Sunday, May 9, 2010

There is no "cruise" in me.

I've been thinking about this lately...maybe I'm just an outlier among sport-riders, but there is no "cruise" anywhere in me.

You'd think every once in a while, I'd want to just jump on the bike and cruise around on the local highways like everyone else. But I have no desire to "cruise". Not on a sportbike.

I look at these machines as "tools". They're built for a purpose, and that purpose is "spirited" sport-riding or racing. NOTHING about them suits them to cruising around.

If you're not moving around on the bike, hustling it through the corners, the seat quickly starts to wear on your arse, the hunched-over position gets your back and wrists aching, and you find yourself doing stupid stuff like standing up mid-ride or using your frame-sliders as "highway pegs" to try to stretch out.

R1s are especially bad...they're geared so tall that riding at a leisurely pace makes it hard to find a gear that seems to have good pull without jerking. I find myself constantly shifting.

The tires on these bikes are designed to stick. Even dual-compounds aren't designed for a lot of straight-line touring. Every long trip I take, I worry about squaring off my tires...they're only good for so long on these bikes, and replacements are expensive. I can only really justify a long straight ride to get to a particular set of twisty back-roads. Then at least there's some anticipation of a good time. Taking a long cruise without at least hitting some good sweepers at speed...well, it's like a porno with no money-shot.

I get bored and sore on long cruises through the open country. I don't do it for "the scenery" or "the open air"...I'm clad in leather and a wind-noise-beaten helmet. If I wanted "open-air scenery", I'd roll down the windows in the car...or buy a convertible. That's a nice open-air ride. A cruiser is a nice open-air ride. A sportbike cruising is like going to a cirque du soleil for your bachelor party.

What bugs me even more, though, is that when I'm in a "cruising" group, it's usually not to tour some chunk of countryside, but on a blast down some highway or other, or rolling through some populated urban center.

In a venue such as that, the purpose becomes not to "cruise", but to "be seen cruising". To say to others, "Hey, look at me...I'm on a bike! Aren't I cool?" To me, that's the epitome of squiddishness.

As much as I take pride in bike ownership, I don't really EVER care to be seen riding by the general cager populace. I have no desire to impress ANYONE with my bravado, or the fact that I wasted 10 grand on what is essentially a dangerous toy.

I cause enough shenanigans when I "tear it up" on the back-road. For that reason, and just out of respect for the cagers who are gracious enough to let me get away with it without calling the police, I try to make my presence go as unnoticed as possible.

I don't have an aftermarket exhaust, and I likely never will, because that extra 5HP just doesn't matter to me. The R1 is powerful enough with the stock system to give me a rush...and there's no podium and no umbrella girls waiting at the other end. I'm not going to make noise. It doesn't sound good on those Honda Civics with fart-pipes...just because it's a bike and it revs to 13 grand doesn't make it suddenly something I want to hear.

I'm not going to cruise through a parking lot at a local social gathering place or fly up I-95 at 100 miles an hour, subjecting myself to the whims of cagers who are distracted and not looking for me, just to impose my presence on the world. I don't get any joy from "look at me". Anyone can go out and buy stuff for a bike and make it look pretty. It's just as likely that my bike will be wrapped around a tree the next day...I would rather people shake their heads in sympathy than look at me as an arrogant a-hole getting what he deserves.

I don't like going "out to eat" on my bike. It's already hard enough to squeeze my back protector velcro strap shut around my fat gut on an EMPTY stomach. Who the heck wants to park your bike out in a lot where people are walking in and out, opening doors, cutting between cars, and free to f**k with your ride while you're not looking if they're feeling particularly ignorant? Who wants to cram into a booth trying to find a place to stack a helmet, gloves, leather jacket, and back protector, without being able to leave them on the bike or set them on the dirty-arse floor? Who wants to come out of a restaurant feeling bloated and then hunch over a crotch-rocket for a long cruise home? Not me, that's who. We did it for meals at Deals Gap because none of us brought cars...then it was by necessity. But locally...why??

Why not finish riding, park the bike and get a car? The only reason I can think of is because you want the little 14-year-old girls to see you in the restaurant and say, "Oooh look he rides a motorcycle!!"

Sometimes what bugs me the most is the "group-think" that starts going on during cruise-style rides. When you get a group of sportbikes together, riders who are usually very careful and sensible start making silly mistakes, like making aggressive and ill-advised moves in traffic to try to "stay with the group". Or they start riding in aggressive ways, interfering with cager traffic to preserve the group format, or acting like being in a group of cruising motorcycles entitles them to "own the road".

