Ground Clearance & Grip

Cornering on a big cruiser requires a respect for clearance limits.
Cornering on a big cruiser requires a respect for clearance limits.

I just received another letter from a Motorcycle Consumer News reader, this time about a situation he encountered when riding on a twisty back road in Cali on his Street Glide. Here’s his story, followed by my response.


“Ken, your recent article (in Motorcycle Consumer News) on cornering traction was excellent.  I just returned to Las Vegas after traveling up the coastal hwy to Oregon then back down to Las Vegas. While on that trip I had an incident involving cornering that left me very puzzled.
While heading to the coast from the 101 on hwy 128 north of San Francisco I was enjoying the curves of the coastal range. I ride a Harley Street Glide and ride fairly aggressively but not what I consider unsafe. As I was entering one turn (posted at 20mph) I leaned the bike into the turn and suddenly heard metal screeching on asphalt and almost simultaneously was aware that I had lost traction and was heading for the outside of the corner and a steep drop off.
Automatically I jammed my left foot down to the asphalt, but with my speed around 30-40mph sprained my ankle pretty badly. Much to my surprise I regained traction on the outside of the corner and was able to hold it there through the last 1/2 of the corner. My conundrum is that I’m not sure what happened! I felt comfortable with the speed I had entered the corner and I had entered from wide to just inside the center lane when the incident occurred. Normally, if I’m leaning the bike too much I’ll be aware of the foot board dragging. In this case there was no warning, just metal screeching and loss of traction simultaneously. Also, the road was great, with fairly new asphalt and no noticeable debris. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated as this incident has made me extremely apprehensive whenever entering a corner with thoughts of this incident constantly in the back of my mind.”


Fairly aggressive cornering on a cruiser can be done, if you respect the bike's limits.
Fairly aggressive cornering on a cruiser can be done, if you respect the bike’s limits.

My Response

Without having seen or experienced the actual incident, I can only speculate on the cause based on knowledge of typical scenarios like yours. The fact is that ground clearance just doesn’t go from sufficient to nonexistent without a reason. It could be that you were leaning far enough that you were about to touch your floorboard when the mysterious factor occurred and your bike was suddenly grinding hard parts. This levered your tires off the ground and reduced traction.
Most times, when a bike suddenly goes from adequate ground clearance to zero ground clearance, it is a sign of traction loss caused by undetected surface contamination or debris, or abrupt throttle, brake or handlebar inputs, all of which are rider error. Sudden traction loss while the bike is leaned will cause the bike to drop quickly. This usually results in the rider tensing on the handlebars and chopping off the throttle, which exacerbates the problem.
If neither surface debris nor rider error existed, then you have to look at the possibility of a sudden and undetected change in surface camber that reduces ground clearance, or perhaps a depression in the road that would cause the suspension to compress.
Predicting that conditions can change quickly is a key survival strategy and applies to seemingly perfect pavement. New pavement can actually make ground clearance-robbing features such as undulations and dips difficult to see.
Knowing that your bike is a low slung machine means that you must be particularly sensitive and aware of these clearance hazards so that they don’t cause problems. One way to help manage limited ground clearance is to slow down.

Hanging off the inside of the bike helps increase clearance.
Hanging off the inside of the bike helps increase clearance.

You can also learn to use body positioning to help increase ground clearance. By simply dropping your head and shoulder to the inside, you shift the combined center of gravity of bike and rider so that your machine doesn’t have to lean quite as much. Practice this in a parking lot and notice that your floorboards don’t drag as readily. My book has drills that can help.
If you are riding briskly on your Street Glide and continue to have clearance problems, perhaps you are exceeding the limits of the bike and need to consider trading in for a model that is more suited to your cornering exuberance.
Now that we’ve discussed the possible cause, let’s look at your reaction. The sudden loss of ground clearance, for whatever reason, triggered a panic response that not only had no significant effect on allowing your big Harley to recover traction, but also caused you to injure your ankle. This panic response is part human nature and is how most riders react when faced with a potentially life threatening situation.
Off-road riding helps train for minor traction loss events.
Off-road riding helps train for minor traction loss events.

To minimize these survival instincts from causing more harm, you would need to re-train your mind and body to feel okay with minor traction loss. This is not easy to do when you ride a road-going cruiser, but is easily achieved with some off-road riding experience. Off-road riders routinely experience wide variations in traction and become accustomed to traction loss so that they do not overreact and make matters worse.
But, please understand that training yourself to react correctly is not a substitute for being aware of hazards and preventing them from causing an incident from happening in the first place.
The results of overriding a bike's capabilities can be disastrous.
The results of overriding a bike’s capabilities can be disastrous.

I hope this helps.
Ken


Do you have anything to add? Have you encountered a similar situation? How did it turn out? Please comment below.
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Track Day Tire Dilemma

Modern sporty street tires are quite capable of fast track riding.
Modern sporty street tires are quite capable of fast track riding. I have street compound Corsa 3s on the ZX6 in this photo.

Tires can be a source of anxiety to a motorcycle rider. And it’s no surprise, since our tires provide us with the traction we need to make it home in one piece. When it comes to track days, many people use their only street bike to also ride on the racetrack. This is great because they learn the limits of the machine with which they spend the most time.
But, having a bike that is used for both street and track means compromising on certain things, one of the most important being tires.
Below is  a letter I received from a subscriber named Kevin from the UK. I replied to his email and hit the “Send” button, only to have it bounce back. Since this is a FAQ subject, I decided to post it for everyone to read. I am also hoping Kevin reads this reply, so that he knows that I am not ignoring his question.

