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Nine simple techniques to master slow control on a motorcycle
If there is one area of bike control that really shows up our weaknesses, it's slow speed control. We can fudge most things but slow riding topples a lot of riders. Look at the number of bikes around with bent levers, scrapes on the fairings and dinged silencers. It's not only novice riders who trip up at slow speed. Many experienced riders have problems when they encounter hairpin bends, yet it's the slow riding technique taught on basic training that's needed. It's not just the fear of looking like a complete prat when we topple off in the carpark in front of our mates that should worry us. We can save ourselves some much-needed £'s in repairs and resprays by using the correct techniques. And far from least of our concerns is that a low speed crash leaves us in a highly vulnerable state when other vehicles are around. So here are some Survival Skills tips, based on my practical Confidence: BUILDER post-test training course, that are easy to learn, simple to work with, and will sharpen up your own slow riding very quickly indeed. One safety warning - work on the skills in a nice, quiet and low-risk environment - an empty car park is ideal.
POSTURE: This is where it all starts because a poor riding position compromises everything else.
Firstly, get into the habit of keeping fingers OFF the front brake - it's often easier said than done for experienced riders, but the first instinct when things start to go wrong is to grab the front brake. That stops the bike dead, which causes it to topple over if we happen to be mid-turn.
Next, don't dangle feet either. I see that a lot, usually from less-confident riders, but it also seems to have become a fashion thing to ride around feet trailing on the ground. With our feet off the pegs, we no longer use our knees to lock ourselves onto the bike. There's also a risk of stubbing a toe. At best that'll give your ankle a painful wrench or even break it, at worst it can tip you off. Feet up, at ALL times when moving.
With feet on the pegs, make sure they're in the right place, and that's with the arch of the foot on the peg itself. If we have the ball of the foot on the pegs, we can't reach the rear brake, which is absolutely vital to slow control. So position the left foot over the rear brake lever. It's this failure to cover the rear brake that leads to riders using the front brake on slow control - and the sudden grab-and-topple when things go a bit wrong. Keep checking and re-checking the foot's still covering the brake.
Then, with feet up and in the right place, sit forward towards the tank. We don't need squeeze up tight, just close enough so we can brace our knees against the tank. It's the legs that stabilise our lower body, then we can brace our back muscles to stabilise the torso. This 'Brace Position' allows us to keep shoulders, elbows and wrists loose, and keep our weight off the bars. Leaning on the bars destroys slow speed control. The lower the bars, the more difficult this is. Riding a sports bike at slow speed needs extra effort on the part of the rider.
To make accurate tight turns, we need to look along our path, and that means turning our head to look as far through the turn as we can. Being in the 'Brace Position' with loose shoulders helps the neck stay loose which makes it easier to look round. What we don't want to do is look down at the road surface ahead of the front wheel. We may be worried about bumps and potholes, but if they're already under the wheel, it's too late. We need to pick up problems BEFORE we are about to ride over them and that means keeping the head turned.
SLOW RIDING IN A STRAIGHT LINE: Start with the absolute basics, because if we get this right, everything else gets a lot easier.
That means slipping the clutch. It is possible to ride a bike with a smooth engine slowly with no clutch at all - I can do it with my XJ6 easily. So why slip the clutch? Because if I rely on throttle control without slipping the clutch, I have to keep the throttle absolutely smooth. A slight tweak either way will change the bike's speed and balance. What often happens is that we hit a bump, the throttle is twisted open, the bike surges forward, the rider shuts the throttle and simultaneously grabs the front brake. Down we go in a heap.
We spend a lot of time on basic training practicing slipping the clutch, but riders get out of the habit, so here's a reminder and some ways to practice. Start by riding away from a standstill in a straight line but don't let the clutch all the way out - keep it in the 'friction zone' as it's sometimes called. How do we know we're slipping it correctly? Two things. Firstly the bike will keep moving and won't slow down - if it does, the clutch is too far in. Secondly we should be able to 'blip' the throttle without the bike surging forward - if it does, the clutch is too far out.
