Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just Like Casey

One of the signature characteristics of roads in the Alps are the switchbacks.  Lots and lots of switchbacks.  On my first day there it seemed like I'd ridden more switchbacks in a day than in the prior year back home in California.  In an earlier post I covered some ideas about riding downhill - particularly right-hand downhill - switchbacks.  Today let's talk about uphill.  As with downhill, right-handers are typically tighter, so keep that in mind.

By definition, it's tough to carry much corner speed in a switchback.  Depending upon the radius of the turn, 15 or 20 mph can be a lot of corner speed.  That means that often the throttle is completely closed on the way into the turn.  On many modern fuel injected bikes, opening the throttle from fully closed can be a bit tricky when you're over on the side of the tire dealing with a tight line and with less than ideal surface conditions (i.e. gravel, diesel spills, sheep manure, etc.).  That's because for many bikes the fuel injection acts a bit like a switch, either on or off, and when it comes on mid-turn it can do so with a bit of a lurch.  How do you deal with that?

Both Matt and I were riding bikes that don't have quite perfect fueling - he on a BMW F800R and me on my 650 Versys.  One night, comparing notes over dinner, we discovered that we were using the same technique to control the line, attitude and acceleration of our bikes as we executed uphill switchbacks - we were both dragging the rear brake as we rolled on the throttle. 

How does this work?  It's a bit of a subtle thing, but it makes a big difference.  As one begins setting up for the turn by adjusting speed (usually meaning shifting down, closing the throttle, and applying both brakes) and swinging out to get the best entry line and speed for the turn, as one begins to turn in, the front brake is usually fully released - but not the rear brake.  At this point the amount of pressure on the rear brake is very light, but still there.  As the bike reaches maximum lean, and one's eyes are well through the turn, one begins to roll open the throttle.  This can be the danger point.  The bike is over on the side of the tires.  The bike is not yet pointed at the exit.  If the throttle comes on with a lurch or a bang, this can unsettle the bike and greatly undermine the confidence of the rider - not to mention make you ride like a n00b.  This is where that subtle pressure on the rear brake is key.  Keeping some pressure on the rear brake keeps the bike's suspension settled, and it buffers the impact of engine torque hitting the rear wheel.  This results in increased rider confidence as the bike accelerates smoothly rather than abruptly, making it easier to apply the throttle earlier in the turn to bring the bike back upright as you get it pointed towards the exit of the turn. 

How does one go about developing this technique?  Probably the easiest way is riding around at low speed in parking lots making turns as tight as possible.  The usual tools for managing the bike at low speeds are smooth throttle control, use of the clutch friction zone, and dragging the rear brake to stabilize the bike.  Working on these tools while riding in tight circles in a parking lot will enable development of the feel and habit that will make the use of the rear brake on switchbacks feel more natural and comfortable. 

If you'd like to get more instruction and coaching on low speed practice, there are a couple of resources I can recommend based on experience.  If you are located near the SF Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff's Training Center puts on an excellent civilian motorcycle training class.   This class will teach you a huge amount about low speed management of your motorcycle.  There are other training classes of this sort around the country that teach you police motorcycle riding skills.  Another class that will introduce you to these skills in a controlled environment with help and feedback is Lee Parks' Total Control clinics.  Lee Parks' book can be a big help if you don't have access to one of his classes.

What does any of this have to do with Casey?  When Matt and I were discussing this it reminded me of Matt Oxley's column in the August, 2012 issue of Bike magazine.  Matt was describing all the reasons why we'll miss Casey Stoner when he retires from MotoGP, and he quotes Lucio Cecchinello, the owner of LCR, a Honda satellite racing team.  Matt quotes Cecchinello describing Casey's first test on a 250 GP bike back in 2001, "He opened the throttle very, very, very early and he had this particular talent to use the rear brake when opening the throttle so the bike isn't so nervous."

See?  Just like Casey.  Whether you're riding tight switchbacks or MotoGP, you can use the rear brake to allow you to get on the throttle earlier without putting yourself on your head.  You always wanted to say that you ride just like Casey, right?

