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Ride Well Essay #3: A Few Words of Wisdom


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A Few Words of Wisdom


I have to say that my introduction to BMW began with their 3-series automobiles. At that time, I rode Japanese sport bikes. I didn’t come to appreciate BMW motorcycles until years later. My formal, what I’d call “road pilot” training and experience, began in automobile track events with the BMW Car Club of America—track schools, club racing, and autocrosses. I learned so much valuable information from these experiences. I’d like to share everything I’ve gained from these experiences with you. Unfortunately there’s so much good stuff that I cannot share it all with you right here. Although I gained this knowledge from automobile track experience, much of this knowledge carries right over to motorcycling as well. A few words of wisdom in particular from my instructors at my first track school still stick with me today. For some of you, this may be new and for others this may just be a refresher. Regardless, I want to share some of these words of wisdom with you.


“The best performance upgrade you can make is to what’s between your two ears.”


Looking for that latest-and-greatest performance accessory that will increase your speed, cornering, and safety? Look no further than your own mind. Most people tend to not realize that their vehicle’s ability far exceeds their own abilities. Problem is, most people do not have the knowledge to fully utilize their vehicle’s potential. Next time you’re itching to drop $700 on a new exhaust system, consider putting that $700 towards a few track schools and MSF courses. You’ll get more for your money. Unlike that $700 exhaust system, your knowledge transfers to other vehicles much easier.


“To be fast, you must first learn to be smooth.”


Ever been so intent on attaining something that you end up never reaching it? Sometimes we tend to get so focused on the end result, we forget to consider what it takes to get there. Being fast is more than simply twisting the throttle with voracity. Doing this doesn’t make you fast, and further, it may get you hurt. Speed is the product of smoothness and precision. Focus on smoothness, and you will be rewarded with speed. Make your transitions fluid and graceful. Understand, being smooth does not equal being slow; quite the contrary. A suspension system for example is smooth, yet anything but slow. A proficient rider approaching a turn reaches full-intended braking power in 3/10ths of a second, but it’s done smoothly and precisely. Smooth, proficient riding is less “Rock-and-Roll” and more of a graceful Waltz.


Challenge yourself with being precise in every detail of your execution. When coming to a stop, rather than simply holding the brake until stopped, regulate your braking pressure to yield a smooth, linear rate of deceleration. When accelerating, prepare for your shifts in advance. Prior to the shift, cut back the throttle to stabilize it momentarily, allow a moment of settling time, then “snick” it into the next gear. Then, smoothly apply power, increasing at a linear rate rather than whacking the throttle open. When slowing down, especially on the RT, “stabilize” the throttle momentarily, and then gently close the throttle up, instead of snapping the throttle closed. If done right, you’ll feel almost nothing from the motor’s transition or associated driveline lash. If you ride with a passenger, you’ll know when you’re not riding smooth because your passenger will be lurching back during acceleration, or knocking your helmet during braking. “Smooth it out” to eliminate this. Your passenger will appreciate it too.


Everyone hates getting stuck behind slow traffic on a favorite twisty road. But next time it happens, try this. First, back off from the traffic a bit. Then, practice your lines. Take lines as though your were riding it at your higher pace. Exaggerate your lines, and use the whole width of the lane. Learning to pick good lines at slow speeds helps to pick better lines at higher speeds. And picking good lines at higher speeds can mean minimizing or eliminating mid-line corrections.


Allow for suspension settling times. When braking for a turn, simply releasing the brake before the turn will unload the front end too quickly, disrupting the chassis. Release your braking force in a smooth, linear fashion, giving the suspension a moment to recover from the change, then whisk through the turn.


I remember that at the BMW car track schools, the instructors challenged each other by placing a dinner plate on the passenger seat, and trying to drive the fastest lap without allowing the plate to fall off the seat or move! These guys were smooooth!


