, then you’ll need to lean more and turn the handlebars more. Simple, but not easy. Keep practicing.

      1. which way should I lean? I have been told to shift my weight to the outside of the turn and told to lean into the turn.

  3. That video of the Ft Lauderdale H-D Drill Team is no longer available.

    (“This video contains content from WMG, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds”)

  4. I haven’t been ridding long. I had to have a Harley to start with. Doing really well except for slow speed turning and parking. I want to be able to do a 20ft turn from a stop.
    I practice about every day. Just can’t get my confidence up enough to power my way around that turn.
    Any help would be appreciated.

    Bill

    1. Bill,
      This is something many riders struggle with. The trick to making tight u-turns from a stop is to start with your right foot on the rear brake pedal, left foot on the ground. Assuming you’re making a left turn you can turn the handlebars and lean the bike to the left to get the bike set in the turning position. Then give the bike some gas as you ease out the clutch and release the rear brake. You want to get up to speed quickly within the first 6 or so feet and then immediately control your speed using the rear brake. You need a fast walking pace for stability…too fast and you won’t make a tight turn…too slow and you’ll start to fall over. Just be sure to maintain steady drive…no front brake and keep the throttle in a set position and the clutch slipping as you complete the turn. Keep your head turned over your shoulder and complete the turn. Wala

      1. I know this is an old post, sorry. Not familiar with French are we? Not wala , voilà. Loosely translated, “there it is” as in you have accomplished something.

  5. Riding slow doesn’t sound very exciting but here is an example I find oddly inspirational. A police Harley is parked about two feet in front of a brick wall (facing the wall). The assignment is to drive it out of there. If I have the distance right, you can’t push the bike forward and not hit the wall because the bike must lean to turn that short and the bike is too heavy to hold up at the necessary angle. A skilled rider using the techniques Ken suggests can ride it out by counter balancing the leaning bike with his body weight. That’s magic of physics that always gets me hooked.

    1. Training with Ken really helped build my confidence in slow-speed manuevering. He showed me a few tips to bring my game up, and shooting for full-lock turns has become a twice daily practice routine for me in the parking lot at work.

  6. Going slow changes the dynamics of the bike, as the article indicates. I find that keeping the bike bolt upright and the body balanced over it and then turning the handle bars puts the bike around without falling over, or the need to put your feet down, training wheel style. I know nothing of motor officer training, so can’t comment on it, but I am impressed with the motor officer who put his patrol bike through the close order drill of all those orange cones set up in tight radius turns. I practice this style of slow turns because of experience in Rolling Thunder. The corner where the Marine stands and salutes is one of the most dangerous parts of that ride. The DC Fire/EMS stations an ambulance there because of it. At that corner , in the middle of leaning to take a curve at slow speeds, when traffic stops in front of you and you cram on the brakes to stop, you will fall over. That’s how you break your foot, especially if you are not wearing steel shank boots.

  7. Ugh such and important topic. Like Kurtz said I watch guys go balls out then when the stop for lunch they can barely do a U turn.

    and to add to it all

    TURN YOUR HEAD!!!!!

    Drilled into everyone by their MSF instructors, you need to look at where you wanna end up……

  8. Clutch control, clutch control, clutch control. Do I sound like an MSF coach yet? Throttle control is awesome but I’ve yet to meet anyone that can effectively and smoothly control a bike’s speed during parking lot maneuvers using only the throttle. Most bikes are far too twitchy moving from idle to just barely opened throttle. The point about maintaining some throttle and using the rear brake works but equally effective is maintaining steady throttle and modulating clutch slip to control speed.

    1. I find that it’s better to focus on “drive control” rather than just clutch control. The result is the same but it’s a combination of clutch and throttle that results in steady drive and this description seems to make it likely for the student to succeed.

  9. As a fellow Rider Coach I’ve been pretty good at low speed control, but I never really mixed in the rear brake until the start of last year. I simply planned ahead and slipped the clutch a lot. Mixing in the rear brake as a constant drag really brought up my game a lot. The tension of the motor/brake takes up all the slack in the driveline.

    I was surprised when competing in the Motogiro USA that many very experienced riders, many ex racers and vintage racers, have very poor low speed control. This is an area where new riders can excel even experienced riders with a little practice.

    Lastly, this is one area where cruisers can have a performance advantage. Sport Bikes are often tall and tipsy compared to cruisers and sport bikes often have limited steering lock. Some very focused sport bikes with incredible acceleration aren’t exactly geared for for parking lots speeds. It can be easier to ride an 800 lb Harley at walking speed than it is to ride a 400 lb CBR400

  10. Awesome post Ken. Slow speed maneuvering is probably the most under practiced skill for myself and lots of other sportbike riders. I can’t count how many times I’ve been out on a group ride with some really quick riders, only to see everyone(myself included!) look like it was our first time on a motorcycle when it came time to slowly navigate a parking lot when stopping for lunch.

  11. Hi Ken:
    I am a member of Chester’s Ft. Lauderdale Harley-Davidson Drill Team. The video I posted was from a performance we did at the 2013 Florida State HOG Rally last month. No riders in the video are motormen police officers. We are just civilians who love to ride and we practice as a team twice a week, all year round.
    I bought Riding in the Zone and it certainly helped me a lot!
    All the best,
    Gene Fiamma

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