Friday, July 27, 2012


Sorry that I've been quiet for so long.  I've just returned from another pilgrimage to the Alps.  The plan had been to blog throughout, but due to being busy riding, dining, chatting with friends, and planning the next day's ride, that didn't happen.  The next several blog posts (at least) will be in reference to experiences and observations from that trip.

Those of us who call California home are so fortunate about rain.  We don't see much of it in the summer, and if you we do, it's not very much or for very long.  Not so northern Europe.  It was sprinkling when I left the UK on the Channel Tunnel.  It was sprinkling when I arrived in France, and before the day was through, it turned into a full on gully washer with limited visibility, water flooding road surfaces, etc.  One of the lessons such downpours teach is what gear works in rain and what gear doesn't.  

I'll start with a list of what gear worked in the rain because it's shorter:
  • Ortlieb dry saddlebags.  These are the only panniers I've ever had - hard or soft - that will keep their contents dry during an all day downpour.  
  • Daytona touring boots.  I bought these last year at a Louis motorcycle store in Mannheim.  The only way these get water inside them is if rain works its way through my pants, then drips down into the boots.  These are wonderful and comfortable all day long.
  • Aerostich Triple Digit rain covers.  These pull on over your gloves to keep the rain off, and for the most part work pretty well, and much better than gloves alone.
  • A fleece muffler that came as a giveaway with an issue of Fast Bikes, which I pull on over my head before donning my helmet.  It keeps the rain off my neck, keeping me warmer and more comfortable.  It's not waterproof, but it's bulky and absorbent, and water doesn't seem to reach my skin through it. 
  • The Kawasaki accessory top box stayed dry inside.
  • Heated grips.  Why don't ALL motorcycles have them?  Seriously.   
What didn't work?  Pretty much everything else:
  • Luggage that requires a rain cover.  Rain covers are difficult to apply snugly while stopped along the highway in a downpour. Rain covers flap in the wind.  The wind finds ways to lift covers and allow the migration of water past the cover and into the luggage beneath.  My Marsee tankbag is well built, but in an all day downpour the contents will get damp.
  • Motorcycle apparel that uses a waterproof liner as its method of keeping the rain out.  In this case my Olympia mesh gear was less than ideal.  I have loved Olympia gear for a long time, and have even manage to crash test it twice.  It works great in many circumstances, but extended, driving rain storms is not one of those circumstances.  First of all, you must remember to remove everything that you don't want getting wet from the pockets, and place it some other place that will stay dry, before the rain begins in earnest.  Otherwise, your wallet, phone, passport, etc. will get soaked.  Next, realize that this is because everything outside of the liner is expected to get wet.  In an all day gully washer that means very wet.  When it does, not only will the suit get sloshy, drippy and soggy - making you ever so welcome in that lovely roadside cafe in  rural France - all that water up against the Goretex liner means that water will eventually migrate through to you on the inside.  You will get wet inside.  Tip: wear quick drying synthetic materials against your skin. 
  • When the above happens, and water gets to your skin, even the good stuff like the Daytona boots and Triple Digit rain covers will not keep those parts of your body dry because water will move along your skin past the sealing surfaces.  Fingers and toes will be soaked too. 
One other thing.  I never thought I'd need a heated vest for a July ride in France so I didn't pack one.  What I did pack was several Grabber adhesive body heat packs that I was able to open and stick to my t-shirt.  These made it possible to continue when I was otherwise too cold and wet to safely carry on.  They take up nearly no space in luggage, and last indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to oxygen.  When the packaging is opened and they are exposed to oxygen the exothermic chemical reaction begins that generates heat for 6-8 hours.  These will ALWAYS be in my tankbag, along with zipties, duct tape, and tools.  

Now I have to go shopping for a proper rain suit.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ready for Hairpins?

In a few days I'll be picking up my Versys in the UK, then heading to the Continent and down to the Alps for another week of riding some of the greatest goat trails anywhere.  The first time I rode the Alps in 2006, I had thought that my experience in dealing with hairpin turns was pretty solid, but I found quickly that the Alps can dish up more hairpins in a day of riding than I had encountered in a month, or even a season of riding here.  Nothing like practice to make you better, so today I want to share a few thoughts about hairpin bends, in anticipation of the practice I'll be getting in about a week.  

