Motorcycling
A.R.Lowe 10 Mar 1992

  • Overview:
  • Cornering:
  • Picking a line:
  • Winning a Race:
  • Braking:
  • Wet Weather Riding:
  • Epilogue:

  • Overview:

    The purpose of this document is to improve your riding ability. This will reduce your chances of coming unstuck by giving you a more thorough understanding of the dynamics associated with motorcycling.

    The knowledge so gained will increase the speed at which you feel comfortable.

    Be prepared to come off your bike. You don't have to look forward to falling off, there is nothing to be gained from it. But if you worry about falling off then the chances are very good that you will. You may not be going as fast as another guy and yet you are the one that falls off, mostly because you are worried about it and he is not.

    Being prepared means many things. Protective riding gear is one of them. A good full-face helmet gives you more protection than an open-face helmet. The arguments for full-face helmets outweigh those of an open-face helmet.

    T-shirt and thongs are not protective clothing. Boots will protect your lower legs, ankles and feet. A leather jacket protects you against road rash, sunburn and hot exhaust systems.

    Since your knees almost invariably get bashed and scraped, padded leather pants are one of the best investments you will ever make.

    Finally, padded gloves give you protection against scraped knuckles.

    Once you are well covered with good protective clothing, you will want to make sure that your bike is not out of commission for too long. This means having a bank account specially for repairs and maintenance or to have good insurance cover. The best idea is to do both. Use the insurance for the big ones and the bank account for the little ones.

    You could also protect the bike physically. Leather pads against the engine covers, for instance, can reduce the damage caused by the bike sliding on the road.

    All of the above will combine to give you some peace of mind while you are riding. You can't do anything if you are scared to death of falling off. How can you ride a sports bike in a sporting manner if you can't forget the price of a replacement fairing?

    You must accept the possibility of falling off. It can happen. Once you have accepted this, it is no longer a barrier to going faster.

    Just tell yourself it doesn't matter. You don't have to like it, just don't let the possibility mess you up mentally.

    This barrier must be overcome before you can apply any of the techniques that follow. The bike will not do anything unexpectedly, as long as you know what to expect. This may sound like a circular argument but really, the more you know about the dynamics of motorcycling, the less there will be to surprise you.

    So, be prepared for the possibility of falling off your bike but understand that this will only happen if you overstep certain limits, which I will include in the following discussion.

    Cornering:

    Anyone can go fast in a straight line. Land speed records are set in straight lines. If drag racing is your thing then all you need is a heap of power and a good tyre to put that power to the pavement.

    However, any other type of racing involves a few corners and the quicker you can get through these corners, the better your chances of crossing the finish line first.

    The only way to turn a motorcycle is by countersteering which is summed up by the phrase 'Turn Left to Go Right'

    Most people associate turning a motorcycle with a lean in the direction of the turn. The sharper the turn, the further you have to lean to compensate for the cornering forces (they believe).

    But there is a lot more to turning than just leaning the bike and hoping for the best. It is really the laws of physics that control the lean angle of the bike. There are two forces at work; one is the downward force of gravity; the other is the cornering force that would fling you off a merry-go-round if you were not hanging on. You don't really have any say in the matter of lean angle. It's a nature thing. What you DO have control over is the speed at which you go through the corner and nature will use THAT to determine the correct lean angle. You do, however, get a sense of controlling it by countersteering. If you want to turn left, PUSH against the left handlebar. This will cause the bike to lean or "fall" toward the left. The more pressure you apply, the faster the bike will turn. Maintaining a constant pressure will maintain a constant turn radius and nature will select the corresponding lean angle.

    To turn tighter, put more pressure on the inside handlebar and the bike will turn tighter and the lean angle will change accordingly. Releasing the pressure will cause the bike to straighten up. If you let go completely, the bike will straighten up completely. Of course you CAN influence the balance of the bike by leaning off one side or the other but in general, releasing the handlebars will return you to the vertical.