It seems like with sportbikes, cruising is all about EGO.

When you're in the twisties or at the track, there's no TIME for ego. You have to be focused on the road in front of's just you and the pavement, and the pavement won't lie to you about exactly where you stand with it. Ego makes you crash in sport-riding. Pride never helps.

To me, it's all about a fundamental respect for the machine, the road, and the people on it. It's something I almost hold sacred...and to go around "cruising" on a sportbike, to me, it just feels like "taking the lord's name in vain". I'm reminded of some of those High-Life commercials, where the beer-man takes the beer back because he feels that it's not being used in the "spirit" it was intended.

I mean, maybe I'm just an outlier when it comes to this kind of thing. I try to maintain an open mind and let everyone ride for his or her own reasons, but it's hard for me to relate at all to "sportbike cruisers". I end up feeling the same way about them as I do about all the D-bags at the club wearing the same powder-blue button-down striped shirt.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Animal Hazards

I was in a group ride of 10-12 bikes yesterday morning. About 2 miles into our trip, a deer leapt over the guardrail into the path of the lead bike. He had no time to maneuver and struck the broad side of the deer at about 40MPH. His passenger was thrown from the bike. He managed to stay on and ride the bike to a stop (amazingly!!), but discovered that his right ankle had a compound fracture. Here's hoping for a speedy recovery, and thanks to the county police and medical workers.

It's hard to even think about animals when we ride, but they're out there. Plus, they're pretty damned stupid, when you come right down to it. They're not always smart enough to avoid an active roadway. This was an odd time for deer to be out, was about 11AM. Usually the deer are moving from dusk to dawn.

I've seen several groundhogs and rabbits lately. The young don't know about the road yet and sometimes sprint out. If it's something small, the best thing to do is hold your line and let it get out of the way...don't try to guess what it's doing. Bigger things are best to try to swerve around, in most cases.

What I see a lot of these days is turtles...who as long as I'm not on a blind section of road, I will pick up and help across. :)

I know a lot of riders feel like helmets and safety gear are restrictive, but remember, it's not always your fault if you go down. This was a freak accident yesterday. Suddenly a deer was someplace where a deer was not before. The side of the road was all underbrush...there was no seeing it until it made its move. A patch of gravel or a pothole you can scout for ahead of time. Animals move...there's no guarantee what you see this time is going to be the same next time.

The best thing you can do is suit up. It's cheap insurance. I can guarantee that if the passenger had not been wearing a helmet, she would've had a concussion or worse. She managed to get off with just an ankle sprain. The rider was wearing protective boots, but they were street boots, not true race gear like the Sidi Vertigos I now prefer. I'm glad I have those now...I don't know if even that would've saved my legs hitting a spinning deer at 40MPH, but the better chance I can give myself...

Stay safe out there.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Life Lessons from Cornering - You Go Where You Look

One thing has improved my ability to ride my motorcycle more than anything else...the ability to look through a corner. The deeper I've been able to will myself to look through a turn, the easier it is to negotiate that turn and the faster I can go through it and still be in control of myself and the machine.

Beginning riders often have a habit of focusing on where they DON'T want to drive the bike. When you look at something you don't want to hit, though, your mind (often in a panicked state), focuses its attention wherever you direct it.

If you stare down that guardrail, your brain isn't thinking about how to negotiate the corner, it's thinking about how to hit that guardrail with the least amount of personal damage. By putting your focus on it, you've already decided you're going to hit it. Now that's natural...we want to focus on damage control. But it's not what you want to happen. You don't want to survive a crash so much as you want to not crash at ALL.

The next step, after you've learned to NOT focus on what you DON'T want is to extend your focus beyond where you ARE, to where you WANT to be.

When amateur riders come up on a tight corner, many of them want to focus on their "entry point", where they start to turn the bike into the corner. What happens is a lot of riders focus ALL of their attention on their front wheel and that entry point, making sure they hit the intial turn just perfectly. Then they suddenly find themselves in the turn, but not knowing where they are because they've been so focused on entering the turn that they haven't had any time to look up ahead and see what's coming. So their brain goes into overload as they try to process a scene that they're just now seeing for the first time. By the time they figure out what they want to do, they've already muddled through what ends up being a very sloppy turn.

One suggestion made to me by a more experienced rider was to try to look a little bit further ahead of your bike every time you go through a particular stretch of road. Just a couple feet at a time. See your turn entry, and then trust that what you saw was "right" and focus your attention to what's coming next. Give your mind the visual information it needs to formulate a plan to get through that corner BEFORE you're in it.

