What gear do you use when cornering a motorcycle?
There is more to shifting gears than simply getting the motorcycle to accelerate smoothly. Sloppy shifting can cause crashes when downshifting, turning or starting on hills.
The purpose of the gears in a motorcycle transmission is to match the engine’s speed (measured by the tachometer) with the motorcycle’s road speed (measured by the speedometer in km/h or mph).
On most bikes, neutral is located between first and second gear. Always start and shut off your bike in neutral.
When starting off from a standstill, you must shift the transmission up through the gears so that the engine is able to maintain the motorcycle’s road speed without turning too fast. Your motorcycle owner’s manual has information on the range of engine speeds at which the motorcycle was designed to be operated. The proper gear will also permit the engine to provide sufficient power for the bike to accelerate if necessary.
When slowing down in traffic, or for road conditions, you must shift down through the gears until an appropriate match is obtained between engine and road speed. Remember to shift up when the engine is turning too fast for the road speed and to shift down when the engine is turning too slowly.
Shifting down is more difficult to do smoothly than shifting up – and potentially more dangerous. You must open the throttle slightly to increase engine speed as you shift down with the clutch pulled in. If you don’t apply enough throttle, the bike will lurch when you release the clutch. Shifting down without having the engine speed up enough to match its speed with the motorcycle’s speed may cause the rear wheel to skid.
Shifting in a turn
If downshifting is required, ensure it is done prior to the turn. Do not upshift in a turn unless you can do it very smoothly. A sudden change in power to the rear wheel can cause it to lock or lose traction. The result can be a skid. It is best to change gears before entering a turn.
Starting on a hill
It’s more difficult to get the motorcycle moving on an upgrade than it is on flat ground. There is always a danger of rolling backward into someone behind you.
Here is what you have to do:
- Use the front brake to hold the motorcycle while you start the engine and shift into first gear.
- Change to the foot brake to hold the cycle while you operate the throttle with your right hand.
- Open the throttle a little bit for more power.
- Release the clutch gradually. If you release it too quickly, the front wheel may come off the ground or the engine may stop – or both.
- Release the foot brake when the engine begins to take hold.
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Cornering a motorbike with confidence
Cornering is one of the most exciting parts of riding a motorbike but it’s also a tricky part to get right and is where most accidents happen. This can be because riders try to corner faster by increasing their lean angle with the wrong body position, or applying the throttle before the apex.
Motorbike cornering tips
- Body position
- Counter steering
- Picking your line
- Throttle and gears
- Cornering on track
Although your primary concern on the road should always be safety, you can still have plenty of fun on a twisty B-road without riding dangerously.
Some of the principles of cornering on a track cross over to the road, but are used in a less extreme manner. It is good practice to move your body weight to the inside of the bike on both road and track, for example, but there’s no need to be getting your elbow down on the daily commute.
You can practice safe riding technique by finding a quiet country road with a bend in it. A 45mph, 90-degree bend is ideal – it keeps things simple. Find a couple of safe places to U-turn, so you can go around the corner several times.
For effective cornering, you should be leant forward slightly with relaxed, bent arms. Elbows should be low, in line with the handlebars if possible. Keep a light grip on the handlebars and don’t lean on them to support your weight – you may need to gently grip the tank with your legs.
Don’t let your vision drop. Instead, tilt your head up and point your chin to the furthest bit of clear road you can see. As long as you keep your chin up, you’ll be able to see well ahead.
Never look at anything on the outside of the turn – whether it’s a tree, an oncoming truck or even a field full of naked sunbathers – because you go where you look. So, turn that head and keep looking to the bit of road where you want the bike to end up.
When you get a clear view all the way through the corner, that’s when you turn the bike. That’s the point when you transfer pressure from the outside footpeg to the inside one – but there’s much more you can do to turn the bike.
Dip your inside shoulder into the corner and lean your upper body to that side, into the corner.
Find a way to turn the bike that works best for you. It’s not about trying to get big lean, just about being confident and happy with turning the bike. But – and this is easily the most important thing – don’t stop looking where you’re going. Keep your chin up, looking down the road and turn that head.