The Question

Name    Kevin
Subject    trackday tyres – please help!
Hi Ken,
I have been searching the internet in order to get some advice re tyres when I stumbled upon your web site which has some great advice – you are clearly very knowledgeable, I wonder if you can help please? I own a 2006 GSXR 1000 K6 and have just booked a four day track day to Almeria in Spain in September, I need to buy tyres for this trip and am torn between either Supercorsa SP (so road compound) or SC compound (SC2 rear, SC1 front), can you help me decide which is best for me?
Here’s some information related to my situation: – I have participated in UK track days (but not since 2011) , I am generally at the front of the novice group or in the slower half of the intermediate group – I’ve never participated in a European track day before and wonder if the heat is a consideration (it will be around 75-80 degrees) – I used to have a dedicated track bike (only used for 1 track day!) which I ran an SC2 rear and SC1 front on but the GSXR 1000 is now my only bike, from now on it will spend 90% of it’s time on track with a small number of outings on the road Based on the above, do you think the SP (road compound) version of the Pirelli Supercorsa will be ok or would you recommend the track compounds and if so would you recommend an SC2 rear and SC1 front or SC2 for both front and rear? I’m worried the road version will lose grip due a combination of high ambient temperature and constant track use – does this sound feasible?
Based on your suggestion, how many track days do you think I will get from the front and rear tyre, would one front and one rear be ok for all four days or would I need two rear tyres and maybe two front tyres (the trackday is running three groups, 20 minute sessions so is not open pitlane). Would the road version last longer than the track compounds on track or would it be the other way around? This question sounds silly, but how can I tell when the tyres need to be changed? I’m scared that if the answer is to wait until they start to slide then I might crash!
I’ve never used tyres solely on track before so have changed them when they squared off but I realise this won’t happen on track so I’m not sure when I should change them – I want to get as much use as possible from them as they are very expensive but I don’t want to crash! Finally, I have a set of tyre warmers which I used on the SC2/SC1 combination, if you think the SP (road) version of the tyre will be fine, can I use the tyre warmers with them?
Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this, it’s very much appreciated, esp since we have never met and I found your details on line, apologies for having troubled you but this is literally making me lose sleep and you seem to have the knowledge and ability to give good advice.

Tire warmers are necessary for racing, but not for track days.
Tire warmers are necessary for racing, but not for track days.

Regards, Kevin

My Reply

Kevin,
Tires are a big source of stress even for seasoned track day riders. I have not seen you ride, but in your particular case, with the pace that is typical of a novice/intermediate track day rider, you could go with either Supersport street-oriented tires (Supercorsa SPs), or race compound tires (SC1 Super Soft/SC2 Soft).
It’s way easier to have a track-only bike so you don’t have to spend energy worrying about street versus race compound. But, realistically, street rubber is so good these days that you can push them pretty hard on the track and they will perform very well. Besides, novices do not typically need race rubber. However, as your pace picks up and you graduate to the faster ranks, street rubber will not perform well enough for sustained fast laps. That said, I have run advanced group laps on Pirelli Corsa 3 (Corsa Rosso) street-oriented tires with no troubles.
If your bike is going to be on the track 90%, then go for the SC2/SC1 combo. Although you could also go with the SC2s as I’m sure that they will be more than sufficient for your pace and may last a bit longer. The question is whether you want to use them on the street. A lot of people do use race compound tires on the street (often as “take-offs” discarded from racers), however you will wear them out pretty fast. And, you must be aware that race-compound tires will not heat up as quickly as the street-oriented SPs and will never get up to full temperature at street speeds. They may even provide less grip than street tires in normal street riding conditions.
If you find yourself riding more than 50%  on the street, I would consider moving to street rubber. But, once you become a solid intermediate track day rider you will want race rubber. The SP street compound will work, but want your tires to be better than you are whenever possible.
When it comes to tire warmers, they are nice but aren’t necessary, especially for street tires. Two laps at a moderate pace is enough to get them up to temperature. Even race tires don’t require tire warmers, but they do allow you to go fast after only a few corners. I do not use tire warmers at track days. I’m too busy working with customers to mess with them.

Too worn? The tire on the left still looks good, but it was starting to slide, so new rubber was mounted.
Too worn? The street-oriented Pirelli Corsa 3 on the left performed very well and still looks good, but it was starting to slide, so new rubber was mounted. Street rubber has it’s limits when you start going fast.

Deciding when to change tires is a stressor for most people. I did crash once after asking a front Corsas 3 to go one track day too many. The tire had endured a lot of abuse it wasn’t really designed for, so the punishment from too many hard laps caused them to not grip on a cold out lap. If I had just taken it a bit easier until they warmed up I would have been fine.
I tend to change front tires every 6 days and 4 for a rear, or earlier if the tracks I have ridden are particular abrasive. (I don’t know about Almeria).  That is after riding at all group levels with several expert track day laps thrown in. So, in my opinion, you will likely get the requisite 4 days out of both rear and front. Is there going to be a tire vendor at the track who can sell and mount tires if the tires are wearing faster than expected? Often there is. Find out so you can be prepared with tools and stands to change your tires at the track between days.
Good luck,
Ken
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Other posts related to tires and traction:
How to Preserve Traction by Managing Load
How to Develop a Traction Sense
Traction Seminar: Motorcycle Tires
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The "No Countersteering" Myth

A MCN reader recently wrote telling about his enthusiasm for Reg Pridmore’s “body steering” method of initiating lean for cornering. What follows is my response.


“I have 44 years experience riding and currently ride six days a week commuting and sport riding. Three years ago I read Smooth Riding the Pridmore Way by Reg Pridmore. This book completely changed my knowledge of corning a bike. For years I subscribed to countersteering as noted in this article. The Pridmore way is to body steer the bike and keep your upper body relaxed and smoothly controlling throttle, clutch, and brake. It took me a few months to re-learn corning, but now I am much more proficient and safe on the bike. His book goes into the details why this is better and how to master these skills.  It is my opinion that there is an alternative to countersteering and I feel it is much safer to use the geometry of the bike versus fighting the physics of corning with the handlebars. “


Countersteering is not negotiable.
Countersteering is not negotiable.

