Pure Magic: Power to the Rear Wheel
It’s been said many times, “Anyone can ride a motorcycle fast in a straight line”. Starting and stopping can sometimes results in a crash, especially during a turn. Sure, you can pedal or glide your feet like Fred Flintstone for stability—but there is a better way.
Ask a group of kids what their superpower would be and at least one would say they want to fly. It is a dream some people achieve as pilots. They love it, but for most of the rest of us, motorcycling is as close as it gets to sprouting wings and taking off into the clouds. Flying combats gravity that keeps us planted to the good ol’ terra firma. Not all of gravity’s effects are pleasant though. Ask anyone who has dropped their motorcycles at a slow speed. You’re sure to hurt at least your pride.
A force that helps us stay upright on a motorcycle is called the gyroscopic effect. I remember playing with a gyroscope in my youth. I would pull a string wound around an axis to spin a disk inside of a frame. The gyroscope seemed to have a mind of its own as it always wanted to stay upright. At the time, it seemed like magic. The harder I pulled the string, the faster it spun and the longer it would magically stay up. When it slowed down, it would begin to wobble until it awkwardly toppled over.
Grownups can still play with gyroscopes—only, our gyroscopes are tires, wheels, brake rotors, shafts, and the other spinning components of a motorcycle. This way we still get to experience the magic of our childhood using the superpower of flight. This works great on the road, as gyroscopic power keeps your motorcycle upright without worrying about a fall. But once you slow down, especially while leaning, you need to create some controlled gyroscopic power to stay upright. You can do this simply by increasing the throttle and the magic flows through the engine and clutch into the rear wheel to keep the motorcycle upright. It works great coming out of a curve and I would guess that most of us motorcyclists use it without even thinking about it.
Gyroscopes in Action
Have you seen a motorcyclist make a slow, tight turn to park in a parking space without putting their feet down? It’s not magic, although it feels like it when done correctly. Simply add power to the rear wheel with the clutch and throttle and control your speed by using the rear brake. Each of these three components plays its part. The rear brake has to be feathered, the clutch has to be slipped, and the throttle has to carry on average 1500-1800 rpm. Even if the rear brake on your motorcycle looked like the brake pedal of a 1958 Buick, it must be applied in limited amounts. The clutch needs be used gradually like a dimmer switch, while the throttle has to be barely cracked open.
To work on this technique, combine only the throttle and clutch at first. In police training, we typically call this cooperation of the throttle and clutch riding in the friction or gray zone. Think of your throttle as your bank account and your clutch as your check. You must have enough money in the bank (or revolutions in the engine) to write a check. If you don’t, it may bounce (stall), bouncing the motorcycle and you in the process.
A good exercise to make your gray zone more predictable is called “rock and roll.” Stop on a slight uphill with both feet on the ground. Then, apply around 1,500 rpm with your throttle and slowly let out the clutch until it engages and the power to the rear wheel pushes you forward slightly. Now, pull in the clutch gradually until you roll back some and repeat the cycle as you release your clutch. Do this about five times and then release your clutch more as you begin to move forward to travel about 15 feet. As you move forward, still slipping the clutch, put your feet on the boards or pegs until you pull in the clutch, brake, come to a stop, and put your feet down.
The next step is integrating the rear brake while you are in the gray zone with your clutch and throttle. The result is called riding in-tension because of the tension created between the power to the rear wheel and rear wheel braking. To practice this technique, begin with your right foot applying the rear brake and left foot on the ground. While staying stationary with the rear brake still applied, start applying the throttle to about 1,500 rpm and slipping the clutch at the same time. Try to keep your hands in this position on the clutch and throttle as you begin to release the rear brake to move forward.
Now with your hands stationary, your brake controls the amount of power going to your rear wheel. Try to ride as slowly as you can in a straight line for about 15 feet and integrate this technique while making slow speed turns as well. As you begin a turn, reduce power to the rear wheel by applying more rear brake pressure. To exit the turn, simply reduce the pressure on the rear brake to increase the gyroscopic effect. This will gradually stand the motorcycle upright and straighten the handlebar.
Congratulations! With practice, you can now magically lean your motorcycle during a slow speed turn in a controlled manner without falling down. Don’t forget to grab your cape as you use your super flight.