Even coming to a smooth stop, and gently deploying your foot to the ground at the precise moment is important. Focus your efforts on smooth, graceful, precise execution—the speed will come if that is what you want. And after all this effort, you know when you’ve done it right. You feel it in the seat of you pants with every turn, every move you make, and the great big smile left on your face in the end.


“It’s about the driver, and not what you’re driving.”


We’ve all been there--standing in a bike shop, drooling over the latest piece of sex on 2 wheels from Japan or Italy. You may even say to yourself, “I could go really fast on that bike, and I’d look really good doing it.” But motorcycling is really all about the essence of the rider and the riding experience, not what you ride. A motorcyclist is good not because of the machine he or she rides, but rather how he or she rides despite the machine they’re on. Often times, spanking another rider while riding an “underdog” machine is much more fun than if you were riding the latest high-tech piece of Japanamation.


We’ve been on the other end too. We’ve all been spanked in the twisties by that guy on the old BMW GS or Moto-Guzzi. On last year’s “Pied Piper” run to the Redmond MOA Rally, a good rider on an old airhead GS taught me a thing or two. When you get spanked by one of these guys, you say, “wow, that’s a good rider!” You talk about that guy that evening back at the hotel, and then the next week when you get home, and even the next year.


A buddy of mine, riding a vintage Honda CB 350, crushes other bikes on tight, twisty roads! And another motorcycle friend, eats “squids” for lunch on his ’84 Suzuki Katana—a motorcycle he resurrected literally from a pile of mud in someone’s back yard for $250; even fashioned his own exhaust for it out of leftover scrap metal and insulating material found in his garage. He does equally well on a vintage BSA he recently restored. Then there’s the guy that spanks you on a shiny new 996 or R1, well, you forget about him about as fast as he disappears from sight. Primary focus should be on you as the rider, secondary or tertiary priority may be the vehicle.


“You are the driver. You control the vehicle. Don’t let the vehicle control you.”


The motorcycle should feel like a natural extension of you body. You and the motorcycle work together to negotiate the turns and obstacles. But make no mistake, you are the rider and you are in control.


“There’s more useable horsepower in knowledge than an engine”


We’ve heard it before—knowledge is power. The tool is only as effective as the wielder. These ideas can’t be truer with respect to motorcycling. Your motorcycle is your tool. Your effectiveness as a motorcyclist depends on your ability to efficiently pilot your motorcycle. Without crucial knowledge of your motorcycle’s characteristics, dynamics, the physics at play in motorcycling, and the environment you choose to ride in, you cannot be an effective motorcyclist. Get professional instruction. Read books on the subject. Gain that knowledge.


While riding, knowledge is equally important. Like a game of chess, if you are only thinking about your next move, you will lose. You must be thinking 4, 6, or more steps ahead. In order to do so, you need the visibility to collect the necessary data. Looking into your next turn won’t help. Keep your eyes up and looking as far down the road as you can. Look through the turn. Look through the next 4 turns if you can. Turn your head to the side if needed. Look to see where the road goes after the upcoming hairpin. The decisions you make on the next turn may affect your success in tackling the 4th turn ahead of you. The real power is in your knowledge and skill.


“Don’t exceed your traction credit limit.”


This interesting analogy was presented to me in the classroom at a BMW CCA track school. Let’s say you have a traction credit card with a $10,000 limit. Now, you’re approaching a turn, and you go in somewhat fast, costing you $8000 for cornering traction. Although typically not a wise move, maybe you decide you should dump some speed while in the turn. You decide to hit the brakes, but it will cost you. A small, smooth application might cost $1800, so you’re okay, but if you panic and hit the brakes hard, maybe it costs you $2500. You’ve exceeded your traction credit limit. Maybe you don’t use the brakes in the turn, and you roll on the throttle, bringing you up to $9000—still okay. You get anxious and whack the throttle and make an abrupt mid-line correction, costing an addition $1200. You’re now at $10,200 and you’ve just exceeded your traction credit limit. Always be aware of your traction credit limit and stay well within these limits.