My response:

This discussion has been going on for over a decade and has even sparked an Internet rivalry between Pridmore and Keith Code, who advocates and emphasizes countersteering as part of the California Superbike School as the best way to initiate lean. Having ridden the CSS No BS bike (which has handlebars mounted rigidly to the frame with a working throttle), I can confidently tell you that body “steering” alone will not allow a rider to corner in any meaningful or effective way on a 400 to 800 pound machine. See the video of Code riding the No BS bike to see how little body position has on direction control.
Yes, body “english” can enhance many aspects of cornering process. I am a very big proponent of body positioning for both street and track riders to aid quicker turning, refine cornering lines, increase ground clearance, preserve traction, and allow the rider to interact more with the bike and the road. But, body positioning alone cannot cause the average street bike to initiate a corner efficiently or quickly enough. That is done by countersteering.
Countersteering uses the geometry of the bike to essentially unbalance the machine, causing it to drop into a lean. There are many other aspects of the process, but that’s all most riders need to know. You mention the other important aspect of masterful cornering, which is relaxing the arms as much as possible once the lean is initiated and using smooth control inputs to maintain control.
I have no doubt that your revelation and enthusiasm for Reg Pridmore’s fine book and teachings are genuine, but I can guarantee that you are using countersteering (in combination with body positioning) to lean your bike into a corner. What is happening is you have replaced some of the “handlebar only” countersteering inputs you have used routinely for many years with a body position technique that is “pre-loading” the bike for the corner.
This shift in the center of gravity causes the bike to fall into the turn easier, making it feel as if you are not putting any pressure on the handlebars. This is a technique taught by Lee Parks in his Total Control curriculum and which I teach to track day students. Next time you go for a ride, pay very close attention to the amount of pressure you are putting on the handlebars as you initiate lean. If you concentrate enough, you will surely notice that you are introducing handlebar pressure. Because there really is no alternative to countersteering, only reducing the amount of pressure needed.
Additionally, the act of moving your body in the direction of the turn causes handlebar inputs. You would have to consciously resist pulling the outside bar or pressing on the inside bar to eliminate any countersteering force, which would be very difficult to do.
I’m glad you feel more proficient. Keep doing what you’re doing, but you’ll be better off if you know what is really happening. Good luck.
Ken Condon
I received a reply from the reader. He is sticking with his belief that he is not countersteering.
Please share your thoughts below.
Listen to the Countersteering PODCAST


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Harley Goes Electric! Will it Fly?

Project LiveWire
Project LiveWire

Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1964 and his diehard fans nearly fell out of their Birkenstocks. Well, history is repeating itself with the release of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle. We haven’t heard too much from the Harley Faithful about this apparent departure from what has made the Motor Company famous, but from past experience with the V-Rod and Buell machines, I can only guess that some American made folks will not be happy.
Bob held his ground even as his most devoted fans booed when he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” with a Fender Stratocaster in place of his usual acoustic guitar. It is said that Dylan “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other.”
Is this what Harley can expect? Boos from the Faithful? I hope not, because I believe that electric motorcycles just may be a big part of motorcycling’s future.
I recently rode a Zero electric motorcycle and was really impressed with almost everything about it. The power was smooth and instantaneous, the sound was soothing in contrast to the invigorating thrust from the radial flux permanent magnet, brushless motor. Sure, the range needs to be improved, but that’s coming.
Update: I also spent time riding an Energica e-sportbike on the racetrack and on the street. The full review is here.

Not Your Biker’s Harley

The LiveWire bike differentiates itself by more than just its motor. It also looks different than the traditional V-Twin cruiser that we’ve all come to know. It’s styling is more power cruiser, like a V-Rod or Ducati Diavel. From a marketing perspective this is smart, because there is no sense in trying to convert the already captured audience that Harley-Davidson counts on to pay its bills. Instead, aim for a wider audience who has an open mind to new technology, engineering and modern styling.
The risk is whether H-D will alienate the traditional rough and tumble segment of the riding community enough so that they harm their established image. Let’s hope we can all just get along and Harley can succeed at catering to both segments: young and old, modern and traditional.

Rolling Thunder

Harley’s are not known for their performance. Sure, they do fine for what they are designed to do, which is to cruise the boulevard or tour the countryside at a leisurely pace. The H-D technology doesn’t exude performance that more modern designs from Victory or the Japanese companies can deliver. But, that’s not the point. What Harley does deliver is a visceral experience of a rumbling V-Twin that means business, even if the performance numbers don’t exactly impress.
Part of the visceral experience of the Harley (and almost any other motorcycle that burns dino-juice) is the sound it makes. I like relatively quiet bikes, but I also enjoy the auditory satisfaction of an accelerating machine with a throaty exhaust note. The number one difference that people need to get used to when introduced to an electric motorcycle is the lack of exhaust noise. Now, for many of us socially responsible motorcycle riders, we see this as a good thing.

But, What about Loud Pipes and Safety?

For those who believe that loud pipes save lives, you will likely exclaim that e-bikes are more dangerous. But, I’ve never been a believer that loud pipes save lives. Sure, noise can add additional conspicuity. But, it’s more important to be seen.
Anecdotal evidence alert: My own experiences suggest that being loud is not a reliable safety measure. For one thing the physics of the way sound travels and my attempts to hear loud bikes as they approach from the opposite direction both convince me that a loud exhaust does nothing to make you safer. I have witnessed loud bikes coming my way and I could not hear them as they approached. That’s why I believe that noise is not a reliable strategy. Your perceptions may vary.
The proven way to avoid being involved in a crash is to be seen.  If a driver can see you, he or she can avoid you. Yes, loud pipes will let them know you are in the vicinity, but they won’t know where you are.
Electric motorcycles will polarize a lot of riders because of the lack of noise and the challenge to the status quo. But before you judge…ride. I found that the combination of seamless power and silent operation are just as satisfying as the rumble and roar of an internal combustion gas burner. Maybe you will feel the same way.

