Safer Riding for Beginners

Clutch Control and Shifting
By Patrick Armitage
Updated 9/27/2013
We recognize the need to encourage new riders to join the riding community. We strongly advise anyone desiring to learn to ride to take a Basic Rider Course from a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course provider or a Rider’s Edge Basic Rider Course from a Harley Davidson dealer. This series of articles is meant to aid a student in this class to more easily understand and begin to put into practice the techniques needed to ride a motorcycle with control. It is not meant as a replacement for training by a professional Ridercoach. The entire series is on our website and can be downloaded free for use in your class.

One of the first, most important and sometimes most difficult skill for a beginning rider to learn to master is clutch control. Good clutch control is the key to many motorcycle control issues. Smoothly starting from a stop, smooth shifting, stopping and riding slowly with control are all vitally important and impossible to do well without good overall control of the clutch.
The clutch is similar to a coupling connecting the engine to the transmission but with an important difference. The clutch can be “slipped” varying how much power is transmitted to the rear wheel. The point of clutch engagement from where the slip is high and little power is transmitted to the point of minimum slip where the clutch is barely slipping and near maximum power is transmitted is what the Motorcycle Safety Foundation refers to as “The Friction Zone”
If the clutch lever is pulled in all the way to the handgrip the clutch is fully disengaged and no power is transmitted. As the lever is gradually eased out the clutch begins transmitting power at the beginning of “The Friction Zone”. As the clutch is eased out further, gradually more power is transmitted as the clutch slips less.
Smooth clutch control is vital to starting from a stop with control. Smooth, gradual clutch engagement allows the motorcycle to gradually gain speed without stalling or lurching forward.
When starting from a stop, use this technique. Before attempting this be sure you know how to stop and be prepared mentally for the stop. Looking straight ahead, with the engine running and trans in neutral squeeze the clutch fully to the handlebar and hold it. Assertively shift to first gear by quickly and firmly stepping down on the shift lever. Place both feet flat on the ground, still looking ahead. Roll on the throttle ¼ turn and hold it. Keep looking straight ahead and gradually ease out the clutch taking no less than two seconds to fully release the clutch.  As the motorcycle begins rolling place both feet on the pegs. Stabilize your speed and direction of travel. Get mentally prepared for a stop before you need to do so.
If you did this exactly as described you will have successfully started from a stop without stalling. If you stalled, rolling off the throttle, or letting the clutch out faster than two seconds or both caused it.
Once you learn the basics of starting from a stop you will need to shift as you increase or decrease speed. As your speed increases you will need to up shift. Place your foot under the shift lever. Quickly roll off the throttle as you quickly squeeze the clutch fully to the handlebar. Quickly and firmly lift up on the shift lever until you feel a hard stop and release the shift lever. Quickly ease out the clutch lever fully as you roll on the throttle. You are now in the next higher gear. The process is the same through all gears regardless of how may gears you have.
