SO YOU GOT A NEW MOTORCYCLE; NOW WHAT? By Eli Ohlhausen
SO YOU GOT A NEW MOTORCYCLE; NOW WHAT?
Here are a few things I wish people had told me when I first started riding motorcycles. First I will give some tips on setting up and maintaining the bike; then some advice on riding it. I have ridden and raced motorcycles both on and off road for 25 years, am a professionally trained mechanic who has been factory certified, and have managed large multi-line dealership service departments, so I guess that makes me something of an expert. These are just suggestions, and some people may disagree with me…they are wrong.
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR NEW BIKE
The first thing you want to do when you get your new bike is RTFM; this is an industry term used within motorcycle service departments that means Read The F*cking Manual. All bikes come with a short booklet explaining the features and operations of the machine. It seems obvious, but many people overlook this simple and convenient source of information. Most of the information in these manuals consists of stern warnings and dire proclamations about what happens if you don’t follow the manual, but there is some good information there as well. If the bike is so equipped, I suggest you pay attention to the section that explains how to adjust the chain. You don’t need to actually adjust it yourself (a messy job), but you should be aware of when it needs adjusting so you can have someone else do it.
SETTING UP THE BIKE
Most bikes come with controls that can be adjusted to fit the rider. Some clutch and brake levers have adjusters that allow you to set their distance from the handlebar, and almost all can be rotated up or down. (Note: some models have indexing pins that fit into a hole on the handlebar that prevents their being rotated – some people file these off to allow for adjustment). To adjust the levers, I like to loosen the bolts that hold them until they move with moderate pressure; then I sit on the bike with my feet on the pegs and turn the levers until they are positioned right. The idea is to be able to grasp the lever naturally without rotating the wrist. One caveat; if you are setting up a dirt- or dual-sport bike, point the levers slightly downward to accommodate your reach when standing on the pegs.
Brake and shift pedals are usually adjustable too. If there is a linkage, there will typically be locknuts and threaded adjusters that allow you to alter pedal height. If there is no linkage, you may be able to remove the lever and re-index it on the splines by which it is attached to the shaft (“splines” are small grooves cut into the shaft sticking out of the motor, the pedal has corresponding grooves that mate with the spines). I like to set the brake pedal height so that my foot is just above it when I am in a comfortable riding position. I prefer the shifter a little higher because it needs to be moved up as well as down. Generally, it is a good idea to place the shifter so that you don’t have to overextend your ankle in either direction. Note also that if you have big feet it is important that the shift lever be high enough to allow you to get your foot under it easily.
You cannot underestimate the value of good tires. I’m not saying that you have to get the latest, stickiest, most expensive tires out there, but you should make sure the tires you have are in good condition. This means you should check your tire pressure regularly. In a perfect world, you would check pressures before every ride – nobody does this. One approach is to check pressures when you fuel up, as it is easier to remember to do it if you make it part of a routine. Regardless, you should check your tires before you go on any long or particularly fast ride. What pressures should you run? RTFM.
You should only ride tires that have sufficient tread; it is amazing to me how many people disregard this advice. You want to have at least two millimeters of tread on the most worn part of the tire, which will usually be just left of center; tires wear more in this area due to the crown of the road – if you are in Australia, it will be to the right of center. An easy way to measure the tread is to use a penny (does anybody actually carry these anymore?). Take the penny and insert it between the tread blocks with the top of Lincoln’s head facing down. If the tread blocks do not extend past Lincoln’s hairline, you need a new tire.
Some people balk at the idea of replacing a tire that still has good tread on the sides, the rational being that this is where you actually need the most grip and there is plenty of tread to provide it. The problem is that as the tire wears in the middle, the profile or “aspect ratio” of the tire changes. What this means is this; when the tire is new, a cross section of it would look like a smooth half-circle. When the tire wears in the middle, it becomes squared off, which means it essentially has a flat spot. When you go to turn on one of these squared off tires, it takes greater effort to tip the tire off of the square portion and the bike’s handling is compromised due to the irregularity in the tire’s profile.
One final word on tires, you should only ride ones that are reasonably fresh. It is easy to tell how old a street tire is, as each has a DOT (Department Of Transportation) number stamped into the sidewall. The number will look something like: “DOT A178.” The last 3 digits are a code that tells you the tire’s age, the first two are the week of manufacture and the last is the year. Thus, the tire in the example just given would have been made on the 17th week of 2008 (or 1998). No matter how much tread is left on a tire, it is a good idea to replace it if it is much more than 5 years old; this is because the rubber dries out with age, loosing elasticity and grip.
RIDING YOUR NEW MOTORCYCLE
Braking is one of the most important skills on a motorcycle and is one of the least practiced. Practicing braking pays dividends in several ways. You are less likely to panic if stopping hard has become a learned muscle reflex; you will have a better idea of how much space you need to stop the machine; and it allows you to wait until the last second before getting on the brakes and then flicking it into an approaching corner.
