TOTW: Do a spring skills refresh

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

Your routine, everyday riding skills get the most practice because you use them all the time, while the special skills you need to deal with emergencies are seldom used and will fade. Even your everyday riding skills will fade through a long period of disuse.

Spring is a particularly high-risk time for riding. Your basic riding skills will be weakened, and your emergency skills will be seriously faded. At the same time, the drivers around you will have become unaccustomed to motorcycles. “Fair-weather drivers” will be coming out of winter storage. There will be a marked increase in distractions, such as pedestrians, to take drivers’ attention away from you. And, finally, the roads will be dirty with sand and other refuse, reducing traction.

Solution

After any prolonged absence from riding, and especially when you are ready to resume riding in the spring, you should take the time to refresh and practice your skills under controlled circumstances. Your practice should include both basic riding skills and those you will need in an emergency situation.

If possible, you should do this refresh practice with someone else, not alone. A second person can provide feedback on what you and your bike are doing. More important, they will be able to assist you if you have a problem and are injured or your bike is damaged.

Many riders use the “experienced rider course” that is offered by their local motorcycle training institute as their spring refresh. This gives you a thorough refresh of your skills, both basic and emergency, under safe and supervised conditions.

If you choose not to take such a course, or you have none available, you should still try to do a spring refresh in a safe location before you begin riding on the street. Below is a suggested outline of a spring skills refresh.

Mechanical check

Start by replacing anything that you removed or unfastened for winter storage, then check for mouse nests, squirrel nut caches, rust, and other deterioration that may have occurred over the winter. Then perform a 10-minute mechanical check of the bike.

  • Carefully check the condition of your tires. Check the tread depth and check all surfaces for cracks and other signs of deterioration. If you have wire spokes, check that their tension is uniform by running a metal object around in a circle and ensuring that you get a consistent note. Ensure your  tire pressures are correct.
  • Check the operation of your brakes, the brake fluid level, and the wear indicators on the brake pads or drum.
  • Check your front forks for signs of fluid leakage and check that the plastic seals are in good condition.
  • Check that your chain is in good condition, and that the tension is appropriate. Lubricate it with fresh chain lube.
  • Check all the basic controls: handlebars, levers, switches, and pedals to ensure they operate and are not broken or loose.
  • Check all fluid levels: engine oil, brake fluid, clutch fluid, and coolant.
  • Check all your signalling systems: headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and horn.
  • Lubricate where your owner’s manual suggests.

Practice preparation

Choose a location where you can ride in safety, on good pavement, with low or no traffic. An unused parking lot is ideal. Make sure you have the owner’s permission to ride on their private property. Also make sure your license and insurance paperwork are up-to-date and valid. Bring a friend, a first-aid kit, and some small soft objects for marking exercise layouts. (Rider training courses generally use small orange traffic cones, but any small, visible objects that won’t hurt your tires should you run over them will do. Tennis balls, cut in half to make two bright yellow hemispheres each, are a good substitute. You should have a half-dozen or more.)

Basic warm up

  1. Review your FINE-C starting procedure and C-ENIF shutdown procedure. If you have a mechanical fuel petcock, practice reaching it, without looking, while seated in riding position. Be sure to use your kill switch to stop your engine so you are sure it works. Practice starting and stopping the engine a couple of times, until it is warm. Once your engine is warm, double-check the level of your engine oil.
  2. Ride a couple of laps around your parking lot in a large and gentle rectangle, at a slow to moderate speed. Use first and second gear and gently use both brakes to stop. Make no sudden speed or direction changes yet.

Slow-speed practice

Slipping your clutch to ride at a very slow speed with good balance and control is excellent practice and an important traffic skill.

  1. Ride in a straight line at the slowest speed you can, keeping a constant moderate throttle and controlling your speed by slipping the clutch (i.e. riding with the clutch only partially engaged). Don’t look down. Keep your eyes up, toward the horizon, to maintain your balance.
  2. Ride several laps of a large (10m) circle, in both directions, using this same slow-speed technique. Gradually make the circle smaller to increase the level of difficulty.
  3. Place a line of markers 6-8 metres apart and ride a slalom around them, at very slow speed. To maintain your balance, don’t look down.

Traffic skills

  1. Lay out a simple corner with your markers and practice turning left and right, with proper signals. Practice first without stopping. Then pretend there is a stop sign at the corner and practice turns from a stop. Pay particular attention to staying within your lane when turning right from a stop.
  2. If you can find a small hill, practice your technique for starting on a hill.

Cornering skills

  1. Review and practice countersteering technique. (Push the handlebars forward on the side in the direction you want to turn. Push left to go left, push right to go right.) First, practice countersteering with a single precise lane change, both directions. Then lay out your markers in a straight line, 10 m apart, and consciously use countersteering to weave around them.
  2. Use your markers to lay out a large, constant-radius curve, about 20 m in radius. Mark both sides of a lane several meters wide. Practice riding through this curve at a moderate constant speed. Try both constant lane position and an outside-inside-outside path. Next, practice changing your speed while turning, both accelerating and decelerating while staying within your lane. Finally, practice coming to a complete stop while turning.

Emergency techniques

  1. Use your markers to lay out a small “obstacle” about 1 metre wide, or just identify a convenient manhole cover or mark on the pavement. Approach this obstacle in a straight line and at constant speed, then use countersteering to swerve around it. Warning: don’t brake while swerving.
  2. Next, practice braking in a straight line. Brake to a complete stop from a moderate speed then gradually reduce your braking distance a little at a time. Use  both brakes with most of the pressure on the front. If your rear wheel locks, use less rear brake pressure. If your front wheel locks you will crash, so stop increasing the pressure if you feel you are nearing the limit of the front brake. You are reaching this limit if you feel a chattering sensation through the handlebars, if you hear your front tire chirping, or if you feel, or an observer sees, that you are “bottoming out” your front shock absorbers.
  3. Carefully repeat this braking exercise inside the curve you marked out earlier. It is especially important to avoid locking your wheels while turning, so work gradually and smoothly until you are stopping comfortably. If you do happen to lock your rear wheel, ignore it until you are stopped, or release the pressure very gently. If you suddenly release a locked rear wheel while turning, you will probably crash.
  4. If you can find a speed bump or other small rise in the road surface, practice your technique for riding over an obstacle by lifting your weight slightly on the pegs and using a slight throttle blip to unload the front shock absorbers just before hitting the obstacle.

Finishing up

Finish with another mechanical check, repeating the points listed above, to see if anything has worked loose or leaked.

Carefully tidy up the area where you have been practising, making sure you leave it in a condition at least as good as when you arrived. Pick up some of the litter that is lying around, even if it isn’t yours. If possible, thank someone for the use of the space.

On the street

As you resume your street riding for the season, remain alert. Remember: you have taken the time to refresh your riding skills, but those car drivers all around you have not. Until they are used to your presence again, assume they can’t see you at all.


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