Two skills limit how well you ride:
• What you are able to make your bike do
• What you choose to make your bike do
In the US, many riders first learn machine control skills on a
MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) course. That gives
a great start to novice riders and gets them up to the level
to go out and gain practical experience of riding on the
There are similar schemes in other countries.
You master the basics, learn to survive in a hostile
environment where you are the only one without a steel
cage as armor and become a competent street rider.
What’s the next step? How do you go from competent to
good? From good to skilled?
If you have deep pockets and no time to lose, go to race
school. Heck, some kids start competing so young that
they don’t qualify for a license to ride on the street. But
those kids are a tiny minority. Most riders are not driven to
race; it’s not an overriding goal. If you enjoy motorcycling
and want to improve your skills, raise your game without
having it take over your whole life… then this guide is for
When you can control your motorcycle well, you can:
• Ride with confidence
• Go faster, safer
• Command respect from drivers and riders
• Deal with the unexpected
• Have more options in any situation
• Have a bigger safety margin with the same time and
So it is definitely worthwhile putting some time and effort
into improving your skills.
When you see an expert rider, whatever the circumstances,
straight away you get the impression of ‘man and machine
in perfect harmony’. I say man, but when the helmet comes
off you may find it’s ‘woman and machine in perfect
harmony’. There are not so many women motorcycle riders
but the ones there are tend to be good, very good.
Forget any idea of ‘one size fits all’.
Your bike has to fit you
just right if you want to have precision control. To change
down smoothly under braking, your front brake and clutch
levers must be positioned right.
For smooth starts and slick
changes the clutch bite point needs to be set right. A badly
set gear-shifter can make you wobble and your changes
slow up or down the box. Little things do matter. Even two
people the same size may need to set a bike differently to fit
differences in arm, leg and trunk lengths as well as riding
style and personal preference.
Adjusting the controls ‘spot on’ gives you optimum control
with maximum comfort. Each control action does its own job
without disturbing balance or weight distribution, in an
emergency that can be the difference between staying in
control and coming off.
So let’s look at how to do it.
Set that front brake
We want instant braking
Easy throttle blipping for smooth down changes
OK, in your normal ‘at speed’ body posture, reach out for
the brake. It needs to be angled so that it ‘falls to hand’.
Try it eyes closed. If the lever is too high your wrist will
bend up uncomfortably and it will be even worse as you
lean back into your braking posture. If the lever is too low, it
might feel OK in your sit up braking posture but it won’t fall
naturally to hand at speed.
Once you have found the small range of rotation of the lever
that feels right for just braking, work on braking and blipping
the throttle at the same time.
Most times you do this, you will be in sit up posture under firm braking, slowing for a
curve, but just occasionally you will want to brake and
downshift while maintaining your ‘at speed’ posture. (I find
this happens when aborting a passing maneuver and
getting ready for the next chance).
Perfect blipping is most critical when under heavy braking
because that’s when rear tire is lightly loaded you are most
likely to break traction with a bad downshift, so bias your
final setting to favor this situation.
Set the clutch
Easier than setting the brake lever because your left hand
only has one job. For me precision clutch control is most
demanding when maneuvering at walking pace, so I want
the angle set for that.
The other thing to adjust is the clutch biting point. Two
things are important here: low speed maneuvering and
quick downshifts at speed.
To get quick shifts, I want the
clutch disengaged with only a part squeeze on the lever, not
have to pull it up to the grip.
For maneuvering and stopstart city traffic, you want the ‘just engaging’ point of the
travel at the most comfortable and controllable amount of
squeeze. Bikes with a heavy clutch or a long, draggy action
can be a pain!
One thing is for sure, you’ll always ride
better with your best compromise setting than the way it
came. And if it is still a pain, maybe you should see if there
are any upgrades or modifications available for your model.
Set the rear brake
If you thought adjusting hand controls was fiddly, you ain’t
seen nothing yet!
The rear brake is the third control that needs ‘feel’ and
feedback to the rider.
Motorcycles vary in the pedal
pressure and travel that’s needed. You only need enough
pressure to squeal, not lock(!), the rear tire at 70mph. The
brake may be capable of more than this but you won’t ever
be able to use it, even with a failed front brake. If you have
the confidence and control to rear tire squeal from 70mph
down to 20mph, I congratulate you.
You truly are a rear brake maestro. If not, please don’t start practising at
70mph unless you are feeling suicidal!
Unless you are a maestro already, set your brake for
maximum comfort and control when using it fairly gently for
low speed work and slippery conditions.
The correct way to make adjustments may not be obvious,
check out the manufacturer’s instructions in the manual.
