Older brothers will tell you nothing when it comes to riding motorbikes. It’s their lot in life to torture their younger siblings and rise above them as better riders; teaching them means roosting dirt in your face as they rip past on bigger, faster motorcycles. At least that’s how I remember growing up.
I like to reflect on what I’ve learnt riding bikes over the years, and it only occurred to me recently that I haven’t had much training to speak of. I’ve never done a Superbike School course, any advance riding training, or more to the point, no-one has really ever told me just about anything to do with motorcycle riding. I learned by doing.
But perhaps that isn’t the best way ya’ll hear me, right?
I wish SOMEONE had told me at least SOME of these things as I took to the road. Sure as shit would have saved me a few offs.
So without sounding like an arsehole telling you how to suck eggs, here are 11 things that I try and remember riding motorcycles on the road. It works for me, hopefully it helps someone else.
So many learners I see these days are rigid, seemingly praying for their lives. Great way to crash. Every bit of tension you hold, especially in your forearms and hands (even in your hips), transfers down the bars, into the shocks and onto the front hoop that is trying to keep you stuck to the road. The worst state to be in is, afraid.
Relax, breathe. Let the bike tell you what to do. If your bike doesn’t ‘fit’ you and its forcing you to sit in a funny way or makes you tense up, then change things. Try bar risers, lower the pegs, take the bones out and get shorter ones, whatever you gotta do to make it work for you so you are not tensed up like a wound spring. Even Cafe Racers with their uncompromising ergos can be made to fit a rider.
Breathe and relax. All the time¹.
Sounds silly right? It isn’t. In fact looking up also means looking ahead. Look for what’s coming up, not what is directly in front of you. Check that car up on the left, have they seen you? Don’t overtake on the outside of that cager that’s been indicating right for half an hour, you never know what they are doing.
Look up and around for stuff happening all around you. Be super vigilant about being observant. Increase your sense of periphery vision with constant relaxed head checks. Being stiff (see above) and only checking your mirrors by casually moving your eyes left to right is not enough. That’s what cars do, and why they don’t see you.
Don’t stare at things you don’t want to hit
This one is pretty simple, but hard to master. You see something on the road ahead, or you spot it mid-corner, and that curiosity (the one that killed the cat) makes you focus on it.
Just don’t, ok?
What ever you look at and point at with your eyes, is exactly where your motorcycle is going to go. If you don’t want to hit it, look past it, look at the exit, look at your apex, look away from the thing obstructing your path and you will go around it. Simples.
New tyres need ‘scrubbing in’
I’d just gotten my first proper road bike. A stupidly retarded four-stroke four cylinder ZZR 250 that revved up to 14,000 RPM and went nowehere fast. I never kept it long before replacing it with a more ridiculous and stupidly fast Suzuki RGV 250. But I digress, the rubber on my new entry level sport-bike was bad when I bought it and I wanted sticky tyres so I could go tear up the Gorges and Chain of Ponds like everyone else.
Down to the shop, on with some new hoops and without any word of warning sent off out the door.
I took off down Main North Rd and was instantly amazed at my new levels of grip. So much so that I decided to deviate and took the next right hander with gusto only to find the whole bike just disappeared from beneath me while I did somersaults down the road after it. Good job I wasn’t on the main road anymore or I would have been instantly run over by whatever was behind me.
Angered, no furious, I cursed the damned shop, upped the bike and rode straight back there with thoughts of faulty tyres in my mouth and much cursing to ensue.
I should have known better. The tyres weren’t faulty, as the tyre man stifled back the giggles with a smug look on his dial, ‘mate, they are brand new, they’ve still got (snort) wax on em!’.
WTF?? No I did-fucking-not.
Yes, that is right, new hoops are coated with some sort of wax crap and when they are new, even if you tyre guy has washed them for you, they still need to be treated carefully for the first few hundred kms, until you have done some proper riding and carefully got the bike over on both sides to wear that shit off.
Beware the new rubber is the lesson here. Scrub them tyres in as they say.
Ride through it
Sometimes you are going to hit shit. It’s just a matter of when. Be it a stick in the road, a Wombat* or a Cockatoo, some loose rubble or a puddle – it can’t be avoided on two wheels.
My learnings here are; ride through that thing like there is nothing there at all.
Don’t focus on it, accelerate or swerve and try to miss it, just go straight through it at the same velocity you were travelling at; imagine yourself on the other side of it, clear, and make it so.
Things happen really quickly on two wheels and in your calm relaxed state of mind, you shouldn’t be jerking to perform a sudden stoppie-of-death or swerving out onto a rubbly shoulder to miss a butterfly.Smash that sucker and hope for the best.
*There is no hope if you hit one of these, it’s a brick wall with legs, go around the Wombat.