There’s no greater source of biking arguments than what’s variously called counter-steering, positive steering or active steering. The simple fact is that whatever instructors call it, the technique of putting pressure on the inside bar (and pulling on the outside one) makes the bike turn into a corner.
To steer right, you need to gently push forward on the right handlebar (to steer left, push left). This will lean the bike to the right and enable you to negotiate the bend. At higher speeds and on tighter bends, more steering input may be required. On a right-hand bend you can also pull back on the left handlebar to make the bike lean further and quicker.
There’s long been a big black hole in the information captured by dataloggers on motorbikes – how much effort actually goes into steering.
That is until now, because post-grad student, Alex Przibylla, is researching exactly that for his Motorcycle Engineering masters at the University of Wales.
We spent a day at an MSV trackday at Donington with Alex, who’s already spent time working in Moto2, and a modified Ducati 1199 Panigale belonging to the university.
Fitted with extra sensors, a 2D datalogger, an internal measurement unit and a dual-antenna GPS, the Panigale, or ‘Dynamic Vehicle Response Measurement Platform’ (DVRMP), as it’s now known, also has custom-built strain gauges fixed to the clip-ons to measure steering input.
After downloading data from our track sessions, the kit confirmed that the harder and faster you push and pull (counter steer) the quicker the bike leans over (roll rate, in degrees per second).
Going left-to-right through the Foggy Esses was achieved at 109.2 degrees per second after applying a force through the bars that equates to 108.6Nm of steering torque.
Steering from right-to-left through the Craner Curves, the force through the bars equates to 169.8Nm of steering torque, which is the same as pushing up nearly 30kg with one hand and pulling the same with the other. That figure would be even higher on a race bike with slick tyres and a faster rider in the saddle.
Throttle control and gears
On the road, you want to enter a corner with a neutral throttle having scrubbed off a little more speed in your braking zone. This gives a wider margin for adjustment and is the safer approach.
With a proper look at the corner, it’s time to adjust your entry speed. Get into position early, then adjust your speed. Braking should be progressive – gently on, build pressure, ease off smoothly.
The key is to finish any braking while still travelling in a straight line. You do not want to still be on the brakes when you start to tip the bike into the corner.
If you can smoothly manage the speed on the throttle, that’s ideal – and that’s the point of this stage. Sort the speed and get into the right gear: go down to an appropriate lower gear for riding through and out of the corner.
Once you’ve scrubbed speed off with the brakes, go down a gear. Again, this is best done with the bike in a straight line as it will be smoother, then you’ll be free to concentrate on turning into the corner without trying to change gear at the same time.
You must never accelerate into a corner – that’s just about the most dangerous thing you can do – but you do want a slightly positive throttle. After changing gear you should be able to open the throttle fractionally, not enough to accelerate but just enough to avoid slowing any further.
This keeps the bike stable, transferring weight from the front tyre to the rear and increasing the feeling of control. Just be extremely cautious not to overdo it – remember, never accelerate into a corner.
From the midpoint of the corner you can start to very gently open the throttle to drive to the exit. Opening the throttle will do two things: push the bike out of the corner on a widening line; and stand it up for you.
If the corner starts to tighten again, rolling off again will drop the bike safely back onto a tightening line. If the corner opens, continuing to accelerate will take the bike out of the turn.
The key is that initial twist of the throttle: it must be smooth, it must be steady at first, and it must be at the appropriate time to put you on a good exit line.
Picking a line
The easiest way to demonstrate the importance of the line you take is to find a corner on a safe, quiet stretch of road and try the following.
Take a few passes to warm up, and then pay attention to how you are getting around the corner. There will come a point in your approach where you decide to initiate a turn. Notice where that spot is, and next time try turning in before that.
It’s important that you aren’t going very quickly here, because you will rapidly notice that an early turn-in throws you wide as you get further around the corner. If you were going quickly, you would drift into the path of oncoming traffic, but as you’re pottering you can just steer a bit more and sort yourself out that way.
Now try the opposite: delay your turn-in as late as you can. This time you’ll discover that it’s almost impossible to run wide. You may even find that you have taken a safer, more controlled line than your natural approach because you are gathering more information about the corner before you commit.