Make adjustments a little at a time. Remember that a pedal
set too low could reduce ground clearance and the available
lean angle. Look what other settings (peg position for
example) are available on your model.
Set the gear shift
There is probably more variation in travel, weight, feel,
crispness and adjustment in gearshifts than in any other
motorcycle control. Just be glad you are not forced to use
hand gear selection that was popular in the old days.
Read the manual to see how to make adjustments. Aim to
be able to make quick, clean shifts both up and downwithout repositioning your foot or straining your ankle.
Be aware of possible ground clearance issues. When you
reckon you have got the right setting just do a quick check
to make sure selecting first at standstill with your other foot
down still feels OK.
This move is different because you are
unbalanced and out of the normal body position. Sports
bikes can be a bit awkward and tiring to ride in the city
unless you get it right.
I hope you have got your bike set up to suit you now. I
promise it will make a major improvement to your comfort
and control. As you get familiar with the new feel, give
yourself a little time to settle in, but don’t be afraid to make
further minor adjustments that get the total package working
Setting the bike for precision control is groundwork
Steering motorcycles well is a subject with a bit of mystique
about it. A number of studies have found that steering
wrong in an emergency is a major cause of accidents.
Obviously it is an area many people are not 100% confident
about and I sure had a bunch of problems myself. I don’t
mind admitting my deficiencies now but I guess that at the
time I was convinced I could handle my machine as well as
the next guy.
I was a slow learner!
When I first started riding I had trouble steering at speeds
much over 30mph and my line tended not to be tight
enough. I spoke to my cousin and he told me I needed to
push down on the grip on the side I wanted to turn to get
the bike set into the turn.]
Also, I should pull it back up to straighten up again. The advice worked and I rode that way
for a couple of years, knowing nothing about counter
steering and picking up some bad habits in the process.
When I got a bigger machine, I used more body steer,
moving my weight to help lean the bike with my knees. At
the time, I reckoned I was pretty slick! I honestly don’t know
exactly when I discovered that steering was much more
effective than the brute strength approach, but what a
difference it made!
I stopped putting weight through a
locked elbow joint, loosened up and got precise control.
Only later did I realize that I was steering the ‘wrong’ way. I
don’t know whether this proves how bad I was or how some
things are best learned from feel rather than theory.
Since those days there has been plenty of stuff published
about counter steering and how you need to steer left to
make a right turn. But there is a bit more to it than that.
When you drive a car, you steer by turning the wheel the
way you want to go then you have to hold the wheel turned
until you have finished the turn.
Bikes don’t work that way at all! I have heard physicists argue at length about how
motorcycles turn and I have no intention of getting sucked
into theories about trail and gyroscopic precession here.
But the thing that ties theory and practice together is the
fact that a motorcycle barely needs to be held into a turn.
You ‘push’ to make the steer, the bike leans, you stop
‘pushing’ and the bike holds the lean and makes the turn.
Once the turn is established, it is an almost stable situation
that only needs a tiny steering input to maintain it. If you
have a nice big empty parking lot, you can prove this by
doing a complete circle totally hands off at say 30mph.
Something that follows a circular path without being
positively guided doesn’t seem quite right… but it is. Try
going loose during a long sweeping curve. Unless the bike
gets disturbed by something on the road, it hardly needs
any input from you through the grips until you want to
straighten up. It is much easier to think in terms of the
steering forces you apply rather than the angle that the bars
Cars work on angles, bikes work on forces. If
you look at a bike cornering at any decent speed there is
hardly any angle on the front wheel at all.
So the long and short of is this: steering sets the lean, the
lean angle sets the turn. My cousin told me to ‘push the
grip down’ to set up the turn and ‘pull it back up’ to end it.
He didn’t say you had to keep pushing down to hold it, we
both knew from experience you didn’t have to. He did say I
needed to pull it back up. Looking back I can see there
were deep truths hidden in his statements that completely
passed me by at the time.
To this day I still regard it as ‘pushing’ to set the turn and ‘pulling’ to straighten up
although I think the turning forces I use are more the other
Getting the feel
I know I am going on too long here but you need to
understand what is happening and then practice the ‘feel’.
That way you will be better able to learn from structured
experimenting rather than just trial and error. First, prove to
yourself that you can use counter steering by pure rotation
of the bars to set and remove turn (and thus lean angle),
without any up or down force at all.
Next, modify your
normal style to use more of the pure rotation and less of the
brute force and body steer input. Try to keep your elbow
joints loose; it really helps.
Looser or tighter
Once you have settled in to this ‘steer to lean to turn’ style,
it’s time to get more advanced. Steering when already in a
turn is what gets round a sudden hazard on the road and
gives you multiple lines to choose from on the track.
