Handling a Motorcycle

This is my third installment on motorcycle-related info. Previous posts on The Fit of a Motorcycle and Buying a Motorcycle have been viewed a lot. Doubled my readership in the last few days.

I have been riding motorcycles now for over 30 years. I started out on a Kawasaki 440, which was a great starter bike. It was peppy and fun, and even handled cruising on the highway, though I could tell that it better suited to slower speeds on the back roads. It was a cool little bike — big enough to get me places, but small enough for me to handle. I could sit on it and walk it to fit in a parking spot, or stand and push it on those occasions when I forgot and parked on a downhill incline. I even dropped it once — it slid out from under me on wet leaves — and I was able to right it by myself, tuck my tail between my legs, and ride it home.

Unfortunately, that bike’s engine developed problems pretty quickly, and it was getting more and more expensive to have repairs done. I sold that bike after two years and replaced it with a Kawasaki 750 “LTD”. That also was a cool bike, with a bigger engine that handled highway speeds better. It was smooth and comfortable. The fit was great. However, as it had a bigger engine, it also was heavier. I really strained the only time I forgot and parked it on a downhill incline to get it out of that space. I had to have a friend help me roll it up a ramp when I had it towed when I got a flat. That additional 100 pounds made a huge difference in how I was able to handle it.

However, a heavier bike rode more smoothly on the highway. I took the 440 once over a huge suspension bridge, and thought I would be blown off. I was scared witless. I rode the 750 over that same bridge, and the ride wasn’t as scary. Probably because, by then, I had been riding a lot more, had taken more training, and was more secure in my capabilities.

A few years later, I got tired of repairing the 750LTD, and bought a Kawasaki 750 Vulcan. I had it in 1993 when I met my partner. We rode on it two-up, and it handled the two of us rather well, though a bit cramped. It was nice when we rode together, because he could help me maneuver the bike if I needed help.

My partner convinced me to fulfill my dream — buying a Harley. I ordered a gorgeous new Dyna Low Rider in October, 1993, and it was delivered in February, ’94. I learned that Harley cruisers and touring bikes all had the same size engine — in that year, it was 80ci (1310cc). That was almost double the engine displacement — and weight — of my previous bike. And I noticed it right away. When I sat on the bike, I could barely move it. It took a lot of strain, stress, and struggle to get the bike parked in a tight spot. I have to admit, at first, I was daunted, intimidated, and frightened. I became more distressed when I dropped it one week after I bought it, because it just wanted to go somewhere and I couldn’t control it. Fortunately, when I dropped my Harley, the only thing that was damaged was my ego.

I was determined to figure out how to handle the thing. Again, while cruising, the bike handled fine. I felt very comfortable, secure, and confident while riding it. But when it was stopped, and I had to creep up at a light to fill a gap or move it into a parking spot or even into the space for it in the back of my garage, I had a lot of trouble. I couldn’t handle the weight. I was never a weight-lifter, and my inexperience was showing.

You see — where this is going — when you are riding a bigger bike, there’s no problem. Big bikes handle the road very well. With a low center of gravity, big bikes cruise smoothly and efficiently over the open road. It’s when they’re stopped that one has problems.

I went back to my motorcycle safety instructor, and I also spoke with some other, more experienced, bikers whom I trusted. The advice they gave to me are skills that I still practice today on my Road King:

1. Never park facing down hill. (no brainer!) If you have to park on a hill, move in perpendicular and then turn so the back of the bike rolls down hill. Then you can use the power of the engine to get out whilst moving foward.

2. Get more comfortable man-handling (lugging) the bike. Move it to a level, debris-free solid surface. Stand up and straddle the seat. Grab the bars. Walk the bike. Move it forward, move it backward. Move it, move it, move it. It’s may seem odd, but this procedure really works. You become more comfortable in knowing how hard to push, where to push, how to stand for better leverage, and what the drop-angle is (and stop before you reach that angle.)

3. Pick a corner of a parking lot, and practice parking the bike backwards in that place. Drive up to it facing forward, but then turn perpendicular. Kill the engine. Put the bike in neutral. Walk the bike back and forth so that its rear tire is facing the back of the space, and the bike is parallel to the space (or curb.) What you’re doing is practicing how to park it on a downhill incline. Practice in a level area first, then practice on a hill. The more you practice this handling technique on your own, the better you will be at it when you’re with a group and don’t want to be embarrassed because it’s evident that you can’t park your bike.

4. Practice stopping the bike and putting the sidestand down BEFORE standing up and dismounting. This may sound silly, but the more you practice this technique, the more it will become ingrained and will be something you “just do”. Why do this practice? Because, unfortunately, this example is common: you arrive at your favourite biker hang-out and see a bunch of friends. You enthusiastically drive up, cooly swing your leg over the seat to dismount the bike, and walk with the biker swagger toward your buddies … and hear a crash. You look behind you and see your bike on the ground and your friends in hysterics. What happened? You forgot to put the sidestand down. OMG, happens all the time. I see it two or three times each year.

5. Learn how to pick up your bike if it falls. Inevitably, this happens. The bike tips over and you can’t stop it, so you give it a controlled lay-down. Sometimes the bike slips on ice or gravel. Whatever… bikes fall over. It is not a macho-Harley “requirement” that you can’t have help lifting it up. In fact, even The Motor Company says that you should get help lifting a bike that has fallen over. I don’t know what it is about Harley-rider-thick skulls that insist that if a guy drops his bike, then anyone else standing around has to stand there laughing with arms crossed while the guy struggles to pick up his bike. Help him, and accept help! If, and only IF, you are all alone, then follow these instructions for Lifting a Heavyweight Motorcycle.

In summary, as bikes get bigger but their owners do not gain strength proportionate to the increase in a new bike’s weight, then you need to learn and adapt new skills in handling the bike. Recognize that the weight of a bike, especially something like a big V-Twin, can be daunting. It can cause strange and scary thoughts to mess with your head. It can even cause you to re-think your decision to go for a ride, or even to own the bike. Take time to practice the techniques described above. They really will help.

Life is short: go ride!