Things to Remember: Keeping it Light

There are a lot of important things to remember in steering a motorcycle, but there is one problem that many bikers have in the cab-dominated, target-rich, pedestrian-laden pot-hole slalom streets of NYC…and that is: keeping a light grip on the bars. This is something non-motorcyclists won’t even realize: Most people think motorcyclists hold-on to their bikes by the handlebars…when the truth is you can’t steer properly that way…you need a light touch. The problem is, if you’re doing this, you probably don’t even know it. So here’s a quick quiz:

Q1: Do you notice your arms tense up when you ride?

Q2: Are your hands/arms/wrists sore after riding for a while? (Doesn’t matter after how long)

Q3: Do you sometimes have trouble turning, or turn wider than you anticipated?

Q4: Do you sometimes have trouble balancing the bike at low speeds or coming to a stop?

Q5: When you put your foot down at a stop, does it sometimes come down a bit hard?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you’re probably holding onto the bars too tightly (and along with that your body-steering geometry is out of whack). Chances are you’re using the bars to support your body while sitting in traffic. This can also happen as a survival reaction when you are uncomfortable with your speed or your path… Either way, this makes it difficult to make tight turns or provide accurate steering proper inputs (like the kind you’d need to balance the motorcycle at low speeds). There are even bigger problems that can come of being too tight on the bars…at faster speeds (while accelerating) being tight on the bars can make “headshake” (when the front wheel gets light and shimmies back and forth) catastrophic. But no need to fear. Although tightening on the bars is an involuntary action, you can beat it and learn to loosen up – and as a result you’ll find riding much less stressful, more enjoyable, safer, easier, etc…

Three steps to loosening up: practice, practice, practice. Not helpful enough? Okay, then try this: learn the proper position to sit on your bike. Your forearms should be parallel to the ground, and you should be able to sit without any weight at all on the handlebars. In fact, you should be able to steer without gripping the bars at all (except to work the controls).

Here’s a diagram from Keith Code’s Twist of the Wrist 2 (great book – awful cover) – the diagram on the left is the one you want (obviously!)

Your body position will be different on different motorcycles. Sportbike and naked bike riders tend to have a tough time finding a good riding position – most people don’t lean low enough onto the tank. But many of the higher performance standards have similarly low riding positions. You need to position your torso so that your forearms are parallel to the ground and able to push horizontally on the bars to steer. That is, your elbows need to be at the same level or lower than the handlebars. One tip to help get this body position is to center yourself on the footpegs. You should be able to stand straight up on the footpegs without falling forward or supporting yourself with your arms. This way your arms are free to provide the correct inputs to bars (we don’t need to talk about countersteering right?) and controls.

So loosen up! You’ll need all your agility to get past the people, pigeons, potholes and get where you’re going in style.

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