Riding Right: An Uphill Battle

Starting out on an incline

By Susan Rzepka Orion

Starting out on a hill can be tricky. Have you ever been stopped on a hill behind a truck or car that has rolled backward toward you? Its a little unsettling. Vehicles with manual transmissions may roll back from a dead stop on a hill. And motorcycles are no exception.

an uphill battle
Starting out on an incline doesnt have to be an uphill battle.

Blame it on gravity, or blame it on the weight of the vehicle. Both factors weigh heavily in creating a potential rollback when stopped on an incline. The degree of roll and amount of control depend largely on the operators level of skill and experience. With practice, starting out on an incline will not always be an uphill battle.

When stopping on hill, bring your motorcycle to a controlled stop using the same braking technique you always use. Apply both brakes smoothly and simultaneously while downshifting to first gear. If you brake using the method recommended by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), you are accustomed to putting the motorcycle into first gear and using both brakes simultaneously. Your left foot comes down to the pavement first, because your right foot remains on the brake pedal. Your head and eyes are up, looking straight ahead, and the handlebars are completely squared, not turned or leaned in any direction.

At this point you can choose from two methods for dealing with stops on a hill:

Method one: Keep one foot on the ground; use the rear brake only.
If conditions allow, keep your right foot on the brake while your left foot remains on the pavement to balance the bike. Release the front brake lever, freeing your right hand to fully control the throttle. Trust that the rear brake alone will hold the motorcycle in place. It will! It can be a little daunting to do this the first few times you try it, especially on a hill. You might want to try this technique at a stop on a level surface first so you can experience what it feels like to let off one brake and rely solely on the other for stability. Have confidence that one brake can hold the motorcycle in place on its own.

an uphill battle rear brake
Use the rear brake to keep the bike from rolling backwards.

Remember that having your foot, or feet, on the ground is simply a balancing technique. You are not holding the motorcycle in place with your body. This is the job of the brakes. Few individuals of any size or strength have the power to prevent a motorcycle from rolling backwards on a hill with their legs alone. Even Fred Flintstone, digging his heels into the dirt on a good day in Bedrock, would fight against gravity and lose!

Now its time to use the clutch and throttle to take off. Ease out the clutch slowly part way into the friction zone, which is the area of travel in the clutch lever where partial power is transmitted to the rear wheel. Give the throttle a little twist until the rear wheel is powered enough to hold the bike steady without the rear brake. As you release the rear brake, continue to ease out the clutch, add throttle and away you go!

Method Two: Keep both feet on the ground; use the front brake only.
If you dont feel comfortable with just your left foot on the ground, place both feet on the ground for stability and hold the motorcycle in place with only the front brake. Again, trust that the single brake will hold the motorcycle in place. It will!

Now its time to use the clutch and throttle to take off. Ease the clutch slowly part way into the friction zone. Release the front brake and give the throttle a little twist as the clutch transmits power to the rear wheel. This technique requires a little bit more finesse as its nearly impossible to control the throttle when your hand is on the front brake lever, and you rely primarily on the clutch and throttle to power the rear wheel and hold the bike steady. As you release the front brake, continue to ease out the clutch, add a little twist of throttle and take off.

an uphill battle brake lever
Ease the clutch into the friction zone to hold the bike steady before releasing the brake.

For a variation of this technique, stabilize the bike with both feet on the ground. Then simply reapply the rear brake, release the front brake, and use method one.

Starting out on a hill does not have to be an uphill battle. Ultimately, it comes down to mastering the friction zone coordinated use of the clutch and throttle while managing the brakes. Coordinated use of the friction zone is the single greatest basic skill any rider can possess. Practice in a parking lot until you are able to control the motorcycle at very low speeds using the friction zone without stalling. This basic skill really pays off, and comes in particularly handy on hills.

About the Author
Susan Rzepka Orion is a certified MSF RiderCoach and Riders Edge Instructor who loves to ride, write, and help others who want to do the same. You can find her on the road on her Yamaha V Star 1100 Custom.

wrn newsletter graphic

Related Articles
The Friction Zone: What is it Anyway?