I recommend the following procedure for honing your braking skills:
- Begin at moderate a speed (i.e. one you are comfortable at).
- Verify that no one is behind you.
- Brace your arms and squeeze the gas tank with your legs (if the layout of your bike allows for this).
- Using only the front brake, apply smooth and firm pressure. Try to bring the wheel almost to the point of lock-up. (You will get a feel for this over time and, if the front wheel does lock, you still have a decent chance of recovering if you let off the brake).
- As you decelerate, “blip”* the throttle and downshift so that you are always in the correct gear if you need to accelerate.
* “Blipping the throttle” means giving the throttle a quick twist while the clutch lever is engaged, which briefly raises the RPMs. You don’t want to hold the throttle open, just a quick twist open and closed; it should take less than a second. You want to do this because when the clutch is pulled in for a shift, the transmission is being driven by the rear wheel and begins spinning faster than the engine. By blipping the throttle, you match engine speed to transmission speed and allow for a smooth downshift. Blipping the throttle is probably the hardest aspect of breaking to learn, as it requires you to apply steady pressure to the brake lever while rotating the throttle quickly with your thumb.
- As you get more comfortable, start incorporating the use of the rear brake. Note that the harder you use the front brake, the more weight will shift to the front of the bike. This will make the rear end lighter and thus the rear wheel will tend to lock up easier – in fact, if you are braking as hard as you can, the rear wheel can actually leave the ground. Rear wheel lock-up is usually not a big deal and is easily controlled by letting off the rear brake.
A good way of practicing is to find a deserted stretch of road and pick some feature as a marker. Take runs at the marker at various speeds, and try to get a feel of how much distance you need to stop from any speed. One last caveat, whenever you brake hard on the street, keep glancing at your mirrors; if there is a car barreling down upon you, it may be better to let off or take evasive action rather than risk being punted.
Perhaps the most fun and challenging aspect of riding a street bike is taking a corner at speed. This is more a mental than a physical endeavor, and knowing what is going on can help. Contrary to intuition, you do not turn your handlebars in the directing you want to turn – at least not above 10 mph. Once you get moving fast enough, the wheels act as gyroscopes and tend to keep the bike going in a straight line. When you take a corner, you actually turn the bars the opposite direction you wish to go, which is known as counter-steering. This effectively steers the front wheel out from under you, causing the machine to fall to the opposite side. As the bike falls into the turn, you straighten the wheel and the gyroscopic effect takes over again, only this time the bike is leaned over and making the turn.
When I first heard about steering the wheel out from under me, I thought it was bullshit. However, if you go into a corner and concentrate on turning the opposite direction, you will be surprised at how quickly the bike responds. This is something we all have been doing since we learned to ride a bicycle and is one of those learned muscle reflexes I spoke about earlier. You can use this phenomenon to your advantage. Once you know about counter-steering, you can use it to get your bike to turn in much quicker. When you get to the turn-in point, give the bars a quick yet smooth turn away from the corner and the bike will quickly drop in. The same phenomenon works to get the bike upright at the end of the turn; just turn into the corner and the bike pops back up.
One other tip for cornering involves where you look when you turn. For years, I always watched the 20 – 30 feet immediately in front of my tire when cornering. I wanted to see any pavement imperfection before I hit it so I could attempt to avoid it. This is a sure recipe for slow corner speeds, not to mention that it makes the whole project more stressful. The thing to do is to look as far into the corner as possible. Don’t concentrate on where you are, look where you are going. You have probably heard this before, as it is often said, but it is hard to put into practice. You need to trust your tires and force yourself to look at the road just as it is coming into your field of vision. One way to practice this is to find a friend who is willing to lead you and to watch him or her take the corner; this will naturally make you look further ahead.
One final word about cornering, eventually you will enter a corner “hot” (i.e. way too fast). The natural inclination is to let off the throttle and/or apply the brakes, which is exactly what you should not do. Keeping some throttle on in a corner is vital, especially when you are at the limits of traction. This is because when the bike is leaned over, getting on the gas will cause the bike to describe a tighter arc, thus helping you to make the corner. Think of it this way, when you accelerate, the bike’s weight is transferred towards the back and the front end gets light. When you are leaned over, the same thing happens, but instead of causing the front end to rise straight up, it moves towards the inside of the corner and tightens up the line the bike takes. The front end also gets light, which lessens the chance of the front end washing out due to overloading the front tire. So, if you are in a corner hot, keep a little throttle on, look at the exit of the corner, and lean it over even more – you probably can hold on to it until the pegs are folded up and the cases start dragging…have faith.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope you found it helpful. Riding a motorcycle is a skill that rewards constant practice, and the better you get, the more enjoyable it becomes. In my opinion, the best way to practice is to go to track days. There you can begin to scratch the surface of your machine’s potential and ride it like you stole it without going to jail. Happy Riding!