Steer Clear of Trouble

Be ready for the surprises lurking around the next corner. By Evans Brasfield.

Sooner or later, your obstacle-avoidance a skills will be tested, so you should hone them before your skin is on the line.

Ideally, every motorcycle ride would be a relaxing jaunt down a winding road through beautiful scenery. Nary a single car would be visible as you soaked in the sights, sounds and smells. However, the realities of motorcycle riding demand that, if you really want to smell the roses, you should pull over. You never know what surprises are waiting just beyond the next bend.

In a previous Street Survival column, we explored the importance of SIPDE (Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute) as a method for avoiding common motorcycle mishaps. But what good are scanning, identifying and predicting if you don't have a large selection of tools for addressing the situations you predict? One of the best ways to assure your safety out on the road is to make sure you steer clear of the potential points of conflict with vehicles or other large objects. But life doesn't always give you lots of time to make decisions. In those cases, evasive maneuvers, such as swerving or surmounting objects, may be necessary, and you need to master the skills to fully employ them.

Swerving

In its most basic sense, a swerve is really just two linked turns. The first changes the bike's path of travel away from the thing you don't want to hit. The second turn returns the bike to a course parallel to it's original one. However, because of its dynamic nature, a swerve is a little more complicated than just two turns.

Suppose you were riding down a two-lane rural highway and round a corner to find a branch lying across the bulk of your lane just beyond the exit of the corner. As soon as you've assessed the hazard, look at the place you want to go. If you look directly at the branch, instead of at the side where you want to pass it, you run the risk of target-fixating and plowing right into the object you want so desperately to avoid. Next, press on the handgrip in the side of the bike that you want to turn toward.

Countersteering gets its name from the fact that, if you want initiate a turn to the right, you need to turn the motorcycle's handlebar to the left. To ease some of the confusion, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) coined the phrase, "Push right, go right," which means that you press on the hand grip in the direction you want to go. The quickness of the turn initiated by countersteering depends on the force applied to the handgrip. The firmer the pressure, the quicker the bike changes direction.

In a swerve, the first press of the handlebar grip needs to be held long enough to change the motorcycle's course so that it misses the hazard. The length of the hold depends on the size of the object you're trying to get around. The pressure hold required to miss a pothole will be shorter than one needed to miss the back of a bus. However, if you stopped there, you'd simply run off the road--which might be even worse than hitting a branch, pothole or bus. So, in order to continue in the direction you were traveling prior to the swerve, you need to press on the opposite handlebar from the one you used to initiate the swerve. (If your first turn took you into the oncoming lane, you will want to immediately maneuver yourself out of enemy territory and back into your lane.)

A few features make swerves different from typical turns. First, swerves are dynamic. The amount of time between the two turns normally will not allow you to lean with the bike as you would in a normal turn. Instead, sit upright in the saddle looking where you want to go while the bike moves side-to-side beneath you. Second, the intensity of the maneuver means that a large percentage of the tires' traction will be used for turning. Do not combine hard braking and swerving or you risk crashing. Remember, chopping the throttle is the same as applying the rear brake. In addition, some bikes do not steer as readily while the brakes, especially the front brake, are being applied. So maintain speed while swerving. If you must slow down, do so either before or after the swerve. For example, if you are riding on an exit ramp and the traffic in front of you comes to a sudden, unexpected stop, you would want to swerve to miss the car in front of you, then stop.

To practice swerves, try riding down a deserted road and select a mark on the pavement to swerve around. Don't select slippery surfaces such as manhole covers, in case you overshoot your target. Gradually increase your speed and/or your closeness to the obstacle as you gain confidence. You can also practice in a big parking lot by marking off one parking space with tennis balls cut in half. Approach the barrier at 15-20 mph. Try the exercise swerving into the adjacent parking spaces on both to the left and right of the "bus." Again, you can increase your speed for a greater challenge.

Surmounting Obstacles

Swerving around road hazard is not always an available option. In some events you may want to consider riding over the obstruction. The most important decision you must make when faced with an object you must surmount is to decide if going over the hazard is physically possible--you're simply not going to get over a tree lying across the road--but 2x4s or bricks or potholes are usually doable. You should slow down as much as possible prior to contacting obstacle. Next, approach the object as close to 90 degrees as possible to prevent the front tire from glancing off of it. Keep your eyes up looking well ahead. Remember, the best way to get to where you want to go is to simply look there. Motorcycles have a talent for following your eyes.

Next, raise your butt up off the seat with your legs while maintaining a relaxed upper body and a neutral throttle. Cruisers with forward-mounted footrests pose a special problem in this situation. Since you won't be able to support your body with your legs alone, you will need to use your upper body. Be careful not to give any accidental steering inputs while pulling yourself up with the handlebar. Just before contacting the obstacle, shift your weight rearward and roll on the throttle to lighten your front wheel. Keep your body relaxed and let the bike move underneath you. By staying loose you will be able to straighten the bike more quickly if it gets knocked off line. Use a similar approach for railroad tracks or diagonal seams across a road, only keep your weight neutral and maintain a constant speed. If you encounter an obstacle in a turn, stand the bike up as much as possible and follow the same steps you would for riding in a straight line. To practice negotiating big bumps, you could go ride over some on a local road. However, carrying a short piece of 2x4 to a empty parking lot would be a better option. Start slow and gradually build speed as your technique improves. Although the risk to your rims is relatively low, don't try this exercise at much more than 20 mph.

While you can't guarantee that every cruise will be smooth sailing, an afternoon of practicing these techniques every few months will give you the skills to help you out when things get hinky. After all, wouldn't you rather prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you're over-prepared?

_Evans Brasfield
When he's not playing trials rider on a Victory V92SC, Motorcycle Cruiser's former associate editor can be found at swerving around his website: www.evansbrasfield.com.

_For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the _ Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

If there are rocks or sand lying on this corner or at the exit, you will have to swerve around them, then get back in your lane. Are you ready? Photo by Gold and Goose.
Keep your eyes up and on the place you want to go and you will tend to steer there.
With practice, you can make even a large, heavy machine swerve quickly and precisely. Photo by Henny Ray Abrahms.