Relaxed, well informed and in control

Blog post posted on 26/10/20 |
Peter Burridge, motorcycle examiner and IAM RoadSmart member of 40 years, delves into the finer aspects of motorcycle control. 

I started my motorcycling adventure just over 50 years ago and I enjoy my two-wheeled journey as much today as ever. My minor obsession with good machine handling skills was kickstarted properly about ten years ago thanks to Jim Bryan, a good friend and mentor, but I’m perhaps a little unusual in that I’ve always liked to ponder the physics of motorcycle control.

Efficient and effective control underpins all motorcycle training and development, so I think it’s quite remarkable that, in my experience, motorcyclists almost always learn to steer their machine intuitively, perhaps following on from their experience as cyclists. I was around 17 or so (riding to work on a BSA A7SS twin) when I realised that, to initiate a turn, I turned the bars in the opposite direction. I decided to keep this discovery quiet for fear of being called a ‘spotty Herbert’ by my mates. I was relieved some years later when I read about counter-steering a motorcycle and realised that my ‘discovery’ was reality.

How come most of us aren’t intuitively aware of counter-steering? Perhaps it’s because the amount of force and movement required to counter-steer a motorcycle at moderate speeds is almost imperceptible, typically less than one degree of movement on a twisty road. The front end of a conventional motorcycle in motion is influenced by many factors in addition to the rider’s input: caster effect of the forks, gravity, gyroscopic precession and any change in the forces results in an alteration in course. A motorcycle handlebar needs distinct, discrete inputs from the rider where appropriate but, for the machine to remain stable, the lightest of touches is needed. 

As an examiner, some candidates I test tell me that they don’t need to move their heads because their mirrors are so good. Peripheral vision has a role but is never a substitute for actively scanning the environment and looking up and ahead, or for an effective blind spot/shoulder check. So, why are some riders wary of moving their head? Are they gripping the handlebars too tightly? Are their arms rigid and carrying their body weight through to the handlebars? Given the delicate movement required to initiate a turn, is it any surprise that a head movement from a rider firmly anchored to those handlebars leads to unwanted course alteration? 

Imagine a sparrow has knocked itself unconscious on your window and you’ve gone outside to rescue it from the cat until it recovers. That’s the sort of grip I am talking about as desirable for gripping the handlebars: enough to stop the twistgrip snapping shut and not much more. Our arms should be held loose with our forearms near parallel to the ground (we should be able to flap our elbows) and in order to prevent our ‘soggy mass’ from interfering with the bikes inherent stability our upper body should be supported by our legs, through our core, assisted by gripping the tank with our knees. 

If the balls of our feet, instead of our insteps, are used on the footpegs it will make carrying our upper body weight through our core much easier, as well as taking some pressure off our posterior. This is a whole-body approach to posture. The role of the knees gripping the tank and supporting the upper body through its core is worth stressing, particularly so when riding downhill and braking.

Many motorcycles popular today have very large fuel tanks. This has the advantage of allowing ‘mile munching’ trips when combined with an upright riding position. In my opinion getting off the bike regularly for both a physical and mental refresh shouldn’t be neglected if good posture is practiced and the handlebars aren’t used as a support.

So, using good posture to isolate our upper body from the handlebars except for efficient, effective, discrete and appropriate steering inputs can have many benefits:

• Allows the bike’s inherent stability to counter external forces e.g. side winds and road camber
• The ability to effectively scan your environment as appropriate using a mobile head
• Promotes a more relaxed and better-informed riding experience
• Enhances the effective fine control of your machine
• Eases those achy wrists, shoulders and back muscles
• May save money on ‘Grip Puppies’, ‘Throttle Assist’ devices, handlebar risers, footpeg lowering kits and a new seat
• Much better control particularly in downhill corners and on braking if the knees are used effectively
• Fully releases the joy of riding a motorcycle

There is a lot to think about here. It may be that you are already well practiced with the above and if so, that is great. Sharing, particularly with associates and those struggling with aspects of their riding might prove worthwhile. I try to maintain an open mind and I am certainly learning and evolving as a rider all the time. 

As with any ideas that we incorporate into our riding a safe environment is vital. Rather than attempt to take it all onboard in one lump, try one thing at a time and at a reduced pace. I’d suggest working on the hand grip initially, then seeing how easy it is to waggle those elbows. The next time you negotiate that tricky steep downhill hairpin, perhaps take your upper body weight through your knees and allow the handlebars free rein, except for the appropriate discrete inputs of course. 

Peter says, “This important area is not usually covered within the IAM RoadSmart Advanced Motorcycle course. IAM skills days do focus on the above and I also would recommend reading the ‘Full Control’ document endorsed by IAM RoadSmart. Structured practice will move skills from the ‘consciously incompetent’ through to the ‘unconsciously competent’ but there is always something new to work on or bad habits to revisit.”

To read the 'Full Control' document click here.