A Joe Average rider only ever does fixed radius curves. He can’t
really cope with decreasing radius turns and he has one line
for each turn on the track.
Steering with precision while leaned over is the mark of
To hone your skills as quickly as possible, corner wrong(!)…
then correct. Start practicing with too tight a line and open
your line part way through the turn. Do it early in the turn
then go later, correcting only when you are obviously
running out of road on the inside.
When you are comfortable steering to ease your line part
way through a turn, swap over and tighten part way
BE WARNED, this is the tricky one.
It is partly psychological because steering to the outside of
the turn when you are already going wide and running out
of road feels unnerving. You know it works but at first it
won’t feel like it’s going to work. It’s a major sticking point
for some people.
So go easy and work your way into it,
shifting the edge of your comfort zone a little at a time.
Before you realize it, you will have blown Joe Average
riding into the weeds.
On the street you will be able to cope
with unexpected tightening curves or debris in a turn. You
will find new lines and double apex curves that you never
knew existed. You will enjoy new feelings of confidence
and of being in control in turns. It’s great!
Advanced motorcycling requires the skill to select your
course and smooth, positive direction control to achieve it.
So you think you can brake?
When you drive your car and you need to emergency brake
to avoid a smash, I bet you stomp on the pedal and let the
ABS do the work. And if you need to avoid a child at the
same time, just steer.
So easy! Of course it wasn’t always
like this. Cars used to be able to manage front wheel skids
under braking (easy) in the dry, rear wheel skids in greasy,
wet conditions (difficult) and 4 wheel skids on snow and ice
If you tried to steer under hard braking, one of two
things happened: it went straight on (usual) or it went
completely out of control (rare). Trucks with semis routinely
jack-knifed when braked hard in the wet or downhill,
collecting a few cars in the resulting smash and maybe
falling on one side to finish off. The lucky drivers in those
days still got metal armor so even when they got it wrong,
they had a chance of walking away from the accident. Then
there’s you on your bike.
YOU DON’T HAVE ABS YOU WILL SKID
YOU HAVE NO ARMOR BIKES FALL OVER
On a motorcycle good braking skills prevent a dramatic
moment becoming a serious accident. I believe that
learning how to get the best braking performance in any
circumstances is one of the key skills to riding safely at
speed. When you skid, and believe me you will skid, will
you handle it or will you come off? If you can’t handle a
skid, you’ll be scared to brake hard. If you’re scared to
brake hard, you won’t avoid the crash.
Locking up, skidding and sliding are scary thoughts for
many bikers. Some will go to almost any lengths to avoid
these things happening. Are they safe riders? If they stay
within the limits of their abilities – yes. Are they quick andsafe? – NO. If you never explore the limits and how to cope
with them, you will never have the margin available of
someone that has. It is a personal choice. If you want to
push the envelope – read on!
Locking the rear wheel is easy under braking in any
conditions. Locking the front is remarkably difficult on dry
asphalt… but all too easy when it is really slippery. Usually
it is changes in front tire traction that will catch you out.
Start and stop a rear brake skid
Start in the dry. A little harder to start the skid, but easier to
WARNING – if the bike gets out of line in the skid then
regains rear traction, it can pitch you off!
Start going dead straight at slow speed. Take a stab at the
rear brake and let it off right away. Not too bad huh? You
can build up your brake hold time and the speed as your
Getting out of line. When you lose grip with the rear tire, it
may try to move out of line in either direction.
The worst case is if you lock the rear wheel while braking the front tire,
because the rear end starts trying to pass the front! If you
regain rear grip with the rear not in line with the direction of
travel, you will lose it. The standard advice is to hold the
rear wheel locked until you have straightened the line, then
release the back brake to kill the skid. It sounds right, it
does work, but instinct is against you.
Unless you practice this kind of skid recovery regularly, you
will not perform under pressure in an emergency. I advise
that you avoid experimenting with this region of skid control
until you have practiced straightening the line by steering
into power slides, as this is easier to master first. In my
view it is better to become practiced at killing rear skids as
soon as they start.
It’s in line with your instinctive response
and will avoid the getting out the line issue altogether.
Start and stop a front brake skid
You have been warned about the kind of trouble this can
get you into, right? Well they weren’t joking and you need
to go gently here. Front-end skids are definitely harder to
catch than back end ones.
You want to find a surface with limited grip. Avoid really
slippery stuff like oil. Some super smooth ‘polished’
surfaces can be about right or smooth wet asphalt.
