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
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.
When making tight turns, position your weight on the outside footpeg (the right peg for left turns) to let the motorcycle lean. 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”.
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.
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:
- Slow to a suitable speed
- Once the motorcycle is slowed, release the brakes
- Lean the bike and turn the handlebars
- Turn your head like a barn owl
- Roll on the throttle enough to not stall and keep the throttle steady.
- Ease out the clutch about halfway, using the “friction zone” for speed control.
- Drag the rear brake lightly to refine speed control.
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.
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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