Lets get into the actual driving, how does it work? The information here goes from super basic instructions to quite complicated sequences. It might be hard to take everything in at once but you could always come back later! This document in its’ entirety is quite large so I have added a table of contents below.
- Shifting Gears
- Speed Maneuvering
- Gravel Roads
- Locking Your Wheels
- Turning at High Speed
The absolutely first time I sat on a real motorcycle the first thing to learn was the controls. Pay attention! The left hand lever is the clutch, the left foot lever controls the gears, the right foot lever controls the rear break, the right hand lever is the front break and twisting the right handle is the throttle. Simplified you use the left to shift gears and the right to stop and go. In addition to these controls you have stuff like the ignition, engine kill switch, all different lights and signals but you’ll find all that by yourself. It also differs a bit between bikes.
Before we start you have to know how the gearbox works. If the bike is in neutral gear you push down once to get into first gear, then you push up to go to higher gears and if you continue pushing up you finally end up in the fifth or sixth gear, depending on your bike. If you want to shift down you just push down instead and if you continue you’ll end up in the first gear again.
To get the gear back into neutral you just push slightly up when in first gear, or slightly down when in second gear, it’s right between the two. All gear changes are done with the clutch pulled, I know some people kick in their gears without the clutch but it feels like that should shorten the lifespan of the gearbox.
To start the bike make sure the gearbox is in the neutral position, you probably have a light for that, and then just turn the ignition key to the on position and push the start button. With the engine running we are good to go, pull the clutch and get the gearbox in first gear, that is one push down. Then slowly release the clutch and start rolling and as soon as you have some speed you’ll notice the bike basically rides itself, pretty much like your bicycle. Of course, if this is your first time, practice starting and stopping, shifting gears and make easy turns without thinking that much. From now on though I will go into more detail.
Breaking is a complicated story. Here I’ll pull together everything I learned over many months. First fact is that the front wheel is where most of the breaking happens. As the weight is moved forward when you break the font wheel will have the most traction. The books say that the breaking ability of the back and front tire are divided 30/70 %. In addition Instructors have told me that if you have a sports bike you can even end up at 10/90 %. You have to practice breaking progressively harder and harder, this way you get experience of how hard you can actually break without locking the wheels or lifting the back wheel off the ground. The idea is that you should be able to stop in as short a distance as possible in a controlled way.
So, knowing this, how does one actually break properly? We will take it in steps. First initiate the breaking with the rear break, your right foot lever, this will make the bike sit and move the center of gravity downwards making the bike more stable. Then move most of the breaking to the front break, your right hand lever, to actually stop the bike. Here you can squeeze quite hard if you are on a dry asphalt road, probably much harder than you initially believe. Of course you have pulled the clutch somewhere during breaking so you don’t kill the engine.
The next step is to get into details. For an effective breaking that a traffic inspector would approve there is a lot to think of. To prepare for the breaking you should stiffen your mid section, imagine your belly button wanting to meet your spine, keep your elbows out and also have your eyes fixed forwards, not on the ground.
Prior to breaking you should release the throttle, this helps with making the bike sit, then break with the rear break to get it even lower. Start breaking with the front breaks while you ease up on the rear break so the rear wheel wont lock, keep your posture and your eyes looking forward, then after you have slowed down a bit you pull the clutch so the engine have had time to help with the breaking. Then you stop and put a foot down, hopefully you have not locked any of the wheels, did not have your rear wheel get airborne and still have your engine running.
What I found hard about this part was to do everything in a timely manner while not messing anything of it up, everything should be performed in less than a second and then you break until you stand still. I would forget keeping my eyes off the ground, would pull the clutch before breaking, would have a bad posture and a very serious mistake was to pull the front break lever so that I also twisted the throttle.
This is a big no no and I actually failed one of my driving tests because of it. It’s dangerous as it would make your bike drive away if you fell off during breaking. To make sure it doesn’t happen it’s important to avoid having any space between your hand and the handle when you break, otherwise you might twist the handle with your thumb when you close your hand, and you should only break with your hand, not the entire arm as your arm movement might make you twist the throttle too.
