Riding a motorcycle is a never-ending quest for the perfect experience and I'm always seeking ways to improve my riding. Even after decades on two wheels, I never take riding for granted and I’m always trying to get better and better. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on two wheels, there is always room for improvement. Here are ten simple tips to help bring you closer to motorcycle Nirvana on a Honda CTX700.
1. Increase following distances with reference points
Riding in traffic can be stressful, especially when you get trapped behind a slowpoke. Don't make the mistake of riding too close to the vehicle in front of you. Every foot closer reduces the time that you have available to react to changes in speed or direction. When you're in a car, you're taught to estimate car lengths. On a bike, time works better. As a general rule, stay at least two seconds back in order to give yourself enough space to react, change direction, slow down or stop when conditions in front of you dictate. Use a fixed object as a reference point to get a sense of following distance. Notice when the bumper of the car in front of you passes that telephone pole, then count in your head ("one thousand one, one thousand two") to make sure that you're leaving enough space. Do this often enough, and at different speeds, and you'll develop a good internal clock. Proper following distance will become second nature in the time it takes you to count to five…
2. Brake lighter, brake longer
Jumping on the brakes when you want to slow down can have some seriously negative effects on traction and we’ve seen our share of high sides from clamping down as hard as you can. It may seem obvious, but try to get on the brakes as smoothly and softly as possible. When it comes time to release the brakes, roll off of as smoothly as you rolled on. We promise, your riding will be smoother as a result, and you'll find that your bike feels more controlled and easier to handle and nothing is wrong with that. Also, you'll find that you're ready for the unexpected -- you're already on the brakes, already under control, and ready to increase the brake pressure without drama in case something happens.
3. Adjust your speed before corner entry
It's happened to all of us. You go into a corner way too hot and suddenly discover that you have make a series of rapid-fire adjustments in order to stay on your line and keep the bike upright. It may sound silly, but repeat the mantra "Slow In, Fast Out" every time you approach a corner. Try and adjust your speed and make sure to get the bike under control and in the right lane position before you enter the turn and before you put any lean into your bike. There's always time to accelerate out of a curve, and if you've entered the turn at a comfortable speed, you're in better shape to power out. Remember everyday riding isn’t always a MotoGP race.
4. Cover your brakes at every intersection
Intersections are vulnerable spots for all vehicles, especially motorcycles. You have to trust that other motorists are going to obey the rules of the road -- which isn't always what happens. Automobile and truck drivers are looking for other cars, and often say that they "didn't see" you and your motorcycle until it’s too late. We've all heard the sad stories. So, it's just smart to be one step ahead of the game at every intersection. Covering your brakes and reducing your reaction time by a split second might make the difference between avoiding that left-turning SUV or smacking into its rear quarter panel. Practice covering the brakes at every intersection, and you'll always be ready for the unexpected.
5. Use your speed to get safe space
Sometimes slowing down isn't the safest thing to do. Sometimes you have to use your motorcycle's acceleration and agility to get to maintain safe space. You're going to be able to out-accelerate just about every car you’d encounter in an urban situation, that Porsche and Ferrari next to you included. Make sure to use your speed wisely and create an open space after each traffic signal. On the highway, avoid riding directly in other motorists' blind spots. Use a burst of controlled acceleration to get away from a tight situation, and claim your safe space on the freeway. It may seem simple, but trust that the guy in the SUV, texting on his the phone while eating a burger, isn’t going to see you.
6. Ride your ride
Riding with friends can be a great experience and, myself included, the camaraderie and the fellowship is one of the greatest reasons to ride. But riding on the street is no place for competitiveness. If you ride with friends who are much more experienced than you, or who are much faster than you, avoid the impulse to ride over your head in order to keep up. Ride your ride, always. If you’re out with the friends, make sure to set up a rendezvous spot before you head out to ride and let them know that they can ride as fast as they want and you'll catch up with them at the coffee spot. It’s your ride too. I promise, you'll ride better and way safer if you don't add the pressure of keeping up. Even if it seems like they're leaving you in the dust, you'll wind up catching up quicker than you’d think.
7. Avoid target fixation
How many times have you noticed a rock in the roadway, or a piece of tire rubber, and then realized that you've run right over it, even though you didn't mean to? That's target fixation at work. Motorcycles go where you look. It's true. Look at that rock in the road, and you're going to hit it. To avoid target fixation, look where you want to go. Don't look at the edge of the road when you come around that curve, look through the curve. Your bike will almost magically follow your gaze. And when you notice that rock in the road, don't fix your stare on the obstacle -- look at your escape route. Look around the rock, and your bike will follow. Try experimenting with cones or paper cups in a parking lot. Soon, you'll be able to notice the obstacle, look around it, and your bike will follow.
8. Make your bike fit your body
The science is called "ergonomics," and the motorcycle application is pretty darn straightforward: If your bike fits you, you'll ride better. Start by adjusting your handlebars -- most stock bars can be adjusted by loosening the clamp at the center, and twisting them forward and aft. A change of just a few inches can transform your relationship to your bike. Some bikes have adjustable hand controls, too. Fiddle with those until you find the right tension and grip for your hands. Footpegs can be adjusted and moved; seats can be changed to gain ride height or lower the reach to the ground; nearly every place that your body meets the bike can be adjusted or altered to make you more comfortable and secure. Short, tall, fat and skinny, make the bike work for you.
9. Wear the right gear
We talk about ATGATT frequently here - All The Gear, All The Time. But it's not just ATGATT that counts -- it has to be the right gear, too. Dress for the temperature that you're going to encounter. If you're taking a long ride, remember that the heat of the day will give way to the cool of the evening, so you've got to be ready. Those perforated summer gloves will do little to keep your hands warm when the mercury drops into the 50s or 40s, as it can on summer nights in the desert. Getting caught in a rain storm is no fun if your leather jacket isn't water resistant. You risk hypothermia if you ride in wet jeans at low temperatures. Proper rain gear isn't just for comfort; it's for safety, too.
10. It’s all about safety and practice, and practice, and practice
There are plenty of web sites, books and articles about motorcycle safety. Reading about safety and visualizing safe riding technique can make your actual rides safer. Who knows? You might just learn something new.
Low speed practice will yield some serious improvement in any riding situation. Don’t be afraid or feel bad if you need to teach yourself the remedials. I take every opportunity to get more motorcycle rider training. I love to go to track days, safety demonstrations and riding clinics -- any place where I can get feedback on my riding, and observe skilled riders doing their thing. Even if you're never going to race your motorcycle (I know that I won't), spending time on a track can make you a better street rider. You get a chance to ride in a controlled environment without worrying about oncoming traffic, intersections or poor pavement. Many track days have instructors available to give advice and help you to improve your riding. Also, it's great fun.
Every ride is an opportunity to improve your riding. Work on your following distance. Brake lighter, longer. Avoid target fixation. Adjust your corner entry speed. Practice, practice, practice. You'll never be perfect, but you can always improve and have more fun, because really, that’s what it’s all about.