Tips for Leading a Motorcycle Group Ride

Riding with a group of friends can be a blast. But, it can go all pear-shaped if certain precautions aren’t taken upfront. Some problems are merely inconvenient, like when the group has to wait around because someone didn’t arrive with a full tank of fuel or when someone goes AWOL during the ride.
Other problems are more serious, like when a guy runs into the back of another rider because he was riding too damn close, or when a knucklehead lowsides into a guardrail trying to keep up with the fast guys.

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

As a group leader, it is your responsibility to take some basic precautions. Let’s take a look at a few.
Before we start: These tips do not take the unique issues of very large groups into account. However, these tips can be used for groups of 2 to perhaps 30 riders.  Trying to manage more riders than that and your into a whole other ball of wax. Breaking into smaller subgroups is a better solution.

We Gotta Talk

The root of most group riding mishaps can be traced to a few key factors. The first one is a failure to voice basic ground rules so that members know what to expect and what is expected of them.
Start by evaluating the group; are they aggressive and reckless, or law-abiding and considerate? Is there talk of drinking alcohol or stunting? If so, then nip it in the bud, or pay later.
Speed & Passing

The group is better off if all participants agree on general speed limits and passing. Some group rides I’ve attended come right out and say that I should expect illegal passing and speeds that exceed the legal limit. Knowing this ahead of time let’s me decide whether or not to participate.
One option is to break into sub groups with one sticking to more conservative speeds while following the rules of the road.
Another rule I want to know is whether there is passing within the group. I’m not a fan of inter-group overtaking because it encourages bravado and risky dicing. If passing within the group isn’t allowed, then faster riders should ride up front and everyone must maintain a safe following distance from each other. If a rider wants be in a different part of the group, he or she can wave someone past or change positions at the next stop.
When the leader decides to overtake slower traffic, he or she must be smart about whether it’s worth the risk. If you have a turn or stop coming fairly soon, just hang tight. But, if the opportunity presents itself to make a pass that is safe for all, do it. Your fellow riders then decide to pass or not and hopefully have the self-discipline to patiently wait if it’s unsafe to overtake.
Passing as a group is dangerous if riders blindly follow the person in front. It’s better to tell your group to wait until the rider ahead has almost completed the pass before committing. And when making the pass, maintain passing speed well beyond the slow vehicle so that the next person has room to return to the lane and file in behind you.

Formation


A staggered formation is often the norm when on long straight sections of road with at least a 2 second following distance from the bike directly ahead. This means that you will be only about one second behind the rider offset to your immediate left or right. Even though the staggered formation gives riders access to the width of the lane, this formation is pretty tight and can lead to collisions when attempting evasive maneuvers. By riding two abreast, you are limited to either the left or right portion of your lane. And that’s just not good enough for maximum safety
That’s why the leader needs to abandon the staggered formation when the road is narrow or riddled with surface hazards and when the road turns twisty! When following single file, each rider has the full width of the lane to use cornering lines or avoid mid-corner hazards. .
There is a recent discussion about something called the “reverse formation”. It basically has the front rider in the right wheel track rather tahn the left. The idea is that it affords the second rider to see and be seen better. But, I have my reservations, because this puts the first rider in a spot that is hidden from view and prevents him or her from seeing ahead as well. See the video and add your thoughts in the comments below.

Hand signals are useful for alerting the group of a hazard or a change in plan.

Staying Together

One time when riders should be side-by-side is when coming to a stop or entering traffic. When stopping, the leader should gradually slow and come to a complete stop. The rest of the riders should “box in” so the group is compact.
To keep the group together, the leader should stop and wait  when possible, like at intersections and then wait for the last rider to arrive. Look for a thumbs-up before continuing. This is used in combination with each rider taking responsibility for the rider behind by waiting until the straggler is in sight before turning onto a new road.
One thing I see from time to time is a group leader who is too concerned with keeping the group together when it isn’t necessary (or safe). For example, if there are no turns or stops for people to get lost, then keep moving, make safe passes and let people have fun. And know when it is important to keep the group together, like in areas with many chances for wrong turns.
When it’s time to go, the leader should leave slowly. This helps prevent the bungie effect where riders in the back must go much faster to catch up with the leaders. Remember, the group is relying on the leader to lead the way.
Some groups use communicators between the group leader and a “sweep” rider to monitor things. This can really help manage group rides and is a way the leader can know if the pace is okay or if there is any potential trouble. An experienced volunteer should be put in charge of this sweep role.

