Practice Makes Permanent

Riding skills atrophy quickly if not practiced. A formal class is the best way to sharpen them, but you can practice them quite effectively on your own during your regular rides too. From the August 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. **By

A number of studies, including some specifically relating to motorcycling, show that you retain a skill for about six months after you are trained for it or practice it. After that the skill begins to erode, leveling off after about two years. That's one reason that experts recommend that you take a refresher riding-skills class once a year. This might be a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced RiderCourse or similar street-skills training class or a racetrack-type class (which are sometimes offered specifically for cruisers).

Either kind of class gives a stimulating, enjoyable day of riding and talking about motorcycles. Unless you approach it with a you-can't-show-me-anything attitude, you will get something out of it, even if you have ridden as long as I have and as often as we do. You can learn about MSF training sites in your area with a toll-free call to (800)446-9227.

So what do you do to keep sharp when you fall out of that six-month window? Practice those critical skills -- braking, swerving and cornering -- every time you ride. It's not as good as performing under the knowledgeable eyes of an instructor who can offer suggestions on how to strengthen your skills and bolster your weak points, but it will put you ahead of where you'd be if you never push yourself.

Stop Practice

Any time you have to stop anyway and there is no traffic around to be alarmed by the psycho motorcyclist who suddenly stands on his brakes, you can practice forceful stops. When I see a stop sign or red light looming ahead, I'll prepare by checking my mirrors to make sure there is no one behind me for a considerable distance. Then I pick the point I want to stop before. My desired stopping point is some distance behind the limit line of the intersection or whatever else I'm stopping for. This gives me some over-run in case things don't go as planned. I fix this point in my mind, then continue to scan and evaluate the road surface between me and it. Is the road clean? Does it bank to one side? Is the surface smooth? How much traction will the pavement afford? Does the surface change along the way, perhaps because standing cars have dripped on it? If you do this frequently enough, this road-surface evaluation will become a regular, ongoing part of your riding, done subconciously.

The approaches to intersections tend to have the worst surfaces for braking because the pavement is often beaten down into two tracks, somewhat greasy and may be wrinkled or torn up by cars braking and accelerating. They are hard places to make good, short stops. They are also the places where the need for panic stops most frequently arises. I try to make sure that I approach just as fast when I'm making my practice stop as I would if I wasn't planning to hammer on the brakes in a moment. If I am approaching a traffic light with no one behind me, I can use it as the signal to stop. Otherwise I simply see how close I can get to my target stopped point before I jump on the binders.

The first thing you'll probably discover is that you sit on the bike a bit differently when you are preparing to stop hard than you when you are sailing down the road without a care.

Ideally, however, you will be just as ready to panic stop in your normal riding posture. So consider how you have set yourself up. Is your braking hand or foot in an awkward or unusual position when its poised to stop? If so, would adjusting the brake lever or some other component put the lever in a more comfortable, accessible position?

If you must lift your foot off its rest or reach way around the grip for that critical front brake lever, find a way to either position your controls more effectively or change how you sit on the bike. (Imagine that the time it takes to reach and completely apply the brakes is spent speeding toward a car that pulled out unexpectedly then froze in your path.) Having ridden thousands of motorcycles, most of which were set up by their manufacturers to make the best possible impression, I know that controls can usually be adjusted to fit you better and get into play more quickly. Engagement spans, lever angles and positions (moving the clamp in or out on the bar, rotating the bar itself or bending a rear brake lever), and other adjustments will, when set properly, improve your control significantly in many cases and should also improve your reaction time.

Finally, notice how much less distance it takes you to start applying the brakes when you are covering the controls. Having fingers on the brake can reduce reaction time by most of a second. At 60 mph or higher, than be the difference between stopping upright or hitting the car that pulled in front of you.

