I hear from so many riders with heavyweight bikes—the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic, Honda Gold Wing and Yamaha Venture, just to name a few—who say these bikes are heavy and clumsy. A lot of riders tell me they’ve been riding motorcycles for 20 or 30 years and just purchased their big dream bike but believe they may have made a mistake because they find the bike nearly impossible to handle at low speeds, especially when creeping through traffic or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot. They all want to know what they can do to make maneuvering the bike less of a hassle. The answer is right there in their hands.
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It’s the clutch and throttle. I’ve seen so many riders make the same mistake over and over again—they let the clutch out all the way and open the throttle while attempting to turn from a stop. Once the clutch is fully engaged or released, the slightest movement of the throttle will cause the bike to leap ahead. Let’s say a rider is making a right-hand turn from a stop sign. She smoothly releases the clutch all the way out, feeds a little throttle and the bike leaps forward even if the rider had her head and eyes turned to the right. When the bike leaps forward, instinct tells the rider to look straight ahead. Since the bike goes where she looks, she’ll be going straight instead of turning.
To overcome this, simply stay in the friction zone, feed a little throttle and look where you want the bike to go. The clutch should never be fully engaged until the turn is completed. This technique can also be called “slipping the clutch.” That’s exactly what you have to do at low speeds to smooth out forward progress. Most riders, even ones that have been riding for many years, have it in their heads that the clutch should be released as soon as possible. While that works fine if you’re starting off from a start and going straight, you must slip the clutch if you’re attempting to turn from a stop. Also, if you’re maneuvering and turning in a crowded parking lot, use that friction zone and throttle the entire time. If you put a little bit of pressure on the rear brake while slipping the clutch, you’ll have even more control. If you’ve ever witnessed a slow race, that’s exactly what the riders are doing. However, even if you’re not going extremely slow—say, 8 to 10 mph—that clutch and throttle will be your best friend if you learn to coordinate them well.
Learning to use the friction zone and the rear brake properly will also keep you from having to drag your feet along the ground in an attempt to balance the motorcycle. Dragging your feet, especially on a heavyweight motorcycle (anything over 300 pounds), is not going to help you. In fact, if you’re going slow and turning while your feet are dragging on the ground, you may find yourself having to stop quickly. If your foot is not on the rear brake, you’ll have to use the front brake. Of course, if you use that front brake with the handlebars turned, you’ll quickly find yourself and your motorcycle flat on the ground.
An easy way to practice using the clutch, throttle and rear brake is while riding in traffic and approaching a red light. Simply slow down a little sooner than you need to and leave four or five car lengths between you and the car in front. Then try to inch your way up toward that vehicle with your feet on the pegs or floorboards, manipulating the clutch and throttle to maintain your balance. Make sure to keep your head and eyes up. If you look down at the ground directly in front of the motorcycle, you will have to put a foot down.
With a little practice, you’ll find that you can almost bring the motorcycle to a complete standstill with your feet still on the pegs and the rear brake. Once you feel comfortable doing that, try turning the motorcycle while going as slow as possible and keeping the bike straight up. When you can complete a 24-foot circle at 2 mph without leaning the bike or dropping a foot to the ground, you’ll have a good handle on clutch and throttle control.
About the Author
Jerry Palladino is the founder of Ride Like A Pro, Inc., a company that produces motorcycle instructional DVDs and books. Jerry also teaches classes to experienced riders who want to enhance their motorcycle skills. Visit RideLikeAPro.com.
Everyone will gain so much if they have Motorman’s videos. Before I learned to ride, my hubby asked Jerry for his advice for me and he started up with the first video I’d need. Friction zone IS key. Thank you Jerry (and Donna). Of course we then had to get all those videos that were available at that time, seven years ago. We play them before we begin our riding season. Yep..we’ve seen them, but, a refresher is a good thing. Helps you remember all those important keys that will come to you when you ride. Yeah, head up, look where you want to go, not where you’re going and more. Best ever. Thank you Motorman
I enjoy your articles and have learned a great deal. Just purchased my new bike on New Years day 2012. Will be signing up to take the class and currently have my permit. However, I am learning the friction zone, but when I release the clutch slowly my bike will take off. I don’t even have to give it throttle. It is a 2011 Harley-Davidson SuperLow. So I am confused when I hear give it throttle. Please guide. I would like to learn to be a fairly good rider.