The Pace

Group riding often places safety in the back seat. It’s not unusual for safety-focused individuals to become reckless when exposed to pack mentality. One thing to emphasize that each person rides within their limits and to resist the temptation to keep up with the group. Far too many group rides end in tragedy because one or more participants exceed their riding ability.
Managing the group’s pace is the job of the leader. Many times the leader sets a moderate pace, only to increase the speed as the ride progresses. It’s okay to wick up the speed through a nice set of twisties, but you must then slow the pace to allow stragglers to catch up without much effort. This pattern balance fun with predictability that encourages slower riders from feeling a need to stay in touch.
Yamaha Champions School guru, Nick Ienatsch penned The Pace article that has been referenced by many riders over the years. Check it out.

Poo, Meet Fan

When things do go wrong, you will want to be able to manage the situation. Ask if anyone is CPR or First Aid certified if you’re not. Know if you’ll be riding in areas with no cell service and have an idea of the nearest population if you need to send someone to make a call.
It’s smart to attend a class or seminar that discusses how to manage an accident scene and a motorcycle scene in particular.
Before this happens, you also need to consider if you could be held liable. Some groups require waivers, but most don’t. It’s implied that each participant is responsible for his or her actions, but that doesn’t stop family from coming after you anyway. Sucks, I know. But it’s the society we live in. It’s another reason to follow these tips to avoid problems. Also, encourage full protective gear so relatively minor mishaps remain minor.

Set the Tone

Yes, being a true group leader (as opposed to a reluctant leader) means you are willing to take on the responsibility. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. It can be stressful, but is also rewarding to show others a good time. Group leading isn’t too hard with just a bit of preparation.
This leadership begins before the ride by posting rules and expected behavior, encouraging full protective gear and explaining logistics. A bit of foresight reduces risk and increases enjoyment. And if things go well, you’ll look like a hero. If things go wrong…well, just follow these tips and you will hopefully be okay.

Sweep Riders

Well organized groups select a strong rider to take up the back to keep an eye on things. This person can identify any particularly weak or aggressive riders and can help keep the group together. Communication to the group leader is a huge plus.

More on Group Riding

Marc R. one of our guest instructors penned a piece on riding in groups that dovetails nicely with this article. Check it out.


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Video: Cornering Seminar with Ken Condon

At the request of the district manager for the Northeast Region, I booked several dates during mid-to-late winter of 2018. One event was held at Wilkins Harley-Davidson, located in South Barre, Vermont. As with each of the talk, around 100 people attended to learn about cornering…or learn more about cornering. Wilkins recorded the seminar in its entirety.
My aim with these talks is to spread the good word about the benefits of life-long learning…safety and MORE FUN and satisfaction. A secondary goal is to encourage participants to join me for one or more of the training opportunities I offer or am involved with.

And finally, I bring a stack of books for people to buy.
OK. On with the show. It’s over an hour long, so find a comfy chair.


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The Cure for Riding Anxiety

Since few of us are masters of every aspect of motorcycling, we invariably experience bouts of low-level anxiety or even panic. Anxiety mostly sucks, but it can also be a useful tool for helping you be a safer and more proficient motorcycle rider…if you pay attention.
From my article published in Motorcyclist Magazine:
“The best riders frequently check themselves for signs of stress and then act to regain relaxed composure so they can enjoy a safer and more gratifying ride. With anxiety out of the picture, they can also identify where the stress is coming from, whether that’s a lack of confidence in their ability or trepidation about a particularly risky environment, such as a rain-slick corner or a route riddled with dangerous intersections. Whatever the source, these riders use their awareness of stress to recognize their comfort limit and then back off so that anxiety does not affect control, safety, or fun.”
Too bad I couldn’t follow my own advice.

