A woman rider recently asked me if the exercises in one of my videos could be practiced on grass. The video in question consists of a series of tight turns that require the motorcycle to be leaned over near its limits.
The first thing I asked her was what kind of bike she was riding. When she replied that it’s a Harley-Davidson Softail 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 is 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 about motorcycle traction.
Traction Rule #1: Keep your street motorcycle on the street.
Of course, if you have to leave the pavement to avoid a crash, do it. Keep in mind that once off the pavement, traction will be extremely limited. This 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 use engine braking and careful application of the brakes to slow you down gradually. Come to a stop if you have to, otherwise continue carefully back onto the road. If you've stopped on the grass, when you’re ready to pull back onto 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 the road. These bikes are called dual sports or adventure tourers. Most of these bikes come standard with semi-knobby tires, and are much lighter in weight so they can achieve greater lean angles in off-road scenarios.
Traction Rule #2: Wet pavement reduces traction drastically.
Pavement that is wet reduces a motorcycle’s traction by at least 50 percent. This 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 better slow down on a winding road.
Traction Rule #3: Wet pavement increases stopping distance.
Your stopping distances will also be about double what they would be in dry conditions. This means your following distance from vehicles in front of you should be about double as well.
Traction Rule #4: Painted lines on a wet road are almost as bad as ice.
Avoid leaning the motorcycle at all when riding over 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. Manhole covers, railroad tracks, and cattle grids are also slick as ice when wet. Avoid them if possible, and avoid being leaned over if you have to ride over them.
Traction Rule #5: Watch out for tar strips.
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 Race Track, and there were tar strips every 20 feet. 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.
Traction Rule #6: Make sure you are able to stop within your sight distance.
There will be times where the road is perfectly dry, but as you round a curve you suddenly see some sand or gravel in your path. You can avoid a low side crash in that situation by straightening up the bike before you cross the sand or gravel. To avoid that situation altogether, which of course is the best course of action, scan the surface well ahead of your path of travel.
Keep these six rules in mind the next time you find you and your motorcycle where your motorcycle tires’ traction is reduced.
About the Author
Jerry Palladino is the founder of Ride Like A Pro, Inc., a company that produces motorcycle instructional DVDs and books. Jerry is a former motorcycle police officer who teaches riders the same skills that that motor officers use when riding their motorcycles. His classes are aimed at experienced riders who want to enhance their motorcycle skills. Visit RideLikeAPro.com.