    You may have had an experience where you are not turning as tightly as you would want to and the bike is threatening to drift off the road and you are thinking, "oh shit I'm gonna die!" Every fibre of your being is against turning the handlebar in the direction you DON'T want to go but that is exactly what you have to do. To tighten the turn and pull the bike back into a more comfortable part of the road, just push harder on the inside bar or even pull back on the outside bar or both. The bike will say "yes sir!" and it WILL go round. That terrible experience of running out of road will be a thing of the past. In fact, countersteering works so quickly and precisely that I don't even start my turn until I am actually IN the turn, with very few exceptions. Admittedly I am only just in the turn but there is never a danger of running out of road.

    There is no reasonable limit to the speed at which the bike can be "flicked" onto its side by countersteering. When you have mastered the concept of countersteering all you will ever need to do in future is decide what line you want to follow through a turn and the bike will respond like you never thought possible.

    Picking a line:

    The object of picking the right line through a curve is to give you the best acceleration into the following straight or to give you the best approach to the next curve leading to the following straight.

    One of these two conditions will apply in every case.  Ultimately, a curve will lead onto a straight where you will need the best acceleration you can get, which generally means being in a position where acceleration can be used most effectively.

    Prior to this, a curve may lead to another curve, either in the same direction with a change of radius or in the opposite direction. In any case, one of these curves will end on a straight section, so the aim is to pick a line through each curve which will lead to the best line through the final curve onto the straight.

    A curve generally consists of an entry, a middle and an exit. The most effective acceleration is performed at the exit.

    In the middle of the turn where the bike is usually at its maximum lean angle, very little acceleration can be used. Traction is at a minimum at this point and acceleration here could be disastrous.

    Acceleration should begin as you pick the bike back up at the exit of the turn.

    Acceleration can begin sooner if the bike is picked up sooner. This requires getting most of the turning out of the way early.

    The "best line" depends on the bike, the rider and road conditions.

    Experiment with various lines to find which one suits you personally.

    Some prefer a smooth arc through a curve, entering the curve wide, crossing the apex in the middle of the curve at the inside edge and exiting the curve wide again; something I refer to as a "touring line".

    This does not necessarily give you the best speed when exiting the curve and usually sets up a limit to the exit speed you can attain.

    This method requires that the faster you go the more lean angle required, so when you are at maximum lean, you can't go any faster.

    Nor can you perform any steering or throttle changes at this time.

    The bike is, essentially, out of control.

    Entering the curve a little deeper before starting the arc will push the apex further through the turn and can give you a straighter line out of the curve which enables you to accelerate harder. By starting your turn later, you can reduce the amount of time spent in actually turning.

    This also reduces the turn to an entry and an exit with virtually no middle, particularly with right-angle turns. The best method to use in this type of turn is a deep entry, then get most of the turning out of the way as you enter the turn by flicking the bike into maximum lean angle in the shortest possible time, followed by a hard exit drive. Although the initial change in direction may have to be slightly more abrupt, the remainder of the turn approaches a straight line and acceleration can be used more effectively.

    Trying to follow a line into a corner is not as easy as it may seem.

    While your bike is upright, you are nowhere near entering the corner at the right lean angle. So, you start to tilt the bike over with countersteering and find that you have to begin turning sooner or you end up running wide.

    Most of the error is made in the time it takes to get the bike from the vertical to the correct lean angle for the corner, or put simply, at the entry to the turn. If you reduce the time, you can also reduce the amount of error. This involves flicking the bike on its side in the shortest practical time so that when you have picked a line, you can follow it through without turning in too soon or running wide of the mark.

    A simple trick to avoid starting your turn too soon is when you have the impulse to turn say "wait" to yourself and then turn. You don't need to wait any longer than the time it takes to say "wait". This just adds an extra fraction of a second to the time that you had that first impulse to turn and the actual time you begin the turn.

    Eventually, you will develop your sense of timing to do this without consciously thinking about it.