My Story

Recently, I’ve had a series of off-road mishaps of varying levels of severity that have messed with my Mojo.

I figured perhaps upgrading to a more capable and lighter machine would help. So, I sold the sturdy and rider-friendly KLX250/351s and bought a beautiful KTM450 XC-w. I never intended to buy the KTM, but the price was right, it was in a nearby town and it was sexy as hell.

I knew from the day I bought it that the 450 was more bike than I wanted or needed. It’s not that I didn’t think I could manage the power or the edgy handling, but the fact that it was a less rider-friendly bike made my anxiety worse. Ugh.
So, I remedied the situation by buying a Honda CRF250x. It’s the bike I should have bought in the first place. It’s more like a play bike than the KTM, but more capable than the KLX. Let’s see if that was the cure.

The Test

With the confidence of a less intimidating bike I went riding with my friend Paul at his local dirt track. This area features a motocross-type sand section and some tighter technical trail stuff with some steep drops and climbs, as well as log crossings. The last time I was at his track on the bigger KTM I managed to overcome the challenging sections, but with difficulty. Going in, I totally expected things to go easier on the 250x.

Paul contemplates my plight.

Turns out that the cure was not a different bike. Sure, it helped, but the anxiety was still there. I stared at a particularly scary looking traversing hill wondering WTF? I got past it and tackled the hill several times, but was tense and on the edge of panic much of the time. The rest of the course was easier, yet I still felt anxiety.
Paul, being the supportive friend he is, told me to slow down and just roll around. I was trying to ride the way I am used to riding…sliding the rear and zipping at a decent pace. Well, that was just adding to the anxiety. Once I slowed down to a novice pace, I started having fun and things went sooooo much better.

Emotions trump Logic

So, why wasn’t I able to follow my own advice as outlined in the Motorcyclist article? Because emotions tend to trump logic. I wanted so much to overcome the fear that I pushed on instead of doing what I tell my students…slow down to reset your sense of confidence and competence.
I’ve never been as confident off-road as on pavement or on the racetrack, so I tend to think of myself as a rookie rather than the reasonably competent dirt rider I really am. By slowing down, I am reminded of my true competence. This reinforces the positive. And the more I ride this way, the faster I substitute anxiety with confidence.
By riding in complete control at all times I am (re)building a solid foundation that then allows me to climb out of this rut. If I were to fruitlessly keep pushing without stepping back, I would surely dig the hole even deeper and just reinforce the hold anxiety has on me.

The Cure

The CRF250x is more user friendly than the big KTM.

I tell my on-street studentsat the beginning of the day that we will be riding well within their comfort zone, becasue they can’t learn and build confidence if they are using all their attention on managing anxiety. And when it comes to my track day students, I tell them that they gotta go slow to go fast.

I believe that most anxiety can be traced back to just a few things…some are physical, like slow speed maneuvers or weak countersteering, but most are mental. Learning tricks to control the bike and read the road or trail with more confidence are keys.
 
Whether it’s street or dirt riding…Slow down so you can keep your eyes and attention well ahead of you. That way things are much easier to process. If you use too much bandwidth to manage anxiety you look down, tense at the handlebars and everything goes pear-shaped.
Of course, slowing down is only part of the cure of riding anxiety, but it’s an important place to start. You will likely also have to sharpen weak control skills that are adding to your anxiety.

Pressure to Measure

This is moments before I lost the front wheel over the high lip of a berm and gave myself some serious whiplash. I was pushing myself too hard trying to get past the intimidation I felt with the KTM.

This all sounds like solid advice, but I can tell you that it’s not easy to follow. If you’re like me, you have an established image of yourself as someone who can manage the challenges of a typical dirt (or street) ride and not be so slow as to hold up the group’s pace.
I’m also competitive, which doesn’t help. I tend to ride fast when the right thing to do is hang back and not feel compelled to keep up.
The takeaway here is to listen to your anxiety and respect it for its attempt to alert you to SLOW DOWN. Instead of forcing yourself to tackle challenges with abandon, take it easy to build back your confidence.
Ignore your anxiety at your own peril. As the saying goes: check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Share your experiences in the comments section below.