I can say without any doubt in my mind that when I look as FAR as I possibly can through a turn, it opens my world up. It gives my brain a chance to process everything in advance, so once my bike and I get to a specific point in the road, I already know what I need to do there. All I have to do is execute.

A Life Lesson

I started thinking to myself...maybe life in general is a lot like cornering on a motorcycle.

Most people, when they try something new in life, focus on the potential negative outcome. A guy who wants to talk to a pretty girl often focuses on how to mitigate the embarassment of his rejection, rather than actually attracting the girl. People who come up with business ideas worry about how a failure would set them back, rather than focusing on the goal at hand.

Even more people tend to focus on their present condition, rather than looking ahead to the goal and formulating a plan. People trying to lose weight look in the mirror, get frustrated, and give up because they see themselves day-by-day as overweight instead of looking ahead to the thin goal they're after and forming a plan. There's the old saying, "dress for the job you want", that implies the same thing. If you see where you are now, it's not going to help you plan to get where you WANT to be.

Maybe, through every day we live, we should try to look just a few feet further ahead of our front wheels each time.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Balance Between Fraternity and Peace

One of the harder things for me to decide these days is whether I want to share the names and locations of the roads I ride with other riders.

On one hand, I want to share the joy I feel accelerating out of a nice sweeping corner with some of the other riders around here. I would like to see more sportbikers especially be less squiddish, less inclined to wheelie down I-95 at 150MPH. I want them to learn how much more fun it is and how much more skill it takes to corner the machine well, to discover the character of a particular set of corners or switchbacks and to become more intimately acquainted with the road.

On the other hand, I know that the more press that a stretch of road gets, the more riders want to try it out for themselves. Two or three screwballs dragging knees on an out-of-the-way road tends to go unnoticed. Twenty or thirty, on the other hand, start to draw unwanted attention from casual drivers and area residents.

There's also the stigma around motorcycling that draws a lot of less-than-responsible individuals to it. If word gets out that road X is a "good bike road", you end up drawing a lot of hooligans. Unsafe or sloppy riding, accidents, and in some extreme cases, criminal activity can sometimes end up putting a damper on a good riding spot, either directly or by drawing the attention of law enforcement. The perfect example would be US 129 on the NC/TN border. Several riding groups have been campaigning the road as a tourist attraction. Now it's almost impossible to ride down that stretch of road without being hassled by the police or run off the road by irresponsible drivers/riders.

These days...I err on the side of keeping my mouth shut. The last thing any canyon-carving backroad rider wants is publicity. I'd rather no one know where or how I ride.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Countersteering - Leaning to Turn

As I explained in my previous entry, the biggest misunderstanding about how to steer a motorcycle is a result of how we first learn to ride two-wheeled very slow speeds.

The art of balancing a motorcycle or any two-wheeled vehicle involves steering so that the wheels stay under the bike. At low speeds, (on a bicycle, for example) the rider is constantly steering in the direction that the bicycle is leaning, to prevent the bike from falling over.

There's nothing WRONG with this...that's exactly what a rider should be doing. The problem is that the rider doesn't realize how the turn was initiated in the first place. They assume that because they are steering in the direction that the bike is turning that it's their steering motion that causes the bike to turn. This is a half-truth at best.

Now this usually isn't a problem for most bicycle riders. At bicycle speeds, most people learn subconsciously that to steer the bike, it has to be leaned over first to initiate the steering motion. But the rider not realizing this consciously comes back to bite them when they move to a faster vehicle, such as a motorcycle.

Steering a Car - The Stability of Two Wheel-Tracks

In the previous post, I talked a little bit about the difference between cars and bikes. Now I'm going to talk a little more about those differences, specifically how a car steers differently from a bike.

Cars and bikes are both affected by Newton's First Law of Motion - mass going in a straight line wants to keep going in a straight line. Turning is "unnatural" for anything and requires force.

When you turn the wheels of your car, it's the force of the tires tracking to one side that pulls the rest of the vehicle (and its passenger) through a turn. When you turn your car hard to the right, for example, as the wheels start to track to the right, you will feel the rest of the car wanting to keep going straight. This manifests itself as the body of the car rolling to the outside. You feel it in your body as well, as a hard right turn will have you pressed against your driver-side door. (or the center-console, for those who drive in left-laned countries)

Think about what would happen if you tried to turn sharply at speed in a top-heavy box truck or van. As the tires turn one way, the body of the vehicle could actually ROLL the other way, tilting to the outside of the turn and eventually capsizing. (I almost did this with mom's minivan when learning to drive)

This is why sporty cars are designed low to the ground with wide wheelbases. When a vehicle has two wheel-tracks, one opposes the tendency of the other to lean to the outside when turning. The inside two wheels can't tilt to the outside because the outside wheels are bracing them. The outside wheels cannot tilt because the inside wheels are weighing them down.