30 thoughts on Riding Right: An Uphill Battle

  1. I have been riding for years but mostly on freeways, as my bike was my only transportation for work. But I, too, have a fear of a particular left turn onto a steep incline to another left turn at the apex to a two-way street with crosswalk and I am terrified that I will have to stop mid-turn at the apex (pedestrian). This article helps a bit in my thinking but with short legs I have conquered this problem.

  2. I have been reading and learning so much. I am a beginner. I have dropped my bike once and now I know what I did wrong so I will keep reading and riding. Thank you so much for putting this information out to help.

  3. I enjoyed this article. I am a new rider, 59 years old. To get from my house to the main paved road, I have to travel 9/10ths of a mile on a dirt road, usually washboarded. At the end, there is a fairly steep incline in the dirt. So I need to stop on this incline, in the dirt, and then accelerate up onto the paved road.The first time I did this I laid the bike down. Then after righting it (which is hard in dirt and having no traction), I over-throttled and zipped across the pavement, off the road on the other side and slid the bike and me along on the ground until the front tire hit a big rock and I stopped. With help, again, I got the bike upright and rode a total of 12 or 14 miles and back home with no more issues.So that is where I’m at today. I must master this starting out from an incline issue and quickly as I have no other way to get to the paved road. I’ll try the tips provided in this article.

  4. Very good article. Thank you for the refresher course.

  5. The articles I have read here are informative and similar in many ways to my experiences. I have learned so many ways to handle different situations in my riding experiences and found that the my experiences match the expert advise given here.There is one situation I avoid at any cost and I was hoping you could expand on it.The event of having to make a right turn from a stop on a hill. When the incline is steep and the turn has to be entered before the rear tire has crested the hill. I dang near lay it over every time, but through sheer fear of that, I accelerate and get righted. Sweating for what could have been.I’ve got a fear, I know. I have to conquer it, I know. I just need to know if there is a better way. Thanks.

  6. This is so hard for me. Get nervous every time. Thanks for great article.

  7. Nice bunch of points here … always good for stock bikers, and I guess also for those who haven’t figured this stuff out yet. Funny, how we play an entirely different game when all the parts are different: like on my 1979 suicide clutch hardtail. It’s got a ‘late’ ’79 tranny which rotates, and doesn’t translate into a forward/backward shifter action. Wow … talk about a ballet pirouette on a high-wire; there’s a whole different can of worms working out these mechanics.After about the first 20 to 25 years, though, it’s not so bad. But there’s always that one or two nasty hills that just make you go around the block a few times to find a different place to park!

  8. Love this article. I hate the incline—my husband makes it look so easy by putting his left foot down and holding with the rear break. I always feel like I have to balance the bike with both feet, but I have small hands and always pop the clutch and stall the motor because I can’t hold the front break and maneuver the the throttle. So it’s great to be reminded that the bike will balance itself, and I’m definitely going to try to practice more.

  9. I really enjoy your articles and look forward to reading them. They’re always interesting and informative. Very helpful. I ride a Harley-Davidson Street Bob, which I love. I moved up to it a year ago from a Sportster Iron that I rode for five years. I rode from ages 14 to 21 on Hondas and started back again six years ago. My hubby also has a Harley-Davidson Ultra and we ride together a lot including every weekend on our Savannah HOG group rides. We are in an area that we can ride all year long. Riding is my favorite thing to do! I have some health and back problems — I’m in pain a lot — but I am happy with no pain when I ride due to distraction and being at my happiest. I have always used both brakes while coming to a stop but only use front brake while stopped. I’m going to try the other method of using my back brake. I am short — 5 foot tall — and have always just felt stable with both feet on the ground. Thank you so much for your articles and all the comments. I read it all!