Get that mastered, then introduce the rear brake. Ride away in a straight line, keep the clutch slipping but after ten metres or so, gently press on the rear brake to slow the bike to a stop. Then repeat. Keep practicing until the stops are as smooth as the starts. And give yourself a mental slap if you fingers are on the front brake, because we're going to need to keep fingers off the front brake as soon as we start turning. This exercise develops your rear brake control. Work at it till it's automatic.
THE NEED FOR SPEED: Motorcycles are full of paradoxes. Here's another. To make tight turns, riding more slowly is NOT the answer. The bike needs to LEAN and it's MUCH EASIER to lean over when the motorcycle has forward motion - ride too slowly and it just wants to topple over. So let's find the minimum speed that delivers stability. Ride off in a straight line, get the speed up to about 20 mph, then progressively roll off the throttle. Initially, the bike will feel good and stable, and will easily go in a straight line. Although all bikes are different, above 10 mph, the bike's reasonably well-balanced. But as the speed drops and falls to single figures, it will become increasingly reluctant to go straight ahead, and you'll find you need to 'force' it straight. Eventually, the bike starts to wander however hard you try to ride it straight. Note the speed where the bike loses stability. And keep fingers off the front brake.
START UPRIGHT, STOP UPRIGHT: It is possible to start from a standstill with the front wheel turned to full lock, and some trainers do teach this technique. But because the back wheel is pushing the bike in a different direction to where the front wheel is pointed, the bike tries to topple over. A rider with a reasonable sense of what's happening can compensate by immediately getting the bike to lean as it moves but for someone with developing skills, it can upset the apple cart.
So there's a much easier way. Begin ANY slow manoeuvre by getting the bike rolling in a straight line, get briskly to that minimum speed where the bike is stable, and ONLY THEN start turning. If you are having trouble starting the turn, don't forget that even at brisk walking pace counter-steering actually initiates the lean. Only a tiny nudge is needed but it gets the bike leaning. And when we want to stop again, get the bike upright, ensure the bars are straight THEN apply the rear brake to stop (remember - toes on the rear brake, fingers off the front brake). Stopping upright means the bike is balanced. If we try to stop mid-turn, the machine will be leaning over, and that's when we lose balance and end up in a heap.
KNOW WHERE YOU'RE TURNING: We're always told to look "as far around the corner as possible" but where? What I do is look INSIDE the point that I'm aiming the bike for. That is, if there's a kerb on the outside of the turn, I don't look at the kerb but the road surface a metre inside it. The more we want to avoid something, the more it pulls our eyes towards it - if there's parked car on the outside of a right-turn at a junction, that's the last place I want to look. Find somewhere more positive. For example, rather than look at the car, I'd look at the centre line in the road, and use that as a 'reference point' to turn around. Anything distinctive on the road will do. A cats-eye, a discoloured patch of tarmac, a leaf or even a blob of chewing gum. Anything that keeps our eyes from looking at where we don't want to go! And keep fingers off the front brake.
TURNING IN A FIGURE 8: The best exercise to develop slow turns is a nice big Figure 8. We practice turning in both directions, we practice changing direction, and if we're to keep it reasonably accurate, we have to look right round. A common mistake by practicing riders (and some trainers too) is trying to ride too slowly (see above) and to try to turn too tight initially. That makes the exercise difficult, so we perform badly, which saps (rather than builds) confidence. Instead, start big and wide with plenty of speed. Focus on keeping throttle and clutch control smooth with the bars turned, and using the rear brake (NOT the throttle) to control speed. And keep fingers clear of the front brake. Get that head turned, and try to look one quarter of a turn ahead - 90 degrees. Try to find 'reference points' as just mentioned. You can use your own cones, but car park paint markings will do. Start by using the LENGTH of two cars as your goal for each circle. As control improves, steadily tighten the Figure 8 by LEANING, not by slowing down. It's confidence with the lean that makes for tighter turns. Many riders try to ride the Figure 8 progressively slower as they tighten it, and of course that just means the bike stops balancing.