One of the key skills necessary for riding is making yourself consistently look where you want to go.  Sounds easy, but with distractions, uncertainty, surprise and fear entering the equation, it's a challenge for many riders to maintain the visual discipline necessary to keep themselves smooth, safe, and happy.  Rather than go into depth about visual skills and how to develop them in this post, please have a read of Lee Parks' book "Total Control" and his chapter on vision.  He's done a nice job with the topic, and he's got a killer drill to help any rider develop better visual discipline.  

Today, I'm just going to write about one particular type of turn and one aspect of visual discipline.  The one turn that seems to create the greatest challenge for riders not accustomed to hairpin bends is the right-hand hairpin because for those of us riding in countries where traffic keeps to the right, these turns have the tightest radius, resulting in the least available room to execute the turn.  

This issue is compounded for many riders if that right-hand hairpin is also downhill.  Downhill turns can make it feel as though the bike is going to run away with you, which can make riders stiff.  Downhill makes it more critical to get your entry speed set low enough that the bike can be easily controlled through the turn.  Downhill makes it more difficult to keep your weight off the grips and to maintain a light touch for optimal control.  

There are many factors to be addressed to execute one of these turns well, but today it's just one trick that I'd like to leave you with.  As you approach the downhill right-hand turn, you will evaluate it for appropriate turn-in point and entry speed.  Having done that - and while slowing the bike as you approach the turn-in - your eyes should begin looking through the turn, all the way to the vanishing point (addressed in this very helpful thread on BARF).  So far, so good.  Where many riders get into trouble is that at this point they can see traffic coming the other way around the hairpin bend on what may be a very narrow road, they can see the outside of the turn, maybe a huge drop-off, and all these things can distract the rider from looking where he needs to look to finish the turn.  

So here's the trick, and it's pretty simple.  As your eyes look through the turn, play a little game with yourself - see if you can keep your eyes on the right-hand side of the road until the turn is completed, the motorcycle has returned to fully vertical, and you're headed in a straight line on your way to the next turn.  This is made somewhat easier if there's a white fog line painted at the edge of the road surface, but even if all there is to look for is the gravel shoulder at the edge of the paved surface, see if your eye can trace that edge as you complete the turn.  As always, keep your eyes as far out in front of the bike as you can.  If you look at the ground right in front of the bike, it's quite possible that you'll find yourself on the ground, so keep your eyes up and out in front of you.  

Themimoto, a German rider who makes the best videos of alpine riding I've ever seen, has a great video of descending the northwest side of Stelvio Pass and its forty(!) hairpin bends.  One of his cameras is helmet mounted, so see if you can see his head moving so that his eyes can follow the right-hand side of the road has he completes the twenty or so downhill, right-hand hairpin bends in the video.
Try it! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


The countdown is on.  Next week I leave for the UK to pick up my bike that's living there, and once its oil and brake fluid are changed, its tires pumped up, its chain lubed, and it gets packed up, I'll be off for the continent, and a trip to the Alps. 

Why the Alps?  So many reasons that it's hard to know where to start, but I'll start with density.  The Alps have been inhabited for millenia, and in that time thousands of villages and towns have been built, and those have been connected by roads.  There are few places where so many beautiful villages with spectacular views are connected by so many challenging and fun roads.  No other place that I've experienced.  Yes, you can find great mountain passes and beautiful scenery in California.  Yes, you can find even higher passes in the Colorado Rockies, and higher yet in the Himalaya.  But if you want to ride all day, day after day, on new and spectacular roads, the Alps offer that up like nowhere else.  That's without even going into food, culture, history, architecture, scenery, and the many other wonderful attributes of the Alps.  For me, it's mainly about the riding, and the Alps have that in spades. 

For the next few weeks (months?) most of my posts will have something to do with alpine riding, either in direct reference to roads we're riding or experiences we're having, or having to do with the riding skills one needs for having fun in the Alps.  From my first trip to ride the Alps during the 2006 Centopassi, after every trip I've found that my riding has improved.  Fast riding on high alpine roads serves as a crucible in which the flaws and impurities in one's riding technique get burned away.  Why is that?  While there are many roads in the Alps that are open and flowing and gorgeous, the really fun ones are high, narrow, frequently bumpy, technical, and very, very exposed. 