  10. Great! Very interesting,informative and helpful. Thank you.

  11. Thanks for the information on taking off on an incline. I read a lot of your articles and also love the articles from Jerry “Motorman” Palladino. Thank you

  12. When I first got my license this was the first thing I had to overcome. My driveway is a hill that goes straight onto the road with no flat ground to stop and check for traffic, etc. so it’s a very daunting task. I’m grateful to those that shared this advice on various posts as I’m sure I’d still be freaking out over it. I do have another similar question though… Coming to a stop sign where I would turn right. The stop is on a very slight incline but also slopes to the right so when I stop I do as I would on a hill (handlebar straight etc) but being short the right sloping on the road means I have to lean a little more than I’m comfortable to the right which makes the bars tilt too.. I don’t want to drop the bike because of this… Any suggestions to help in this situation?

    1. Hi Angela,This is a good question. When coming to a stop before you’ll have to make a right turn, in general, you’ll want to position yourself to the left side of your lane. That will give you the most amount of space to make the turn, and, at the same time will require the least amount of lean angle.You always want to keep your handlebars squared at a stop – otherwise you have less control and the bike will naturally want to fall over. If the road is crowned in the middle, you may want to adjust your lane position to be more toward the right of middle, so you can comfortably put your left foot down. You may need to lean the motorcycle slightly to the left, but keep the handlebars squared when doing so. But note that you’ll need to make a sharper right turn once you get moving. Keep looking where you want to go, turn your head, turn your bars, roll on the throttle while easing out the clutch, and you should be good to go.Getting to your specific question, I don’t know if the road slopes upward or downward to the right. If it’s downward, you shouldn’t have a problem putting your left foot down to hold the bike, while leaning it slightly left.However, if the road slopes upward to the right, you may need to lean the bike to the right, and use the technique mentioned to start from a stop without the use of any rear brake.Finally, if the handlebar turns when you lean the bike, all you need to do is use your muscles to keep that front wheel pointed straight ahead. You’ll have better control of the bike by keeping the bars straight when stopped, even when you need to lean the bike a little.Hope this helps! Ride safe.

  13. At least now I know I am doing it the right way holding the rear brake. The other way just doesn’t work for me. I still feel a little shaky with only one foot on the ground, but at least I’ve learned how to ease off the clutch, rear brake and apply the throttle so I can take off without rolling backwards and dropping my bike. This is the first article I’ve seen that addressed this issue and I’ve been riding since 2003. This isn’t really something anyone can teach you, but at least it is something you can be told about. My husband used the other method and I just couldn’t manage the throttle and front brake as well as the clutch well enough to take off. Will be sure to share this with other riders.

  14. After reading this article on your website I went and tried this and I feel more comfortable with the bike on hills now, but need to practice more. Now I know what to do on up hill. Thanks to your website.

  15. Have just started out and very nervous. Dropped my bike on a hill and have struggled since. Googled and got your article and it has given me some faith to go again. So it’s off to practice for me and thanks for putting some assistance out there for us.

  16. This article is very helpful. I got my license in September 2011 but got my bike in April 2012. Hills/inclines can be frustrating.They are not taught in the class so you do have to learn that friction zone. It helps in pulling the bike from the hill or uphill. I guess practice is key. Thanks again for the article.

  17. Great article! I am new to riding. Got my 1200 Sportster Low about two years ago. My first bike and I began by taking the Rider’s Edge course. Of course they do not have you practice anything on a incline; this is left to you alone once you are out on the road. I have to admit this is most dreaded part of riding in hilly country; and not good on hills in a car either and you don’t have to balance that! Your article restated what I know and try to practice. Guess it will just take more practice. I do prefer both feet on the ground for balance so I have to rely on being coordinated enough to engage gas while managing the right amount of hand brake. I do try to practice the foot brake method, but only on small inclines to start with. Thanks for the great article. It reminds me to practice more, and that I am not alone in the stopping on a hill situation

  18. One of my first trips out I got stuck halfway up a steep hill after pulling out from a side road. I went to shift into second and it slipped. I stalled out and couldn't get going. I had a hard time holding the bike with the back brake, and trying to ease off to give it throttle and let the clutch out. I kept rolling back. I have small hands so I couldn't use the front brake and the throttle at the same time either. I got tired and frustrated. My husband had to park his bike and come and get mine going. The battery had gone dead. I was very humiliated and wondering what I was doing, but I'm glad to say I kept riding and tried not to dwell on those times. It is all part of learning. I knew it wasn't going to be a piece of cake.