So the inside wheel-track and outside wheel-track actually cancel each other out and prevent the car from tilting over as the wheels move in the direction they're turned. The chassis, being connected to the wheels, is dragged through the turn by sheer cornering force. This act of the inside and outside tires fighting each other results in the pronounced howling you hear when a 4-wheeled vehicle negotiates a hard corner.

Steering a Motorcycle - The Consequences of One Wheel-Track

When you steer a motorcycle, the process is different. There is no opposing track of wheels to stabilize a motorcycle. That means that when the front wheel starts to turn in one direction, the rest of the bike wants to continue in a straight line. Now there's no second set of wheels to help prevent this tilting motion and drag the rest of the bike through the turn like the car.

This means that when the front wheel of a motorcycle is turned, the wheels actually steer out from under the motorcycle. The bottom half of the bike goes in the direction that the wheels were steered, while the top half of the bike tries to keep going straight. The result is that the motorcycle leans.

For example, if you're moving at a decent clip on a motorcycle and you turn your handlebars to the right, the tires will steer out from under you to the right. Gravity starts to pull the top half of your bike downward, now that your wheels are out from under you. The end result is that the motorcycle will lean to the left.

"The Bike is Fighting Me!"

When an untrained motorcyclist tries to turn at speed for the first time, he will often complain about the motorcycle "fighting" against his turning motion. This is because when the motorcycle is moving at speed, the untrained rider will try to initiate a turn by turning the bars in the direction he wants to go.

What happens when he does this is that the tires of the bike instantly steer out from under the rider in the direction that the bars were turned, causing the bike to make a sudden tilt in the opposite direction. This actually ends up steering the bike in that opposite direction...but more on that later. The typical rider usually gets scared as soon as he feels that unfamiliar tilt and immediately straightens the bars. The result is that he thinks that the machine is "fighting him" for control.

I first experienced this on a 90cc scooter that my uncle had bought to get around-town prior to purchasing his Harley-Davidson. I had taken it out for a spin not even having ridden a bicycle in several years. I was doing all-right until I drifted slightly wide and ended up headed for a parked car. I tried to steer quickly to the left, but the result was that the scooter leaned to the right and directed me even closer to a certain crash. (I managed to brake before I hit the parked car, but it scared me enough to where I knew I didn't know what I was doing!!)

The Simple Truth - Bikes Cannot Be Steered Like Cars

The bottom line is this: a motorcycle can't be steered like a car. Unless you want to put training wheels on your motorcycle, or you have both feet on the ground and are walking the bike around the garage, a motorcycle doesn't have the static balance a car does and cannot be turned by steering in the direction that you want to go.

The result of steering a bike in the direction you want to go is that the bike will lean in the opposite direction as your wheels steer out from under you.

This is a good thing for two reasons. The first is that this steering of the wheels independent of the mass of the bike is what allows your bike to stabilize itself at speed. Again, the previous article goes over the physics of the front wheel and how the front wheel keeps your bike upright by constantly steering in the direction the bike is leaned.

The second reason that this is a good thing is that by steering the wheels out from under you and back, you can use the handlebars to control the lean of the motorcycle.

How to REALLY Steer a Motorcycle

Now that the first two "Countersteering" articles have laid the groundwork for understanding how a motorcycle steers, the next "Countersteering" article can finally explain how to turn a motorcycle, hopefully in a way that the average rider can understand.

The short explanation, though, can be summed up like this:

1 - Motorcycles cannot be steered like cars...they will lean in the opposite direction.
2 - Given #1, motorcycle handlebars can't steer the motorcycle, only control its lean.
3 - Given #1 and #2, the only way to steer a motorcycle is by controlling its lean.

More later.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Countersteering - Stability Explained

Being raised and trained on cars and trucks, we sometimes take stability for granted.

If you're in your car and you come to a stop on a level piece of land, shut off the engine, and get out of the car, your car stays where you put it. Do the same thing with a motorcycle and it will immediately fall over to one side. (which is why motorcycles come with sidestands)

Statically speaking, bikes have no upright static stability. For a bike to be statically stable, you need at least three points of contact on the ground to prevent gravity from pulling the bike to the ground. That's why we slap training-wheels on our childrens' bicycles. When they first jump on, they're too nervous to get the bicycle moving at any speed, so we add a point of contact to keep the bike upright until they learn to ride.