I prefer to start on a good hard flat dry dirt surface. Start just
skidding just a bit from a heavy front brake application at
slow speed. Keep your feet on the pegs until stopped.
Tempting as it is, riding feet down ‘just in case’ will ruin your
balance and control.
One thing you learn quick doing this is how much stability a
rotating rear wheel provides. Because it is fixed directly in
line with the axis of the bike frame, it works as a gyro to
keep you upright and heading straight. The gyro force
increases as the speed rises.
But this doesn’t stop the back wanting to pass the front, so there are forces at work trying
to get that front wheel out of line. Once locked the front
wheel has no gyro action and is easily turned. Do this at
speed and a small surface irregularity seems to generate
enough reaction to tear the bars out of your hands. You
have been warned!
The only way to deal with a front-end
skid is to let off the brake NOW. Reapply it with a bit less
pressure to avoid locking a second time.
When you have done this deliberately a few times under
controlled conditions, three facts come through:
Front brake skids don’t happen as easy as you think, but
when they do…
Front skids are scary and dangerous
Letting off the front brake stops the skid IF YOU ACT
But there’s a little problem:
Letting off the brake doesn’t come easy when you’re
heading for a truck!
You may think I’m crazy…
You may think I’m crazy telling you to go out and
deliberately induce skids. But if you ride a motorcycle
and want to go on living, you only have 3 options:
1. Accept your braking skill limitations, ride
conservatively and concentrate on avoiding the hazards
caused by others.
2. Become an expert braker. You will still have limitations
but your straight line braking performance will be better than
a car in the dry and about the same in the wet. Because
you brake hard, you will lock or start to lock a wheel from
time to time. You will deal with it confidently and correctly.
3. Get a bike with good ABS. You will still have limitations
but your braking performance will be at least as good as a
car under all conditions. You will concentrate on ‘reading
the road surface’ to be aware of the level of traction available.
A Personal View on ABS
I don’t want to see ABS on the track. Racing is a test of
rider skill and braking is one the key skills in riding. Tracks
with severely reducing radius curves and ‘3 dimensional
curve entries’ that shift from extra traction in the upslope to
reduced traction over the crest and into the down-slope, call
for precision and delicacy that only the very best racers can
If you have practiced the way Keith Code
recommends, screw up on the track and take a fall… you
usually get away with it. If you screw up and take a fall on
the street, you can hit concrete or steel rather than straw
bales… before you get crushed by the car!
If I rode a motorcycle everyday on the street as a job or
even just as a commute to carve through peak time traffic
snarl-ups, I would demand ABS. For a ‘must do’ ride where
you have to deal with any conditions and unexpected
hazards and you don’t want to end up totally drained, it’s a
For a fun ride situation, it’s more difficult to make a choice.
On a tourer, doing hundreds of miles, give me the ABS, no
question. For a short ride on a nimble sports bike on my
favorite piece of road, I don’t want the ABS. If I can choose
the weather conditions, checkout the asphalt the same as at
the track and basically reduce the number of variables, then
the challenge of relying only on my own skills is hard to
Sadly the opportunities to ‘do your own thing’ on the
public highway get ever less. I get most of my fun off road
now, without ABS.
ABS is a tool not a miracle worker.
It will react to give the best braking available but if that isn’t enough because of
your misjudgment, you still crash. Go into a curve too fast,
apply brakes, go off the road. No change there!
ABS is a worthwhile addition to a street bike and will probably become standard over the next decade. Unlike on the
track, the street is a hostile environment for motorcycle
riders so we probably deserve one or two assists to improve
So you bought a bike with ABS? Great, but it still doesn’t
brake like your car. Motorcycle ABS systems vary a bit but
they all have characteristics you need to get familiar with.
Read the manual. Do front only and rear only braking hard
enough to get the ABS to ‘chirp’ or whatever you want to
call the little valve hammering noise.
Even if your bike has
linked brakes, find out what using one control at a time feels
like, they’re not the same. Now test it out using both hand
and foot. Some bikes tend to snatch as the ABS bites and
then steady down. Others just feel squirrelly all the time the
ABS is working. Learn to love it whatever it’s like. One day
you’ll be thankful.
Remember how you were told how you could brake and
swerve around an obstacle at the same time in your car
with ABS? Don’t try this on your bike!
All ABS systems are not the same. Braking while well
banked over is one area where there are big differences.
The technology keeps evolving, so don’t get misled by out
of date reviews. Gently explore braking in a turn until you
know for sure how the system on your bike copes with it.
