Controlling a Motorcycle at Low Speed Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Controlling a Motorcycle at Low Speed

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A black and white photograph of a girl on a motorbike.

Owning a motorbike is rather like owning a large breed of dog: in fact it's like owning a very large, clumsy German Shepherd pup called Cozmo.

You see, if you let Cozmo do what he wants without any restraints, he'll throw himself to the floor and go to sleep, throw himself into the nearest patch of mud, throw himself through the nearest hedge and run off across the fields or go crashing into things causing a lot of damage and heartache for his owners!

Show the dog you're frightened of it and it will try to dominate you and your life together will be misery. Mistreat your hound and it may turn on you and bite! However, learn his little idiosyncrasies; learn what he responds to and keep him under control and he's a loyal, fun and very well behaved beastie. You learn to trust and respect each other and have many, many happy days wandering around together.

In other words any idiot can let a dog run wild in the same way any idiot can twist a throttle and hold on for dear life to their bike. It's all about control and confidence. One breeds the other in a never ending cycle.

So, Cozmo aside for now, what is the difference between riding and controlling a motorbike?

The Easy Bit - Riding with Momentum or Running Down a Hill

Let's start with the easy bit, riding. As a child you have probably run down a hill with your arms stretched out, then been rather surprised when you couldn't stop at the bottom, momentum's great isn't it? Similarly once the bike is at a certain speed and is happily bimbling along, its own momentum will usually keep it upright, the clutch, brakes and gears have done their job and (barring sudden changes) speed may be controlled by altering how much throttle the rider applies. You are, in the most basic sense of the word, riding. Sit back (or crouch down uncomfortably over the petrol tank depending on make and model) and enjoy the open roads!

Unfortunately most riders don't have unlimited open roads and have to contend with modern traffic flow, city traffic, pot holes and many more potential hazards which force them to stop riding, drop speed and go into control mode.

What Happens When Momentum Runs Out?

At very low speed the throttle is a rather rough and clumsy tool for fine adjustments in velocity. We have probably all seen bikers1 kangarooing in heavy traffic, surging forwards then slamming the front brake on just before rear ending the vehicle in front. Obviously the bike is under very poor control with a rider who is literally being dragged around by his/her rather large metaphorical dog.

At very low speeds all that the throttle does is make a noise, it tells the rider the engines turning and there's fuel being burnt. How then do we avoid grabbing a handful and smashing our machines into the nearest bumper? The answer is clutch and back (rear) brake control.

Klutch is King

Clutch is king at control speeds. Remember Cozmo? Hope so, it's only been 500 words! Keep Coz on his lead (leash) and you've got control. Slight movements will guide him into doing what you want him to do and stop him from chasing Volvos. The clutch on your motorbike does the same job. Pull the lever towards you and the bike loses the drive power to go forwards, let the lever go and you're telling it that it's ok to go running off. Fledgling riders should be taught that if they ever panic whilst learning control, 'IN TO SLOW, OUT TO GO!' if the clutch is in the bike's got no drive and can't go anywhere.

Mastery of clutch control is an invaluable tool in any biker's repertoire. There's a lot of travel in any clutch lever but only a fraction of that travel actually engages the drive. With the clutch lever pulled all the way in, gently let the lever out until you hear the engine note change slightly, the revs will drop and you will feel the bike beginning to 'bite' i.e. it will feel like its lowering slightly, this is the point of clutch bite, notice how much the lever has travelled to get to the bite point, a little further movement away from the handlebars and the bike will begin to drive forwards.

Spend time on any new bike with both feet on the floor, 1st gear selected and revs just above tick-over (we'll come to that later) and just get used to moving forward very slightly on the clutch only. After an inch or two, pull the clutch right in and feel how the bike stops! The worst that can happen at low revs if you let the clutch go will be a gentle jerk as the engine stalls. Gradually increase the revs and repeat until the 'noise equals speed' misconception has been sent out of your head and back to its kennel.

Ok, well done, now try the same with your foot off the floor covering your rear brake. Get the clutch control, make a little more noise than tick-over and let the bike move a few inches, clutch in and apply gentle pressure to the rear brake pedal. You'll feel the bike not only stop quicker but also the back end sitting down slightly, pull the clutch all the way in as the bike stops, that my friend is the feeling of control!