COUNTERWEIGHTING: Pull up and take a break. With the bike upright, turn the bars full lock to the left. Notice how the throttle and and clutch actually get more difficult to hold - the throttle's stretched away at arm's length and the clutch is tucked up in your stomach. That makes full-lock control awkward. Now, pop the bike on the side stand and put your feet on the pegs. You'll have to 'sit up straight' to avoid falling off the bike. Notice anything about your grip on the bars? With your body the 'wrong' way for the corner, the angle of your arms and wrists just got a bit easier.
Now, here's an extra wrinkle that I teach on my Confidence: BUILDER, Survival: URBAN and Basics: SLOW RIDING courses. Twist your backside slightly so your body and shoulders face slightly into the turn. You'll find the first effect of this is to push the 'uphill' knee into the tank, bracing the body against the slope of the seat. The second effect is that because your shoulders are now more nearly parallel with the bars, your arms are at a much more natural angle, and the clutch and throttle are easier to operate. And last but not least, because your shoulders are angled, so is your head. In fact, you're already looking into the turn. Just an easy extra twist of the neck and we're looking that 90 degrees ahead. This is a REALLY useful tip for more mature riders who aren't as flexible as they used to be!
COUNTERWEIGHTING ON A FIGURE 8: Go back to the Figure 8 exercise but now try to introduce this counterweighting (where we sit up on the bike and lean the 'wrong' way) together with the body twist. The easiest way to do this is to make sure there's a short straight stretch between the two loops. Now see what happens when you tip the bike over further whilst keeping speed up (for balance) whilst counterweighting. You'll find the bike turns tighter. And this is the counterintuitive key to slow control - speed gives the machine dynamic balance, lean angle gets it turning tighter... and leaning the 'wrong' way makes it lean more at the same speed.
TIGHT TURNS ON A SLOPE: Now halfway through the Figure 8, as your clutch and throttle control improved, you probably forgot the rear brake. When getting trainees to perform this exercise I have to remind them about every thirty seconds to keep their toes on the lever. But it's our speed control. Why might we need speed control? What happens if the ground slopes - as the road does when making a U-turn over the top of the camber? The bike tries to pick up speed. So the answer is to drag the rear brake as soon as the bike turns over the top of the hill, before it angles down the slope where it would otherwise pick up speed. And as we turn uphill again, simply ease off the brake.
SLOW RIDING ERRORS: If you're having trouble with slow riding, here's a quick reminder of the common errors. Check you're not making any of them:
- Feet - dangling off the pegs
- Toes - up on the pegs, nowhere near the rear brake
- Knees - waving in the breeze so the body is unsupported and moving around, causing the bike to wobble
- Fingers - covering the front brake, ready to make a sudden grab if the bike wobbles
- Stiff elbows - the bike won't steer
- Neck / head / eyes - not looking where to go but under the front wheel
- Too slow - the bike won't turn at all
- Not slipping the clutch - all the speed control is dependent on the throttle and if you shut it, the bike will stop dead and topple over
- Leaning in - pushes the bike upright and an upright bike wants to go straight on
SUMMING UP: That's enough for one riding article but this collection of techniques and tips works on any bike of any size. Work on the exercises, develop the skills and you'll have everything you need for negotiating everything from standard DVSA bike test U-turn and slalom, for the slow skills needed to pass the IAM riding test, to negotiating mini-roundabouts on your daily commute, and right up to negotiating mountain hairpins on holiday. Master them before needing them on the road. Or do you want to discover you haven't got the slow riding skills two-up on a loaded bike turning into a narrow, back-on-itself, downhill corner or junction?
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