Traction, or the lack, there of. I was recently asked by a young lady if the exercises in my video could be practiced on grass. If you’re not familiar, my video consists of a series of tight turns that require the motorcycle to be leaned over near its limits.
The first thing I asked was what kind of bike she was riding. When she replied, a Harley-Davidson Softtail Deluxe, I immediately said NO. You must practice on a paved surface. Now, you would think that common sense should tell a person that a street bike was designed to be ridden on the street, but, as they say, common sense isn’t very common anymore. This conversation, combined with some of the things I see riders doing when the surface they’re riding on is less than optimal inspired me to write this article.
As a general rule, avoid taking your street motorcycle off the road whenever possible. Of course, if you have to leave the pavement to avoid a crash, go ahead and do it. Keep in mind that once off the pavement, traction will be extremely limited. That means you can’t lean and you must be very careful about applying your brakes, especially the front brake. Let’s say you have to swerve around a vehicle that has pulled out in front of you and your only escape path is a grassy shoulder. Once you’ve swerved off the road, straighten up the bike and allow engine braking to slow you down. As the bike slows, use a little rear brake to come to a stop. When you’re ready to pull back on the road, slip the clutch until you’re back on dry pavement. The heavier the bike, the more difficult it is to control on grass, sand, or gravel.
There are of course motorcycles that can be ridden both on and off road. These bikes are called Dual Sports or Adventure Tourers. Most of these bikes come standard with semi knobby tires. While Dual Sport type bikes do very well on grass or dirt, they can be a handful in sugar sand or mud. Generally, the lighter the Dual Sport, the better it will handle off road. Years ago, I taught my son to ride on a 200cc Dual Sport in a grassy field. I was actually amazed at the lean angles this bike could achieve in the grass, but, the bike only weighed 300 lbs. and the tires were pretty aggressive knobbies.
Now that we’ve established that street bikes should remain on the street whenever possible, let’s talk about traction problems on the street. First, there are wet weather conditions. If the pavement is wet, your traction is reduced by at least 50%. That means you should limit your lean angles to about half the amount you would use in dry conditions. Since the bike must lean in order to turn at speed, you’d better slow down on a winding road.
Your stopping distances will also be about double what they would be in dry conditions. That means your following distance from vehicles in front of you should be about double as well. Avoid leaning at all when crossing painted lines, such as safety zones or cross walks. Make sure that if you’re applying your brakes on any type of painted line, you do so with extreme caution. Painted lines on a wet road are almost as bad as ice.
I just got back from Ohio where they love to patch the roads with tar strips. These strips become very slick even in perfectly dry conditions once the temperature is above 70 degrees. In fact, we were performing my rider skills show in a parking lot at the Mid-Ohio Racetrack, there were tar strips every 20 feet. Even though our speeds were low, the lean angles we use are extreme. Every time I crossed one of these tar strips, I could feel the front tire slip out a few inches. On a high speed turn on one of these tar strips, the bike could easily low side.
There will be occasions where the road is perfectly dry, but, as you round a curve you suddenly see some sand or gravel in your path. The only way to avoid a low side crash in that situation is to straighten up the bike before you cross the sand or gravel. To avoid that situation altogether, which of course is the best policy, scan the surface well ahead of your path of travel. Make sure you are able to stop within your sight distance.
Till next month, use a little common sense and you’ll keep the shiny side up. – Jerry “Motorman” Palladino