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5 Ways to Avoid Being a Dumbass

Because I’m considered a motorcycle skills and safety “expert”, some people think I’m immune to doing dumb things. Well, I got news…I am just as susceptible as the next guy at being a dumbass.

The results of ignoring my inner voice.
The results of ignoring my inner voice.

I will concede that I am probably above average in the “ride smart” category. I should be…after years of coaching, writing and lecturing about how to ride “right”. But, it turns out training and knowledge can only go so far in mitigating the influence of the dumb-dumb gene. See the Crashing Sucks article for proof.
In the end, we all must realize that we are fallible. Thankfully, there are a few things we can do about it.

1. Get Smart

There are riders out there who learn to “operate” a motorcycle without ever really knowing how to “ride” their machine. The difference between these two things is more than semantics.

  • “Operating” a motorcycle means you can get it to go, stop and turn with enough competence to get around. That is a very loose definition of riding.
  • “Riding” means being able to not only operate the bike proficiently, it also means you can predict problems, strategize to prevent conflict, and then control the machine when shit goes wrong.

Too many riders think that having the ability to clutch, shift, brake and turn well enough to get to the local hangout without injury is sufficient. In reality, the basic skills needed to truly minimize the likelihood of an expensive and painful ride to the nearest medical center are simply not enough.

Non_Sport_Track
Doing a track day will increase your riding smarts…a lot.

This is the risk posed by giving new riders a motorcycle endorsement after only a weekend of basic training, which essentially gives the newb a false sense that they are proficient riders when in fact they are not even close.
I know what some of you are saying…”I never had no stinkin’ training (or no further training beyond the BRC) and I’m doing just fine.” The question is, How do you measure “fine”?
Remember that what skills and habits you have are the only tools available (besides dumb luck) when a catastrophic event unfolds in front of you. In this case, most riders’ definition of  “fine” is nowhere near good enough.
So, the first thing to do to avoid being a dumbass is to get smart. Read, take parking lot courses, on-street training, track days, or simply practice on your own or with friends to keep your “safety/skills” muscle active and to combat complacency.
Swerve-brake
Taking a breath will help prevent close calls like this.

2. Take a Breath

Sharing the road with idiots is infuriating. Many drivers are mindlessly “operating” their vehicles, putting little value in courtesy or your safety. But, don’t make a bad situation worse by succumbing to road rage. There are a bunch of YouTube vids showing riders being total asses to a driver who made a mistake. Keep in mind that those drivers are NOT out to kill you. They are humans who make mistakes.
And if you reflect on your last driver-versus-rider situation, you will likely see that YOU contributed to the driver making a bad decision.
When it comes to tailgaters, it takes all kinds of willpower not to react in frustration and anger. But don’t. Read this article about tailgaters before your next ride.

3. Listen to Your Inner Voice

At the risk of sounding all new-agey, I must point out the importance of developing a relationship with your inner voice. Yes, you have an inner voice. Some people call it a gut feeling, but for me I actually hear a voice. This voice isn’t the product of some mental condition, rather it is a trait of very sane people who pay attention.
Example 1 (Good): I’m approaching an intersection at or slightly above the speed limit. Everything looks to be in order with cars stopped at the traffic light and pedestrians waiting patiently. But a faint voice tells me to slow down. I roll off the gas just in time for a dog to run out from the brush. Whether a part of me actually saw movement in my periphery, I cannot say. All I know is that my gut said to slow, so I did.
Example 2 (Bad): I see a particularly beautiful vista that I want to photograph, so I stop on the edge of the remote road. The front of my bike is pointed down a rather steep hill, but instead of shutting down the motor and leaving it in gear, I click the transmission into neutral and keep the bike running. I dismount and check that the sidestand is fully lowered and tug on the handlebars to make sure the bike won’t roll forward.
But, as I start to walk uphill to snap the photo, my inner voice says “are you sure leaving the bike in neutral is wise?”. I remember looking back one more time to make sure the bike was okay and ignored the voice. I took a photo, then started walking a bit further up the hill when I heard the sound of plastic on asphalt (see opening photo). Dumbass.