Cindy,Congratulations on your decision to become a rider. You will learn all about the friction zone and use of the throttle in the riding class that you are planning to take. Until then, we don’t recommend getting on a motorcycle. A motorcycle can be a dangerous machine in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to operate it properly. Plus, it’s more likely the bike could could be dropped in the hands of someone who’s not trained. I recommend staying off the motorcycle until you’ve been properly trained. Sorry to be sound so harsh, but this is the best advice we can give based on years of observing the most effective and efficient way to become a safe rider.
Great article. In my riding course slow speed maneuvers were the only thing we did for two days. Feathering the clutch was emphasized and I felt much more confident leaving the course knowing I could handle the bike going 5 mph as easily as 20 mph.
Thanks Jerry! I have practically memorized your Ride Like a Pro DVD! It helped me start out with better habits so there are fewer bad ones for me to break. I do not ride a big bike; I ride a Ninja, but the first thing I learned was not to use my hand brake while making a slow turn.I was in a cul-de-sac and felt like I was going too fast to make the circle and I applied the hand brake pretty seriously and I went down like a stone! I have lots of practice now with your friction zone and rear brake and my confidence has returned. Thanks again!
I have been riding Harley Ultra Classics since 2003. People often ask me how I can handle such a big bike. Women frequently tell me they could never ride a bike, much less a big bike because they feel they are not strong enough. I tell them, strength has nothing to do with it. It takes balance, brakes, clutch and throttle. They look at me like I’m crazy. Slow speed driving is the hardest of all and I have a great deal of respect for the 800 pound-plus beast I ride, but it is so worth it. I love my bike! Your article was great and I hope it encourages more women to take hold of their own throttle.
Great article. Ditto to the comments, “don’t ride the clutch.” I have taken the beginner rider’s course, but most of my “instructions” have come from the hubby who has ridden successfully for decades, but no formal teaching. I can make the stop-sign turns on a dime, but get me into a crowded parking lot and visually it just freaks me out. And it’s just that, visual! Thanks, Jerry, for the great article. Need to practice, practice.
Great article, thank you. I’ve just done two days of parking lot training learning and practicing this maneuver and my thumbs are sore and tender – probably because I’m gripping too tightly and nervous as a beginner.
Excellent article! I purchased Jerry Palladino’s Ride Like A Pro book and DVDs. They have been the best “teaching” tools I’ve come across. I’ve only been riding for 1 1/2 years and I’ve logged 4,000 miles. I feel more confident every day and I “practice, practice, practice” all the time! Thank you for a great article!
I learned this lesson the hard way! I was releasing the clutch completely during turns and yes, my bike leaped and over the handle bars I went! Someone suggested the Ride Like A Pro video and I watched it! The visual on the bicycle is what made me understand the concept completely. Now I can maneuver my Softail Deluxe with confidence. That clutch/throttle/back brake trick makes all the difference. Thanks, Jerry!
Beautifully written, Jerry! I had been riding for three years before I “got it” using the clutch, throttle and rear brake. Even today, I really have to concentrate when making a turn from a stop, mindfully talking my way through the turn. I wouldn’t consider my bike heavy (all motorcycles are heavy if you have to pick them up!) but the control — and safety skills I’m developing — is enviable by anyone’s standards. Adding the rear brake was the turning point, so to speak, for me. Good luck everyone and ride safely. Please continue featuring Jerry’s tips on your Web page – which is awesome by the way!
I have taken Jerry’s class and practiced many hours prior to the class. It was fantastic. I started riding in 1997 and took his class in 2010. I have never felt more confident in my riding skills after his class. I now ride a 2009 Street Glide like a motor cop and ride much safer and with more enjoyment than I ever have.I encourage everyone but especially women. Women tend to have gotten training from men who have not had this training and many need it as well. Thank you and great article!