Get Busy

The stop itself is simple in concept, but tougher in real life. You want to apply maximum braking -- that is, as much deceleration as the available traction will provide -- as quickly as possible without exceeding the limit of traction. However, the situation, especially in that first few split seconds, is very dynamic. As you apply the brakes, the bike shifts its weight off the rear wheel and to the front. With less pressure against the pavement, the rear tire has less available friction, while the front tire gets more. The weight transfer and the compression of the front suspension also changes weight bias as well as the way the bike responds to steering inputs. The bike may also pull to one side. The pavement's characteristics may change. The pressures on you increases as you are thrown forward. (Another bike set-up point to consider: Is the handlebar or some other component in the wrong place when you are fighting braking forces?)

While all this is happening, you want to get the front wheel stopping as forcefully as possible without locking up. Though the rear wheel is less critical, ideally it should also provide maximum stopping without locking. Although a locked-up rear is harder to avoid and less likely to lead to disaster, it can still cause problems. A locked-up rear wheel will probably slide out of line, perhaps quickly. You then lose most steering control, since your only option is to steer into the slide. Since the rear wheel sees a reduction in available traction as the brakes are first applied, you either must learn to apply it gently at first or, a greater challenge, release pressure after that initial application. Some folks advocate not using the rear brake at all. I'd debate this, especially since we are talking about cruisers, which have long wheelbases, carry more weight on their rear tires, and transfer less weight off their rear wheels in a stop than, say, sport bikes. Not only does the rear brake help stop you, but, by providing drag at the rear, it also serves to stabilize the bike. And with the long wheelbase of a typical rider, if it does set out of line, the change in the bike's attitude in minimal.

With all these dynamics to handle during that first second or so, hard braking is very challenging. You want to get to maximum stopping right NOW, then adjust for changing forces at both ends. It isn't something you learn to do extremely well the first time you attempt it, perhaps not the 101st time either. It requires practice, honest self-evaluation, thought and more practice. Even the practice can be dangerous, but locking up the front wheel and falling is less likely to lead to serious injury than arriving at the roof pillar of a car going 30 mph faster than you might have if you'd used the brakes effectively. Scared of practicing? Imagine yourself in a Mercury (while you were trying to stop your bike).

Start out with lower speeds and less forceful brake applications and gradually increase them as you gain confidence and control. Concentrate on stopping in the distance you have allowed.

(I like to fix my eyes on a point just before where I want to stop, believing that there is something to target fixation. I find that I can apply this now in real-life situations.) Once intimate with a motorcycle, I find that I can use the rear tire to feel for traction and fine-tune front-brake application to match.

But what do you do when a wheel locks up? At low speed, I just leave it locked until coming to rest. The threshold speed for this is lower for the front than for the rear, since a locked front wheel that slides out will have you completing the stop on your butt -- which doesn't slow you as effectively as a well-braked tire. Even a locked-up rear wheel can spell trouble if it gets you sideways enough. If you are going fast enough and can modulate the brake well, it is possible to reduce rear brake pressure and let the tire regain traction -- as long as it has stepped too far out of line. Releasing the brake after the bike is way sideways may cause it to hook up and high-side you, which tends to be even less pleasant than sliding out and falling. Since the added adrenaline of a real panic stop is likely to cause make you lock the rear brake, it's definitely worth learning to work with a locked-up rear wheel, to learn to correct any slide that starts before it gets out of hand.

There is one other braking scenario that few riders practice -- braking with a passenger. Of course, to do requires a passenger who understands the reason for practicing and is willing to put up with getting slammed at bit to improve both your chances of avoiding an accident.

As with the rider, the passenger will probably learn something about how to sit and position himself or herself for the forces involved. After practicing two-up braking, most riders discover things that change their riding style when they carry passengers (like adjusting speed), and many passengers learn what they need to do to keep from aggravating the situation.

If you get the point where you can really slam on the brakes at the speeds that you normally travel on the highway and get to a full, short stop mostly in control, you will be vastly better prepared than the rider who never actually pratices those stops. You might also want to pay some attention to the kids of distances required to stop from those speeds and see how much longer they get when your speed goes up. Doubling your speed quadruples the distance needed to stop once you actually start applying the brakes and doubles the distance needed to react.