As you slow down you will need to downshift. Downshifting requires a similar technique with an important difference. Place your foot on top of the shift lever. Quickly roll off the throttle as you squeeze the clutch fully to the handlebar. Step down quickly and firmly on the shift lever until you feel a hard stop and release the shift lever. Ease out the clutch taking about two seconds to fully release the clutch. As you downshift and ease out the clutch the rear wheel will try to drive the engine faster. This is called engine braking. If the clutch is not eased out in a slower, more controlled manner than that which is used on an up shift the rear wheel may lock, potentially causing a loss of control. The technique is the same through all gears.
You will also need to downshift in order to come to a stop. Place your foot on top of the shift lever. Squeeze in the clutch fully to the handlebar and apply both brakes. Step down on the shift lever until you feel a hard stop and release the shift lever without releasing the clutch. Both brakes are applied simultaneously while keeping the clutch squeezed. As you slow down, gradually downshift through all the gears in the same manner. You are attempting to be in the right gear for the speed you are in at the time in case an emergency causes you to let out the clutch in order to ride away. At the stop you should be in first gear.
Almost every ride begins and ends with a slow ride and most will have several slow rides in between. Pulling in and out of a parking area, riding in stop and go traffic and doing U turns are all examples of times when a rider would like to be able to ride slowly with control.
The coordinated use of the clutch, throttle and rear brake are required in riding slowly with control. This is a more advanced technique and should not be attempted until the basics of clutch control are well practiced. Using these three controls gives the skilled rider a great degree of confidence and control in slow ride situations. Slow down using the rear brake only, to about a walking speed. Hold the engine speed to 1500-2000 rpm and hold the clutch in the friction zone. Use your rear brake to control speed by easing it off and on gradually. If the bike feels unstable your reflex will be to put a foot down. The actual technique is to ease off the rear brake when you feel this reflex. If the clutch is in the friction zone and the throttle is held at 1500-2000 rpm the motorcycle will stabilize when the rear brake is eased off. In a slow ride the rider needs to look straight ahead. In a turn the rider needs to look through the intended path of travel to where you intend to exit the turn.
In the case of a U turn the rider needs to hold the throttle at a steady 1500-2000 rpm, clutch in the friction zone and slow down using the rear brake only to a walking speed. Then snap your head and look behind you in the direction of the turn as you turn the handlebars full lock. As the bike leans, ease off the rear brake. As before if you feel the reflex to put your foot down this is the signal to ease off the rear brake.
Another advanced clutch technique is used to smooth your shifting. This is best used when up shifting to gears third and higher. The shift lever is preloaded by applying upward pressure on the lever, but less than that needed to shift normally. Quickly roll off the throttle and pull in the clutch just enough that the transmission shifts to the next higher gear. Quickly ease out the clutch and roll on the throttle. Do this for all up shifts to third and above and you will up shift as smoothly as an automatic transmission. This is much easier on the driveline and your passenger.  
Mastering clutch control is a vital overall control skill to all motorcyclists. You will be a more skilled rider and will enjoy riding much more with better clutch control.

