Riding Weightless

Learning to be Weightless

The truth is, riding an adventure bike off pavement uses similar techniques as riding a dirt bike on a technical trail.

The biggest difference is that adventure bikes don’t crash like dirt bikes, and the risk of injury and damage from crashing on an adventure bike is far greater due to reduced personal protective gear and the presence of hard luggage, extra weight, windshields and other things not designed to be crashed on a regular basis.

There are many elements needed to ride well off pavement, so for the first part of this traction management series we’ll focus on the concept of “becoming weightless” when riding on rough surfaces, dirt or gravel.

Becoming weightless improves traction, decreases falls, and reduces the risk of injury by reducing or eliminating the number of times you would otherwise fall. We’ve all seen riders standing on their footpegs, and may emulate this style of riding—often not fully understanding how or why we should stand in the first place. Even worse than standing without purpose is failing to stand at those times when it is most critical— such as in deep sand, mud, ruts, water crossings, etc.; times when untrained riders normally sit. Anyone can stand on a smooth gravel road.

The primary reason for standing on the footpegs while riding off pavement is to become weightless by removing your mass (weight) as the rider from the suspension equation. The concept is fairly simple: By standing on the footpegs, the combined center of mass of rider/motorcycle moves closer to the ground, making the bike less top-heavy and quicker to respond to surface change and directional input.

You may ask, “If I stand up aren’t I raising my center of mass, making the bike more top-heavy?” Without getting too carried away, let’s just say “no”… if done properly you are lowering your combined center of mass even though you have raised your personal mass farther from the ground. If riding technique was just about the rider, you would be correct, but since you and the motorcycle are a unit this line of logic is incomplete.

When you stand up, you move the point at which you, as the rider, support your mass, moving it from the seat to the footpegs. The motorcycle’s center of mass is normally near the carburetor/EFI, so by shifting the rider’s weight (supported mass) onto the footpegs the combined rider/motorcycle mass lowers to a point somewhere between the rider’s feet and the motorcycle’s center of mass.

 

In contrast, when riding in a seated position, the rider’s mass is anchored at the seat where the rider’s weight is supported. Therefore, the combined mass is between the seat and the motorcycle’s center of mass, which effectively raises it.

Nevertheless, just standing does not make you weightless. The second element of standing is allowing the knees to bend and flex with changes in the earth’s surface, like a set of shocks. This can be observed when skilled riders go over large bumps, small hills, or over obstacles. Note that a skilled/trained rider holds his head on a level plane and does not appear to move up or down with the ground surface.

Another way to visualize this concept is to imagine that the helmet is an airplane flying over a mountain range, whereas the motorcycle is traveling over the roads. The plane may have some subtle elevation changes whereas the motorcycle moves up and down rapidly with the terrain. When this happens, the rider is effectively using his legs as shock absorbers, isolating body mass from the movement of the motorcycle—becoming, effectively, weightless.

Once your weight is “suspended” above the bike, allowing the bike to move up and down without moving the placement of your head, your weight is no longer calculated into the total mass equation. One more side benefit, if this is done correctly, is that you also use less energy to ride. Not only is your bike able to self-correct due to changes in terrain and traction, but as a rider you use less muscle energy.

The secret to conserving energy is to use as little muscle as possible. When your motorcycle hits a bump or obstacle, allow your legs to relax and collapse towards you. In reverse, if your bike drops into a hole or drops off an obstacle, allow your legs to extend (from a pre-bent position) and follow the bike down… no energy is used to compress or extend your legs, instead you relax to let the bike come toward you, or relax them to let them extend. This leads me into a whole new topic of effective use of body positioning… let’s save that for a later rant.

Sand & Gravel Tips

Scenario

“Suddenly, my rear wheel began a slight fishtail in the loose gravel road and I calmly increased the throttle in response.  Past experiences had always quickly straightened out, but today the oscillations rapidly moved to the handlebars.

Committed to the acceleration strategy, the handlebars violently shook back and forth and I continued to roll on the throttle…”

Many “experienced” riders offer one tip for riding in loose surface conditions: “Add more throttle”.

I can assure you that you were victim to the ‘helpful’ tips of partial myths and half-truths perpetuated by the riding community.

The half-truth is… adding throttle can be true within two specific elements:

1.  Adding throttle can lighten the front end of the motorcycle, allowing the front wheel to climb out of the soft stuff and get on top.

2.  Adding throttle increases speed and gyroscopic progression that, in turn, increases self-corrective forces along with rake and trail.

The issue with adding throttle as a single response doesn’t take into considerations the specifics of your situation.  For the sake of simplicity, I will identify three of the most significant considerations:

The ‘add throttle’ mantra comes from the dirt bike world, where bikes are much lighter and have a greater self-correcting nature.

While traveling, you are likely on a heavy bike, which may have loading issues (weight distribution) and cannot climb out of deep sand or gravel as easily.

DOT knobbies and ADV tires have far less traction off-road than true dirt bike tires do. Many dual sport tires are not much more than glorified street tires with little deep tread.

The element of momentum and getting the front tire on top of the surface is correct; what was lacking was the knowledge of how to do this without adding speed.

