Five Keys to Fearless Riding at Slow Speeds

One Winger’s Point of View on Controlling Your Wing

I ride my Gold Wing almost daily. For years, I’ve been working on a set of motorcycle techniques I call Fearless Riding. If you take five minutes to try the five experiments described below, you may discover a new way to control your bike at slow speeds. From what I’ve seen, standard slow speed riding techniques don’t work well for everyone. Sure you can get good at them if you practice for hours or are naturally gifted, but if you have a neck injury, such as I do, if you’re a bit clumsy, such as I am, if you’ve just never been able to ride fearlessly at slow speeds, then take a few minutes and learn these five things about you and your motorcycle.

Engine launch speed

Coordinating clutch and throttle – it’s the bane of new riders. When I bought my Gold Wing, I discovered the bike had so much torque it would take off in first gear with the engine at idle. If taking off and riding slowly around a gas pump, or making a U-turn in a parking lot, why do I need to add more throttle than that? If you want better slow speed control, you need to know how slowly you can rev the engine and still be able to take off. I submit that for a Gold Wing, the Engine Launch Speed is the same as the idle speed.

You can easily test this yourself on your next ride. Find an empty parking lot and stop the bike. Look around to make sure you won’t get run over, then take your digits off the brakes, let the engine idle, and ease out the clutch. See what happens. When I tried it, my Wing (Esmeralda) effortlessly moved forward at a walking pace.

It was so easy, I wondered if this technique would work with other bikes. Surely this was a fluke only possible with a Gold Wing’s giant 6-cylinder motor. So, I borrowed a little, twin-cylinder Harley- Davidson 883 and tried the experiment. The little Harley took off easily in first gear with no gas, no brakes and no sign of stalling. It is your turn to discover how slowly you can rev the engine and take off without stalling your motorcycle.

Takeoff distance

When I discovered I could get moving with the engine at idle, I learned something else. I could have the clutch all the way out without stalling the bike, bucking or jerking, in less than 3 feet. I’m not going to tell you exactly how much less, because you probably won’t believe me. Instead, I’m going to challenge you to find your own bike’s Takeoff Distance.

See how quickly and smoothly you can let the clutch out with the engine at idle. Measure your Takeoff Distance by how many feet forward you need to move in order to get the clutch all the way out. No friction zone. Just ease the clutch out smoothly and progressively in one continuous motion. You can pull up to a painted line in the parking lot, or just guesstimate, but remember that distance because we’re going to use this when we discuss Focal Distance.

Idle speed

The next thing to find is your bike’s Idle Speed. Not engine idle speed. I’m talking about the speed your bike will travel with no gas and no brakes. What? Really. Stay with me.

When I tried this experiment, I found my Wing would idle along at 5 mph. That’s darned slow. That’s slow enough to do many everyday slow speed maneuvers. If I can idle along at 5 mph, no gas, no brakes, and do most everything I need to do, why do I need any fancy riding techniques? If I can let out the clutch and just ride fearlessly, why should I make things any more complicated than that?

Again, I wondered if this was a fluke of the Wing’s monster engine. So, back on the 883, I learned that the little H-D twin idled at 10 mph. That’s okay for lots of stuff, but I felt it was a little fast for close work.

Stall speed

What if I’m riding at 5 mph on my Wing, or 10 mph on a Sportster, and I need to go slower? Don’t I have to start using the friction zone and balancing throttle and rear brake? To find out, I tried idling along at 5 mph on my Wing, as I added some rear brake. I thought the engine would immediately stall. I mean, it’s barely idling! Right? Nope. What I found was that I could add a little rear brake and the bike would slow down to an indicated two mph without the engine bogging, lugging or stalling.

Was it a fluke? Yes and no. When I tried this experiment on the 883, I found I could only get down to about 5 mph before the Harley twin started to complain. But still, I believe most people would find they could do almost everything they needed to do in a parking lot at 5 mph.

So, if you do the four exercises described above, you will know your Engine Launch Speed (probably the same as your engine idle speed), your Takeoff Distance (probably less than 3 feet), your Idle Speed (probably less than 10 mph), and your Stall Speed (perhaps as low as 2 mph). You can now ride fearlessly at slow speeds without having to balance a twisting throttle with an in-and-out clutch while steering the bars back-and-forth. By not revving the engine and not using the friction zone, you will have a lot more attention available for steering the darned motorcycle. There is one thing missing – Vision.

Focal distance

For years, I have tried to start or end each ride with a U-turn from a stop. I figured I would be developing my slow speed control without having to take time out from my busy schedule to find a parking lot, setup cones and practice (ick). What I found was that the standard visual control techniques didn’t work very well.

If I tried to keep my eyes up and look “back there,” I would lose focus and run wide. If I tried to focus on one gray spot on the asphalt among thousands of gray spots on the asphalt, I would lose focus and wobble. When I did manage to keep my focus on a specific point way back there, I would sometimes hit bumps or humps that knocked me off my line. I found this very uncomfortable.

So, I tried pulling my vision back toward the bike. Not all the way back so I was staring mindlessly at the pavement going past my foot pegs. Just back far enough so that I could see where the heck I was going to be in the next few seconds.

One day, as I played with pulling my vision back, I found my sweet spot, my Focal Distance, at about 6 to 8 feet in front of the motorcycle and on the inside of the turn. Suddenly, the bike was going where I wanted it to go, because I was guiding it with my eyes, and bumps and imperfections in the road didn’t bother me, because I could see them coming. Experiment and find your ideal Focal Distance.

Start by looking all the way back there to where you want to end up. This is to make sure the path is clear and no one is about to run you over. Then let the engine idle and ease the clutch all the way out (remember your Takeoff distance). Once the clutch is all the way out, throttle closed, both hands on the grips, turn your head and eyes, turn the bars and, while you’re turning, search for your Focal Distance. You probably won’t find your sweet spot on your first try, so ride on and have fun. Just come back to this exercise once in awhile. You’ll get it.

Now go for a ride

Do the experiments. Just to see. Just for fun. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they won’t work for you on your bike. On the other hand, maybe they will work and really add to your riding pleasure. It will be fun to find out. This stuff is easy. It takes five minutes to learn. I believe you will find that letting the clutch all the way out with the engine at idle, dragging a little rear brake when necessary, and looking where you are going, will give you all the control you need for fearless riding at slow speeds.

Moxie Nixx is the author of the paranormal motorcycle mystery novel Gold Wings are Murder: The Crying Stone. Visit GoldWingsAreMurder.com.


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