Three ways to go faster around corners
If you follow along you will know I grew up chasing my brothers on dirt bikes through the scrub before I transitioned to road bikes, but loads of guys n girls don’t have this opportunity, and funnily enough, no one has ever ‘taught’ me how to ride a bike, pretty much ever that I can remember.
That changed about nine years ago when a merry band of brothers/sisters created the annual ADR (Australia Day Ride) and we started a three-four day ride around parts of Australia.
It must have been about ADR 2 when I got my first bit of advice from ring-leader Murphy whilst I was complaining about not being able to corner like Bully or any of the leaders of our pack.
He said, ‘there are three things you can do to go faster around corners: drop your elbow, drop your shoulder or get your arse of the seat’.
Genius. Why had no one ever told me these things before? I don’t know why, but since that day I have been going faster every year (I think) and I still recall those words of wisdom whenever I’m out hitting it hard. I’m sure as shit more confident about it at least.
By virtue, dropping your elbow makes you drop your shoulder, but try this one next time you are out on a familiar long sweeper. Dropping your shoulder is a fast track to ‘counter steering’ so if you are turning right, then drop your Right elbow; this pushes your Right handlebar AWAY from you (counter steering) and holy smokes batman, it just works.
If the shoulder feels weird, drop your elbow just a touch; this will pull your body forward a bit (a must for fast cornering) and pull your shoulder down with it so it achieves the same thing. It makes you go faster around corners.
Getting your arse off the seat is the other obvious way to get more speed around corners; just watch any bike race on telly and you can see how the pros attack it. My rule is pretty simple, I get myself off the seat as I am heading into the lead up for the corner, before the corner get your body position and weight right. The principle is straightforward: the more upright the bike is, the more traction it keeps and that early body weight transfer helps you keep the bike in a nice smooth (relaxed) arc as you attack the corner.
It’s not rocket science, stay relaxed, be smooth and don’t jerk the bars mid corner or over compensate on the throttle. Commit.
And if you really want to go faster then go do a track day, or at least watch Motovudu by Simon Crafar – that video changed my riding life.
Loads of people come arse up by changing their minds at the last minute. I’ve done it plenty of times. Mostly mid corner, running wide or fixating on that blasted tree branch you think you can go around, but often I see it on the roads in peak hour traffic. Worst mistake you can make. Hesitation causes accidents.
On two wheels you need to be committed to your every action. If you are conscious of going in too hot, try and do something about it prior to the corner. Don’t change your mind, brake, straighten up and run off the road. Lean more. Trust me, the bike can lean a shit tonne further over than you think it can.
Know your limits
This one is really hard when starting out, I mean if you are new to riding, then how are you to know your limits? Good question.
Got to an industrial estate, or an abandoned warehouse carpark, or a closed off parking lot on the weekend, somewhere you can practise, and bloody practise! Everyone can benefit from honing their skills and you need to find somewhere that is relatively safe and (?) legal so that you can have a crack at it with some level of confidence.
I recommend practising your safety stops, a lot. Run at something (a cone or a box) and practise full-on stomping on the front and rear brakes (front more than rear). Find your rear brakes lock up point, practise it until you know where it is. It’s scary at first, but find the point where your back wheel lifts off the ground a bit, practise it, become familiar with it.
Practise, practise, practise. But not on the freeway or in peak hour traffic, please.
Learn to go slow
I also had the luck of living next door to Trials riders. They rode Montesas over fallen logs, down creeks, through the roughest crap our scrub could throw at us. They were awesome.
And it was all done at the slowest speeds with the utmost control imaginable. It was some of the best life experience I could have received although I didn’t know it at the time. Whenever I get on a new bike, or ride a friends, I try to remember to go slow first.
Do a right hand U-turn, do a left hand one, do some figure eights, ride the front brake as you let the clutch out, feel the point where it releases, get used to the throttle as they are all different now and some have literally no feel whatsoever (marketed as Ride By Wire) and it is essential that you are familiar with this. Check what the back break does, even though many riders don’t use them much I think it is essential to know your back brake (years of dirt riding taught me this) and how it can help level your bike out. It’s totally different from the front brake, it doesn’t have much stopping power but it is there for a reason, learn how to use it.
Go back in the carpark and do all of those maneuvers we talked about and don’t try to go faster, try to go slower. Crawling pace. Practise your balance, learn to steer with your hips and FEEL how that feels. Become familiar with it. Trust me, this all helps make you a better, faster, more confident rider at road speeds.
As my favourite author, Douglas Addams says, don’t panic. There is no room for panic on two wheels. See point 1.
Above all else, enjoy being on two wheels, it’s a feeling like nothing else in the world.