Once you’ve gone through your rider’s safety course and earned your motorcycle endorsement, it’s time to get some quality seat time under your belt. Before long, you’ll get comfortable with the handling, acceleration, and overall behavior of your bike. This is an important milestone. But even at this point, you’ve only scratched the surface of a long love affair with motorcycling. There is still so much more to learn to better enhance your riding abilities. Here are three major ones.
Get to know your brakes.
Most riders simply don’t use their front brakes enough. This is a problem because on most modern motorcycles, the front brakes are the most powerful component on the machine. While it can take time to master — because you are controlling both the throttle and front brake lever with the same hand, learning to maximize it will pay huge dividends when it comes to stopping as quickly and safely as possible.
To do so, find an open road or empty parking lot and practice pulling the brake lever with your index and middle fingers, while simultaneously using the rest of your hand to close the throttle. This will not only help during a panic stop, but can also be useful when slowing before a corner. A general rule of thumb for cornering is that you will want to have your braking done as much as possible before negotiating a turn. Typically, braking mid-corner can upset the balance of the bike and provide a harrowing experience for the rider.
As far as using your rear brake, think of it as a compliment to the front brakes. Engaging the rear brakes just before your front brakes should help settle the bike as it slows. It will counteract the bike’s tendency to front-end dive. If done correctly, it will also shorten your stopping distances. But it’s important to remember that too much rear brake can lock up the rear wheel. This is especially true if you have the clutch pulled in, letting the rear wheel roll freely. Leaving the clutch engaged allows the chain or belt to resist the braking motion slightly since it is still under power from the engine.
Learn the art of shifting.
While it may not seem like it, shifting is an art form. Perfecting this art can take your riding to a whole other level. While upshifting should come naturally the more you ride, learning to downshift quickly and smoothly can be more challenging. When you downshift, there are opposite forces at work. As you slow down, or grab a lower gear to accelerate faster, your engine speed drops below the speed of the rear wheel the instant you pull the clutch in to shift. If you do nothing to counter act this, once you engage a lower gear, you’ll probably experience an abrupt, and unsettling, deceleration.
In some cases, a slight lock-up, or sliding of the rear wheel, can happen as well. While a lot of modern bikes come equipped with “slipper clutches” to help minimize this, it can still happen. These issues can also make things hairy under heavy braking. As you apply the brakes, the weight of the bike transitions forward, taking contact patch away from the rear tire. This further increases the chances of lock-up.
You can counteract this effect with two different methods: “blipping” the throttle, or “slipping” the clutch. When blipping the throttle, rev the engine slightly after pulling in the clutch lever to bring engine RPM up slightly to match rear wheel speed. Then, engage a lower gear and smoothly let out the clutch lever. It will be difficult to master at first because you must maintain constant brake pressure and rev the engine with the same hand. To practice, start by trying the blip technique by downshifting while you let your bike coast in a higher gear. This will give you a feel for matching engine and rear wheel speed. Once you get the hang of that, then you can move on to use the technique while braking.
The “slipping” technique also requires a great deal of dexterity and feel. When slipping the clutch, you gradually and slowly engage the clutch after downshifting to help mesh engine speed to rear wheel speed. This technique will require more brake input since the bike isnít affected as much by engine braking. This is more of an advanced technique, and as always, give yourself plenty of practice on a clear road or in a parking lot before putting either technique to use in the real world.
Steer your bike with more than just moving the handle bars.
Anyone with some seat time on a motorcycle or even a bicycle can tell you that the most effective way to steer is with your body. The only time you should have to turn the handle bars is during low speed, tight radius turns. During normal cornering, you should only have to put light pressure on the handle bars to get your bike to lean into a corner. Few people realize it, but most of your steering input and bracing should come from your lower body. Your trunk should support your upper body weight, while your arms should be left relatively un-weighted, allowing them to gently rest on the handle bars and controls. If you’re using your arms to support your weight, you’re doing it wrong.
While this is a bit easier to do on a cruiser since your weight is naturally supported by the seat with your legs out in front of you on the pegs, it may take some time to develop your core strength on a standard or sport bike, since more of your weight is leaned forward.
Learning to steer with your body and legs is essential because you can transition from side to side much more effectively. By weighting the inside foot peg on the side of the direction you want to go, with your outer leg pushing against the tank, you can “pull” the weight of the bike over much more rapidly than by just using the bars. Lastly, always remember to keep your upper body loose and relaxed, and rely more on your lower body for steering input and support. This will help maximize the finer inputs required to modulate throttle, brakes, and clutch.