LISTEN to Ken being interviewed in this National Public Radio (NPR) report on the Harley LiveWire project

Thanks to the LA Times for this video:

Would you buy an electric bike?


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What you need to know about Throttle Blipping

Photo2_Shifting_RPMs
Blipping controls the RPM while downshifting.

What is Throttle Blipping?

To execute smooth downshifts it is important to match the engine speed with the road speed. You can do this by slowly easing out the clutch (after you apply the brakes, please). But sometimes a rapid downshift is necessary or desirable. Unfortunately, releasing the clutch quickly can lead to abrupt re-engagement. This is where throttle blipping comes in.
Throttle Blipping is the term used to describe the rev-matching technique where the rider momentarily “blips” the throttle to increase engine rpm to better match the revs to the road speed when downshifting. You’ve probably heard riders blip their throttle, but may have thought they were just being obnoxious and annoying as they roll to a stoplight.
The best example of throttle blipping can be heard when a sport bike is decelerating and downshifting (and usually braking) from high speed. Listen to my friend Aaron as he demonstrates some of the quickest and smoothest throttle blipping I’ve heard (or is it the magic of modern sport bike electronics?). Listen at the end of the straight starting at 0:15:

Here’s another video showing my throttle hand as I blip the throttle. See 2:20. For comparison, I enter the same corner, but without blipping at 4:08.

Here’s another video showing me smoothly execute three non-blipping downshifts at around 4:15:


How to Blip a Throttle

The throttle blipping technique is done by quickly cracking the throttle open then closed (blip) while you simultaneously squeeze the clutch and click the gearshift lever. The point is to get engine RPM matched to the lower gear ratio before you release the clutch. The rapid blipping technique occurs within the span of less than one second. The clutch is quickly squeezed and released as the transmission is shifted down and the right hand blips the throttle. This is repeated with every downshift, one gear at a time.
You can blip the throttle rapidly to reduce the time between gears, or you can be leisurely. High-performance riders blip the throttle very quickly when downshifting between gears as they set up for a corner. Street riders may choose to blip the throttle when downshifting. This is done more slowly when coming to a stop.

Blipping and braking smoothly takes practice.
Blipping and braking smoothly takes practice.

Brake and Blip

Oftentimes, you need to brake while downshifting, but trying to simultaneously brake and blip is a difficult skill to master. The problem is that moving the right hand to blip also causes the fingers to move, which invariably changes brake pressure. Combining braking and throttle blipping can be done with less difficulty if you apply the front brake with your index and middle fingers while you close and open the throttle with your thumb and two outside fingers. Arching your brake fingers is also helpful in isolating throttle movements.
The point is to blip the throttle while keeping consistent brake lever pressure. This is most easily done when using very firm braking pressure , like when braking hard from high speeds  where brake lever movements translate into relatively minor brake force changes.

Is Blipping Necessary?

Some motorcycles benefit from throttle blipping more than others. A big V-twin or single cylinder engine with a lot of engine braking can more easily lock the rear tire if the clutch isn’t released carefully, so blipping makes sense. But, for many bikes, especially ones with in-line 4 cylinder engines, it’s easy enough to quickly but gradually release the clutch  between downshifts. It’s what I do when I ride my Triumph Street Triple on the street or track (see video below). With the introduction of slipper clutches on many sportbikes these days, it’s even less necessary to blip the throttle.
Still, a lot of riders swear by throttle blipping. That’s fine, if you do it skillfully. I find that it just adds another thing to do while I’m screaming into turn 1 at over 100mph. Listen to my downshifts at the end of the long straightaway in this video from a recent track day, starting at 2:06 and then throughout the video. You can hear how I simply downshift and then ease out the clutch. It’s done quickly, but smoothly:

Engine Braking

Not blipping the throttle means I don’t have the problem of coordinating throttle blipping while modulating the front brake, but there is an added benefit that comes from the stabilizing effect that engine braking offers. Let me explain.
Rear brake force, either in the form of rear brake application (which I do not use on the track) or from engine braking, “pulls” the rear of the motorcycle in line with the front wheel. Blipping the throttle during downshifts minimizes engine braking compared to simply easing out the clutch. Engine braking still happens, it just occurs in a shorter duration of time and can be abrupt if not done well.
Do you blip your throttle? If so, or if not, tell us why?


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Schooling the Public

This what people see that prompts them to ask "Aren't you hot?"
This is what people see that prompts them to ask “Aren’t you hot?”

I thought it might be fun to share a sampling of statements I hear often from Mr. and Mrs. Non-riding Public, along with my usual response. Perhaps these statements are familiar to you, too. And maybe your responses are similar to mine. Whatever.

#1: “Aren’t You Hot?”

This is directed toward the fact that I’m wearing a jacket, riding pants, gloves, etc. This question often makes me scratch my head, because I assume that people understand the concept of wind chill factor and can imagine that the gear I have on is perfect, not only for comfort, but also for protection.
Yeah, they don’t seem to understand that riding gear is a compromise. Even the best vented gear can be hot even at speed, but I won’t ride without protection. Grasping that concept seems a bit too difficult for Mr. and Ms. Public without some patient education.
My response: “Not once I’m rolling over 30mph.” “Besides, I need the protection, just in case”.

Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.
Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.