Keep increasing the distance until you are happy that you can start and stop the bike with the clutch and rear brake. What about my other foot you say? Ah well, you will be shocked to find that once you've travelled a few yards that your trailing foot will feel slightly left out and will want to join in the fun, most new riders will pick up their trailing leg without being told and then get that big grin when they realize what's happened with their new confidence and control.

Don't Panic! (Keep Off the Front Brake)

The front brake hasn't been mentioned at all in this introduction to control so far and that's for a very, very good reason. Front brakes on most bikes, after around the 1980s, are extremely good at their job ie to reduce road speed very rapidly and efficiently when riding. However at very low speeds the same brake is just too good at its job and causes the bike to dive forwards when applied. All the weight of bike and rider is thrown onto the front wheel, the forks will compress and the front end will dip. In most cases, at low speed with an inexperienced rider, this will mean dropping your bike and having the embarrassment of dusting yourself off in the middle of traffic jams and trying to look cool while you pick up what's left of your indicators, handlebar levers, plastic bits etc etc.

You get the point, front brakes are great tools. It's just a case of knowing when to use them safely and properly. For now, at very low control speeds pretend we have taken the lever off your bike so you can't grab it in a fit of panic. There now; doesn't that feel better and just think of the money you'll save on replacement bits in the long run?

So front brake a no-go area for now? Great!

Using the Back (Rear) Brake as a Control Tool.

The back (rear) brake is a different beast altogether, most rear brakes aren't that good at losing speed whilst riding fast. They are, however, extremely good tools at telling the bike to sit down and behave itself at low control speeds. A little inwards pressure on his lead, a firm 'stay!' and Cozmo stops at junctions before dragging you into the path of oncoming traffic.

Similarly a little clutch, a gentle pressure on the rear brake and our bikes suddenly behave themselves, they sit into the road and become more stable and manoeuvrable. Magic? Nope it's just physics!

We've now got clutch control, rear brake control and we're not scared of making some noise with the throttle - all still at low speed.All as we need now is to keep the bike moving forward, under control, and tell it where we want to go!

It's Only Noise: How to Beat the 'Noise Equals Speed' Fear.

Find a nice space and start off exactly the same, using clutch and rear brake control. If you feel the bike's running away with you apply a little rear brake and pull the clutch in to stop the forwards drive. Don't worry if the revs climb, it's only noise and when we're nervous our grip tightens without us knowing, this tightening or tensing is transferred to the throttle mechanism and will increase the revs! Relax, firm but gentle grip on the handlebar controls and loosen those elbows! Much better!

If you think about the throttle as merely a volume control at low speed it may help. At tick-over, the engine's running, no throttle applied and it's quite happy just mumbling to itself (usually between 800 and 1100 rpm depending on the bike), turn the volume control up by twisting the throttle so your thumb moves upwards and the noise will increase by degrees until the engine is shouting at you, rather like Cozmo with the poor postman!

Don't panic! Keep your clutch in, the bike can't move and adjust the volume so that the bikes just talking to you in a calm civilised manner.

Incidentally most modern bikes have rev limiters fitted to stop the engine being damaged (that little red section of your rev counter is there for a reason), imagine you've been to your favourite rock concert, singing at the top of your voice for an hour or so, suddenly you get that dry, hoarse squeak and can't do the end of Bat Out Of Hell? That's natures rev limiter, an in built volume control!

Try moving off under control and varying your speed with the rear brake, keeping the bike driving just on the clutch with the engine running at constant revs. You'll notice the bike sitting down into the road stabilising itself. This is how we can ride in heavy, slow moving traffic, relaxed, aware and under control! No more kangarooing!

Practice this from walking pace upwards, try and ride as slow as you can without putting your foot down (notice foot not feet as we always cover our rear brake). Incidentally, again, if you have children who happen to have a 'slow bicycle race' at school sports days they'll love you for teaching them this technique, just substitute constant pedal power for clutch and revs whilst dragging the back brake!

When you come to a controlled stop, aim to keep your right foot covering the rear brake to avoid the bike rolling and your left foot on the floor. Car drivers please remember you are now on two wheels and you need that left foot down when you stop or your bike will simply fall over!

Look Where You Want to Go - Not Where You Don't Want to Crash!