This series of articles was developed as a handout for his students in Basic Motorcycle Courses taught by Patrick Armitage. Pat is a retired MSF/ Rider’s Edge Ridercoach with 20 years of teaching experience.

Motorcycle riding is inherently dangerous. The rider is responsible for the safe operation of his/her motorcycle.Always wear protective eyewear, jackets, boots, gloves and a helmet when riding your motorcycle or scooter. Never operate a motorcycle or scooter while using alcohol or drugs. The ideas and techniques contained herein are suggestions for safer riding but are no guarantee of safety.

Countersteering, the great mystery of
the motorcycling universe explained.

There are two things that are covered in all Motorcycle Safety Foundation and Harley Davidson Rider’s Edge courses that tend to produce dumbfounded looks in those that have had no formal training, when they are first mentioned. The first concerns use of the front brake, in maximum braking. When I ask, “What happens when you over brake the front wheel?” Most people answer something like “You will lift the rear wheel off the ground and go over the handlebars” I like to refer to this as “The Mountain Bike Syndrome” because most people have discovered it by over-braking the front wheel of a bicycle, with the result of easily levering the rear wheel off the ground.
Most students are surprised to learn that this does not directly translate to motorcycling, since the much heavier weight, and longer wheelbase of most motorcycles, makes them much more resistant to levering the wheel off the ground. This allows much more use of the front brake, so much in fact, that the front brake is the most powerful control on almost any motorcycle.
The second subject that nearly always twists the brains of the uninformed is understanding how a motorcycle is balanced and steered. Most people believe that a motorcycle is balanced by shifting your weight, the gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheels or both. While both of these have an effect, the primary thing that keeps things balanced is steering the front wheel. The motorcycle is balanced by steering the front wheel in two ways; either by countersteering, or the caster effect of the front-end geometry, which tends to self-balance the motorcycle, once a certain speed is attained. If you doubt this, and you ever find yourself caught in a crack or trough that prevents you from steering, you will be quickly enlightened.
The next thing to understand is how a motorcycle turns. Motorcycles turn when they are leaned, in the direction of the lean. Lean left go left, lean right go right. Although this part is easy to understand, the next part is not. Those that do not know will say, “ I just lean and the bike turns” or, “Turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go”. Just leaning does not work at speeds starting about 10-20 mph because, the caster effect fights the lean, progressively more, the faster you go. I have experimented with this on my Goldwing (don’t try this at home kids, I am a highly trained rider, on a closed course) traveling at 70mph, with the cruise control set, hands off the handlebars (held close to the grips). No reasonable amount of rider lean has any effect on direction. It just goes straight.  Surprisingly, to most people, turning the handlebars in the direction you want to go doesn’t work either.
So if these things don’t work, how do we make a motorcycle lean? Countersteering, do you know the term? If not, pay close attention here: to make a bike lean right, go right, lean left go left, press on the handlebar in the direction of the turn. Yes, this is no typo, press on the right grip to go right, press on the left grip to go left.  This is why they call it counter-steering. Is this confusing? If you are unaware of countersteering it should be, if you understood what you just read. Countersteering is the only thing that will make a motorcycle turn at speeds above 10-12mph.
I will explain, if you have an unmoving motorcycle standing straight upright, and you kick the front wheel out from under it to the right, it will lean and fall left and, vice versa. This is the same force imposed on the frame as the wheel is steered out from under the bike when you press (turn) the handlebars. Press left, the wheel steers right and, pulls the wheel out from under the bike to the right, causing it to lean left. As the bike leans left the front wheel swings back left and points slightly in the direction of the turn. A left leaning bike turns left, and vice versa. I am not talking about large steering inputs here, just press enough to turn the wheel, and hold it thru the turn. Just press left (turning the handlebars right) enough to turn the front wheel right and you will go left. The faster you go, the less pressure you need.
If you are one of those riders that believe that you were turning your motorcycle in another manner, “just leaning “ or any other method, I am going to let you in on a secret. If you have ever turned a motorcycle, you were countersteering- whether you realized it or not. There is no other way to make a motorcycle steer. When you thought you were “just leaning” you were passively countersteering. You will attain a whole new level of steering control if you learn to assertively countersteer.
It doesn’t matter if you understand how it works, it only matters that you understand that it does work and, that you assertively use it. I’m sure that most people don’t understand how an automatic transmission or digital fuel injection works, but they can still use them.
Are you confused, and still don’t understand or, don’t believe me? No problem, go try it for yourself. Find a wide open parking lot, get your speed up to 12-15mph (or more) and press and hold pressure on the grip. You will discover I am correct.
If this is new to you, consider participating in some rider training, it will make you a better rider, much more quickly than just real world experience. Graduates of the MSF Basic Rider Course and Harley Davidson Rider’s Edge, New Rider Courses know how to countersteer, if you don’t, imagine what else you might learn. The real question is, how good do you want to be?

