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Observations of a Riding Coach

Added July 31, 2018
Lady learning to ride a motorcycle
Ray Petry and Dona Rains are two of the more than 10,000 certified riding coaches in the United States. They spend their weekends helping new and experienced motorcyclists become better riders. Having seen it all, they have a few simple lessons to share to help you ace the challenges of riding safely.

Maximum braking

As the project manager of the Harley-Davidson® Riding Academy and a certified coach since 2004, Petry didn’t hesitate when asked what riding skill is the biggest challenge for riders. “Maximum braking,” he says. “It’s not something that most of us utilize on a daily basis, and it’s a skill that erodes without practice. But occasionally a circumstance arises that requires maximum braking force, such as a car pulling out in front of us.”

When it does, you should follow the correct protocol—regardless of whether you have an anti-lock braking system (ABS) or not. Square the handlebar and smoothly apply both front and rear brakes. Once the load transfers to the front tire, gradually increase braking force to the front brake until you come to a stop (or your speed is adequate for the situation.)

Petry still sees experienced riders who don’t use the front brake, which provides 70 percent of the total available stopping power. “There’s a false belief that using the front brake will result in a crash,” he says. “Using either brake incorrectly can result in a crash, but not using the front brake more than doubles the distance needed to stop.”

So how can you become proficient at proper maximum braking?

“Practice quick stops every time you roll the bike out,” says Rains, a Riding Academy and MSF-certified coach since 2011. “Quick, well-executed braking is part of the foundation of safe riding. It’s a skill that requires repeated practice.”

Master the swerve

A well-executed swerve is another skill that deserves our attention. Like the quick stop, it’s an evasive maneuver that might go months without being used, only to be needed when a shovel suddenly falls out of the landscape truck just ahead of you.

If you want to initially swerve right, press the right side of the handlebar forward. This is called counter-steering and is the most effective way to quickly initiate a turn. Immediately follow this initial swerve by pressing the other side of the handlebar to return to your original direction of travel.

Swerving isn’t always the best evasive maneuver, since traction, road hazards, and other traffic will affect your decision to swerve, rather than slowing down or stopping. Still, it’s an available reaction. 

See your future

Quick stops and effective swerves are two skills every motorcyclist needs. But Petry believes it’s best to rely more on riding strategy, “The best approach (to safe riding) is a strategy that avoids emergency maneuvers,” he says. 

And the best way to avoid most dangers? Look ahead!

“In my experience, many riders commonly look just past their front wheel rather than scanning as far ahead as the horizon,” he says. “If you’re only looking two seconds in front, you’re only going to have two seconds to react.”

By constantly scanning everywhere from one to 12 seconds (or farther) ahead, you’ll give yourself ample time to react to potential hazards, rather than relying upon a swerve or quick stop. The strategy of scanning far ahead also applies to corners. 

“Looking through the exit of a corner and turning your head to get a full view is one of the most common areas of improvement I see for all motorcyclists,” says Rains. “It’s right up there with emergency braking.” 

Riders should also constantly evaluate the things they’re seeing. What’s the road surface like? Are there potholes, debris, or wet pavement? Is another motorist displaying the telltale signs of inattentiveness? The visual clues are there—from the overloaded vehicle to the garbage truck that’s dropping some of its contents—it’s just a matter of seeing them, and then reacting accordingly to maximize the space and time you have to react. That might mean flashing your brake lights, creating more distance between yourself and motorists ahead, changing lanes, and/or having an escape route.

Smooth operator

Lastly, Petry emphasizes being smooth with your motorcycle is an important part of managing traction and maintaining control. He says, “By smoothly applying the brakes, throttle, clutch, and handlebar inputs, you’ll maximize your traction without overwhelming the tires’ contact patches.”

The Internet is loaded with videos of motorcyclists who over-apply their brakes and/or throttle and hit the deck as a result. Similarly, an abrupt shift while leaning over in the middle of the corner can upset the motorcycle’s chassis and put you off course.

You can avoid these circumstances and unintended Internet infamy by riding smoothly and deliberately.

Practice makes perfect

There’s one word that Petry and Rains repeat over and over when discussing safe motorcycling: practice. Both men are firm believers in continuing rider education. Rains sums it up best: “One riding course won’t make you an expert. Take additional training courses on a semi-regular basis and always practice, practice, practice!”

Practice is the foundation of all successful learning and skill accumulation and it’s the basis of what all Harley-Davidson® Riding Academycoaches utilize to teach New Rider and Skilled Rider courses. Check it out for yourself.