Collarbone-XRay4. Remember that Crashing Sucks

Believe it or not, a lot of people never think about what it would really be like to crash. This is why so many riders choose to stunt and race in public and why people choose not to wear full protective gear. It’s really common for someone to suddenly “see the light” and start wearing a helmet, or armored gear, or real riding pants, or a back or chest protector, only after he, she, or a friend suffered an injury that would have been prevented by any one of these pieces of protection.
Same applies to behavior…people ride like idiots until someone gets really hurt, or until they get in legal trouble. Only after they’ve paid some crazy fine and lost their license do they figure out that there are ways to have just as much fun without so much risk, and at less cost. Cough…track days.
So, remind yourself that riding a motorcycle exposes you to risk of serious injury. This truth doesn’t have to kill your riding buzz; rather having a healthy sense of self-preservation helps you make better decisions and opens your mind to options that are just as much fun but with less risk.

Personal bests, competition, camaraderie... photo: otmpix.com
Track Days and Racing is a smarter and safer way to scratch that adrenaline itch. photo: otmpix.com

5. Wake Up!

If the thrill of high-stakes risk is your thing, but your riding smarts don’t match your risk-taking, then the likelihood of you being a dumbass is higher than most.
Unfortunately, I probably will not be able to change your mind. Like an addict, you can only help yourself and that usually only happens after you’ve reached your own personal rock bottom.
I just hope your rock bottom doesn’t include taking out a family in a mini-van or one of your buddies. Wake up before it’s too late. Seriously. Cough…Track days…. Cough…Racing.


What am I missing? Add your comments below.
Remember that I moderate comments and it may take a few days to approve yours. But, rest assured, your voice will be heard.


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5 Reasons Why Roadracers Give Up Street Riding

Personal bests, competition, camaraderie... photo: otmpix.com
Personal bests, competition, camaraderie… photo: otmpix.com

Most roadracers start out as street riders. But a lot of roadracers (and some track day riders) stop riding on the street after they begin riding on racetracks. Why is this?

  1. Riding on the street is dangerous. At first blush, you’d think racing motorcycles is way more risky than street riding. Even though roadracers ride at triple-digit speeds within inches of each other, everyone is going in the same direction and is alert, sober and competent. That can’t be said for the deaf, dumb and blind drivers that street riders must dodge on every ride. Add in poorly maintained roads, surface debris and other deadly hazards and the street rider is at a serious disadvantage compared to someone who rides only on closed courses. And if you’re into riding aggressively, doing so on the street is just asking for trouble. There are way too many variables that are beyond your control and if you go down, the chances of severe injury is higher than crashing in the controlled racetrack environment . The only place you should consider trying to achieve knee-dragging speeds is in the controlled environment of a racetrack. Besides being unsafe, you could end up in jail.
  2. photo: owenstrackdayphotos.com
    photo: owenstrackdayphotos.com

    Racers are Athletes. Racers treat motorcycling as a sport with all of the rewards that come with dedicating energy and resources to the goal of improving skills. Personal bests and measured improvement keep the racer coming back for more. Few activities match the satisfaction of trimming a tenth of a second from an already fast lap time. While riding a motorcycle on the street can be an athletic endeavor, it’s not the same.
  3. The thrill of competition trumps the freedom of the open road. The reason many people are drawn to motorcycling is the sense of freedom when gliding through the landscape at speed. Those who venture beyond their immediate surroundings discover the thrill of motorcycle travel and adventure. While those motivators are still relevant to the rider-turned-racer, they take a pillion seat to the challenge of pushing their motorcycle (and themselves) to the performance limit.
  4. Racing camaraderie runs deep. There is no doubt that many street riders find satisfying relationships with like-minded road-goers. Meet-ups at diners before a weekend ride or running into familiar faces at a rally can be the catalyst for new and long-lasting friendships. But, there is something very special about the relationships between people who share the ups and downs of an extreme sport like roadracing (or track day riding). One of the things that always brought me back to the track is the desire to re-connect with my track family. Those who are part of a race team enjoy a familial level of support that will last a lifetime. Awards banquets, garage parties and BBQs, as well as communal efforts to aid fallen riders help cement these relationships.
  5. Racers like mechanical challenges. Street riders check their tire pressures often (hopefully), but racers check them several times a day. Performance mods on street bikes are done mostly for fashion, but racebike mods are purposeful. Suspension and power delivery must be as precise as possible, which requires a deep knowledge of these systems (or the money to get help). Racers tweak, replace and adjust and then measure whether the modifications worked with the help of a lap timer.