Don’t believe the people who tell you that ABS stops
you riding to your top skill level. If you ride like a
trackstar, your ABS will chirp for the odd second on a bump
or ripple, when you would have heard a squeak from the tire
on a non-ABS machine. In fact you can use it deliberately
to test that you can accurately judge maximum available braking by just squeezing on a little extra and making the
ABS come on.
Most people don’t brake hard enough. They are so scared
of a lock-up, they only use 60-80% of the available
performance. This has been proved by studies in Austria
and elsewhere. Did you ever lock your front by mistake in
the dry? It’s really, really rare although people are scared
Even in the wet it’s surprisingly hard to lock the front.
So practice. Be prepared to use more brake. It’s the
unexpected slippery bits that catch people out: mud, leaves,
sand, gravel, oil, and gratings. To be frank using only 70%
of available braking isn’t going to save you when you hit
one of these unexpectedly, so why try for the false margin?
Learn to use all that front brake confidently. Use it when
you don’t need to, just to stay in practice. Keep the feel.
Best answer for riding on the street: learn, practice, improve
your braking skills… and have the ABS as back up.
Points to watch
The more slippery it gets, the less traction that’s available.
With plenty of grip and plenty of brake you transfer virtually
all of the weight of the machine onto the front tire. The rear
brake just can’t contribute much under these conditions.
Under low traction conditions you can’t get that kind of
weight transfer so the braking wants to be shared. In low
grip conditions use equal amounts of front and rear
With more traction increase the proportion of front
brake effort. You will find that you never use anything more
than moderate rear brake under any conditions. If the
conditions are good enough for the machine to accept
more, you should be using more front. That will keep
traction margin on both tires.
Gradient affects braking more than you think. It’s amazing
how fast you can decelerate going up the mountain and
how damn hard it is to stop going down! If you live on a
plain and you’re not used to such roads, watch out! When
the opportunity arises, explore the effect of gradient on
braking and file the information away in your mind for future
My biggest braking problem
The braking that I have never managed to get properly
sorted involves going down one of those steep mountain
roads where straight sections are linked by blind hairpin
corners in a zigzag. The region that sticks in my mind is the
French Alps but there are similar sections in many other
Braking and turning through the downhill left-handers is
always the worst. Drivers of underpowered 4 wheelers on
the way up don’t want to slow down more than they have to,
so cross the center line to increase their turn radius. There
are always pebbles on the outside of the turn; get onto
those and it’s like ball bearings.
The drop of 200-300 feet
to the next piece of road lower down concentrates the mind
on riding a conservative line and speed while watching out
for drivers stealing your piece of asphalt or those who have
blocked the lane, stopped to admire the view.
I originally thought it was these distractions that were
upsetting a smooth slow down followed by turning under
braking to hold the speed steady. But later I discovered
that it was turning under braking at 10-15 mph that seems
to be the dominant issue.
This is an awkward speed range
where neither counter steering nor low speed maneuvering
techniques work well. Doing it under braking to hold the
speed on an 8-10% downgrade just adds to the difficulty.
Along with the people who see the brakes as an on/off
device, there are also those who treat the throttle in the
same way. They have two normal positions: fully open and
fully closed with an occasional intermediate position to hold
a steady speed through sweeping turns and when under
observation by the police.
Starting out riding a seriously underpowered machine can
encourage this bad habit. The difference in progress
between zero and full throttle is so little on the machines
that young learners are restricted to in some countries that
full throttle becomes an automatic response to wanting to
speed up a bit. Such behavior spells disaster on a ‘serious’
Top racers only hold a fixed speed in long sweeping
constant radius turns; otherwise they are either braking or
accelerating pretty much all the time. The amount may be
small into and out of the apex of a turn, but it’s there. The
changes may be gentle or swift and are always smooth. It
requires sensitivity to messages from the tires to judge it
and sensitivity of control to apply it.
Now I am not suggesting you should ride at the limit of
traction on the street but you should exercise the same
sensitivity of control to adjust the power and protect your
The maximum cornering traction is available
when the machine has exactly the right throttle to hold
constant speed. Accelerating shifts the weight back but the
extra traction used by the rear tire is not fully compensated
by the increase in weight.
So when you are exiting a turn you need to feed the power in gradually as you straighten
up. In an ideal world, the proportion of the available traction
you are using remains the same as the tire work shifts from
pure braking through a mix of braking and cornering, pure
cornering, cornering with acceleration and finally pure
acceleration with the machine upright. In the first two
phases the front tire works harder, it’s equal in pure
cornering then the rear tire gets the major stress.
As your riding skills improve, the times when you find
yourself waiting to get more throttle back on can become
It is not natural to be ‘doing nothing’ in a turn,
you are nearly always busy doing something. First, accept
that even trackstars dislike this waiting period. I’m an
impatient guy and it really used to bug me.
