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20 Questions: Higher-Performance Riding
Are you as good as your motorcycle?
We spend plenty of time and effort telling you about the latest motorcycles, but without a rider on board, these inanimate objects are nothing more than gas cans. What that rider does or doesn't do determines the motorcycle's behavior. We aren't just talking to the rider of the latest sport bike either; performance riding means getting the most out of any mount. The truth of the matter is the weakest component of a modern motorcycle is the rider, and the more you know about bike control, the better your riding will be.
1. How do I steer a motorcycle?
The term countersteering is often used to describe steering a motorcycle, but that confusing word can cloud the issue. You steer a motorcycle my exerting force at the handlebar, pushing and pulling at the bar to change the bike's direction. To initiate a turn, you move the front tire's contact patch away from the turn and out from under the motorcycle's center of mass, which then turns until the bike reaches the point where gravity and centrifugal force are equal. Shifting your weight to relocate the center of mass also makes you turn, but not as quickly or precisely. Whether changing lanes or slamming into Laguna Seca's turn five, the force exerted at the bar is what actually turns the bike.
2. Should I push on the inside bar or pull on the outside bar to enter a corner?
How you start the turn doesn't matter; a light push or pull rolls the bike into a corner or changes lanes on the freeway, but the more you muscle the handlebar, the quicker your bike turns into a corner, dodges a pothole or avoids an errant left-turner. And the faster you're moving, the more effort it takes to make that push or pull. That's why top roadracers work on upper-body strength; at the end of a 45-minute Grand Prix, the racer who can still flick his bike into corners holds a large advantage.
3. Why would I want to turn my bike quickly?
In roadracing, you want to maximize your time on the straights. If you can turn your bike quicker than the next guy, you can run deeper into the corner before turning, effectively lengthening the straightaways and minimizing the time spent cornering. Street riders aren't concerned with lap times, but turning a street bike quicker allows us to run deeper into the corner and gives us more time to adjust our entrance speed while upright. But most important, a quick flick is sometimes needed to avoid an obstacle that appears with little warning. It also puts you on the right line in most corners.
4. What is the right line?
The larger the radius of a corner, the faster a motorcycle can go through it, all other factors being equal. The right line attempts to straighten the corner with a late, wide entrance, a late apex and a straight exit. If you can turn your bike quickly, you can run deeper into the corner before changing direction, thus increasing the working radius of the last half of the corner.
5. What about braking?
We like to set entrance speed early, and that means braking prior to tilting the bike into the corner. Setting entrance speed early may not be a smart last-lap racing technique, but it greatly reduces the chance of running off the road. Overshooting corner entrance is the most typical single-bike accident, so don't fall into the trap of rushing into the corners with the brakes on. On most tires, the footprints are largest when the tire is straight up and down, and this gives the most traction. All available traction can be used for braking, but if you brake while leaning, some traction is used for cornering forces. It's best to separate braking and cornering by setting your entrance speed early.
Our standard advice to those looking to improve their braking performance is this: practice. Habitual visits to a deserted parking lots will put you in touch with what your brakes can do, where the point of lockup is and what a tire sounds like at maximum deceleration. You can experiment with how much rear brake you can use and get a feel for braking and downshifting in a stress-free environment.
The quicker you reach threshold braking, or the point of impending lockup, the faster you scrub off speed. The best technique is to brake hard and quick, rather than drag your brakes lightly over a long distance. Late braking (pushing your braking deeper into the corner) is dangerous and foolish on the street; it panics the rider and masks entrance speed.
6. So I should yank my brakes on hard, but only for a short time?
Don't yank on your brakes; squeeze the front-brake lever as if it were the trigger of a gun, but you do need to get most of your braking accomplished as soon as possible. This gives you time to fine-tune your entrance speed without speed-induced panic. Your front brake does the majority of the stopping on short-wheelbased sport bikes, but you may with to use - not abuse - the rear brake. If you aren't confident in your ability to monitor rear-brake pressure and are afraid of locking the wheel, stay away from the rear brake during hard braking on short bikes until your right fool gets educated.
7. Okay, I've got my braking done, what next?
Your ability to judge and adjust cornering speed depends upon what you do with your eyes. You need to look down the road, or in California Highway Patrol terms, "Maintain a high visual horizon."