I still enjoy street riding. A lot.
I still enjoy street riding. A lot.

It’s important to note that a large number of racers and even more track day riders still choose to ride on the street. I fall solidly under that category. I find that street riding (done well) is equally as challenging as riding fast on a racetrack.
Since most of this blog’s readers are street riders you may ask what the point is of this article? Well, I thought it would be of interest to regular street riders to get a glimpse of what makes racers and track day riders tick. It should also put into perspective just how risky street riding can be and prompt you to learn all you can about how to survive on the street. Maybe it will also stimulate some curiosity about taking a track day.
What am I missing? Add your comments below.
Remember that I moderate comments and it may take a few days to approve yours. But, rest assured, your voice will be heard.


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The Horsepower Crutch

Kawasaki's 300hp H2R
Kawasaki’s 300hp H2R

The seduction of horsepower is tough to resist. After all, who doesn’t like the rush of torque and thrust pulling on their arms when they twist the throttle? And, if more power is good, then even more power must be great, right?
Most motorcycle riders find nothing wrong with an abundance of horsepower, and many strive to buy as much horsepower as they can afford. But, they often do not consider the real cost of maximum acceleration.

The Real Cost

When I mention cost, I’m not talking about the fact that you’ll drop exponentially more jingle on engines with more cubic centimeters (or cubic inches). The real cost I’m referring to is how an increase in power comes with an increase in certain risks.
Sure, more power can get you into trouble faster… and in the wrong hands, can lead to tragedy.  That’s the obvious risk. But, too much power can also conspire to erode confidence and enjoyment and stall or even reverse skill development. This risk is greatest with newbies and intermediate riders, but can pertain to so-called experienced riders as well.

These 1980s turbo charged bikes awarded the rider with a n addictive rush of power.
These 1980s turbo charged bikes awarded the rider with an addictive rush of power.

How Much is “Too Much”

You know you have “too much” horsepower if you rely on it to keep up with your faster riding buddies. This applies to both street and racetrack riding.
As a track day and on-street instructor, I have learned to recognize when a rider is doing this by how he or she enters turns slower than necessary and then piles on the gas.

A Hayabusa just may be more bike than you need...Just maybe.
A Hayabusa just may be more bike than you need…Just maybe.

The Horsepower Enabler

The problem is that horsepower can fool you into thinking you’re a better rider than you are. You can feel that your riding ability is adequate, if at the end of a set of twisties, you are within eye shot of riders you know are truly competent.
Without all that power available to make up for cornering shortcomings, a less competent rider would likely be left in the dust. And peer pressure doesn’t tolerate that.
“Keeping up” is a bad idea, but it is regrettably the most used measure of a rider’s ability when comparing their ability with others. This is especially true among the sportbike crowd, although I see it with all types of bikers.
A rider who uses power as a crutch may not even know it. They have unconsciously developed the habit of twisting the throttle to keep up.  Unfortunately, it often takes a cornering mishap to help them recognize that there is a serious weakness in their overall level of proficiency.

Break The Throttle Habit

A riding coach is the best way to find out whether you’re on the road to trouble, but you may be able to self-evaluate IF you pay attention to how you use the throttle.
While proper cornering technique includes acceleration out of corners, timid throttle application near the middle (apex) of the curve followed by a handful of acceleration at the very end often indicates weak cornering skills. Weak cornering skills lead to a lack of confidence and future crashes. If this is the case, then it may be time to bone up on your cornering technique.