The best tip I ever got was when I was talking to Bob B, an investment
guru. He said he got just as frustrated waiting for the stock
market to respond to new information and called the
frustrating period of sitting on his hands after setting up his
trading positions ‘masterly inactivity’.
So now every time
I’m itching to get the power back on but know I mustn’t, I
remind myself it’s ‘masterly inactivity’ and immediately feel
The throttle isn’t a brake
Yes you’ve got engine braking. The bigger the power to
weight ratio of the machine, the more engine braking you
So what? Sure you can change down early
so that we can all hear how your revs are perfectly matched
in the downshift, then slow on the engine.
But is it good riding? Not in my book
Control of decelerating is far more
precise with the brakes. I’m not telling you to stay in a high
gear to reduce engine braking. You want to be in the right
gear. If that produces too much or too little engine braking
for your purposes, you have the controls to add power or brake.
The engine, throttle off, does what it does. It was
designed to speed you up not slow you down so use the
right tool for the job.
The only time that engine braking gives any real benefit is
descending mountains. Holding a lower gear on steep,
never ending descents reduces the load on the brakes and
prevents them over-heating.
Throttle and rear brake at the same time?
Do I ever do this?
Yes for low speed maneuvers.
For tightening my line once into a turn?
Never, I correct my line by steering.
To prevent speeding up through downhill turns?
No, I am throttle off and using both brakes gently together,
about 2:1 front: rear effort.
I have seen simultaneous throttle and rear brake
recommended for a number of other purposes that have
never worked for me.
Downshifting smoothly, especially while braking hard,
requires skill and dexterity.
To avoid upsetting the bike, the
engine rpm in the new gear must be matched to the road
speed before the clutch is engaged, otherwise the rear tire
will “chatter” momentarily and upset the bike as the engine
rpm is forced to match road speed. To do this the rider must
“blip” the throttle to raise the engine rpm during
downshifts… but he must do this while simultaneously
pulling on the front brake to slow down.
While this riding skill is obviously necessary on the racetrack, it can also pay
big dividends in street-riding situations where riding
smoothly is a must; for instance, any situation where you
are braking on a slippery surface.
The idea of blipping the throttle during downshifts can be
intimidating initially, but with a little practice, the technique
will soon become second nature.
First, make sure that your levers are adjusted as described
in Chapter 1.
Check that your throttle is adjusted for
minimal play in the cable. With the engine running in
neutral, try blipping the throttle slightly while pulling firmly on
the brake lever.
Note that it doesn’t take much throttle
movement to get the revs up with no load on the engine.
Then practice simultaneously pulling and releasing the
clutch quickly when you blip the throttle (remembering to
continue pulling on the brake lever as if you were slowing
for a turn). Some people only use two fingers on the brake
lever, others all four. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find
out what works for you.
Next practice this technique while riding in a safe area with
no traffic hazards. As you brake and begin your downshift,
simply use the same method as before, but add the act of
The action of blipping the throttle and the
downshift should be simultaneous and quick. It doesn’t take
a whole lot of extra revs to match the engine to road speed,
so all it will require is a slight throttle blip.
With practice, you’ll know just how much is necessary at various speeds.
Note that mostly the palm of your hand and thumb that
perform the act of moving the throttle. Your upper body
weight is centered on your palms under braking anyway,
and your fingers are busy actuating the brake and holding
All it takes is a slight wrist movement to blip the
throttle. You’ll find this will help avoid affecting your braking
action or steering.
If you find that you still have problems with this technique,
try adjusting your brake so that your fingers are less
stretched out (without hindering your ability to pull the lever
in for maximum braking, of course).
If you continue to have trouble, you will have to employ the
“non-blip” method even some racers such as Eric Bostrom
use. This simply means the clutch is released gradually
after the downshift so that the engine rpm can rise
progressively to match road speed without the rear wheel
The downside is that the rider must allow for
some extra engine braking as the clutch is engaged, limiting
if there is little load left on the rear tire as a result of weight
transfer. Also, it requires even more skill at manipulating
and controlling the bike while simultaneously releasing the
clutch lever slowly and gradually.
Although it is the right way for beginners or novice riders,
using the clutch for upshifts is totally unnecessary. In fact, there are many riding situations where it can be a nuisance
and even a hindrance to quicker and smoother riding.
It is possible that your bike may have some shift or
transmission issues that prevent using this technique. If so,
see what aftermarket accessories are available.