#2: “I Don’t Like Motorcycles…They’re too Loud”

This usually comes up in conversation at parties when I disclose that I am a motorcycle rider. I can fully understand the non-motorcyclists’ reaction to obnoxiously loud pipes. Even as a career rider, I am annoyed and barely tolerant of loud motorcycles. Imagine the lack of tolerance Mr. and Ms. Public has for riders who invade their peace and quiet.
My response: “I don’t like loud motorcycles either.” “Do you know that motorcycles aren’t loud when they are ridden out of the showroom?”
Stunned silence usually follows as they try to comprehend that someone would take a perfectly good (quiet) motorcycle and make it obnoxious…on purpose.
I get it. A motorcycle that makes no sound seems to lack a visceral depth that most riders value. But, personally, I’ve come to value not invading others’ auditory space with my exhaust, so I keep my street bike exhausts stock.
I recently rode an electric “Zero” motorcycle and I can tell you that the total lack of engine sound did not take away from the awesome performance and  unique experience of this torquey, fun machine. I contend that excessive noise detracts from riding enjoyment, rather than enhances it.
And then there is the “Loud Pipes Save Lives” theory. While I understand that loud pipes can get attention, making a bunch of racket is NOT a reliable way to get people to avoid you. Lane position and other strategies that allow you to be SEEN are much more effective ways to avoid a mishap.
Besides, sound is directional, so exhausts pointed rearward are of little benefit when the most likely collision scenario involves an approaching vehicle turning left across your lane at an intersection.

Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.
Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.

#3: “Aren’t Motorcycles Dangerous?”

This question needs no explanation, except that people who ask are implying that because it is risky to ride a motorcycle, that I must be a person who exercises poor judgment. These are often people who value safety and therefore distance themselves from risk…at least things they deem risky, which is most likely things they don’t understand.
Not everyone who asks this question is afraid of risk. Sometimes they are just responding to a preconceived notion of how dangerous motorcycles are. This deduction comes from horror stories heard from acquaintances and from sensational news reports. We all have prejudices based on indirect knowledge and assumptions. These people are simply reacting to what they think is the truth.
Unfortunately, it is true that riding a motorcycle is dangerous. So, how do I respond?
My response: “Yes, riding a motorcycle isn’t for everybody. If you’re not a person who is committed to being as skillful and conscientious as possible, then you probably don’t belong on a bike.”

I guess I'm not a real biker...I have no tattoos.
I guess I’m not a real biker…I have no tattoos.

#4: “Where are Your Tattoos?”

Really? Yep. This silly question usually comes from the mouths of people who make assumptions about what motorcycle riders “look like” and probably don’t personally know a motorcycle rider, or don’t know a motorcycle rider who does not have tattoos.
The “biker types” get the attention of the general public because they make a lot of noise and go out of their way to look tough with their ink and leather “costumes”. These bikers get Mr and Ms. Public’s attention so that their perception is that motorcycle riders dress the way the loud riders dress.
I challenge the ignorance of stereotypes by looking “normal”. Sure, I have my own costume, but it is that of a rider who embraces a motorcycling lifestyle as a sport, daily transportation, and a way to see faraway places.
My response: “Shut the Hell Up.” Just Kidding. I might joke about having ink in places I can’t show in public and say it in a way that makes them question their assumptions of what some riders look like. And then I walk away.

Three people, three motorcycles.
Yes, women ride their own motorcycles.

#5: “How Do You Get Three People on one Motorcycle or do you have a sidecar?”

This question was directed toward my wife when she, our then 10 year old daughter, and I walked into a restaurant on a family motorcycle trip several years ago with all of our riding gear in hand. Caroline hesitated for a moment in disbelief as she finally realized that the person assumed that women do not ride their own motorcycles, therefore the only explanation must be that we all somehow fit on one motorcycle or that a sidecar was the answer. A woman on her own bike never crossed their mind.
Her response: “I ride my own motorcycle, and have been for over ten years.”


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#1 Reason Why Motorcycles Crash in Corners

Josh, looking good on his Gixxer1000 at Loudon. owenstrackdayphotos.com
Josh, looking good on his Gixxer1000 at Loudon. owenstrackdayphotos.com

Motorcycles crash for many different reasons, including in no particular order:

  1. They are not very stable when ridden slow, so tip overs are common
  2. They are hard to see in traffic, so collisions with cars is far too frequent
  3. They only have two small tire contact patches, so seemingly small things can cause traction loss
  4. They require fairly precise rider decisions and inputs when traction is near its limit
  5. Most single-vehicle crashes are the result of a too-fast corner entry speed.

Case Study

My friend and track day student, Joshua had a problem with numbers 3, 4 and especially 5.
Josh had a great day at the awesome New York Safety Track until he didn’t. Check out his VIDEOS BELOW to see how his day ended. He walked away unscathed, thanks in no small part to his quality riding gear. ATGATT, baby. The same can’t be said for his beautiful GSXR1000. It slid off the track without much fanfare until it hit some protruding piece of Earth and flipped a few times. Oh well. It’s just a machine, remember.

Below, you can read Josh’s account of the situation and what he learned.

Sky, Ground, Sky, Ground. :(
Sky, Ground, Sky, Ground. 🙁

The Fundamental Reason Why He Crashed

Riding a motorcycle is more of a mental exercise than physical. Yes, it takes physical coordination and a certain amount of strength to operate a motorcycle. But, riding a motorcycle well is much more than simply operating the machine. It also includes using excellent judgement and having deep knowledge about how to manage all sorts of situations.
Mark Brown from MotoMark1 uses the term “driving” to emphasize that you must not passively “ride” a motorcycle, but rather “drive” it with purposefulness, authority and competence.
Josh was doing great all day and, as was the case with another rider at the track that day, got over confident and pushed just a little bit harder than he should have. This mental lapse is essentially THE reason Josh crashed. A too-fast corner entry is the #1 reason for single-vehicle motorcycle crashes.

Josh and I had worked together during a Personal Instruction Day last week at the NH track on strengthening his “skill foundation” to allow him to safely “drive” his bike at the pace he is eager to achieve.
We made good progress, but the eagerness and drive Josh has for rapid improvement seems to cause him to push harder than he should. This is common with highly motivated people. I can name two other very good riders who are motivated to ride at a top level, but have not yet learned and applied all the information necessary to be able to ride at that level…yet.