Voluntary Tiered Licensing

So, perhaps you’re not as good at cornering as you think, and maybe the abundant power your bike creates just may be enabling you to remain a mediocre rider. But, power is indeed attractive and even addictive. Kawasaki’s newly released 300hp H2R is proof that the motorcycle industry has a goal of feeding the horsepower addiction.
In other parts of the world, tiered licensing is the norm. This includes a restriction on how much horsepower your motorcycle can have. The MSF understands the importance of low horsepower when learning to ride. They require any training motorcycle to be 500cc or less and weigh less than 440 pounds full of fuel.
But, in the United States, we are free to buy as much horsepower as our credit will allow even if you don’t have a motorcycle license. Knowing that power is often a crutch, I suggest you do the smart thing and impose a voluntary tiered licensing strategy.
The voluntary tiered strategy is good, but it doesn’t mean you will not rely on power to mask your cornering weaknesses. However, without the addiction of abundant horsepower, you are less likely to use it as a crutch.

So, Which Bike?

I suggest that new riders start off on a 500cc or smaller bike, such as Honda’s CB500 or 300, or the Ninja 500, 250 or 300. After a full season on that bike, (including a track day or two), you can consider moving up to a middleweight class bike, which includes 600cc sport bikes, or 800-1000cc cruisers. A couple seasons on the middleweight just may allow you to move up to whatever bike you want.
Before you think that the tiered strategy does not apply to track day and racing, think again. Whenever a track day rider wants advice about what bike to buy for racetrack riding I usually steer them toward an SV650 or Ninja 650R. Why? These bikes have modest power, so they force riders to develop expert cornering and passing skills. Smaller bikes help riders develop a strong foundation to build upon… and they are cheap and fun.
Check out this video of me riding a 32 hp 250 Ninja on the racetrack and tell me this doesn’t look like fun.
What are your thoughts on horsepower crutches?


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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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Top 5 Ways That Motorcycle Riders Screw Up

Being average isn't good enough.
Being average isn’t good enough.

1.Thinking You Are Better Than You Are

Overconfidence and an inaccurate, overinflated self-image is responsible for a lot of motorcycle crashes. This is certainly true with young men (the majority of crashes in MA involve young sportbike riders). But, you old guys (and gals) aren’t immune. So, listen up.
Most motorcycle riders are average, at best. On the surface, they look competent enough, but when the going gets rough, their weaknesses become apparent. Everyone should occasionally look in the mirror to try and identify their weaknesses and then act to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Group riding can bring out the worst behavior.
Group riding can bring out the worst behavior.

2. Succumbing to Pack Mentality

Group Riding can make the most level-headed rider do really stupid things. It’s something about the energy of a group, in combination with the need to prove that you’re a good rider that often fuels bad behavior. I’m not immune. Knowing that I can get sucked into riding too fast (for the street environment) causes me to be very selective about who I ride with.

Busted!
Busted!

3. Speeding in All the Wrong Places

Riding too fast for the street environment is one of the stupidest things you can do on a motorcycle. Yes, it sucks to get pulled over, but it sucks more to crash because you simply didn’t respect the reality of street riding. Errant cars, animals and pedestrians can jump out from anywhere and sand, gravel and fallen branches often lurk around corners undetected. I like riding fast, but not too fast. I reserve the really fast stuff for the racetrack.

An all too common sight.
An all too common sight.

4. Mixing Alcohol with Riding

Are you kidding me? As if being an average rider isn’t dangerous enough,  are you willing to add impairment to the equation? Talk about stacking the deck against you. Listen, I like  drinking a beer or two just like the next guy (or gal), and there was a time long ago when I would even jump on the bike after having a few. Thankfully, I survived those days.
You may think you’re fine to ride with one or two cold ones having passed your gullet, but combining drinking or other impairments with riding is totally counter to managing risk. I’m not your father, so do what you want. But, I ask you to please refrain.

See it coming before it happens.
See it coming before it happens.