A motorcycle’s gearbox differs from your typical automobile
manual transmission in that it can actually change gears
under a small load, and only needs a slight interruption in
the flow of power to accomplish an upshift. Its constantmesh, sequential dog-engagement design means it can
change gears much more readily than a typical automobile
This is why “power shifters” are
so popular with motorcycle racers; by using a device that
cuts ignition momentarily while upshifting, the rider is able
to keep the throttle pinned wide open, saving time and
Basically, clutchless upshifting is simple: Instead of shutting
off the throttle completely and pulling in the clutch while you
shift, just let off the throttle some and perform the upshift in
a quick, near-simultaneous movement; ignore the clutch.
Don’t shut the throttle off completely, just let off enough to
get the shift done. Upshifting without the clutch also gets
you in the habit of performing the shift quickly and smoothly.
This minimises the effect of weight transfer from letting off
the throttle so as not to upset the bike’s handling. Once you
become accustomed to using this technique, you’ll be
amazed at the time and energy saved (and you’ll probably
reduce wear and tear on your clutch plates, too).
There are riding situations where the physical exertion
saved from not having to constantly squeeze the clutch
lever during upshifts can be a huge benefit. For example,
accelerating through a series of turns your arms and hands are busy steering the bike, so it’s quicker and smoother to
do without the clutch.
Cornering is what generates both fear and delight for most
riders. Finding the rhythm or flow through a series of turns
either on the road or on the track brings a feeling of deep
inner satisfaction. You ride the road, it doesn’t ride you.
But get it wrong and your blood runs cold as the crash looks
Cornering combines control techniques: gear shifting
braking, steering and accelerating with your set of decisions
about position and speed. Turns are different, even the
same piece of asphalt needs different decisions to suit the
conditions and the traffic. But some things don’t change, so
here are a few tips.
Slow in – fast out
Riders cause themselves more problems by entering turns
too fast than by anything else. It is dangerous on the street
and loses time on the track. Motorcycles are just about the
fastest accelerating vehicle you can get your hands on, so
what’s the big deal about slowing down?
On the track it’s the speed you exit the corner that
determines your speed down all of the next straight and
makes the big difference in lap times. Don’t take my word
for it; test it out for yourself.
Brake a touch earlier and you get the luxury of setting your entry speed and position
exactly how you want them, something you can never
achieve when you are scared of running out of road. For
track work, figure out what line will give you the best launch
out of the turn and work on setting that up. When you’vgot the answer, see then if you can leave the braking a little
later and still get your line.
On the street, going in slower allows you to use the line that
gives you maximum view through the turn. The earlier you
can see that’s it’s safe to get back on the power, the better.
The whole problem with riding on the street is not knowing
what you’re going to find next. If there were track marshals
every 100ft this caution into blind turns wouldn’t be needed!
But on the street what you can’t see you can’t plan for
and what you can’t plan for can kill you.
Too damn fast!
Sooner or later (usually sooner!) you will find yourself going
into a turn way too fast. You misjudged it, there’s a kid
running out or patch of oil, a crash on the track, the reason
doesn’t matter. It will happen. So prepare for it by
deliberately going into a challenging but open turn too fast,
maybe 20mph too fast. For this to work you need to feel
real fear about not making it round. Your only objective is
to stay in one piece. Stopping at the side is OK. Turn,
straighten, brake, turn… all tactics are valid.
Yeah, this is not safe! It does improve your reaction to
an unexpected crisis situation really well. You learn to
use your motorcycle control skills under pressure. You
will trust your quick judgments more, be cooler in your
reactions and more instinctive in your control actions.
Face the fear
Can I really recommend this for street only riders?
YES! Do a track day. Ride someone else’s bike if the
thought of dropping your own is too awful. Face the
fear and ride through it. I honestly believe it will do more to
better and safer rider.
Too much throttle while you are leaned over can and will
break the traction of the rear tire. The rear slides towards
the outside of the turn, pointing the bike too far into the
inside. Classic ‘oversteer’.
You need to come off the
throttle so that the rear tire can grip again, steering into the
skid to straighten up. As with all skids, the quicker you
react the better. Suddenly regaining grip with the wheels
pointing in a different direction to the way you are travelling
will throw you off. Fortunately power skids are the easiest
type to tame.
That’s why I recommend that you gain
experience dealing with them before you explore other
kinds of skidding and sliding.
Traction control is ABS in reverse. Instead of limiting the
amount of braking force applied to the wheel, it limits
The benefits and limitations are similar:
it will stop you skidding but it will not be quite as good as a
top rider at balancing power against available grip in the
A skilled racer may put on enough drive out of a turn to
literally steer the bike on the throttle. He feels the oversteer
increasing or reducing through the seat of his pants and
eases or rolls on throttle appropriately. The rear tire isn’t
skidding but it is running at with what the tire engineers call
a slip angle of maybe 10°. Traction control doesn’t react
until a real skid has started, then chops the power.