Practicing hard stops can be scary, especially if you try to stop too hard with too much speed too soon. Even if you never get to the point where you feel completely comfortable slamming on the brakes at 65 mph, frequent practice will improve you chances of surviving a real crisis at speed. Your reaction will be trained and the sensation of applying the brakes hard, modulating for changing forces, steering to correct and holding yourself against the pressure will be familiar, allowing that computer in your helmet some spare processing power to analyze the situation that's unfolding ahead of you.

The Training that Zigs

My personal cornering training focuses on basics like making sure I'm looking as far down the road as possible instead of focusing on something just ahead of my front wheel (a habit I have to work hard to avoid), applying corrections smoothly and progressively, and able to tighten up my arc unexpectedly. Hard, jerky steering inputs tend to upset the chassis, though you still must be able to make steering corrections quickly and forcefully enough to avoid an unexpected obstacle. The tighter-arc drill assures that I am comfortable leaning deeper when I need to and aware of my bike's limits. Simulating what happens when you encounter debris or slimy stuff in a corner, I also like to pick a tar spot, crack or other point inside or outside my line and change lines to hit it with my front wheel without straying from my lane.

Swerving practice also calls for smooth but forceful steering inputs. I'm training myself to deal with an obstacle that suddenly appears in my path, whether it's something that was hidden by a larger vehicle ahead on the interstate or a kid that dashes out in front of me on a city street. I apply one of my favorite routines when I'm changing lanes anyway. I prepare with a look over my shoulder to make sure the lane next to me is clear. Then, as my eyes come back to the road ahead, I imagine an obstacle, and swerve to avoid it. I like to use something close enough to be challenging but not actually a threat. My dummy obstacles include things like pavement patches and manhole covers. On L.A. freeways, I'll look up and try to find the nearest break in the dashed lane lines that I can reasonably hope to pass through. Since the lanes here are marked with raised "botts dots," which thump your tire if you drive over them, I can tell if I swerved quickly and accurately enough.

Target-fixation theory comes in to play here too. I try to focus on where I want to go and not what I'm trying to avoid. This requires a mental adjustment, since I have to look at the space -- basically at the point where nothing exists -- rather than an actual object. But in a real avoidance situation, this what you want to do. If you focus on the SUV that just backed quickly out of that hidden drive instead of the space between it and the oncoming traffic, you are likely to follow your eyes right to the back of the car.

As with braking, swerving practice is best done when there is no one else in your immediate vicinity. Otherwise that sudden swoop may startle an inattentive motorist who thinks you really are trying to avoid something and reacts inappropriately.

These primary skills are just some of the things you can practice. Taking an Experienced RiderCourseExperienced RiderCourse will suggest others. There are also countless mental exercises. For example, when riding in heavy traffic on a multi-lane road or street, I like to see if I can predict which nearby car will change lanes first. I sometimes even keep score. (I allow myself change my prediction up to the point when a car signals or begins to move.) I am right about almost 80 percent of the time. Or without checking, do I know what type and color car is in my right blind spot? Which cars will stop if this light changes right now and which will go through?

With practice you will discover that you know what the drivers around you are going to do before they decide to do it. That will often let you avoid a situation where you need to use all those skills you have been practicing.

Art Friedman
When his wrists aren't swollen from practicing panic stops, Friedman answers email at _ _or at

A parking lot is a good place for low-speed practice -- if it is reasonably clean and smooth. Watch for sand and greasy spots though.
If you position yourself differently on the bike during practice because you're anticipating a hard stop, consider whether you should sit like that all time or adjust your bike so you are better prepared for a hard stop.
Your braking exercise may teach you that covering the brake lever and pedal reduces your reaction time in a panic stop. Covering the brake controls may also make you instinctively apply brake pressure in a total-panic situation, which at the least will get you slowed before impact,
If you practice changing your line in mid-corner, you will be better prepared to handle an unexpected obstacle when you encounter it. You should be able to tighten your line and go under something or widen up to go outside of it without running out of your lane.