Riding Skills 101

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Posture - the key to smoother riding

In some ways, this article should have been number one, because our posture is hugely important to good control. Without good posture, so many riding tasks become tougher than they need to be, from slow control to emergency stops to cornering at speed. However, it doesn't mean that every article written about posture is correct. For example, had anyone read this particular article on a website covering riding skills (the article seems to have disappeared recently) they might be forgiven for thinking they were doing it all wrong.

"Body Position - as many people will realise as they gain confidence and move around on the bike, the way you sit on your bike has a direct affect on the way the bike handles. Unfortunately many people never learn the correct way to sit. Sit close to the tank with your "groin" pressed against it! Lean forward and lie across the tank with your head behind the screen. Do not lean on the tank but allow your stomach muscles to support you so that if you take your hands off the bars you are still in the same position. You should try this when stationary to get a feel for it - just let go of the bars and let your stomach muscles do the work."

Eh? How does anyone 'sit close to the tank' and 'lie across the tank with your head behind the screen' at the same time?

The only explanation I could come up with was that the writer - who'd apparently picked up this advice on a training course - had got thorougly confused. I would advice riders to sit forward on the seat (although not so close that "your groin is pressed against it" for improved slow control on tight turns. And getting tucked in behind the screen is something I'd do riding down a straight on the track.

But both together? One buddy tried it on a Goldwing and pointed out: 

"I could barely see over the dash, my elbows were behind my back and my wrists twisted at an awkward angle."

So there's a third issue - bikes and their riders aren't all the same size and shape. 

In short it was one of the worst pieces I've seen for a long time, and it's no great loss that it's vanished from the virtual library of bad advice. 

About the only thing I agreed on is that posture IS important, so let's try to understand how. Above anything else, we need to find a position that's both stable and comfortable, that allows us to operate all the controls and see where we are going. 

So let's start with stability. We need to find a position where our legs support the upper body. Why is that, you might be wondering? It's our arms and hands that do most of the work in controlling the bike. 
The reason is that we need to be in what I call the 'Brace Position' to make effective inputs, whether we're braking, steering or accelerating.

And we need this Brace Position because our inputs make the motorcycle change speed and direction beneath us. Unless we're connected to the bike, the bike may move without us when we want to stay connected - it's not impossible to fall off the back of a bike when accelerating too rapidly.

Conversely, there are time we want to move independently of the machine and unless we are braced effectively, it's hard to do so - the technique of counterweighting on slow turns relies on us being able to shift our bodyweight one way as the bike leans the other. In particular, the brace position locks us in place to counter-steer effectively. 

So the Brace Position starts at the footpegs. There's always a debate about whether to ride with the arch of the foot (which means we can use the foot controls without moving them) or the ball of the foot (which lets us take more weight via our legs) on the pegs, but we'll leave that to one side for the moment. Conventional footpegs are more or less under the hips precisely so we can take some of our weight through them - and that means we are not taking all our weight through our backside, although on a bike with forward foot controls that's not possible. 

But even on a Harley, so long as there is a there is tank over the engine - or a dummy tank like Honda's NC series - there is another important connection point with the machine - our knees. Even without conventional footpegs, the knees provide the lower body stability that we'll need in a moment. It's also useful to lock the knees against the tank on a bumpy surface - that allows us to use our thighs as 'active suspension'. Rather like a jockey's legs working in harmony with a galloping horse, the forks and rear shock can move beneath us in partial isolation over big irregularities such as speed bumps, keeping the machine a little more stable as well as giving us a smoother ride on top.

Once our knees are gripping the tank, we can brace the muscles in our lower back, NOT the stomach muscles as that article suggested - if they are tightened, it's probably a sign we're tense. With the lower back stiffened, we can keep the upper half of the torso flexible. This is vital because it ensures we can maintain looseness in our shoulders, elbows and wrists. This is the third key element of the Brace Position, because it prevents us leaning on the bars because they are set low - as on a sports bike - or hanging on to them if they are more upright.
This need to avoid leaning on or hanging onto the handlebars and staying loose is not intuitive at all. 