Maximum Straight Line Braking
By Patrick Armitage

While cruising through town approaching a multiple-lane, urban intersection, you notice a car in the oncoming left-turn lane. You know from experience that often you can make eye contact with car drivers to get a better feel for whether or not they see you. Unable to catch this driver’s eyes, you have a bad feeling. Covering your brakes and clutch and moving to a lane position to gain time and space to react will help. Suddenly, the driver turns and accelerates directly into your path! Can you reflexively apply your brakes to their maximum without skidding or losing control? If maximum braking is not going to be enough, can you instantly transition from maximum braking to maximum swerving without losing traction and crashing?
In most motorcycle accidents that have been studied, the most common rider responses to a hazard were: 1) The rider did nothing; no brakes and no swerve. He /She just rode straight into the car. 2) The rider improperly braked, usually over braking and skidding the rear while underbracing the front (if they used any front brake at all.) The
increased stopping distance resulting in a collision. Other common errors include releasing the rear brake in a fishtailing skid that results in a “high side” crash. As the skidding rear tire suddenly regains traction, the bike quickly straightens. The rider is thrown over the seat and onto the pavement. This is a violent crash that rarely ends without serious injury. 3) As a rider is braking toward an imminent collision, he or she realizes there isn’t enough space to stop and then attempt to swerve. They begin to swerve before releasing the brakes. This exceeds available traction which results in a “low side” when the tires slide out with the bike leaned over. This type of crash has less potential for injury than a high side but all crashes can have disastrous consequences. This is the probable origin of the old biker’s story “I was going to crash so I laid the bike down”. If I have this right, the rider thought he/she might accidentally crash so they intentionally crashed. Seems like a less effective method than maximum braking or swerving. 4) The rider locked the front brake by grabbing rather than progressively squeezing the brake lever. A skidding front wheel has no directional control and therefore no balance. If the brakes are not quickly released and properly reapplied, the rider won’t stay upright for long. So with all of these potential mistakes, how do we apply our brakes properly? First, you must recognize that the front brakes are the most powerful control on almost any motorcycle. Used properly, they will stop a motorcycle in a surprisingly short distance. Proper application of the front brakes is a progressive squeeze, taking no less than about one second to develop full pressure on the brake lever. Full pressure is just short of skidding the wheel. A progressive squeeze allows for a progressive weight transfer to the front wheel, greatly increasing available traction. This transfer also lightens the rear, lessening available traction so less rear brake can be used, or is needed. This makes it easy to accidentally lock the rear wheel. If you find yourself in a rear wheel skid, it is safer to keep it locked and ride it out rather than release the brake and risk a high side crash.
It is also important to look straight ahead during braking. Looking as far ahead as possible helps you to brake in a straight line. Where you look is where you go; look straight, brake straight, look down…. You get the idea. You must downshift as you brake, trying to be in the appropriate gear for the speed you are traveling. This is important for several reasons, you want to be in first gear any time you come to a stop. If you need to transition from braking to swerving or need to motor out of the way of someone that is not stopping behind you, being in the right gear is a must.
The different types of brake systems available on today’s motorcycles deserve some discussion at this point. There are three different systems that each require different techniques in their application. It is important that you  know the system used on your bike to understand and practice the necessary technique.
The most common system is the conventional setup with the right handlebar lever operating the front brakes only and the right pedal operating the rear brake only. The technique used with this system was described previously.
Another system that is sometimes used is “integrated brakes.” This system is most notably installed on the Honda Goldwing as well as models made by Moto Guzzi. This system has the right handlebar lever operating one of the front brakes and the right pedal operating the other front brake and the rear brake, together. The pressure generated by the pedal is proportioned between the front and rear by the system. The only difference in the technique used with
this system is higher pressure is used on the brake pedal.
A more complex system, similar in concept, installed on a few new Honda models is a system called “linked brakes.” Use the same technique as with conventional brakes.
The last system is “anti-lock brakes (ABS).” Many people are familiar with this system as it works much the same way as similar systems installed in cars. Use the same technique as conventional brakes except that you keep the
pressure on as the system engages, automatically pulsing the brakes on and off rapidly. The greatest benefit to the ABS system is that it gives the rider the confidence to maximum brake without the potential hazard of locking either wheel.
Remember maximum braking is just short of wheel lock. How confident are you that you can do this without ABS? Can you do it on wet pavement, or on sand or gravel? From 60 mph or more? You get the point.
This covers only braking in a straight line, braking in a curve requires other techniques that will be covered in future columns. Braking and other riding techniques can be most rapidly improved by having a trained coach observe your technique and coach you as you practice. The fastest and least expensive way to improve all of your riding skills is to participate in a Motorcycle Safety Foundation or Harley-Davidson Rider’s Edge Course. If you have never tried one, you will be pleased with your progress. If you have taken one, why not try a more advanced Experienced Rider Course? I participate in an ERC every year; you can’t be too good or too well trained. How good do you want to be?