Almost all the motorcycle riders who crash on a bend turn in too early. They might be tired, or riding beyond their ability, or carried away riding in a group and trying to keep up with faster riders. But their actual mistake is not paying attention to the turn-in point.
The trouble is, having seen the corner there’s a natural subconscious tendency to drift towards it, away from the wide position that gives a good view and a safe, sweeping line through the corner, especially after you’ve devoted a second or two to braking and changing gear.
Keep asking yourself this question. As soon as you see a bend ahead – and you’ll see every one in plenty of time if you’ve kept your chin up – start to prepare for the corner. That means moving the bike over to the left side of the road for a right-hand bend or in the centre for a left-hander.
How far over do you go? Only as far as you feel comfortable. By spotting the corner and setting it up early, you have time to make preparations.
If there’s a chewed-up road surface on the left, don’t go too far out there. If there’s oncoming traffic in the other lane, don’t get too close to the central white line.
A wide position has several benefits – but the main one is the improved view it gives and the confidence this brings.
Cornering on a track
However fast you are down the straights, you’ll never meet your true track riding potential without mastering corners. Visiting a trackday or riding school is the best way to practice cornering closer to the limits of your motorcycle and is safer for both you and your driving licence than trying it on the road.
You need to hang off the bike much more on a circuit than you do on the road. Your inside elbow should be bent and pointing downwards, and your outside arm should be almost straight with your chest near or touching the tank.
You will also need to shift your bum over in the saddle to move your centre of gravity over and down. There’s no need to go mad with this, one cheek should be enough if you’ve got your upper body positioned correctly.
Hanging off the bike through the corner keeps the bike more upright, reducing lean angle and stress on your tyres. Body positioning is key: lots of riders don’t hang off the bike enough leading to far too much bike lean and slides, which can be dangerous.
Break your corner entry down into sectors so that you know where to set your body position, brake, shut the throttle and spot the apex. Don’t be afraid to carry plenty of revs at this stage. Higher revs aid control and reduce the chance of exit highsides.
On track you want to roll into the bend with the throttle shut, scrubbing speed, as opposed to accelerating through it. Off-throttle cornering helps the bike turn, so if you can reach the apex with the throttle shut, the bike will turn faster, have more ground clearance and be safer.
Shut the throttle all the way from your braking point to the apex, being on the throttle through the corner can overstress your tyres and lead to slides.
Once past the apex, pick an exit point and accelerate towards it as hard as possible. Because as you are accelerating the bike will start to stand up all on its own. Feel for the available grip at the rear, balancing drive on the throttle.
You can always come off the throttle slightly if you are running out of track and need to tighten your line. You should treat the track as a series of straights followed by bends. Do all your hard accelerating and braking on the straights.
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How Much is Your Life Worth: A Guide to Motorcycle Safety Equipment
Sitting at a motorcycle rally in 1997, I was talking to a grizzled old biker. He was different from the rest of the bikers there; he used a full face helmet and a leather jacket when he rode, even in the heat of summer. He explained to me that I was a ~explicative~ idiot for not wearing a real DOT helmet and that my brain bucket wasn’t worth its weight in doggie droppings. We talked about the price of helmets, and how his was a $500 helmet before the custom paint, so I asked him how much a rider should spend on a helmet. His response has echoed to me ever since. “Well kid, how much is your head worth?”
The Cold Hard Facts
Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2013, there were 4,668 motorcyclists killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes, an estimated 88,000 motorcyclists injured, and motorcyclists accounted for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities. Motorcycles are less visible than other vehicles on the road and provide none of the protection needed to survive a high-speed collision. According to the NHTSA’s 2015 report, per mile traveled in 2013, the number of deaths on motorcycles was over 26 times the number in cars. 62% of those fatalities may have been averted if they had been wearing a helmet.
Safety gear is expensive though, right? Is it as expensive as living in a wheelchair for the rest of your life?
What Motorcycle Safety Equipment Do I Really Need?
According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider’s Course, every rider and passenger should wear a helmet, eye protection, over the ankle footwear with nonslip soles, long pants, a good jacket, and full fingered gloves.