The strangest thing happens, though, as we get the motorcycle moving. Once the bike gets up to a certain speed, it seems to stand upright on its own, without any input from the rider. In fact, we have to TRY to get the bike to fall over now.

While it's true that a two-wheeled vehicle has no static stability, as it gets moving, it acquires dynamic stability.

The Front Wheel - A Dynamic Stability Engine

I like to call a motorcycle's front wheel its "dynamic stability engine". It's the physics of the front wheel that stabilize a motorcycle once it gets moving. In fact, your motorcycle is constantly trying to "fall over", even when moving. It's the small corrections of the front wheel that prevent it from doing so.

The simplest way to explain this is that as the bike tries to fall over to one side, the physics of the bike's front end cause the front wheel to turn in the direction of the fall, essentially steering your wheels back under you.

This is happening all the time when you're riding in (what you think is) a straight line. The bike is actually performing a very mild weave, constantly correcting to keep the motorcycle stable and moving relatively straight.

A Little More on the Physics

Two elements are responsible for most of the front wheel's propensity to steer the motorcycle's wheels back underneath it. I'm not going to go too much into the physics, since talking too much about them seems to confuse more people than it enlightens.

The first has to do with the rake and trail of the front forks. The forks of a motorcycle are never straight up-and-down. Rather, they are angled forward. When a motorcycle's wheel starts to tilt to one side (i.e. the bike starts to fall over), the weight of the bike pushes down on its front end. Because of the shape of the tire, this pushing force causes the tire to turn in slightly so the motorcycle "settles" on a different part of the tire.

The second has to do with the spinning motion of the wheel. If you hold a spinning bicycle wheel by the axle and try to tilt it to one side, you'll feel the wheel wanting to turn in the direction it's being tilted. This is called gyroscopic precession. If you've ever sent some loose change rolling, you'll notice that as it loses momentum, when it falls over, it turns in the direction it's falling, causing it to roll in a tight circle. The concept is the same for motorcycles. As the bike falls over, the force of gravity pulling the front wheel over generates a 90-degree offset force that makes the wheel steer into the turn.

Fast vs. Slow Speeds

So basically, a motorcycle is dynamically stable because the physics of the front wheel cause it to turn in the direction that the motorcycle falls, essentially "keeping your wheels underneath you".

At faster speeds, this provides enough stability that you can essentially cruise down the street without your hands on the handlebars. (except to give the bike gas to keep it moving) At slower speeds, however, you may notice that the bike is more likely to fall over. That's because your "dynamic stability engine", your front wheel, is no longer moving fast enough to provide a positive steering action or gyroscopic force.

What a lot of riders do to make up for this loss of stability is to turn the bars in the direction that the bike is falling. Essentially, when their "dynamic stability engine" is not running at full-steam, they take over its responsibilities manually. If you've ever watch children ride a bicycle at slow speed, this motion is obvious to spot.

Here's the problem...most people who learn to ride a bicycle, motorcycle, or other tandem 2-wheeled vehicle learn to ride at slow speeds before they ride faster. Because of this, they start believing that the motion that they're doing with the front wheel to help balance the bike is a steering motion, rather than a balancing one.

So many of them arrive at a mistaken idea that they are turning the bike by steering into the turn. And if they never understand what's going on, this can lead to trouble later on, when they need to steer the machine quickly at high-speed.

to be continued...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fashion Statement

I've noticed an encouraging trend. So far this year, I've seen relatively few squiddies riding around in flapping T-shirts. All the sportbike riders I've seen so far have been geared up in riding jackets.

Only a few years ago, riding gear was considered somewhat "uncool" by the masses. Literally. Most of the options out there were leather jackets and once summer rolled around, riders just couldn't get comfortable. With the advent of textiles and mesh jackets, I think the attitude is starting to change.

It's even become a bit of a fashion statement. As I mentioned in my post about selling bikes, many people are now buying jackets specifically to match their bikes and their wild paint schemes. A friend of mine bought an orange tribal-flame CBR600RR about the same time I got my new bike. The seller threw in an orange-and-black jacket that matches the bike perfectly.

It's a good thing. Road rash is a real pain and my jacket has saved my arms and back plenty of times. Even if people are wearing the jacket just to "look cool", at least they're wearing it.

Now if riders would only give up riding in loafers or tennis shoes. Some at least have the sense to put on a good pair of Timberland work boots. Work boots offer a minimum of protection, but aren't really going to protect you from snapping an ankle like a good pair of race-boots would.

Riding apparel companies need to start being more sensitive to the look of their riding boots and offer something that doesn't have styling ripped off from an old MegaMan game.