Tips on Getting Back Into Motorcycle Riding After Winter

Rusty riding after winter? Refresh your riding skills with these tips.

Spring! That time of year when a motorcyclist's heart turns to thoughts of…the new bike he just bought! Even if it isn't actually in your garage yet, your heart probably swells with pleasure and beats more quickly when you think about that new cruiser. You're planning for your summer together, picturing yourself leaning on it at your local cruise-in with a proud smile, looking forward to babying it for hours with potions and creams, scanning catalogs for cool new accessories and dreaming of the adventures that await the two of you.

Before you get too carried away however, there is a nasty little secret you need to know. New bikes get crashed more often than old familiar ones. While you may not be in any hurry to apply “old” to the light of your life before you have even made your first payment, you should be working on “familiar.” Otherwise, you may do something that will make you both old before your times.

Any new relationship has some awkward moments, but they can be lethal if they happen on a motorcycle in traffic. You need to accelerate the familiarization process and quickly learn the nuances of how your new ride responds and performs so you can take advantage of its strengths and overcome its weaknesses. The best way to do this is to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced RiderCourse. This course offers expert instruction, time to ask questions and talk about skills-related issues, and a controlled site to practice techniques that will sharpen your skills and teach you what you need to know about how your new bike works.

Practice for spring riding
Head to an empty parking lot to get some good 360-turn practice in.Illustration by Mark Wagner

On Your Own
If, for some reason, the Experienced RiderCourse option is not feasible there's still a way for you to get intimate with your new bike. You just need some time, a piece of pavement that's free of cars and other hazards, and a hankering for some fun.

Start your exercises with low-speed work. A deserted parking lot is perfect, provided the surface is clean and free of defects, bumps, obstacles or slippery stuff.

Begin with circles at low speeds. You should keep your head turned and you eyes up near the horizon to see where you're going. As speeds get slower, you shouldn't have to put a foot down. Eventually, your speed control and feel for the bike should enable you to make complete 360-degree turns with the steering turned to full lock and your feet on the footpegs or floorboards. You may dis­cover the handlebar should be repositioned or the throttle cable needs some play taken up to smooth out initial acceleration.

Next, try some tight figure eights, which will teach you how the bike responds in low-speed, side-to-side transitions. Again, your feet should never need to touch the ground until you stop. Find or set some marks you have to hit every time around to force you to be precise and consistent. You’ll expand your feel for the throttle response in this exercise.

Move Along
If the surface offers solid traction, your practice area has enough space and your confidence is high, repeat the exercises at higher speeds. When you have a feel for the bike and learn to keep your head turned and your eyes up, you should be able to draw precisely the same circle every lap. Those direction reversals in the figure eight will teach you how much pressure your new ride needs for direction changes and how the bike reacts as it rolls into a corner. Keep your eyes moving ahead of you, try to hit the same marks every time around and don't put those feet down.

You might also learn the cornering limits of your bike. That loud dragging noise may be unnerving at first, but on most bikes you should learn to keep turning despite it. An exception is a bike (such as Suzuki's 800 In­truder) which drags something solid, forward and inboard (the peg bracket on the In­truder)­, a combination that can lift the front wheel off the pavement if you plant it too firmly. However, most pegs and boards simply fold up and don't unsettle the bike at all, though the noise may startle the rider. Dragging the bike's under­pinnings will teach you to anticipate and ignore the awful grinding sound of the floorboard scraping the pavement. This will keep you from straightening up as a reaction to the noise, which can cause you to run off the road when you have to lean the bike over a bit harder than you anticipated while negotiating a corner. It will also teach you how much cornering clearance your bike really has, thereby giving you an idea of how far you can lean it into a corner. If your bike drags too easily for comfort, try stiffening the spring preload (if that is an option) or changing to longer or stiffer suspension components.

One other nuance you might pick up on a shaft-drive bike is you can lean a little deeper with the power on, since that causes the suspension to extend at both ends of a shafty, not just the front. Try chopping the throttle as you lean almost to the point of dragging. That may drop the bike enough to make it drag.

Stopping practice
Also practice hard stops when the street is clear to familiarize yourself with your braking skills.Illustration by Mark Wagner

Screeching Halt
You can also use your low-speed exercise area to practice stopping. Hard stops will teach you what sort of traction your new tires offer, how powerful and sensitive your brakes are, and how the bike handles when braking hard—even with the rear wheel locked.

Stopping with the back tire sliding helps to determine how much traction you can call on; it also shows you what to expect when this happens in a real-life panic stop. Deliberately locking up the rear tire reveals how your new bike behaves in an emergency and lets you adjust to it. Practice steering into any sideways skid that develops during these low-speed lock-ups.

It’s important to remember most of your stopping power comes from the front brake. Once you are comfortable stopping with the rear wheel sliding, focus your attention on the front brake and tire. Since the consequences of overbraking up front can be a crash, you don’t want to overdo it too dramatically. But you do want to get a clear sense of how much pressure you can apply to the crucial front brake.

Again, practicing may make it apparent if your brake controls need their positions or engagement points adjusted to better suit you.

Faster
Once you have mastered your turning, swerving and stopping skills at low speed, practice again at higher speeds. If your parking lot is big enough, you can do it there, other­wise some lightly traveled sections of road will work.

Look for a corner that offers an open approach so you can see through it. A turn with a maximum apex speed of 60 mph or less and no surface flaws is a perfect place to try cornering at highway speeds. You want to be able to put the bike precisely where you want it at the entrance, the apex and the exit. Again, if you can lean it over far enough to drag things, it will help you learn the bike’s limits.

A straight, deserted road is a good place to practice swerving. Using dotted lines as pylons, see how fast you can comfortably go while swerving between them. On roads with raised lane-marker dots, the dots will tell you if you miss. The idea is to learn how to execute a quick, precise swerve—a vital avoidance maneuver.

You can also practice hard stops on the street when you are clear of any other traffic. In fact, as with the other skills, hard stops can be practiced in the normal course of every ride. Just make sure there is no one behind you when you jump on the brakes. Pick a safe spot you intend to stop at or before. It should be a short enough distance to challenge you, while also allowing room to overrun if you can’t stop at or before your target point.

Take Two
Finally, it is worth repeating these exercises with a passenger you carry regularly. This not only gives you a feel for the changing demands of your new bike with a second body aboard, it also provides the passenger with an opportunity to learn what is required in those situations.

Because these exercises involve moderate but varying speeds and engine loads, they are also a good break-in regimen for your engine and brakes. You’ll be doing you and your new bike a favor.

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