Google+ Two-Wheeled Tourist: On riding ANY motorcycle regardless of seat height and bike weight...

3.29.2011

On riding ANY motorcycle regardless of seat height and bike weight...

One of my favorite perks about working at a motorcycle dealership is test riding bikes either as soon as they come to the store or before they are delivered to a customer. However, not every motorcycle I ride is the ideal seat height, weight, or ergonomics like that of my daily bike. Additionally, I only have a brief ride around my building to get a decent feel of the bike's controls before taking it for ten miles on a route that involves local roads, a portion of the interstate, and a series of constant starts, stops, fast acceleration and deceleration.

It's come to a point that I don't even think about it anymore, and I can attribute that ability of getting comfortable with any motorcycle to many miles ridden on my owned motorcycles and the many traffic situations that have required me to use my brake and clutch with precision. There are several aspects to controlling a motorcycle that, when mastered, will allow you to ride pretty much anything you desire. Here are a few that I've felt are the most important.


1. Good understanding of a clutch's "friction zone."
Every motorcycle has a different "friction zone," or the point where the clutch begins to grab and the bike begins to move. This is vital to controlling the motorcycle. You learn over time that various styles of bikes differ in the location of those friction zones. In most cases sportbikes and standards tend to be quicker to start moving than cruisers. For example, the Yamaha V-Star 650's (cruiser) clutch doesn't start to actuate until the lever is almost 3/4 of the way out while my last bike, a Suzuki SV650 (sport/standard) instantly starts to grab when the lever is only several centimeters out. Regardless of the type of bike, learn how to control your smoothness in release, throttle, and in "feathering" the clutch (holding it partly open to control transfer of power from the engine to the rear wheel) in tighter, slower speed situations.

2. Ability to upshift/downshift smoothly.
Upshifting smoothly on a motorcycle is a combination of finding that "sweet spot" when revving the engine and a smooth release of the clutch as you change gears. Shifting too early can cause a loss of power when accelerating and shifting too late can give you an uncomfortable lurching feeling (which, if you end up in that situation, can be counteracted with a gradual clutch release).

For those motorcycle riders that have an understanding or previous experience with manual clutch in a car, you've probably learned that downshifting a car enables you to slow down the vehicle to a near stop without using the brakes. This concept works just the same with a motorcycle. Unless it's a emergency stop on the bike you'll find that using the engine to help you slow you down will severely reduce use of the brakes, and with lots of practice you'll be able to decelerate a bike smoothly via a combination of downshifting and braking. Additionally, proper use of downshifting will also help you take advantage of your bike's powerband and torque. This is vital on twisty roads and freeway interchanges when it's important to accelerate quickly out of turns.

3. Understanding the bike's balance.
Being a little under 5'6" in height with a 29" inseam, there are many bikes in the market that will have me on the balls of my feet and/or the tips of my toes at a stopped position. Even though many riders prefer to have their feet completely flat on the ground, this is not vital to the control of a motorcycle at a stop. If the bike has a significantly taller seat height (for me defined as over 31") I would assume a dirtbike-like posture where my left foot would be flat on the ground while my right foot is comfortably set on the footpeg and hovering over the rear brake pedal. Most motorcycles are balanced enough that one foot down is all you need to keep it upright.

Two of my favorite examples are the test rides I've done with the Honda Goldwing GL1800 and the Triumph Rocket III (2300cc engine), two of the largest motorcycles in production today. Although their engines are huge and the bikes are significantly heavy (over 800 lbs. each), their engineering is so well planned out that each bike's center of gravity is near the bottom of the machine. In effect, both of these bikes do not feel as heavy or as overwhelming as their engine sizes may suggest. In fact, I am able to balance a Goldwing on the tips of my toes at a complete stop without feeling any tendency to tip over. Now that's awesome design.

4. Ability to brake smoothly and gradually.
Near perfect braking is a combination of slowing down gradually using both front and rear brakes while keeping the bike straight. Smaller bikes will need a faster speed of entry to stay straight while stopping while larger bikes can still remain upright at slower speeds because of their larger mass and center of gravity. I made practicing this skill a game with my previous bikes by trying to bring my bike to a stop so gently that I did not put any weight on my left foot when I put it down. Gradually I was able to get a bike to stop so smoothly that my feet were simply "landing gear" to keep the bike straight and steady at a complete stop. Ideally that's where you want to be when you master your stopping. Your ankles can only take so much additional weight.

5. Don't panic.
Confidence in your skills is key to being able to ride any motorcycle. Practice, practice, practice. Take advantage of test rides and try out different types of bikes. With enough experience on a bike you will reach a point where you can manage a different motorcycle's quirks with little effort. Remember the basics. Keep your head up and look where you want to go. Use both brakes. Find your friction zone. It's all the things that you learned in your MSF Safety Course but practiced over and over again. There is no substitute for time and miles. Get out there, ride your bike, and master those skills!