TOTW: Want a real test of skill? go slow

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).

Going fast is easy.

Just about anyone can get on a bike and drive in a straight line at medium to high speed. At high speed the wheels act as gyroscopes and the bike will stay up almost by itself.

The real test of a rider’s skill is their ability to manage their balance, steering, and braking. These are much more challenging skills at slower speeds, and slow-speed practice is the best way to improve them.

Your slow-speed riding skills need improvement if you regularly experience any of the following symptoms:

  • You lack confidence when riding slowly, especially when approaching traffic lights or stop signs. You drag your feet along the ground while stopping, and are nervous about losing your balance.
  • When the light turns green, you accelerate very quickly away from the intersection, to end the slow-speed riding situation as quickly as possible.
  • Slow-speed turns, such as at residential intersections, are a problem for you. You wobble, or turn wide — sometimes right out of your lane. Tight turns in a restricted area such as a parking lot are a particular problem.
  • When you are forced, by gridlocked traffic, to ride slowly for an extended period, your ride consists of short bursts of motion separated by stops with your feet down.

Slow-speed practice

Professional rider training institutes use slow-speed practice as part of their courses. In “Experienced Riders Courses”, for example, many experienced riders who handle their bike well at highway speeds are surprised how poorly they manage it at a walking pace.

But slow speed riding is more than a training exercise. In real world riding, in parking lots and in gridlocked traffic, if you can’t control your bike at very slow speeds, you’ll be riding with your feet dragging the ground. (This is an unsafe practice you must learn to avoid.)

Take advantage of slow-speed riding opportunities you encounter, in safe circumstances like quiet parking lots. (Improve your technique before entering heavy traffic, not in heavy traffic.) Practice riding your bike with control at a walking pace without dragging your feet. Work your speed down as your skill builds. You’ll discover some critical techniques:

  • Look into the distance, not at the ground. This is a critical technique. If you stare at the ground, wheel, or handlebars, you will find balance nearly impossible. If you look at the horizon it is much easier. Of course, you can’t ignore what is on the ground in front of you, but you don’t need to stare at it. Take a quick glance at the road in front of you, then look farther ahead, using your peripheral vision to keep track of your immediate area.
  • To ride at slow speeds, ride with your clutch only partially engaged. This is called “slipping the clutch,” and it is an important technique for controlling your motorcycle. You should learn where, in the travel of your clutch lever, the bike just begins to creep forward, and practice riding with the clutch held in that position. (If you drive a standard-transmission car, you may have been lectured not to “ride the clutch”. This doesn’t apply to motorcycles; occasional slow-speed riding with the clutch partially engaged is perfectly natural and will not harm the clutch.)
  • Once you master slipping the clutch, practice controlling your speed with slight variations of your clutch position, while holding the throttle constant. At very slow speeds, you should keep your throttle position constant, and slightly higher than you normally would, and use small clutch adjustments to adjust your speed. This allows you to make much finer and smoother adjustments to your speed and will reduce surging and jerking.
  • Keep your wrists and elbows low and shoulders relaxed.
  • Keep your knees tucked in against the bike. Many people have a tendency to have one knee flap in the breeze, and this will affect your balance.
  • Keep your feet on the pegs. If you have to put your feet down, you are trying for too slow a speed. Speed up a bit, then work slower as your balance improves.

Observe other riders next time you are out in traffic. How well they balance at slow speed is a true sign of their riding skill.

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