5. Failing to Predict Danger

Close calls are a warning. Crashes are the result of you not heeding those warnings. The best riders develop a sixth sense about their surroundings. They scan the roadway looking for anomalies and evaluate if anything is “wrong with the picture”. They are actively searching for problems and are way ahead of the situation, because they are prepared. By “preloading” hazard scenarios into their mind, they are already halfway toward managing any hazard. Try it. Not only does it make riding safer, it’s also fun, like a video game. Don’t let them get you!
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Proficiency Pledge

Proficiency-Pledge

I included this pledge in the post about Tommy Aquino, but thought it was worth making it a standalone post.
Earlier this past year, I included a pledge in one of my MCN columns to encourage readers to think about their responsibility to be the best they can be.
Take this pledge for yourself AND for the ones who love you. If you won’t commit to safe riding for yourself, then think of your loved ones who will grieve your demise if you die or be forced to clean your oozing wounds and look at your disfigured face if you live, but didn’t wear your riding gear. Just sayin’

Proficiency Pledge

  1. I will expand my knowledge of motorcycling safety and control through continual reading, and by taking a formal safety/skills course.
  2. I will continue to practice my physical skills to keep them sharp.
  3. I will develop mental strategies for managing traffic and other hazardous situations.
  4. I will never ride while intoxicated or impaired in any way.
  5. I will choose not to ride if my ability to manage hazards is compromised.
  6. I will choose not to ride with others who do not share my commitment to safety.
  7. I will wear protective gear on every ride.

Signed:___________________________
Feel free to add your own points. Also, feel free to copy this pledge and print it out.*
Then sign it, hang it on your garage wall, and give a copy to each of the people who care about you.
©Ken Condon 2014 *Anyone wanting to distribute this pledge to the public should contact me for permission. This includes Facebook. Credit must be given to me with a link to this post. Thanks.
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The Key to Motorcycle Safety (and Fun)

What kind of attitude about safety does this suggest?
What kind of attitude about safety does this suggest?

It’s probably not what you think.
You wouldn’t be alone if you thought that the most important part of riding a motorcycle is to learn the physical skills, such as braking, cornering, slow speed maneuvers, and perhaps swerving. While those are very important skills to master, it is the mental skills that are the most critical skills to develop when it comes to reducing injuries and death. And the most important mental skill of all is attitude.

Wait, what?

Yes, in my opinion attitude is the most critical thing to get right; before cornering, or braking, or strategies for managing traffic. Attitude colors the relationship a rider has with motorcycling. A positive and committed attitude toward safety needs to be established from the start and maintained throughout a rider’s two-wheeled career. That’s right, I said career, how’s that for a committed attitude?

Shut Up and Ride

I know that this kind of talk can be a buzz kill. I would rather ride without the need to consider the limits of the riding environment. Sometimes I just want to ride like the twisty public roads are my own personal racetrack, and there are times I just don’t want to play well with other drivers. Unfortunately, I know too many motorcycling friends who died too young to not take the limits seriously.
It’s not enough to be very skilled at controlling a motorcycle. If your attitude stinks and you can’t seem to keep a healthy balance between fun and safety, then your days on two wheels are likely numbered. So, I say Shut Up and Ride WELL!

This guy was a student of mine some years back. His attitude for learning to be the best rider he could be was contagious.
This guy was a student of mine some years back. His attitude for learning to be the best rider he could be was contagious.

The good news is that a positive, committed attitude also leads to more enjoyment and fosters the often-illusive “Zone” that most of us covet.
All photos © Ken Condon

You Have to Want It

How badly do you want to survive? Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but it’s a serious question. When it comes to participating in a sport where people die, you owe it to your loved ones and yourself to ask that question. If the answer is “I really, really want to survive”, then do something about it.
It’s important to have excellent physical skills, such as cornering, braking and the ability to perform evasive maneuvers. However, superior mental skills prevent the vast majority of close calls and crashes. Learn to play the mental game and you’ll be a winner. Refuse to learn the tricks of motorcycle control and survival and you’ll lose.
But, it all starts with a committed attitude. Without an attitude that prioritizes risk management, then it’s unlikely that really proficient mental and physical skills will ever develop. It takes a commitment to be really good at anything, including motorcycling. Without a certain level of commitment, you can count on mediocrity. Can motorcycle riders afford to be mediocre?

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