Other techniques help avoid exceeding your traction limit. For example, smoothly matching revs when downshifting in mid turn to avoid disrupting the chassis help avoid exceeding your limit. Also a minor shifting your body to make minor mid-line corrections can also prevent disrupting the chassis and suspension. Sometimes just a slight lean forward and outward 2 inches is all I need to make the perfect turn. In addition, leaning my body into the turn instead of leaning the bike so much helps to take full advantage of the bike’s suspension and contact patches while successfully negotiating the turn. While in a turn, I tent to “stab” the seat with my inside butt bone while gently nudging the tank with my outside knee. New riders are easy to spot. You can see them almost “climbing up” their bike while leaned in a turn, instead of accepting the turn and putting their body “down into it.” Well, I wish I had the time and space right here to share every bit of wisdom that has been passed on to me, but alas, I do not.


Putting all this together—understanding the motorcycle you have, working on riding skill in achieving smooth performance, improving your knowledge—become key factors in proficient motorcycling. A motorcyclist is continually making important decisions and making the right decisions determines the motorcyclist’s success. Although, having proper knowledge gives a motorcyclist the ability to make more informed decisions. Add to that, having the skills allows a motorcyclist to make informed decisions with a high degree of confidence in practical application. But most importantly, a proficient motorcyclist effectively leverages all these factors to make wise decisions.


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It's great reinforcement for what I've recently learned. As I said in another post, for me at this point every ride is a training run. I'm specificall trying to do just as you suggested, be smooth, practice the stopping skills. I may try the plate thing at the mall after closing on a Sunday.


Again, thanks for the essay - very useful.

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Sean: I love your essay. Made me feel better. Funny I also did think that I felt one with my bike, an extension of me to a certain extent, and I do treat my bike very gently, smooth as silk.


I am registered for the ERC at the rally in Trenton and am looking forward to it.


I have been practicing slow speed manoeuvres in church parking lots (stores are always open and never empty...) and it has helped a lot.


Thank you.

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Excellent essay Sean! I must say that it is well worth reading again and again to fill all the brain cracks it may not have quite sunken into the first few times.


Thanks for your outstanding effort.


Man this BBS just keeps getting better and better and I would have never thought that possible!

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On last years Pied Piper run to Redmond, OR, I was having some trouble negotiating right handers. At a stop (Highway 1 and Stewarts Point Rd, I think), I mentioned it to Sean, and he gave me three words of advice that TOTALLY changed the way I ride the RT: "Relax and trust the bike". The best advice I've ever been given. And it works.

Sean's probably the smoothest rider I've ever ridden with, and after following his advice, I have to tell you, that last week, on a ride with a bunch of guys, one of them told me that I was riding very smoothly...I didn't think I was, but I appreciated it anyway. I used to judge my rides by counting how many corners I blew, (and it was often 4 or 5) but now blown corners are so infrequent, that if I blow one, it's a bad day. Thanks, Sean. You 'da Man!

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Palouse Rider

Nice post, good reading and food for thought. Since I assume we are talking street riding here I'm curious how often do you do this?


"For example, smoothly matching revs when downshifting in mid turn "


I usually brake , lean the bike, and then roll-on the throttle out of turns. You know the old look,lean,roll?


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Great post, Sean.


I'm always interested to get the auto racing perspective...lots of similarities, huh?


Your post really brings to focus the fact that it's the RIDER that makes the difference and not the latest carbon titanium turbocharged GSCBYZ1 race replica with magnesium oil filler cap and chrome kanooter valve.


One thing I'd like to add...if you do it RIGHT...it's SO MUCH EASIER. A good line and proper setup for the turn lets you use less lean angle (i.e. more available traction in case you need it.) and it lets you get on the power sooner.