The next thing to learn was crawling. This is useful to get your bike into your garage, to slowly approach a red light, to follow someone that drives slowly through an intersection or to make a U-turn on a narrow road. It is also so that the Swedish driving test includes a slow sub-test where you are driving slower than when the engine is running idle in first gear. The course is either setup as a tight slalom track where you do a turnabout at the end and then do the slalom again, all in walking speed, or it consists of a larger track with wider turns and cone gates at which you should stop before proceeding, then at the end you do a turnabout and go back through the same gates again. I will explain how I finally ended up doing to keep my balance when going this slow, we’ll take this in steps as well.
There are several things to think about, we’ll take how to balance first. The main thing to realize here is that to keep your bike from falling inwards, which it naturally does when you turn, you have to lean outwards while turning. This is very counter-intuitive as you would always lean inwards with the bike when having more speed. Just leaning wont get you far though as it’s quite unstable. The next thing to do, which is a very important technique to succeed, is to put as much of your weight as possible on the outer foot peg, this gives you much more leverage when adjusting your balance. A final thing you can do is to push outwards with the inner knee, but I found this quite hard to do so I just try to squeeze with both knees to have a firm seat on the bike.
To go this slow, slower than when the engine is running idle, you have to constantly play with the clutch. Keep some base throttle to not have the engine stall, then work with the clutch. A common mistake I would do was to release the clutch too quickly so the engine would die. I finally managed to tame the clutch but this was not until I had gotten the balancing part to happen automatically so I could focus almost solely on the clutch control.
The last important thing, same as when breaking, is to keep your eyes up. You get a much better sense of what is going on if you look straight forward, even if it’s far away, this because you are sitting on something mobile and you might not realize in which way you are leaning if you look at the ground. Instead you notice what is happening by having the stationary world in your field of view. And when you turn, look towards where you are going but still up, this is true in just about any turn and it helps you plan your corner much better. This was one of my own main obstacles, my gaze would easily fall down to look at the cone I heading towards, it definitely makes things much harder.
Another sub-test of the Swedish driving test is the high speed track. Here you are supposed to accelerate to 50 km/h before entering the course and then you veer to the right or left to avoid a center obstacle, here represented by yellow cones, then you fall back into the center to exit into a slalom course which you should go through with a maintained velocity. At the end you break, shift down, make a turnabout and then enter the same slalom course. Now you accelerate to 50 km/h again while slaloming, level out and break to a stop after the yellow cones. The techniques used here are useful for avoiding collisions and veering for obstacles as well as for doing quick turns in intersections or roundabouts.
Here we need to learn how to make sharp turns while maintaining speed. The technique that will make this work is to keep your torso pretty much vertical when you make turns, do not follow the leaning of the bike like on a highway, if you do you will have to shift the weight of both the bike and yourself when changing direction and your sense of orientation will be strained as you lean your head as well. Instead let the bike move beneath you and keep your upper body vertical, work with your hips to push the bike where you want it. Keeping your gaze levelled helps here as well.
The mental barrier here is how much you dare to lean your bike, the more you you lean the sharper turns you can make, but you also need better grip as the force gets applied to the road at an angle. Just imagine the bike standing upright but parked in a slope with the side facing downwards. If you make the slope steeper the risk for the bike to start sliding increases.
So, If you run out of grip while turning the bike will slip and fall down, which obviously is to be avoided. This is something that is true as soon as you are leaning, it is the reason why making a turn is so much more dangerous than going straight ahead. As soon as you turn, you lean, and if you lose your grip you will be flat on the ground in whatever speed you were travelling. This brings us to the next subject.
Driving on asphalt is not very hard, but gravel roads are very different. I just talked about leaning and the force you apply to the road. Now think about how a gravel road looks like, it is most often partially covered with loose gravel. If you lean your bike on this surface and you happen to pass over loose gravel your wheels will slide and you will be on the ground very quickly. The tires will just roll off the gravel just as if you were driving on a slippery surface.