    Also, the entry, middle and exit of a turn are not places you can mark on a diagram as distinct sections of the turn. They are what you make them. The entry is the area of the corner in which you begin to turn, the middle, if it exists, is the area where the bike is at its greatest lean angle for that corner and the exit is where you begin your drive out of the corner. Each of these sections can have different physical locations on the corner for different riders or for the same rider using different lines.

    The entry speed to a curve does not always have to be faster in order to exit the turn faster. A fast exit can only be achieved in some cases by entering the corner a bit slower. Someone may pass you on the way into the corner but you will then fly past him again on the way out because his entry speed was too great.

    Sometimes, the lean angle of the bike becomes the limiting factor where cornering speed is concerned. No matter how far over you are, someone always seems to be able to go around faster, even though the bikes are similar.

    This is where sliding can help. Roll the throttle on more just as you are picking the bike back up from the lean angle attained on entry.

    Only enough throttle is required to start the back tyre sliding. Too much throttle can spit the rear tyre out from underneath you.

    This is the area where sports tyres are designed to operate anyway so there is nothing radical about losing traction in moderation.

    The sliding of the rear wheel causes the bike to point into the turn.

    You still have plenty of drive from the rear tyre, even though it is beginning to slip. The best drive involves about 10 percent wheelspin, so really, you aren't getting the best acceleration out of the turn if your rear tyre is not sliding. Nor are you getting the best use of the tyre itself. The rubber balls up and is rubbed off by the road friction, exposing a fresh layer of rubber. If you are not doing this, the oils that give the tyre its flexibility are cooked out of the rubber and the tyre gets slippery due to its dryness.

    So, slide the tyre, get around the corner quicker and maintain a good layer of fresh rubber in contact with the road. Once you become familiar with the sliding of the rear tyre, you will find that your line through the corner may have to be altered slightly unless you want to find yourself on the infield.

    Treaded tyres tend to let go more suddenly than slicks so this should be kept in mind when you are using the sliding technique. Slicks are more predictable and can be kept spinning more easily.

    Flicking the bike into the corner quickly can also start the back tyre sliding. When the front end is flicked in, the rear end has a tendency to follow the original straight line. The sudden change in direction causes the rear tyre to lose traction briefly. This is not bad, it gets the bike pointed into the turn but it can be a bit of a surprise when it happens. If you are aware of this possibility you can use it to your advantage.

    Sliding can best be practised on a dirt bike in low-traction conditions. Ideally, the surface should be semi-hard such as hard-baked clay with a loose surface. Deep sand usually has more traction than you want and is more difficult to get a good slide going unless you have a dirt bike with a lot of power and are not using knobby tyres. Road/trail tyres on hard-bake with a loose surface gives enough slip to get a slide going relatively easily.

    Tyres (or tires if you like) can make all the difference to keeping the shiny side up. The general rule is to get the best tyres that you can afford. For me that means Michelin Pilot Road 2. They perform well in wet or dry conditions and they turn the bike into a precision cornering machine.

    While, for various reasons, I can't afford to do the research to find the worst tyres ever, there are some tyres I will NEVER put on my bike. Apologies to anyone who thinks these tyres are worth something but Bridgestone Battlax are on the top of the list of tyres I will never use. It seems to me that everyone I have known with these tyres came unstuck for trivial and sometimes inexplicable reasons. They are just pure evil in my opinion.

    Winning a Race:

    In almost every case, a race is not so much a contest against another rider as a contest against the track. If another rider's bike is as fast as yours, the race will be decided by who knows the most. If his bike is faster than yours, then you will have to know more than he does in order to get any advantage.

    His bike may be faster than yours on a long straight, but if he does not know how to use that speed then he may as well be riding your bike for all the good the extra speed is doing him.

    If his bike is faster than yours and he knows as much as you do, then you have to consider other factors like alertness and concentration.

    If you are more alert then you will be able to react quicker and take advantage of difficult sections of the track. Stamina could be the deciding factor.