Leaning on the handlebars creates problems steering at speed - one arm MUST move forward and the other MUST move backwards if the bars are to turn, and the bars MUST turn if we're to steer. Many sportsbike riders are amazed at how nimble their 'slow-steering' machines suddenly become when they start using the Brace Position on corners. Leaning on the bars also kills fine control stone dead on slow control too. 

But leaning on the bars or hanging on too hard also tends to cause wobbles in a straight line. Common sense would suggest that we would need to actively point the bike in a straight line all the times by constantly correcting the steering. In fact, once rolling a motorcycle has dynamic balance - mass always wants to move in a straight line unless some force is applied to make it change direction and this applies to a motorcycle too. Additionally, the steering is designed to be self-centering and to correct itself if deflected by a bump. But riders detect wobbles or steering instability and believe that must hold on ever-tighter. In fact, it's the rider's own body movements, swaying around on the bike because they are not braced, which get fed into the bars and create the problem in the first place. When I talk about this issue on my Survival Skills advanced rider training course, I often get a blank or even disbelieving looks, which usually vanish when I perform a hands-off riding demo. 

We also need to keep the elbows bent - here's why:

  • a bent elbow acts as a shock absorber (just like bent knees) and allows the steering to shake. The moment we 'lock' the steering by leaning on the bars, we feed any bumps and shakes the bike generates straight back into the steering making matters ten times worse
  • a bent elbow allows us to steer using the leverage from the arms. If our elbows are locked, we are steering from the shoulders and back which is crude and tiring

Keeping elbows flexible is a problem with sports bike riders who lean on the bars with locked elbows, but in contrast, we can often spot novice riders on small bikes who are virtually sitting on the pillion seat. With their arms stretched straight out in front of them, the end result is similar - it's difficult to turn the bars. Don't forget that the wrists also need to be loose.

If we don't have some 'give' in our arms, we also lose feedback from the front tyre under braking or when steering on a slippery surface. It's a loose connection from shoulders to the bars that allows fine control over the steering. My tip to trainees is to remember the bars work like the tiller of a boat - they are for steering and not for hanging on to. 

Here's another poor piece of advice which you have possibly heard: 

"Keep your forearms level with the ground". 

The rationale is that it puts the rider in the most ergonomically efficient position to turn the handlebars by moving them forwards and backwards. Think about that for a moment. The effort needed to achieve a level forearm depends on the height of the bars in relationship to our elbows. The taller the rider and the lower the bars, the more that rider will have to lean forward in a racing crouch to achieve that 'flat arm' shape, and that in turn will push the rider's backside rearwards and change the position of the knees.

It's actually the need to position our knees and keep the upper half of the body flexible that pretty much fixes our elbow angle. The precise angle of the forearms is not so important as the fact our elbows ARE bent. 

Of course, riders are all different sizes and shapes so there's rarely going to be a perfect position for everyone on a single machine, but most bikes do have an envelope within which there is room to move around and find the position that suits each of us. Whilst many machines make it fairly obvious roughly where we should sit by means of cutouts on the tank and seat contours or humps, our precise position will depend on how we fit the machine.

nfortunately, few have any adjustability built-in, so it's our bodies that have to adjust. 

Do we ever change the ideal Brace Position? I'll certainly adopt it for the short periods where I prioritise control, but at other times I'll tend to prioritise comfort - that could be more of a crouched position for riding into a headwind on a motorways where my main aim is not pin-point control but minimizing fatigue.

Remember, it's what we want to achieve that matters so it's important not to look for any sort of 'fixed in stone' position but instead to understand why locking on with the knees to keep shoulders, elbows and wrists loose is important when fine work is needed. Once we understand that, we can usually find a working compromise which maximises comfort AND control. 

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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