Oscillating between a smaller slip angle and a skid is not as
good as being able hold the tire at the edge of its traction
limit with constant tiny corrections. If you can manage that
in the dry you’re racer material. Do it in the wet and you’re
on your way to a world title!
For the rest of us there are 3
realistic options: go gently on the gas, learn to recognize
the early symptoms of a skid and correct it or… if you can’t
control that right hand… invest in traction control.
Going down the gears on the way in is just a matter of
making smooth downshifts at the right point, but which gear
is right to take the turn?
For machines with plenty of power
on tap the answer is simple; the highest gear that keeps
you in the power band but out of full throttle until you exit
On a racer you can generally change the gearing
to get it just right for the turns that matter most. On a road
bike you have a broader power band and less reason to
push the limits.
The big mistake is to change down too far, scream
through the turn then have to up-shift while still leaned
Just rolling off and back on the power will
wobble the bike and disturb your line, no matter how
smooth and slick you are. On turns you don’t know,
stay one gear higher than you could drop down to and
concentrate on doing a smooth controlled turn without
worrying about running out of revs. On a ‘new to you’
track, you’ll probably need that gear anyway once
you’ve learned its tricks and found your lines.
Tire technology advances all the time. In general you
can have more grip with less life and the more grip you
want the more picky the tire gets about the conditions it
works in. A racing tire just won’t grip properly if it’s too
cold and will overheat, blister and shed chunks if it’s
too hot. No matter what they say in the ads, you will
never get race grip out of street tires but they are much
more accommodating of variations.
Similarly with breakaway. You might find a tire that
hangs on a bit longer but when it lets go it does it with
a bang. Tires that warn you of the approaching limit
before ‘letting go’ in a smoother way are the easiest to
live with. If you want to play around at the limit of
adhesion, get tires that allow you to learn about slip
sliding around rather than drop the bike. On the street,
premium tires with good grip wet and dry and a ‘soft’
breakaway characteristic will give you heaps more
confidence and fun than racing slicks.
How slow can you go?
Have you watched riders maneuvering at slow speed?
Some of them look like penguins waddling along with an
egg resting on their feet! A skill that is useful and helps you
look cool is riding tight turns feet up at walking pace or less.
The trick is set the rear brake to drag and hold it there. By
drag, I mean something that would bring you to a stop in 4-
8 feet from walking pace in neutral. OK, now use the
throttle to give you about 6mph in first gear with the brake
dragging and hold that throttle position. Slow down by
pulling in the clutch.
Using only the clutch you have
superfine control at slow speed. Because the engine is
pulling and has enough revs to be smoothed out, there is no
jerkiness. Have you ever noticed that just the action of
starting to depress the brake pedal, before the brake bites
at all, disturbs the bike at very low speed, just because you
stiffened you leg muscles?
Well no such problems here.
With a little practice, you can make turns with the bars at full
lock and your feet up. How cool is that? The best brake
and throttle settings vary from bike to bike. A bike with high
gearing and a narrow power band may require that you
throttle back a little as you declutch to stop the engine
screaming. The smoother you are the less clutch and throttle change you need. The most important thing is to
keep that brake drag constant and control the power to
the rear wheel with a sensitive left hand.
You can master this skill on a deserted parking lot at the
Learning any control skill takes a mixture of understanding,
try-out and practice. The skill is only fully mastered when
you do it without thinking. All the time you are thinking
about one thing, your mind can’t pay attention to the
multitude of other things that are competing for your
attention. What can we learn from this?
• Learning is quickest in a structured learning environment
when you can concentrate on one thing at a time. If you
are in a hurry, seriously consider a weekend race
school. But you’ll have to practice those new skills
afterwards… or they will evaporate.
• Learn one skill at once. Sure there’s a loop and you
come back to the same thing again when you are ready
to reach for the next level. But there is a kind of natural
flow to learning so that when you feel you’ve made a
step up in one area it’s right and natural to move on to
another. Don’t push it unless you’ve hit a sticking point.
Even then if it won’t come right after a damn hard try,
put it aside and come back another time with a fresh
• There’s more than one way to skin a cat. We all have
individual preferences and what works great for me
might not suit you… and the other way around. Once
you know what you’re aiming for, try different ways to
get there. The right way is the way that works for
you, not what someone else tells you is right.
• When you master a skill, you might actually have
difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it. You won’t
be aware of doing anything special and will do it
unconsciously while thinking about something else.