    So many things must be taken into account but we have to begin with certain assumptions. For a start, lets assume that he has an identical bike to yours. You could make yours a little less identical by only carrying a quarter of a tank of fuel or less if the distance permits.

    This would then be a case of anything he can do, you must do better.

    If he is in front of you, he will already think that he can do it better and he won't be under any pressure to improve. If you are in front, he will have every reason to push a little harder than you in order to get past.

    You may think that this works both ways in that if you are behind, then the pressure is on you to get past but if you ALLOW him to stay in front, then a subtle twist is added. He thinks he is better than you because he is in front and may believe that since you have an identical machine, you can't use it like he can. A sort of overconfidence. But if you are always right behind him and he can't shake you he will begin to get worried. This will detract something from his concentration and he will not be able to give 100% to his riding.

    You, on the other hand are waiting for him to show signs of fatigue or worry (which would be quite readily apparent if he turns his head to see where you are, for instance) and can take advantage of the moment (outbraking is one method of staying within shooting distance.

    Knowing how to brake is essential for the application of this method - see Braking).

    He may not know exactly where the road goes at the next bend, for example. He will sit up slightly more to get a better view and when he does that he will not be applying full throttle. This is the ideal time to pass because for a moment he has stopped thinking about you and is looking for somewhere to go. He will not be ready for you to pass him at this point and when you do it will mess up his concentration and then fatigue will set in.

    Having passed him, you must concentrate on the road and know exactly where you are going. If this is done towards the end of the race, he will be under too much pressure to make any significant ground on you and all you have to do is keep it that way.

    It is often said that you can improve your lap times by having someone in front of you. This is a psychological effect that pushes you to hold on to the throttle longer, to wait that little extra bit before you hit the brakes. These are the effects of taking your mind off what you normally do and placing it somewhere where the pressure is greater.

    You do not need someone in front of you to push you harder. You can set a fixed limit on the rev range of the engine and always stay within that range. This range is between the maximum torque of the engine and the maximum power or rev limit. By keeping the engine operating within this range, you can't accelerate any faster no matter who is in front of you.

    Similarly, if you can brake later then you must decide what it is you are braking later than. To "brake later" implies that you have been braking too early. Simply move your braking markers. If anyone can then outbrake you or outaccelerate you, either lose weight or gain power.

    Braking:

    The rear wheel is barely making contact with the road during hard braking, so there is not a lot you can do with it. Since most of the stopping is done with the front brake, this is where we will concentrate.

    The worst thing you can do with the front brake is lock it up while the bike is leaning over. Whenever hard braking is required, make sure that the bike is upright and apply a smooth progressive pressure on the lever. You don't have to squeeze it slowly as long as you keep the action smooth. A sudden yank on the front brake can lock it up quite easily.

    In many situations, one finger is enough to adjust your speed with the front brake. If you panic for an instant and suddenly squeeze the brake lever, one finger is not as likely to lock up the front wheel as a handful would.

    And if a situation arises where a handful is required, it doesn't take long to get the rest of your fingers around the lever. The single finger is doing good work in getting most of the slack out of the braking system in preparation for hard braking.

    Combining this with cornering lines, know exactly where you are going to start braking and where you are going to finish braking. Most important is where you are going to finish braking. If you have a point in mind where you intend to begin braking, you can still enter the corner at the wrong speed and still braking hard when you should be turning. Don't try to rely on a braking marker that tells you where to begin braking, look for the point where you intend to finish braking. The start point will take care of itself.

    It is possible to continue braking into the turn and it can help to keep the suspension system compressed to the same degree as the action of braking has established.

    For example, when you are braking, the front suspension is compressed. If you release the brakes, the suspension will rebound and you may have to readjust your line. As you begin your turn, the suspension will compress again under the cornering forces.

    If you maintain the braking just long enough to begin your turn, you can keep the suspension compressed by a smooth transition between braking force and cornering force. The whole braking and cornering process would become a single smooth action.

