Text: Marius Băcilă
Photo: Dragoș Savu, Andrei Barbu, George Sandu-Grigorescu
The world of motorcycling is full of all sorts of myths related to riding. Some believe that injuries are inevitable, some think that survival is a matter of fate and many believe all sorts of wrong things when it comes to controlling the motorcycle.
The purpose of this article is to dismantle some of those myths and to teach readers the correct way to ride a motorbike and to approach motorcycling in general.
1. Steering the motorcycle is done by counter steering. Not with your bodyweight and not by divine intervention.
This myth is still perpetuated in some biking circles, despite age-old evidence to the contrary: people think that they can make proper direction changes by only moving the upper body to one direction or by moving their weight on the foot pegs. The reality of it is that, to make a quick and precise change of direction at speeds above 30-40 km/h (20-25 mph), you need to use counter steering. Sure, moving your weight to one side can definitely help while cornering (that’s why road racers do it), but the actual direction change is made by giving the handlebar an impulse in the opposite way you want to lean the bike. So, to lean the bike to the left (and, implicitly, make a left turn), you give the handlebar an impulse to the right and vice versa.
In order to make the connection in the brain easier, you can say push the left handlebar to go left, push the right one to go right, since the main part of this movement comes from the muscles that push, not the ones that pull. You can easily convince yourself that this is how steering works by practicing a little in an empty parking lot or somewhere with no traffic. Ride at a steady 45-50 km/h (about 30 mph) and give the left handlebar a push, in a forward motion. You will notice the bike suddenly leaning to the left. A simplified way of explaining the physics behind this phenomenon is that, when you turn the wheel, you “steal” the contact patch of the tyre from underneath the bike, effectively “tripping” the bike and making it “fall” the other way.
It's very important that the input is in the form of one push, and then the grip on the handlebar is relaxed on both sides. Some people do the right movement, they push on the handlebar, then they tense up their grip on the handlebar. This way, the bike will only make a slight twitch in the desired direction, then it will keep going straight. That’s because, as the bike is leaning to one direction, the front wheel will tend to steer into the corner very slightly throughout the duration of the turn. If you give the input, then tense up, you force the handlebar to stay straight and you’re not letting the front wheel steer into the corner. You’re making the bike start to turn, then you are preventing it from continuing its motion through the turn.
2. Learning how to ride properly starts with the basics.
Some people think that riding a bike is mostly about courage and one’s propensity to take risks. The braver you are, the better you’ll be as a rider. But actually, even the bravest of riders (think MotoGP, Isle of Man or Dakar Rally riders) are as good as they are because they learned the proper technique when they first started out and they got so good at applying that technique through repeated practice. Sure, courage plays a big part, say, when you want to go from your national Superbike championship to world level competition: you need to push the limits ever further. But when you want to be safe while riding on the public roads, it’s almost all about technique and very little about “guts”. The ABC’s of riding are: riding position, line of sight, road positioning. The correct riding position enables you to have the best possible control of the bike in all circumstances, a correctly directed line of sight will enable you to always steer the bike in the right direction and correct road positioning will keep you out of danger and in the best position to properly assess the various situations that present themselves as you ride.
Riding position: You must hold on to the bike by squeezing your knees against the tank and bracing yourself using your core muscles, NOT by holding onto the handlebars with your hands. The hands must have a relaxed grip on the handlebars, so that you can have finesse and precision when controlling the bike. You have to put the balls of your feet on the foot pegs (not the heel or the arch of the foot, even though that might seem more comfortable). The back must be as straight as possible and head held high.
While riding in a straight line, the rider must look as far ahead as possible, in order to properly anticipate all the possible problems that might arise and plan ahead. While riding on twisty roads, the line of sight must always be directed at the vanishing point (the farthest point of the road that is visible at any given time, the point where it seems the two edges of the road come together). Our natural tendency is to look at the things that feel threatening to us, such as hedges, trees and various other things on the side of the road, but that will only make us subconsciously steer the bike in that direction and not in the direction where we want to go.
The rider must always position him or herself on the road so that he/she can see as much of the road ahead as possible, which means constantly assessing where to place the bike on the lane you’re travelling in. Usually, this means staying on the opposite side to the corner for as long as possible (left side of the lane for right hand turns, right side of the lane for left hand turns), until you can see through the corner and assess the situation. Also, always position yourself so that you can be seen by drivers and avoid spending too much time in their blind spots. Moreover, always keep a safe distance to any obstacles or cars (never ride too close to the car in front, never get closer than necessary to cars to the left or right and never let a car drive too close behind you – either speed up, or let them pass).
3. Your safety is in your hands (mostly). Take responsibility and minimize risk.
Yes, there are plenty of bad drivers out there, and there’s so much unpredictability that one could be forgiven for thinking that riding a motorbike in traffic is too dangerous to try. But, if you ride carefully enough, you have every chance to stay in one piece for a lifetime of riding. That means accepting that it’s up to you to stay safe, that it’s not the responsibility of others to take care of you in traffic. You will inevitably encounter your fair share of tricky situations, but, if you ride with enough of a safety margin, you should be fine. This means never riding to your full abilities on the road. Even if it’s a nice piece of twisty tarmac with almost no traffic, you should ride at maximum 70% of your full capacity, so that you always have that something extra in reserve if something unpredictable happens. It’s also extremely helpful to attend advanced riding courses, to improve your bike control and observational skills.
Riding gear is very important as well. Buy the best quality riding gear you can, make sure it’s a perfect fit and always wear it, even for short trips. Besides the obvious protection factor, riding gear is also useful for keeping you comfortable in tough conditions (extreme temperatures, rain, wind etc.). The more comfortable you are, the more you’ll be able to concentrate on riding.
4. You’re riding the best vehicle there is for seeing the world. Enjoy it!
It won’t always be sunshine and rainbows out there. You’ll get some heavy traffic, some nasty weather, some unpleasant situations. But there is no better vehicle for seeing the world. A bicycle is also pretty good for this, but it’s too slow, so you can only cover short distances in a few days’ vacation, and a car isolates you too much from the places you’re passing through. A motorcycle exposes you to the elements, but makes any journey more fascinating. Plus, there is beauty in being exposed to the elements.