As you complete your braking, your eyes should shift to the apex of the corner or slightly beyond, with your head held level, keeping your eyes parallel with the ground. The panic you may have felt because your entrance speed seemed too high will fade with the new perspective. If you keep your eyes on the road directly in front of you, the rushing pavement will overwhelm your speed sensors, making it seem as if you're in too hot, and you'll stand the bike up and run wide. Anytime you become overwhelmed by speed, try to raise your visual horizon. And remember the age-old adage: you go where you look, so look where you want to go.
8. Sounds simple: just squeeze the brakes, turn the bike quick, and look down the road. That's it?
There's one more basic. Get the throttle on early. If you've set the entrance speed early , you're ready to begin the drive out as soon as possible. If you've overcooked the entrance with too much speed, poor braking or mismanaged visual technique, you'll pay for it during the rest of the corner, if you even make the corner. You must set your entrance speed early.
You will probably turn the bike into the corner off the throttle, which loads the front tire heavily. Concentrate on getting the throttle on as early as possible after you turn in, even if you just bring it off idle slightly, because the rear tire begins to drive, transferring the weight and relieving the load on the front. Suddenly your chassis stabilizes and the bike becomes neutral, ready for the drive out of the corner.
9. When do I begin the drive out of the corner?
To determine this, you must understand what your rear tire is being asked to do. Let's say it has 100 points of traction, and while at full lean, it's giving all 100 points to cornering traction.. If you open the throttle and ask the rear tire to accelerate while at full lean, it will slide because you've overcome its traction limits. When you begin to lift your bike up off of maximum lean to exit the corner, you can then apply the throttle because the tire has traction points to spare. You will probably begin your drive at or near the apex of the corner, even though you may have opened the throttle earlier to neutralize the chassis. The best riders have an extremely precise touch on the throttle, adding fractions of horsepower as the tire rolls from full lean to upright.
10. If I begin the drive at the apex, won't I ride off the outside?
Not unless you turned in too early or didn't turn the bike quickly enough. What you try to do is move the apex around the corner toward the adjoining straight by turning in late; if you steer early, your apex will be early and you will have to delay your drive. You should be rolling on the throttle at the exit as the bike stands up from full lean. If you turn early, or run what's called the low line, you will probably get in the throttle, see that you're running off the road and be forced to chop the throttle and tighten your line.
11. How do I know which gear to use in a corner?
Gear selection for a corner is determined by engine rpm during the drive out. You must determine how your bike makes power. If you're on a ZX-11 or other large-displacement machine, the torque of the engine will pull you out of the corner as low as 2000 rpm. If you're trying to make time, you must determine where you bike begins to make serious power, or where the bottom of the powerband is. A Ducati twin makes useful midrange but may get serious between 6500 rpm and the 9000-rpm redline. The Ducati rider will want to begin his or her drive near the 6500-rpm basement and plan downshifts into the corner accordingly.
If you select a gear that's too tall, your initial drive will suffer until the bike comes into its powerband. If you select a gear that's too short, your bike will hit redline during the drive out, and you will be forced to shift while leaned over, a practice that's avoidable on all but the most peaky motorcycles by correct gear selection. It's good practice to run a gear that's slightly too tall so you can begin your drive off maximum lean in the softer part of the powerband, saving the big hit for when the rear tire is more upright and has more traction points for acceleration. Some roadracers purposefully leave their midrange a bit rich to soften the initial drive, and go faster because of the increased driveability.
12. How do I downshift the bike?
In this case, correctly means smoothly, because a botched downshift at the corner entrance can upset both the bike and rider. The clutch disconnects the engine from the rear wheel, and the engine immediately loses rpm because the throttle is closed. The shift lever moves the transmission into the lower gear. While the clutch is disengaged, the engine must be brought up to an rpm that matches rear-tire speed when the clutch lever is released and the wheel and engine are again joined. This increase in rpm is done with a quick flick of the right wrist just prior to releasing the clutch lever. The process is much more complicated to describe than to do, but it must be correctly coordinated for the right effect. It also becomes more difficult on engines with more flywheel effect or compression, which require more precise speed matching.
