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?