To prevent this from happening when you go through corners on a gravel road, or any slippery road for that matter, we will reverse the technique for sharp turns. Instead of keeping your torso vertical and lean the bike, you will keep the bike vertical and lean your torso. As your upper body most likely weighs less than the bike counter-balancing is only effective in lower speeds, and going too fast would make the bike slide anyway due to the centripetal forces even if you have the bike perfectly straight. But, if you keep a sensible pace and lean inwards when making a turn you don’t have to slow down as much. Keep in mind though that you cannot lean more than your arms can stretch!
Another thing that is different on a gravel road is breaking. I was told to never ever use the front break on a gravel road, but as long as you are not turning and you break carefully it can work, but if you are on loose gravel it will quickly lock up your wheel and that is scary indeed. The best bet is to use your rear break because it’s easier to handle locking up your rear wheel and you will not loose steering capability. Keep in mind though that the effective breaking power of just the back wheel is much less than that of the front wheel, as we have mentioned earlier.
It is quite scary to travel on a gravel road and realizing you are going too fast to make the next corner, several times I have ended up at the outer edge of the road because I couldn’t break well enough, and that makes it even scarier because the edges usually consists of very loose gravel!
Lets talk a bit more about locking your wheels. You lock your wheel when you break so hard that the tire looses grip, then the wheel will no longer rotate, instead it will slide on the road surface. If this happens with your back wheel the back end will drift out to one side or the other and if you did it on an asphalt road you will make a nice black strip, simply ease up on the break if it happens.
If you lock up the front wheel you better ease up on the break handle quickly, because as has been noted, when you loose the grip of the front wheel the motorcycle dives very quickly. This is much more prone to happen on any surface with lower friction or loose gravel. Of course, if you have a modern bike with ABS this will be less of a problem, keep in mind though that it does not give you infinite grip!
Now then, lets speed things up another notch. When driving on the highway you don’t really notice when you’re steering. I’ve recorded video where it seems like I don’t turn the handlebar at all, instead the entire equipage just leans a little and the bike pretty much handles itself, you are just along for the ride. As one of my coworkers once said, any idiot can drive a bike down a straight road, it’s everything else that takes skill.
So what happens if you drive fast and want to turn hard? As you will notice when you travel at higher speeds the bike will resist leaning, this behavior comes from the self balancing nature of bikes. There’s the construction of the front forks, the gyroscopic effect of the wheels and probably some other mumbo-jumbo effect playing in. The faster you go the harder it will be to get the bike to lean by just shifting your weight, but there is actually another technique to maneuver your bike that will give you a powerful way to control your leaning!
When I first heard counter-steering being mentioned I had no idea of what it was, and the person at the time said it was only for advanced riders. I looked it up so I kind of knew the principle but we actually got to try it during the practical risk awareness class. It took me a while to figure out why it worked, but after some thinking it made total sense.
The actual technique is to steer the wrong way. Yes! If you want to lean to the left, turn to the right! This sounds like madness, but hear me out. What counter-steering does is to force the bike to lean, it does so by steering the front wheel so it rolls out from under your bike. Imagine doing this while walking with the bike and it is quite easy to understand that it will start to lean. Again, If you want to lean left, you steer to the right so the front wheel goes to the right and as the rest of the bike rotates around the center of mass the entire bike leans left.
To say that you should steer the wrong way is actually an exaggeration, to perform counter-steering you actually only have to hint at steering, you’ll notice that the bike will lean quite easily by doing this. It works at pretty much any speed, but keep in mind that the faster you go the more resistance you will encounter, this means it’s important how you sit when you want to counter-steer. Squeeze with your knees and keep your elbows out, this way you can use more force without pushing yourself off the motorcycle. When you go slower you will probably be able to lean perfectly fine even without counter-steering, but it works very well here as well, especially as there is little resistance in comparison.
I Myself think that this is a very useful technique, it can help you if you happen to come too fast into a corner or if you have to avoid an obstacle at high speed. In those situations you can force the bike to lean quicker than if you had only shifted your weight to lean the bike.