Downshifting while sport riding must happen quickly because you are often compressing braking and downshifting into a very short space, but even while cruising to work, you should never coast with the clutch lever in while enjoying a leisurely downshift or through a corner. Snap your shifts decisively, one at a time, and always match the engine rpm to the rear-wheel speed; if the downshift is jerky, you haven't mastered the technique. The other strong reason for matching rpm is clutch-plate longevity: the plates slip less against one another if the engine rpm patches rear-wheel speed. If you don't match rpm on every downshift, you'll be replacing clutches more frequently.
One caution: if you miss a shift between gear, always shift to a taller gear to re-engage the gearbox. If you have gone to a false neutral between the gear you wanted and the one below it, downshifting will put you a gear too low and may cause the rear wheel to break traction when you engage the clutch.
13. Do I brake or downshift first when entering a corner?
Brake first. Remember, the only reason you downshift is to put your motorcycle in the powerband for the exit. Begin downshifting while completing your braking, finishing both tasks before tipping the bike into the corner. You will need to learn the technique of applying the front brake with your finders while blipping the throttle with your palm to match rpm. When you can do is smoothly, without the front fork bobbing up and down with each throttle blip, you've mastered the art of downshifting.
14. What if I enter a corner too fast?
Surprisingly, your bike can probably make it through the corner, but your mind has decided you're going too fast. Don't panic. Move your eyes to the apex, or slightly beyond. Keep braking, but ease off the brakes as you bend the bike in, coming completely off the brakes as the bike goes to full lean. Like the rear tire under acceleration, the front tire under braking and cornering only has a certain amount of traction to give each medium, though that limit is amazingly high. Push the inside handlebar to bring the bike to full lean and try to open the throttle a bit to avoid washing the front tire. Avoid all, don't target-fixate on the shoulder of the road or directly in front of you as you panic-brake. Shift your eyes into the corner, and you'll probably make it while gaining a new appreciation for the abilities of a modern motorcycle. To avoid this situation, set your cornering speed early and look down the road.
15. Do I need to hang off and drag my knee to ride fast?
Absolutely not. Hanging off moves the combined center of mass of the bike and rider so you don't have to lean the motorcycle as far to track a specific arc. This can make up for ground-clearance problems on the track, but it's a sure way to earn a ticket on the street. Hanging off won't make up for early corner entrances, sloppy use of the brakes or indelicate throttle operation and often takes up a rider's concentration that would be better used elsewhere: setting entrance speed, for instance.
Hanging off makes sense on the track: it provides a lean-angle gauge and an outrigger than may catch a front-tire slide, and it helps overcome clearance problems. Getting your street bike on the racetrack isn't as hard as you may think, with most local tracks and roadracing clubs providing track days and various schools offering knee-dragging time all over the country.
Hanging off on the street indicates you're near the limit of your abilities, leaving no margin for the unexpected. The thrill of street riding rests with bike control and lean angle, not outright speed. A race pace on the street will be short-lived.
16. What if I encounter an unexpected obstacle?
Many unexpected obstacles can be dealt with before they're reached if you use your head. If it rained yesterday, expect dirt or mud in a few corners, especially those bordered by a cliff. If there's a housing development on your favorite road, expect drivers to be pulling out of driveways. By concentrating on your surroundings and what you know about a particular road and adjusting your speed accordingly, you decrease the amount of unexpected obstacles to near zero. Of course, there will always be a few surprises out there.
If you've set your cornering speed early you enter the corner under control, waiting to start your drive out. If you encounter gravel or other unexpected debris, steer to the outside automotive-tire track; it will be the cleanest part of the road since a car weights its outside wheels in a corner. Moving outward also allows you to straighten up and get on the brakes briefly. If the gravel patch has no path through it, try and get as upright as possible before entering it, and then put your bike back into cornering mode as soon as possible afterward. Since your tires are using a good deal of their traction points in cornering mode, you can't simply grab the brakes and slow down while leaned over, though a light touch on both brakes is possible even while leaned over. As you ease on the brakes, you must stand the bike up or risk locking the lightly loaded front or rear title. If you've developed your steering inputs, you can snap the bike upright, proceed through the debris and slam the bike down into the corner again with little drama; your bike tracks through debris best with a little bit of throttle, and don't forget to keep looking through the corner. These unexpected hazards are one of the reasons you must leave a margin while street riding. Riding public roads at 100 percent is as foolish as starting a roadrace without a helmet; you may get away with it nine times out of ten, but that last time's a killer.