All motorcyclists who are eagerly developing their physical skills must also develop their ability to monitor their attitude, self-evaluate their real progress, and use judgement that is in line with their true capabilities.

It coulda been worse.
It coulda been worse.

The Physical Solution

Now that we understand that the crash could have been avoided with a bit of “judgment double-check”, let’s talk about what went wrong and the mechanics of how the crash could have been avoided. Remember: A too-fast corner entry is the #1 reason for single-vehicle motorcycle crashes.

Because Josh had decided to “let it rip” down the straight (probably faster than he had done before), he entered the turn 1 braking zone at a higher speed than he had previously. That’s fine, BUT he did not adjust his braking behavior to match the increased approach speed. With an increase in speed comes the need to:

  1. brake earlier using the same or similar amount of brake force as when approaching at a slower speed, or
  2. use the same brake marker as when approaching the turn at the slower speed, but brake harder, or
  3. a combination of #1 and #2

Either method will work to achieve the goal of slowing to a comfortable entry speed. Braking earlier is generally the best solution where you have more time and space to modulate your brake force to slow without anxiety.


Josh did not alter his “begin braking” mark, so he found himself flying past his usual brake marker and therefore reached his turn-in point at a higher speed than he was familiar (or comfortable). You can clearly see in the forward-facing camera angle that he was missing the apex and then used greater handlebar pressure (countersteering) as he attempted to stay on the track, which overtaxed the front tire and it tucked.

An Expert’s Solution

Could the crash have been avoided in the hands of a seasoned expert? With the bike at that speed and in that position in the corner, I would say maybe, but probably not. HOWEVER,  the expert would have identified that he or she was traveling faster than before and because of this, would have adjusted the “begin braking” location to be earlier and increased the amount of brake force as needed to slow down sufficiently. Expert-level track day riders are comfortable braking very hard, because they have practiced this skill.
He or she would have also used trailbraking to further scrub off speed if necessary as the bike was eased into the corner. However, I want to emphasize that trailbraking is not really “meant” to be a technique used to salvage a blown corner. Done correctly, trailbraking is a planned method for stabilizing the motorcycle when entering corners. That said, if you have trained yourself to trailbrake as it is meant to be used, then it is at your disposal when you need a longer duration of braking force if you inadvertently enter a turn too fast. Read all about trailbraking HERE.

The Lesson

Remember that if you change one thing (faster straightaway speed), you must adjust other things (brake marker and/or brake pressure) to reach the entry speed you are able to handle. Please learn from Josh’s unfortunate mistake and keep your enthusiasm and eagerness in check and resist introducing significantly faster speeds until you understand the concept of cause and effect as it pertains to adjusting entry speed.

Crash Videos

Front view:

Rider Face View:

A message from Josh himself about what he learned:

Staying within limits is a lesson I strive to drive home to my students every weekend as an MSF RiderCoach. The motorcycle, the rider, and the time & space limits around them. My hope is that every rider I come in contact with has takeaway points and thinks about actions and decisions made while riding.
My overall goal as a rider is to learn, fine-tune, and practice as many new and advanced skills as I can. I feel the biggest joy of riding is that there is always something new to work on or perfect. Each year I try and take on something new I can use as a rider and coach. A few years ago I had an opportunity to take a course on dirt bike techniques and later on I was able to become a certified MSF Dirt bike Coach. Last year my new goal was to learn to become proficient in riding on the racetrack at speed.
I went out and bought every book and DVD I could find on the subject, and also a shiny GSXR 1000 that I thought at the time would be a perfect bike to go out and lay down some hot laps. Books and video’s are great tools, however to really be able to learn and apply the skills takes tons of coaching, practice and fine tuning.
My biggest obstacle is always trying to rush and accelerate my learning. I want so bad to be the best and smoothest that I do not take the advice I give to my students. I try and go from step A all the way to step Z in one day. Learning should be in stages and is a building block process. Learn the gross skill 1st and stay within your limits. Ken gave me the best advice of all when he said “Slow down and get smooth 1st”.
I was doing pretty good and learning the New Track. Taking my time and finding reference points and determining where I should look, brake, tip, and accelerate. It was near the end of the day with only 2 sessions left. I was a little tired and sore from working hard on my body position and riding. I started the 2nd to last session and started letting my mind drift away a little bit. I was thinking about the ride home and my fatigue level and on the video footage I had been recording all day; what I would be showing my friends and family and how cool I would look.
I decided to try one more lap and call it a day. I said to myself. “You can push a little harder and get one awesome lap to end the day.” I got to the start of the straight. I did a head check to see if I was holding up any riders. The coast was clear and I gave it all I got. I pinned the gas and tucked my head. Glancing at the speedometer I saw the numbers climbing 130,140,150. I looked up and saw the end of the straight fast approaching. I got on the brakes with a force that seemed very heavy. I was squeezing in on the tank with all my might to hold myself from pushing forward. I saw the turning point approaching fast and thought “Oh No I just blew it” I had lots of speed and not much track left.
I thought in the back of my head. You can do this, usually riders have less skills than the machine they are on. I tried as hard as I could to get into a hang off position and turn the bike. I gave it a flick into the corner and felt the front dropping out. I saw the ground rushing up to my shoulder and I lifted my head up and away from the turn. Boom, I was on the ground and tumbling, I could see the bike flipping as I was tumbling and sliding into the grass. Every second was in slow motion as I could hear the plastic cracking and breaking off the bike.
It seemed like I was going to slide forever and I was saying to myself. OK, please stop now. Once stopped I stayed still, counted to 10 and started to assess if anything was hurt or broken. Not even a scratch. All the gear I had invested in paid off big-time! I looked at the bike and wanted to cry. I knew as I started to scream down the straight I was pushing too hard. I had not taken the advice I want to instill in every single student. I got up and started looking the bike over. Seeing everything all smashed is a feeling I could do without. The session still had 15 minuets to go and all I could do was stand there and wave as my friends and fellow riders went by making smooth turns and having a blast. Sometimes we do not take our own advice and need a hard lesson to set us straight.
Josh


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Vintage Motorcycle Road Racing

A rare Vincent racer
A rare Vincent racer

Yesterday was the the first round of the United Stated Classic Racing Association (USCRA) roadracing season. I got a firsthand look at vintage roadracing in the U.S. by participating in the 2014 United States Vintage Grand Prix at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (aka, “Loudon”).