So now we have throttle control, rear brake and clutch as the king controller, we're almost ready to go around bends, figures of eights, U-turns and left and right turns! First of all we need to tell the bike where we want it to go. Bikes are stupid beasts and will go exactly, and we mean exactly, where we point them. Look at a pothole or a brick in the road and you will hit it. Look at a tree in a field and guess what, the bike will prick its figurative ears up, wag its imaginary tail and go bounding through hedges to do exactly what you're telling it to do.

We need to look where we want to be and the bike will take us there. You will be amazed (especially as a new rider) what a slight tilt of the head can accomplish at control speeds, turn your head and the bike gets all nosy and inquisitive and wants to go see what its master is looking at!

So controlling the bike in a straight line, turn your head towards your left and pick a spot where you want to be. Your shoulders will turn slightly and thus the handle bars and before you know it you've done a left hand bend! Don't worry too much about consciously steering the bike at this point as you'll more than likely over steer. Keep practicing until the bike follows the movement of your head and you're moving in a slow, controlled left hand circle, always looking where you want to be next. If during your circling you become dizzy, please pull in the clutch, apply the rear brake and stop before you fall off, obvious as it seems, an awful lot of students get dizzy and wobbly just because they're enjoying themselves and don't want to stop!

Psychology of the Right Hand Bend

That's left-handers sorted. Now right hand bends are a different matter. You see, most riders can slowly and happily negotiate left hand bends because their brain tells them,

'If you mess up you can always stop and put your left foot down at the same time to stop you falling over!'

On right-handers our brains deceive us into panicking!

'If you mess this one up you can't put your foot down because that idiot keeps telling you to use your brake, ignore him, put your right foot down and grab a handful of the front one instead!'

A few crashes and broken bits later and you'll realise your brain is a fool! As long as we keep the bike driving forwards on the clutch, constant revs and a little pressure on the rear brake pedal, looking where we want to be, and the bike can go round any corners and can't fall over!

Control on low speed manoeuvres relies on forward momentum coupled with the stabilising effect of the rear brake. Take away engine power and the bike succumbs to gravity, take away drive, ditto. Take away back brake and the bike runs away and gravity wins again and we can't make the turn. Use the front brake and your local dealership will love you forever or you'll become very familiar with the emergency room of your local hospital!

How to Negotiate Figure of Eights and the Dreaded Test Day U-Turn

So 'psychology of the right hand bend' mastered, now try the same manoeuvres, left then right crossing at a central point, and hey presto you're negotiating the dreaded figure of eights! Take the turns as wide as you feel comfortable with at first then gradually tighten the turns and shorten the 'eight'. Really concentrate on turning your head in plenty of time for the next bend. You'll know the bike is set up to turn and can then look for your next 'where you want to be' point. Stop if you get dizzy!

Please remember we are still controlling not riding and don't let your speed build up which is a natural consequence of the confidence control brings, this is why we teach low speed stuff on advanced courses!

Using exactly the same techniques of motorcycle control we can now move onto the bane of many a new rider's test day, the U-turn. In the UK it's from left hand curb to the opposite curb turning so the bike is facing the opposite direction.

Observations and need for signals should be explained by your instructor2.

Once we are ready and safe to manoeuvre, remember we are moving from a stop and as such are not riding! Control is the keyword again.

Get the bike moving under control as we did on the figure of eights; remember this is just another right hand bend! Pick a spot on the opposite curb around head height where you intend to arrive and tell your machine this is where you want to go, don't look anywhere else until the bike has turned under control and you are now coming into land parallel with the desired curb. Clutch in, back brake on and congratulations you've completed a u turn!

Enjoy your new found skills; ride safe, time to take Cozmo for a walk!

Important Notes:

  • this Entry presumes knowledge of your motorcycles controls and safe practice based on UK riding. Although the techniques in this Entry may be used worldwide and by riders of mixed ability, it is recommended that any new rider seek professional training.
  • This Entry is based on a standard, geared motorcycle which has the throttle and front brake lever on the right-hand handlebar, the clutch lever on the left-hand handlebar, the foot controlled gear change lever on the rider's left-hand side near to the foot peg and the rear brake (foot-controlled pedal) on the rider's right-hand side near to the footpeg.

Graphic artwork - How to Control a Motorbike at Low Speed.
1At the risk of being taken out and shot by those who insist on being referred to as 'motorcyclists', we shall call all two-wheeled mechanically propelled riders bikers from here on in!2Eds note: We hope Freewayriding will write further on this topic in the future.

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