17. You mention muscling the bike around. Do I need to be strong to ride well?
Turning a fast-moving motorcycle - because of the wheels' gyroscopic effect - or flopping a bike through a set of esses takes muscle, but it isn't a sustained effort. You should turn your bike in one quick, smooth motion, then relax your hands and arms to let the tires track with no outside input. You must fight your initial reaction to grab the bar for dear life; relax your grip, and the bike rolls much more naturally through the corner. Many chassis wobbles can be traced back to a rider holding the bar too tightly; your weight should be taken by your legs (with the balls of your feet on the pegs) and your torso muscles, and that's why the best roadracers work out so hard.
You want to move your handlebar on a plane almost parallel to the ground when you steer your bike, but that straights relatively weak muscles in the arms and torso. Try this: drop your shoulders down on a plane perpendicular tot he steering axis to take advantage of the shoulder muscles, pushing and pulling on the bar with this stronger muscle group. You may discover the missing link in your bike control.
18. What type of physical workout would help my performance riding?
Aerobic workouts put your cardiovascular system and overall musculature into shape to eliminate the small aches and pains that interrupt your concentration. Developing upper-body strength is important because that's what you use to steer the bike; get into a push-up routine, including inclined pushups, and do plenty of situps to strengthen your back. If you have free weights, work on your shoulder muscles; if you have no weights, do inverted push-ups.
It pays to keep your legs in shape with bicycle riding, swimming, jogging, or walking. Squats are a good idea, especially for racers who must lift their bodies from side to side with their thighs. If you aren't into working out, at least stretch twice a day to stay limber in an effort to decrease the discomfort of some of the more radically styled sport bikes. Riding a GSXR or the like is similar to playing any physical sport for the first time; you'll be a bit sore, but your body adjusts quickly if you work at it.
19. How do I prepare mentally?
You need three traits: concentration, maturity and discipline. Concentration comes into play at different points, from mentally previewing your ride before starting the bike, to catching every corner's suggested-speed sign. Concentrate to read unknown corners correctly and piece together clues that hint at a potentially dangerous situation. Do not ride impaired by alcohol or drugs. Some people won't even drink alcohol the day before a ride, and that's a good rule to live by.
Maturity involves riding your own ride, resisting the temptation to pass on a blind corner or race with another rider. A mature rider is able to ride slowly when necessary and evaluates risks before making a move. Maturity is not the exclusive domain of older riders, but painful experiences seem to bring maturity quickly. It takes maturity to acknowledge riding mistakes, rather than blame someone else of the machine you're on. If you don't have the maturity to know when to ride slowly, you should never ride fast.
Discipline involves hands-on riding rather than mental outlook. It takes discipline to run a good entrance line; most riders turn early for the security of a low entrance line. It takes discipline never to cross the centerline unless passing. It takes discipline to remember to warm your tires before turning the bike hard. Most important, it takes discipline to resist riding fast in stupid places, like city intersections, freeway on- and off-ramps, congested back roads or in the rain. A wise man once said, "You can speed on all the roads some of the time and some of the roads all of the time, but you can't speed on all the roads all the time." We all know a road or two that allows the freedom a performance motorcycle can give, so why push it in stupid places?
20. Where should I spend money on my motorcycle?
Good tires should be your first choice. Almost every racer I know has crashed at one time or another because of one more practice session from an old set of tires. As expensive as they are, good sport tires are still cheap insurance.
After tires, you may want to upgrade whatever component isn't cutting the mustard, whether it be a dragging exhaust system or a tired suspension. But smart money is spent on your riding.
I can't recommend riding schools highly enough. Pay attention during the lectures, take notes and make diagrams. Think about what Reg Pridmore, Keith Code, Wes Cooley and all the other instructors tell you, even when you're snowed in during an Illinois winter. Get Code's books and study Kenny Roberts' book - information is invaluable. The bottom line is this: Motorcycle technology currently surpasses rider technology, and hours spent on your skills beats dollars spent on your bike every time.