    Having begun your turn, don't maintain the same pressure on the brake or you may lose the front end. There is a lot of force on the front tyre during cornering. You don't need to add to this by overuse of the brake. Just maintain the brake long enough for the cornering force to take over the compression of the suspension, release the brake smoothly and roll the throttle back on as soon as possible.

    Don't snap the throttle back on, roll it on smoothly and gently, just don't wait too long before you do it.

    Once you get back on the power, you needn't worry about losing traction with the front tyre. That tyre will never lose traction under acceleration unless the acceleration is severe enough to lift the tyre off the road. Under these conditions, though, the rear tyre, while it can maintain traction, is doing all the steering and the whole bike will be moving in the right direction.

    Wet Weather Riding:

    Riding in the rain invokes more terror than any other aspect of motorcycling. It is difficult to understand since few riders actually fall over in the wet. This may be due to the fact that many riders exercise caution when riding in wet conditions because of the fear factor.

    Caution is essential in the wet since traction is reduced. However, there is no need for fear of riding in the wet. There are conditions where a wet road is very slippery but for the most part, a wet road in itself still offers a lot of traction.

    The conditions that cause a slippery road are oil and road grime.

    Grime exists for a few days after a long dry period. The first rainfall produces a road surface that feels like you are riding on ice. It is not a pleasant feeling and it can really give you the impression that you have chosen a bad set of tyres for the wet.

    After a day or two, you will notice that the slippery feeling subsides and it feels very similar to a dry road again. After several weeks of wet weather, the amount of available traction is surprising. A way of improving traction is by softening your suspension during wet weather. Many sports bike riders like to have their suspension race-track hard but don't know that they should adjust it for the wet. Just softening it a little makes it more forgiving on a wet road.

    Oil is very often a source of fear when riding in wet or dry conditions. You won't often see pools of oil lying about and the ones you do see can usually be avoided.

    Heavy traffic lanes do have an oily strip running down the centre. This strip should always be avoided, particularly in the wet.

    Re-read the section on the use of brakes and apply that knowledge more stringently during wet-weather riding. Traction IS down in the wet and the brakes should be applied carefully.

    Epilogue:

    A knowledge of the above techniques will help to improve your riding ability. However, there is another ingredient which has not been mentioned. Much of the preceding document contains suggestions that probably make you somewhat nervous just thinking about them.

    How difficult would it be to ride a motorcycle on the very edge if you didn't think you could do it, or worse, if you thought you couldn't do it? There is a difference in "not thinking you can" which is uncertainty, and "thinking you can't" which is a downright negative attitude. Either way, you are being held back by your own doubts.

    You don't need to be on a motorbike to practise new riding techniques. You can be sitting in an armchair or lying in bed. If you have taken a few slow laps around the track to familiarise yourself with the circuit, you have enough information to begin improving your techniques mentally.

    In your mind, pick a corner of the track. You can approach this corner in a dozen different ways. You can go through it again and again without having to complete a lap of the circuit each time. You can take this corner mentally many times trying different methods of executing the turn with absolutely no cost in fuel or equipment.

    The reason that this technique works is that parts of your brain don't know the difference between make-believe and the real thing. By practising something many times mentally, you are giving that part of your brain some experience with what it believes to be the real thing. Let your mind cover all aspects, all body movements. When it comes time to perform the physical act, you already have some idea of the feel of what you want to do.

    Mind conditioning is used by the very top riders in the world. Why shouldn't you do it as well? If you feel you can do something, the chances are very good that you will at least make the attempt. You can then compare the results to your ideas and make alterations to those ideas.

    The bottom line here is that anything you do physically is controlled by your thoughts and ideas long before you perform the act itself.

    Just riding a motorcycle is difficult for anyone who has never done it before. You know you can do it. It's easy once you know how. People have conditioned their minds with the theoretical nature of motorcycle riding before they even sat on the bike and the results were amazing.

    Once you know how to do something, it becomes easier and easier. The hard part is knowing what to do in the first place. This document has attempted to give you the required knowledge to at least go out and try.