The signature technical characteristic of high alpine roads is the switchback, or hairpin turn.  This is a turn that passes through something close to a 180 degree direction change.  Sometimes the radius of these turns is rather open, but other times - and Stelvio Pass comes to mind with its 60 hairpins -  the radius of the turns approaches zero, meaning the surfaces to the two ramps of the switchback effectively touch as they pass one another.  These turns require a rider to make a very tight turn in a very constricted area, often with other road users - cyclists, motorists, tour buses - sharing the same space as the turn is made.  The skills necessary to do this require visual discipline, precise speed control and road positioning, and there are few places here in California that will introduce a riding to this kind of riding in anything like the frequency and intensity in which it's encountered in the Alps. 

Stay tuned, because I'll be writing about how to ride these turns during my posts from the trip, particularly the variety that appears to be most challenging for many riders - the downhill, right hand, hairpin - in upcoming posts. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let the Skis Do the Work

Say what?  This is a blog about riding motorcycles, right?  Yeah, but sometimes ideas and experiences cross over.

On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, I stopped by my old ski area, Crystal Mountain.  Many - too many - years ago I lived and worked there for a season, and since I was a night chairlift operator, I had all my days free to ski - probably close to 100 days that year.   

At age 20, my skiing was more shaped by enthusiasm than by skill.  It seemed like being young, fit, willing to crash, and quick to heal were virtues.  There came a time in that season though where my skiing was in a rut.  I was stiff, ragged, and thrashing my way down the hill.  

Fortunately, I was surrounded by skilled and fluid skier, many of whom were, or had been, quite accomplished racers.  One day during this slump, I was skiing with one of them, and complaining about my struggles, when he said, "Let the skis do the work."  Huh?  I had no idea what he was talking about, and so he made me his part time project.  

Without going into all the details of what we did, he pointed out that the skis were designed to turn, to carve through the turn, and to accelerate out of the turn, and it was my job to figure out how to access and enable the performance that was already there built into the skis.

Motorcycles are similar to skis (in so many ways!), in that most of them are designed to turn, and will do so very well if we can tailor our inputs into the bike to be exactly what it needs in order for it to utilize that built in capability, and no more than what is needed.

This was all brought home to me at a Doc Wong clinic earlier this year on the topic of handlebar pressure.  Now I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, light on the bars, elbows bent, wiggle your fingers.  I know all that stuff."  Then Doc demonstrated how much pressure we should use on the bars by lightly resting his right hand on his left forearm.  He said that was all the pressure that was required.  Not even letting the weight of your arms rest on the bars, but holding your arms up with your shoulders and just lightly resting your hands on the bars.  That day was spent being very tuned into exactly how much pressure I was putting on the bars, and then trying to put even less pressure on.  Frankly, it was a revelation because it made it easier than it had ever been to let the motorcycle do the work.  Depending upon only the amount of pressure needed to initiate a turn, I concentrated on what Keith Code calls "being a good passenger". 

Last month when I was riding back from Oregon in the midst of a nasty spring storm with ripping side winds, I was reminded of this lesson again.  Riding in cross winds is the bane of many riders, particularly new riders, and the tendency is to wrestle with the motorcycle to attempt to counteract the effects of the wind.  Some riders, even very experienced riders, believe that a rider must constantly make counter steering inputs into the bars to correct for the effect of the wind.  For many years I've thought this was not true, and that the best thing is to anchor yourself to the bike with your legs, stabilize your upper body with core muscles, and to put as little pressure on the bar as possible.  This time, thinking of Doc Wong's message, I took it a step further - not that I recommend this, it was for science - and held on only to the right grip with my right hand, and held on to the tank with my left.  Then I paid careful attention to the pressure passing through the palm of my right hand.  Was I counter-steering to correct for the wind?  Was I constantly making inputs to make up for the wind?  The answer - a bit to my surprise - was no, not really.  Even with all that blustery side wind going over the Siskyous and down the Sacramento Valley, the motorcycle wanted to go straight so long as I didn't try to consciously or subconsciously react to the wind.  It all worked better if I let the motorcycle do the work. 

That's the moral of the story.  Let the motorcycle do the work, and concentrate on giving it only the inputs it needs to access the abilities to turn, stop, accelerate, and go straight that were already designed into it.