Vintage Motorcycle Racing, Defined

Vintage racing is fairly self-explanatory. “Vintage” is defined as “of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality.” This means that the machinery at vintage road races will be of another era that feature now-obsolete glimpses into how motorcycles used to be.  When it comes to vintage motorcycle road racing, “old” not only applies to the machines, but also to many (but not all) of the riders.
As you might expect, yesterday’s event had more bald and gray heads than full, dark haired-types. Many participants are ex-racers from an earlier era who are keeping their love of racing alive. One such person is famed author and chassis engineer, Tony Foale who wrote a landmark book called Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design.
There are also many young men and women who have embraced vintage racing. Kerry Smith is a young 30-something who has devoted her career to racing a Giannini Racing Honda 350, not only all over the United States, but also in Australia as a recent AMA National and USCRA champion.
People who choose vintage motorcycle racing have a different set of goals and a more relaxed attitude toward competition than the typical modern-bike “club” racer. The vintage racing atmosphere is light, airy and friendly with clusters of young and old racers comparing notes about such obsolete mechanisms as Zenor Diodes, points and condensers, and drum brake adjusters well into the night before the event.

It's not only old folks who embrace vintage racing.
It’s not only old folks who embrace vintage racing. Here, Kerry Smith talks with Kevin Nixon about his CB160 racer project.

Much of what you’ll see in the paddock of a vintage motorcycle race involves master mechanics performing rituals of tuning that are in threat of being forgotten like a long-lost native language used by an ancient culture that has been diluted by modern life and technology.
Vintage racing is about riding and racing motorcycles, but it is equally about keeping the history of racing motorcycles alive. While many rare bikes spend their retirement sitting in museums, the bikes you see at vintage race events are kept alive and continue to live on, ridden hard…the way they were designed to be ridden.

Once Modern, Now Vintage

I’ve been road racing on and off since 1986.  My racer at the time was a 1976 Yamaha RD400. Even though it was already 10 years old, the venerable RD was still a competitive machine in the lightweight classes.
Today, the RD is a popular choice among the vintage racing crowd. You’ll see, hear and smell a dozen or more of these two-stroke beauties as they fire up in preparation for their time on the track.
Other machines you’ll see are Vincents, Montesas, Guzzis, BSAs and Indians, as well as notable BMWs, Ducatis and Japanese classics. A rolling museum.

Famed author and chassis engineer, Tony Foale with his borrowed SRX600.
Famed author and chassis engineer, Tony Foale with his borrowed SRX600.

It’s Not All Vintage

As with the participants, not all bikes are necessarily vintage. While the most interesting bikes are from a distant era in motorcycle racing history, USCRA also allows the opportunity for certain modern machines to compete in limited classes. There is a 125 GP class and a couple of classes that allow bikes that I don’t consider vintage, but are well on their way to becoming so in their design and performance.
My 1976 RD400 would certainly qualify as vintage today, but it was sold long ago, so I needed to borrow a bike that would qualify to compete. I was originally going to borrow my former MZ Scorpion racer from its current owner, but it would have to be converted from its current state as a street bike back to a racer…something I didn’t have time for. So, instead I borrowed a Kawasaki EX500 Ninja racer from a track day colleague and set off to join in the fun.
The Ninja is not really a vintage bike in any meaningful way, but its obsolescence in the club racing scene is now complete with the deletion of the Production Twins class from club racing and its performance is on par with a wide variety of semi-modern machines, including Honda Hawk 650s. Having a race class for small, inexpensive bikes helps bring newer racers into the sport and helps fill the grids.

Ken_Vintage EXRolling Dumpster Fire

The EX500 Ninja I borrowed was not the prettiest machine in the garage. Far from it. Steve, its owner describes it as a “rolling dumpster fire”. The photo of the bike doesn’t show the depth of its “patina”. Although my patina shows nicely. The EX has led a long and hard life in the hands of several rookie and expert-level racers over the years, and now it was my turn.
Life had gotten even harder for the Dumpster Fire, as it had been crashed the day before during a club race. It’s deeply scared bodywork wasn’t any worse for wear, but the exhaust had detached itself and the handlebars needed replacing…all in a day’s work for a race bike.
A quick pre-tech inspection revealed slightly misaligned bars and a chain that was so loose it skipped across the sprocket teeth at hard throttle. Thankfully, I discovered this before race day began. I put a wrench on all the critical bolts and screws to confirm that everything else was in order.
In the end, the Dumpster Fire performed like a champ. It took both practice sessions for me to figure out shift points, but the bike ran strong and I had my knees down right away. The bike was ugly, but plenty fast.

Wood!
Wood!

Race Day

These USCRA folks are racers and many are able to hustle their machines around the track quite well. They get out there and push hard. But, I had a distinct advantage over most of the riders in my two classes. You see, I put about 2,000 racetrack miles on every season and am used to racing at a pretty high level of competition. Most of my competitors on this day did not have the same amount of track time nor competitive edge.
Because of this advantage, I won two really nice first place plaques to add to my trophy wall. But, more valuable was that I made a bunch of new friends, saw some incredible machines and learned more about just why vintage motorcycle road racing is popular among both old and young motorcycle racing enthusiasts. Thanks for letting me ride with you, USCRA.
I wonder what bike I will borrow for next month’s event. Hmmmm.
Tell us about your vintage racing experiences in the comment section, below.
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Countersteering Will Save Your Life!