When I first started riding with Master Yoda, I found that I was entering the turns about 5mph faster than he was. By the time we hit the exit, he'd been hard on the power for quite a while and was walking away from me. He went in with moderate lean angle and a good line. I went in and stuffed the bike over, bottomed the suspension and put peg feelers and fairing parts on the ground. I had MUCH less margin to play with if I needed to adjust mid-corner.

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Palouse, I sometimes find myself in a long corner that seemed faster than it now proves, or I'll sometimes eschew downshifting one more gear before entry because that in itself would make my entry not Smooth. Now, in that circumstance, and keeping in mind Sean's call to "be 4, 6 or more moves ahead", I can see a lower gear will be valuable in that soon upcoming future. So, I make the smoothest downshift I can so as not to unsettle the suspension, and then move into that Future as best prepared as I can be.


Thanks for the good advice Sean -- you smooth devil you.


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In reply to:

I usually brake , lean the bike, and then roll-on the throttle out of turns. You know the old look,lean,roll?


Your practice is right. This is what is taught to beginning and intermediate riders and drivers. The practice I mention is an intermediate/advanced concept and here's why:


If you attend more than a couple track driving (or riding) courses or even your basic MSF course, you'll see that the practices taught to you follow a progression. The beginner courses teach the fundamental practice of:


1. brake for the turn

2. get your shifting done

3. enter the turn, pick your line and roll it on after the apex, unwinding the wheel at the same at the same time. (BTW, did you use the whole track? When coming out of the turn did you "run it out" to the outer edge of the track? If not you probably lost 10mph and the guy behind you just passed you.)


This procedure is easy for the beginner to master. It goes along with the look/lean/roll concept.


When you get to the intermediate/advanced courses, they tell you to throw away what you've learned (well, not really, but it kinda seems that way) and they teach a whole new practice, which basically involves:


1. Brake for the turn (BTW, are you using the whole track? Your tires should be centimeters from running over the "gator teeth" on the track. Even when you're what you think is far enough over, you probably need to get over a bit more)

2. At the last minute before entering the turn, or even while beginning the turn, "heel-and-toe" it, blipping the throttle to match the revs

2a. Double-clutch it in the process if your transmission requires it

3. Pick your line (where's your apex marker? where's your exit marker? Did you pick any?), roll it on and unwind it, using the whole track.


This procedure is essential for the intermediate/advanced close-course driver because it allows them to carry their speed further and later into the turn, instead of wasting that time with shifting and setting up before the turn(which they can do while they're entering the turn instead).


The above may be talking about the track, but out on the street you may need to use this practice if say, you're on an unfamiliar road, you misjudged the turn, and you need to safely correct your planned turn while in mid-turn. Talk to most experienced drivers/riders and they will tell you that the setup-before-the-turn concept is a good beginner approach, but intermediate/advanced riders and drivers know how to shift mid-turn, should they need to.


On the street I don't do this procedure all the time, but it's just one more tool in my mental toolbox I can pull out and use, should I need it.


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Palouse Rider



Thanks for the comeback. I can see I really need to get to a track day somewhere to practice what you are saying. When I feel I'm coming into a corner to fast I usually just lean the bike over farther than I had planned. I try to avoid crossing the double yellow at all costs. I made the mistake once (and only once) of standing a bike up in a corner. Great topic, keep them coming.


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Sean...thanks a bunch for your writing. I took the wife for a short (55 mile round trip) through some nice coastal curves out for coffee this morning after printing and reading this post last night. The goal was Smooooth. She said she could have fallen asleep...mission acomplished. Your advice on deceleration and keeping the bike on it's suspension really hit home. Big difference here as I have been chopping the throttle and suffering the deceleration dive and all the jerkyness that comes from it. Thanks again, it just keeps getting better

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Actually, if you show up at a motorcycle track day and you habitually use the entire track ('the racing line'), faster, more experienced riders will probably come down on you for it. They need that line because they are carrying enough speed to require it, and they use it to get around the slow guys. If some guy travelling at 50% of the faster pace is using the whole track, he FORCES everyone to pass him on the inside, which can lead to accidents as it forces people to carry more lean angle at the same speed, and a low side will slide into the slower rider. On the street, it is dangerous as it puts you that much closer to the edge of the bikes limits. If you are going so fast that you require the entire lane to make a turn, you've got nowhere to go if the the turn tightens up or you have to adjust your line for some reason. Jason Pridmore's STAR school teaches a middle line, as does CLASS, I believe.


