This is a compilation of a series of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began transitioning from riding motorcycles off road to street riding.

Dirt bike riding is fun and can be done casually for the most part, without a great deal of harm done from mistakes. Typically there is only oneself to worry about, since trees don’t pull out in front of your path.

Street riding is a different concept, one that has more in common with piloting an airplane than driving a car if one stops to consider the number of variables involved and the consequences of inattention to them.

There are very few “absolutes” in terms of “never do this” and “always do this” (well, ok, never grab a handful of front brake on ice, never get your country involved in a land war in Asia and never play cards for serious money with a guy called “Doc”.)

Getting hung up on absolutes reduces your riding or driving to a checklist of rules and since reality doesn’t read the rule book, you often will find yourself scanning the mental list for a solution that isn’t there. Understanding what you are dealing with and using that knowledge to apply to the situation you are in is the key. In riding, as in life, deal with principles more than rules.

Motorcycles can do only a few things and those are always in your control. It can go faster, go slower (including down to a stop), it can turn right or left. And it can do more than one of those things at the same time. (Yes, it can fly briefly, do wheelies and stoppies, but if you think about it, those are just extensions of the basics.)

You control those movements with the handlebars, the throttle, the brakes (front and rear together or separately) and your body weight.

Everything that controls the motorcycle is important, but if one has to assign a rank, the brakes are paramount. In a car, it is easy to just step on the pedal and the consequences of getting too much may be embarrassing, but not usually too harmful. Bikes are different.

You need to practice braking every time you go out. What you are looking for is the ability to apply smooth pressure to the brakes to the absolute maximum for the conditions you are in and do it as a “muscle memory” so that it is happening before the conscious thought forms.

Riding, or driving a car, is about weight control and the physics involved. The machine is a weight connected to the road by rubber traction. The weight, once set in motion, wants to continue going and to go straight (See Mr. Newton and his basic laws of motion). The weight must be made to turn or stop by applying an external force.

On a bike, you have two contact patches, ovals of rubber about the size of a quarter or two laid on the pavement. Everything you do affects how those two patches are connected to the road.

When you are sitting on the bike in the driveway or at a stoplight, the weight is pretty evenly distributed, with a slight bias toward the rear tire. When you shift your body front or rear, side to side, or if you add a passenger, you change that distribution.

When you move away from a stop, the acceleration moves the weight back to the rear, lightening the front. When you back off throttle or apply brakes, the weight moves back to the front, making the rear lighter.

When you lean over to turn, the contact patches shift from the bottom of the tire to the sides.

More weight equals more traction…up to the point where you have asked more of the contact patch than it can handle, then the tire will begin to slide. Unless there is some lubricant on the pavement (sand, gravel, oil, water…even chocolate milk, as a good friend of mine once found) the slide will be predictable, something you can feel and deal with, though this takes a lot of experience.

Nearly all of your effective braking is on the front wheel. Take your bicycle down from the wall and push it along the driveway, then apply the front brake. It will stop. If you apply the rear brake only, you can continue pushing it with relatively little resistance. Motorcycles aren’t that dramatic, but the principle is the same. Applying deceleration force moves weight from the rear to the front and can, with some bikes, even lift the rear wheel off the ground, giving that wheel zero traction.

The best braking uses both, but with modulation taking into account what I’ve noted above.

You want to apply the brakes smoothly, not jamming on the front before the front suspension has settled just a tiny bit to put weight on the front wheel. Squeeze, rather than grab. If you just grab the front brake as hard as you can all at once, you can (not always, but can) stop the wheel from turning before the tire has attained the necessary weight for traction. If that happens, without ABS, you need to become your own ABS and modulate the pressure to get back some traction. Ideally, you would want to apply just a tiny bit of rear to settle the front down and then continue putting increasing pressure on the front until you’ve stopped. That ‘s the textbook way, but seldom is what actually happens in a panic stop on the street. Practice squeezing the front in a controlled fashion. I don’t care if you wear out a front tire in 1,000 miles practicing hard stops. Tires are cheap compared to the results of not knowing how to do this.

(To be continued)

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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