Getting a big (or small) motorcycle to turn requires more than just body weight.
Getting a big (or small) motorcycle to turn requires more than just body weight.

It’s hard to imagine that so many so called “experienced” riders either fail to understand the importance of countersteering or fail to recognize that countersteering is how motorcycle really turns.

Let’s Get This Straight

A motorcycle turns by leaning. Once the bike is banked over, the geometry of the chassis, as well as the rounded profile of the tires and hard-to-describe forces cause the machine to arc around the curve. So, to turn a bike you must get the motorcycle to go from upright to leaned…precisely and efficiently.

I Don’t Need No Stinking Countersteering

A lot of riders believe that they are able to maneuver their motorcycle by simply leaning their body or by looking into the turn. While these are helpful techniques for assisting the bike to turn, they alone cannot effectively cause a 500+ pound machine to change direction.
“Yeah, but I can turn my bike without countersteering.” Um, not really.  Sure, you can cause the bike to drift into a turn, but that’s not what can be called “turning”. Also, consider that most people who don’t think they are countersteering really are, they just don’t know it. Pay close attention the next time you are making any sort of turn and notice how you put a slight amount of pressure on the inside handlebar.

What Really Happens

In case you don’t already know, THE most effective way to get a motorcycle to go from upright to leaned is to introduce handlebar inputs. By pressing forward (and to a lesser degree, down) on the handlebar on the side that you want to turn, you essentially unbalance the bike so that it “falls” into a lean. Press on the right handlebar to initiate a lean to the right and press on the left handlebar to turn left. Got it?
You can enhance this effect by also simultaneously pulling on the other handlebar. This is how racers achieve quick changes in direction in chicanes on the racetrack.
Once the bike is leaned, then the front tire will steer slightly into the direction of the turn. You must relax your arms to let this natural balancing effect occur otherwise it will feel as if the motorcycle is not able to maintain the cornering path. Press, and then relax.

Why You NEED to Know How to Countersteer

Countersteering is used whenever you need to change direction. This applies to basic cornering maneuvers, as well as evasive maneuvers, such as swerving. It’s also important to be able to countersteer with authority when a corner suddenly tightens more than you expected, or when you approach a tight corner at a too-fast speed.
Not being able to get your motorcycle turned quickly will eventually result in an off-road excursion or collision with an oncoming car or a guardrail. Seriously!

Prove It To Yourself

If this makes no sense to you, then it’s time to practice. Take a look at the video clip below from the RITZ DVD for more information on countersteering and to see some drills that will help you master countersteering.
 

Read this article that Ken wrote for Motorcyclist Magazine about countersteering.

Listen to the Countersteering PODCAST
Add to the list in the comment section below.


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Read about strategies and techniques that increase safety, confidence and enjoyment.

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Guest Writer: The Art of Group Riding

Marc Robidas is the newest RITZ guest blog contributor. Marc is an experienced road and track day rider who pilots a Ducati 798 on the track and a Hypermotard SP on the street.
Let’s see what Marc has to say about group riding.


Group rides can be a great way to meet like-minded riders.
Group rides can be a great way to meet like-minded riders.

The Art of Group Riding

I enjoy group rides. Each ride brings an opportunity to meet like-minded people and to discover new roads. Any group of people will vary in their range of skills. You know you’ve found a good group to ride with when no one feels they need to pick up the pace, and any reckless display of awesomeness is discouraged.

Ride My Own Ride

Not long into the ride, I have a sense of the other riders’ skills. It might be easy to keep up. Or maybe the rider ahead is slightly more skilled; they become my carrot.
Sometimes, I notice the gap growing between myself and the rider in front of me. There is mild guilt about creating a gap in the group of riders and the temptation to twist the throttle is strong. So off I go to close the gap.
Wait, wait, wait! What’s going on here? Am I really “riding my own ride”?
On twisty roads in particular, I savor the relationship between myself and the road with little or no influence from the other riders. When the road gets challenging, I let the gap grow sufficiently so the next rider is not an influence on my choice of corner speed.

Don't let pack mentality ruin your ride.
Don’t let pack mentality ruin your ride.

Sometimes this means the next motorcycle is out of sight. Allowing the group to stretched out allows each person to ride in a way that feels comfortable.

Comfort

Speaking of comfort, an all day group ride can add 300+ miles on the odometer. From a cold morning start, hot afternoon and wet finish to the day, bringing the right riding gear will make every minute a treat, and minimizes dangerous distraction.
The ride will undoubtedly be a mix of smooth twisties with pavement that has seen its better days. Although my bike’s suspension is on the firm side, it is adjustable. Softening the settings allows me to ride a full day in relative comfort.

A pre-ride meeting makes sure everyone is on the same page.
A pre-ride meeting makes sure everyone is on the same page.

Group Etiquette

Communication among each group member is essential. A pre-ride meeting is important to describe the route and the expectations of the group leaders. Any use of hand signals during the ride need to be explained.
Arrive at least 15 minutes early with a full tank of gas and an empty bladder. And, don’t be that guy (or girl) who is late for the rider’s meeting and is then clueless about the day’s plan. Group riding essentials are covered in the MSF’s guide: click here for the group ride PDF, and below is a video from the MSF about group riding. Take a look.


From Ken:

Group riding can be a blast, but it can also be quite dangerous if riders do not understand the idiosyncrasies of riding in a group. It’s also risky to ride with people who are not skilled. Be discerning about who you ride with and don’t be afraid to bow out if a particular group does not share your values of risk management.
Here is an article that talks about the dangers of Peer Pressure.


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