I very rarely swing wide on the street in order to carry more speed through a turn, as I don't think it is safe to be riding that close to the edge, anyway. Sometimes it happens if my natural line between turns carries me to the outside, but I never intentionally swing wide. That said, being aware of the edge of the road is certainly a useful tool, as you will know whether you can run a little wider if necessary or if you need to push the bike into more lean angle should the need arise.

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All very good points that you make. On the track, it is imperative to adhere to the rules and 'track etiquite' for each given organization. You mention some etiquite that should be observed if attending CLASS or STAR. I, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity to participate in track events with these organizations as it sounds like you have.


An organization that I am familiar with is the BMW Car Club of America. Their rules, regulations, and 'etiquite' are different. At their track schools, passing is generally not allowed unless you are "invited" to do so by the car ahead of you, and even at that, there are only certain designated passing zones. Passing in the middle of a turn is prohibited, and is also bad practice. This applies to D, C, and B run groups. Run group A, and sometimes B, is allowed to pass without invitation, provided it's done in one of the approved passing zones.


Then you have BMW CCA club racing. Depending on the class, different rules apply. For example, in J-Stock class, we can pass "when safe to do so." If a car encounters traffic, that vehicle must yield to that traffic. So in other words, if you encounter traffic in a J-Stock event, the car ahead of you has every right to use the entire width of the track.


But each organization has their own rules and regulations. Its organizations like Fastrack Riders that really scare me. I've watched these guys and I don't think I'd want to be on the track with them. It appears to be a free-for-all track day for everyone to run amok on the track. No real significant, mature rules or regulations are enforced.


In reply to:

I very rarely swing wide on the street in order to carry more speed through a turn, as I don't think it is safe to be riding that close to the edge, anyway.

Let's clarify that by carrying a good line, using the width of the lane, on the street is not for the sole intent of carrying additional speed through the turn, rather, a technique that may be used to smooth things out at sane speeds. Having track experience, you can understand the benefit I'm sure.


Take 2 riders, rider A and rider B. Both riders enter the same turn at the same speed, let's say, a tight turn at, oh, 50mph. Rider A went into the turn from the middle of the lane, turned in early, made 2 abrupt corrections while in the turn, and then had to get on the brakes at the corner exit for fear of running out of road, instead of rolling it on through the turn. Now rider B, sets up for the turn by putting is front tire only inches from the outside line of the lane, then held to the outside of the lane as long as (safely) possible, picked his apex, picked his line, carried a single, graceful line through the turn with no significant corrections, and consciously chose to run out towards the outside line at the exit as he's rolling on the throttle--not because he had to, but because it's a good practice that actually reduces any need to push the traction limit. Now, which rider was pushing closer to the traction limit? Rider A, or Rider B? If you answered A, you are correct. Rider A, as a result of not using the width of the lane, pushed closer to the traction limit than rider B, hence putting himself in greater danger as well. It really doesn't even take an experienced rider/driver to understand that, given whatever speed, choosing the wider available 'arc' is far safer.


Of course other factors go along with this for real world application. I assume those reading this already understand, and will factor in that:

-It's probably not wise to do this on a busy road

-Be careful of opposing traffic

-It's probably wiser to do this on a familiar road

-Understand there may be sand/water/debris on the shoulder or center of the road

-So forth, and so on


Hope this helps.

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