How to really ride a motorbike

Well done. You’ve passed the test, bought a bike and life is about to get much, much better. But there’s a big difference between being competent and brilliant. Here’s how to jump the gap.

Riding a bike brilliantly is one part learning and two parts practice. Some of it comes naturally as you get more and more miles under your belt.

More time on the bike means more of it becomes second nature, which means more brain space left to think about the other stuff such as road positioning, risk assessment and trying out a few different lines around a corner.

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Some of it you need to be taught. There are plenty of riders with years of experience who still can’t go around a corner properly because they’ve never had it explained to them and never had the light bulb flick on.

In this section, we are going to concentrate on four aspects of riding. Cornering, overtaking, defensive riding, and motorways.

Cornering

Approach

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There’s a corner ahead. Woo­hoo, time for some fun. But first you need some information. How sharp is the bend, what’s the surface like, is there anything coming the other way? And the best way to answer all these questions is to slow down in plenty of time and put yourself in the right place to find the answers.

Slowing down in good time lets your brain concentrate on reading the road, but it also lets you release the brakes in plenty of time so that your bike’s suspension is already settled when you make the turn.

As you approach the corner, change down the gears until your are in the right ratio for strong, but controlled, acceleration. Then move to the position that gives best visibility around the corner. Which is towards the left approaching a right hander and towards the right approaching a left.

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Don’t look just ahead of you, but focus as far ahead as you can see. Your peripheral vision will keep your brain aware of where the edge of the road or the white line is. Learn to trust it.

Entry

Hold your position as you look into the corner and look for ‘limit point’ (sometimes called vanishing point)-this is where the kerbs on either side of the road meet in the distance. While they are together you are still entering the corner. When they start to move apart, you are approaching the apex and now is the time to turn.

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Turning here seems very late and all your instincts will have told you to begin leaning much earlier. But doing this is a mistake-turning too early will make you more likely to run wide on the exit.

Turning later when you can see around the corner is safer because now you know exactly how sharp the turn is and whether it gets tighter towards the exit. It also means that you can see if anything is coming the other way.

Just before turning, shift your body weight a little to the inside, drop your inside shoulder, but keep looking through the turn. To make your bike lean, give a sharp prod on the inside handlebar and once you’ve got the lean angle you need, release the pressure and let the bike run its path around the turn.

Apex

The apex of a corner is the point that you should aim for to give the smoothest most even path through it. On most corners you need to be able to see all the way round before you can know where the apex is, which is why it’s important to get the right position on approach and not turn too early.

When you turn the bike you should be aiming for the apex of the corner. Identifying the apex takes a while to master and the slower you go around corners initially, the quicker you’ll come to recognise it.

Track based training is useful here because you go around the same collection of corners again and again so there’s plenty of chance to practise.

As you go round the corner, keep the throttle open just off the stop. This helps keep the suspension loaded. If something happens to catch you out-the corner tightens up or you spot some debris in the road -don’t panic.

A further nudge on the inside bar will add a little more lean and you’ll be surprised how well your bike will get around a corner. Or a very gentle (and we mean gentle) squeeze of the front brake will bring the bike slightly upright and help it run a wider line without losing control.

This is really advanced stuff, but it’s also the kind of thing you should practise. Roundabouts are good places for this. Find a quiet one, preferably with no exits on one side of it, and practise turning at different points. Then try adding more lean or bringing the bike up on the brakes.

The secret here is to be ever so gentle at first to develop a feel for your bike and learn how to add subtle control.

Exit

Once you are past the apex, stand the bike upright with a nudge on the outside bar. As soon as the bike is upright, get on the throttle and give yourself a round of applause. Now, time for the next one.

What to do if it goes wrong

The biggest mistakes people make are either going too fast into a corner, holding the brake on too long or turning too early and running out of road. All of these things can be remedied so long as you stay calm and do the right thing.

The one thing you should never do is grab a handful of front brake. Doing this makes the bike stand up and run on in a straight line, which usually means into the hedge or, worse, into oncoming traffic.

Too much speed needs a couple of approaches. Either apply the brakes very gently to bring it back under control or add more lean. But not both at once. You’ll be surprised how far a bike will lean when the suspension is settled. This is when your practice at the roundabout will come in useful. Most ground clearance problems are caused by turning too soon after releasing the brakes before the suspension is settled.

Turning too early is the bigger problem because it’s the one that will have you running out of road. If the road is wide enough and your speed is good, then try sitting the bike up a little and make the turn again. Or if you can see around the corner and there’s nothing coming the other way, add a bit more lean – you’ll almost certainly make it.

Overtaking

One of the best things about a bike is not sitting in traffic. You’ll probably overtake more cars in your first month on the road than an average motorist passes in five years. Get it right and overtaking is simple and easy, get it wrong and it’s one of the easiest ways to end up in trouble.