The following are some tips when you find yourself in deep gravel or sand:

1. Ride in a standing position.  While standing, you can shift a greater amount of weight to the rear of the motorcycle.  This helps lighten the front end and also adds traction to the rear for greater drive.

2. Lighten your grip.  If you are using a proper standing technique, you will barely be touching the handlebars.  This allows the rake and trail work properly to self-correct more quickly.

3. Maintain throttle.  Closing or ‘chopping’ the throttle may cause an instant encounter of the dirt kind!

4. Trim the overall speed by massaging the clutch.  You must keep tension in the drive train, so keep the clutch in the gray zone, or friction zone. 

5. Lightly drag the rear brake.  You can further reduce speed and encourage front wheel lift with a very light drag of the rear brake.  A hard jab to the rear brake will cause a rapid transfer of weight to the front tire and will make things worse.

6. Avoid wheel spin.  This can cause the rear wheel to dig deeper into the sand or gravel, reducing forward thrust and the front tire will plow in.

7. Let the front wheel move like a rudder.  Know that steering responses in loose surfaces is delayed, and the rider must be patient and let the bike catch up to any directional inputs.  Riders often expect the bike to respond more quickly and add more steering input.

Although there may be many situations where adding throttle will work, not understanding the full dynamics of the situation may cause things to go badly very quickly.

 

Mastering Fear by Cross Training

Even when the riding is good, don’t discount the advantages of using non-traditional training techniques. Most of us know that taking an MSF class, attending an off-road school, or advanced training, like Lee Park’s Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic (TotalControlTraining. net), is a good idea. However, using cross training can sometimes reap huge benefits.

Cross training, or the use of non-motorcycling activities, can
be used to develop and improve riding skills. This involves learning things off
the bike that could never be learned on one. The cross training method is
frequently a part of the program when I work with all levels of riders,
including those in law enforcement and U.S. Special Forces motorcycle training
for tactical environments. Lee Parks has the only other school I know of that utilizes
cross training drills together with on-bike skills to improve riding ability.

To become really GREAT riders we must remain diverse, not
limiting ourselves to a single focus style. A street rider can only learn so
much on the street, a racer on the track, and an off-road rider on the trails,
etc. The majority of the students who come through our school are street
riders, so I often find myself looking for comparisons to help explain why, as
street riders, they should consider adding adventure or dual-sport bikes to
their stables, and then attend training such as our multi-day adventure camp
(AdvCamp.com).

The issue is getting riders to open up and look at things
from new perspectives. For example, one of our greatest fears is falling down
on sand, oil, painted lines… or some other type of slippery goo. What happens in
an off-road environment is that our brains learn how to identify slip more
quickly, arming us with better reactions when it happens on a paved surface.
This, coupled with an understanding of weight placement for traction and other
related dynamics, better prepares us for situations where slip is not expected
or wanted. If you are reading this article it is likely you already know that
as soon as you leave the pavement slipping and sliding is just part of the fun,
and doesn’t need to be a fear-inducing experience.

Besides motorcycle training there are great benefits to be had
from cross training. Let’s use football as a comparison; even if you’re not a
football fan most people have heard of football players taking ballet lessons
to improve footwork. I have never seen ballet on a football field but it
obviously helps the game or they wouldn’t do it. Why would motorcycling be any
different? When a street rider takes to the dirt they gain benefits like increased
confidence on loose surfaces, becoming more comfortable moving their body mass
on a bike, improved balance, mastery of the clutch, throttle, brakes, and
better low speed techniques. On the same note the adventure rider can gain
similar benefits from attending track-based training.

Let’s simplify our goals into two categories; mental and
physical. I am going to leave the realm of traditional training and offer some
ideas for cross training. One example is snowboarding. Snowboarding was not a
natural activity for me at first and it often scares the @#$$%% out of me just
looking down a hill. There is something about strapping one’s feet to a board
and then hurling down an ice-covered cliff that just doesn’t seem natural! Snowboarding
relies on two skills that are also very critical to riding a motorcycle, vision
and keeping your body relaxed when you’re stressed. How vision is used in
snowboarding is similar to how you use it on the bike, by keeping your eyes on
the horizon, and always looking where you want to go… look down and you eat
snow! The second skill is keeping your body relaxed; this is not a physical
skill as much as it is a mental one. If you can train your brain to keep your
body relaxed, even when you feel fear or are stressed, you are way ahead of the
curve.

It is difficult to train your mind and body what to do
safely while riding, yet in a situation like snowboarding, kickboxing, or
skydiving, you can learn to control your fears without putting yourself into
high risk situations. The real jump occurs when you make the cognitive
connection between one activity and another. Once you make the connection you
can apply the skill of maintaining visual control while remaining relaxed in
fear-generating situations. The key is to learn how to stay physically relaxed
even though you are stressed or scared.

We train to overcome survival instincts (that often get us
into trouble) like tensing up our bodies when we sense danger. It is up to you
to cognitively connect these activities to your skills as a motorcyclist. Your
brain doesn’t care if you are on a motorcycle or not, but it is up to you make
the connection between cross training and riding, so you can carry the learning
over to the bike.