- Helmets: Ensure the helmet is truly an approved helmet, as novelty helmets (especially the German Army style) are often sold with a DOT sticker. Most authentic DOT helmets will also bear markings from another non-profit safety organization such as Snell, American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or ECE 22.05. Once you have found an approved helmet, proper fit is the most important aspect. Be sure that the helmet you choose does not rotate around when you shake your head. The helmet must not impede your peripheral vision.
- Eye Protection: While most full face helmets are equipped with an ANSI or Snell rated windscreen, many half face helmets do not provide eye protection. While your sweet pair of Ray Bans might look great, they carry no safety rating and no protection against a rock that flies up off the road from the car in front of you. There are many styles of safety glasses that are rated with certifications from CE, ANSI, and MILspec that will protect your eyes from debris.
- Boots: There are many styles of riding boots, from military combat boots to SuperSport racing boots. Boots are the easiest protection that a rider can get. A good quality pair will protect your feet and ankles in the event of a crash, or if you just generally fall off your bike. A solid sole and good ankle support are the bare minimum that a rider needs, though specialized boots may provide greater weatherproofing, articulation, or protection.
- Gloves: When you trip and fall, what is the first thing that usually hits the ground? If the answer was your hands, you fall in with the vast majority of humans. The concept is no different on a motorcycle. When you consider how difficult life would be if you were unable to use your hands, you also grasp the reality of how important good hand protection is. While it might be tempting to rev the throttle of your Beemer with a fashionable pair of Austrian leather gloves, you’ll want something much more durable if you ever need them. Look for gloves that are made from durable materials that will withstand abrasion in case of a fall at highway speeds. Some gloves are equipped with “sliders” or “palm sliders” that absorb the shock of the fall while protecting your palms if you go sliding down the road. Even if you never go down, gloves can protect you from any other randomly odd damage to your hands, such as (personal experience here) driving through a swarm of yellowjackets. Full finger gloves would have been wonderful that day.
- Durable Clothing: Time for another well-worn biker adage. Dress for the slide, not the ride. You may ride safely every single time you throw your leg over for the next hundred years. You may never touch pavement with anything but the soles of your boots, but there is always that chance. Durable clothing will protect you from one of the more painful experiences that a rider can have: road rash. For those who have never experienced road rash, count yourself lucky. When you arrive at the ER after your accident, the doctor will need to clean out the wound, which will likely be covered in road dirt, threads of the fabric from your clothing, oil, grease, and whatever else you may have slid through. This is completed with a large bristle nylon brush, and without the benefit of numbing medications. Consider this when you want to wear shorts on a hot summer day. Motorcycle specific clothing may include plastic body armor, quality leather, and Kevlar padding.
- Jackets: A good quality jacket is a staple of every rider’s wardrobe. They come in a wide range of styles, and with varying degrees of purpose and protection. Sport rider’s jackets often have built in back and chest protectors, as well as elbow and wrist guards. These should all be stitched in place, rather than just placed in pockets. There are few things as painful as having the very thing designed to protect you be the thing that ejects from the pocket and bruises or punctures your vital organs. Your jacket should be comfortable to wear in all climates. This includes having proper ventilation, and a weatherproof shell.
Motorcycle Safety Training
Just having the right gear isn’t the only thing that a rider should have. A motorcycle training school is imperative. While the Motorcycle Safety Foundation certainly provides an extensive range of rider education, classes can also be found at local colleges, and accredited motorcycle riding schools. There are courses that cover the entire range of riding experience, from beginners Basic Riding Courses that explain the basic safe operation of a motorcycle to Expert Riding Courses that involve quick braking, swerving, traffic conditions, and other advanced skills. A motorcycle refresher course is a great way to get back in the saddle after a long season off the bike, or even for riders who have become complacent about risks. These courses of instruction teach and reinforce positive riding skills and a good mental attitude that will make the rider more competent, and less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
Though operating a motorcycle may have an element of danger, a rider has a conscious choice in how they mitigate those risks. The proper and consistent use of personal protective equipment and a solid riding technique, reinforced through experience and education goes a long way. The initial cost may seem high but approved safety gear can be the difference between a bad day that you tell your kids about, and a bad day that the state troopers tell your kids about. How much is that worth?