The 10 rules of great overtaking

1) Be sure

Make sure you know what’s happening. How many cars are you overtaking, is there a little old lady in a Ford Fiesta in front of the truck that you think is at the front of the queue? Have you got room to make the pass before the next bend or junction? Is there any road furniture or bollards in the middle of the carriageway. Are the white lines broken or solid?The police see overtaking on a solid white line as dangerous driving and will always prosecute.

2) Right position

It’s tempting to get close to the car you’re about to pass, but hanging on its bumper is a bad move. For one thing, the driver might not see you, for another, you can’t see as clearly past them as if you hang back. There’s also a chance that if they slow down or indicate to turn, you won’t see their lights in time.

3) Check you mirrors

Because you might not be the only one planning an overtake. Have a proper look, not just for cars, but for other bikes approaching quickly.

4) Check ahead again

Quickly. To make sure that nothing has changed up ahead.

5) Indicate

And change down into the right gear for best acceleration. On most bigger bikes, passing traffic doing 40-50mph, this means second or third gear.

6) Check your mirrors again

And do a lifesaver look over your shoulder.

7) Pull out

And accelerate briskly, but still in control. As you pass, be thinking about your pull-in point.

8) Be polite

If it’s safe to do so, give a thank you wave to cars who pull over to let you past. But… only pass if it is safe to do so. They may be being helpful, but you have to make the decision.

9) Done and dusted

Smoothly pull back in to the traffic, giving the lead car plenty of room.

10) If it all goes wrong

Don’t panic.You’ll be surprised how small a gap you need to get through. If you really aren’t going to make it, ease off the throttle, match your speed to the traffic you are overtaking, indicate, turn and look at the driver and smoothly ease into the gap. Better to abandon the pass than take a chance. And don’t forget a thank you wave to the driver.

The biggest danger once you’re overtaking is a car pulling out to either do their own overtake, pass a parked car or cyclist or turn into a junction that you hadn’t seen. To help avoid this make sure you give the cars you’re overtaking as wide a berth as possible and watch for indicators going on.

Defensive riding

It’s easy to feel that everyone is out to get you on a bike. But the truth is actually the opposite. The biggest problem is that most drivers don’t even know we are there. Defensive riding is about making yourself seen. Spotting the hazards before they happen and doing the car driver’s thinking in advance on their behalf.

Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for experience here. Every ride is a lesson learned. So make the most of them. Build a mental database of driver actions and reactions to what you do. Get to recognise that a car moving about in its lane probably means the driver is fiddling with the radio or sending a text.

Learn the silhouette profiles. Driver on phone, driver faffing with kid in baby seat, driver and passenger arguing, driver opening a bottle of drink. All these things mean danger so give them a wide berth.

Think about making yourself more visible. Can you see their mirrors, because if not, they can’t see you. Moving position gently makes them more likely to spot you and making your intentions (indicators are lifesavers) and actions (pulling out) as deliberate and obvious as possible helps massively. As does assuming that they haven’t seen you.

Filtering through trafflc is the best example of defensive riding. Assertive and confident, but never aggressive. If you can go through a gap, then go for it, but don’t get stranded half way through and don’t be afraid to sit in traffic if you aren’t sure.

Don’t ride in the gutter. Use the width of the carriageway- make them overtake you properly and always wave a thank you when someone gives you room (but don’t automatically make the manoeuvre – check that it’s safe f1 rst).

And finally, fluorescent clothing is a good way to add visibility, but don’t assume that just because you look like a flare gun that drivers have automatically seen you.

Motorway riding

If you’ve driven a car, then you’ll already know the basics. If you’ve not, then here’s a quick lesson. There are usually three lanes on a motorway and the law says that you travel in the inside lane, use the middle one to overtake slow traffic and the outside one to overtake medium speed traffic in the middle one. Having made your overtake, you are supposed to move back in and not hang about in the middle or outside lane.

In reality, too many people hog the middle and outside lanes and so everyone else ends up doing it too. There’s a massive temptation on a motorcycle to undertake these dawdlers and on a bike you could perform such a manoeuvre much more quickly and safely than in a car.

But, it only takes one person to pull back in at the ‘wrong’ time and you are history and those cars will not be expecting a bike on the inside of them so won’t have checked their mirrors. Plus, if the police catch you doing it, you’ll be looking at a hefty fine and points on your licence.

Filtering through stationary or queuing motorway traffic is a different matter. So long as you are only travelling 10mph or so quicker than the traffic, you’ll be fine, but watch every car.

Look out for front wheels turning to change lane, heads popping out of windows to see what’s happening or frustrated drivers opening the door and getting out for a better look.

Joining and leaving a motorway

Motorbikes have so much acceleration you can always find a gap joining a motorway, but make sure you double check first and look over your shoulder as you pull onto the carriageway.

Watch out for spilt diesel on motorway roundabouts or slip roads. Recently-fuelled lorries are notorious for spilling, and braking on diesel is a common way to fall off. When leaving a motorway, pull into the inside lane in plenty of time.

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