    I am booked for some refresher riding classes this spring and I think I'll get more out of it now that I've been riding for a couple of summers. I am determined to master those hill starts and stops this year instead of avoiding them.

  19. I've gone about 1,000 miles on my 650 Yamaha. Having similar problems on inclines and sharp turns, dropped my bike twice. I think I'm turned the handlebars too much when trying to make a sharp right turn, instead of leaning into the turn (having a little more trouble getting the feel of leaning into the turn when taking off from a stop on a sharp turn). Mostly doing much better with friction zone, but occasionally choking out on the clutch when taking off at intersections. This is frustrating because riding a motorcycle seems to be a lot about mastering techniques, staying focused and lots of practice. But sure is fun getting practice. I found some really good parking lots to practice turns over and over, but finding inclines to practice these maneuvers (making a turn from a hill) has been harder to find somewhere with no traffic and it's not comfortable practicing in actual traffic situations. Great info on this site. All tips appreciated.

  20. I too am so glad that I found this site, and this article in particular. I passed the Motorcycle Ohio course three years ago in August, but never had much of an opportunity to practice after that. The following summer I put my bike in a ditch and totally lost my nerve to ride, but never my desire to, so this spring I am signed up to retake the course, this time with a friend. She also has her own bike, but hasn't ridden it since she had her son eight years ago. She never got her license, only rode around on a permit, and never learned the proper way to ride, so she is very excited to take the course.

    My hubby has been very patient with me, taking me down the street to a parking lot so I can lose my jitters before venturing out on the open road. All the letters of encouragement, saying to hang in there and it really will become enjoyable have been a real blessing to me. Thank you for providing such a wonderful site.

  21. I love this article! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I can't wait to get out and try these techniques. After 20+ years as a passenger, I finally made the move last summer to piloting my own, and tips like these are invaluable to me as a new rider.

    I took the MSF Safety Course and put an '83 Honda Nighthawk 550 on the road in September, so I didn't get too many miles under my belt before Old Man Winter arrived, and am anxiously awaiting spring. I'm so glad I found your site. Thanks for all you do to encourage, educate, and empower women riders.

  22. I got my license last summer. I only was riding a few weeks when my husband had to lay my bike down when someone pulled in front of him. That was it for the season. (Yes, he has his own bike.) So I am a little nervous to begin with. My issue now getting started for this season is the hills. It is all hills around me and I am having problems stalling out on hills. It is very intimidating. I am afraid to pop a wheelie by giving it to much juice.

  23. I love reading these articles and find them very informative. I, too, am having trouble on hills, and usually my nerves get the best of me when riding with others because I feel like I'm holding everybody else up, waiting on me to get going! So my goal is to go out and practice this spring, and get it mastered. I just got my license in June of 2008, and did a bunch of riding during the summer. I'm really excited to get back out there again.

  24. Starting out with my right foot on the rear brake feels really awkward on my Sporty. I live on a sloped street, so starting from a stop at the top of a hill was one of the first skills I learned!

    I use the clutch friction zone with the throttle and front brake, keeping my feet solid on the ground. It's a great skill to have!

  25. I love this Web site. I'm so glad I found it. This article has really helped with learning about the friction zone with the clutch. I understand now why I have to ride the clutch more. Thanks WRN. Keep the articles coming.

  26. I love this Web site. I'm so glad I found it. This article really has helped with learning about the friction zone with the clutch. I understand now why I have to ride the clutch more. Thanks WRN. Keep them articles coming.

  27. I could have really used this advise last weekend. I got stuck on a hill and totally forgot about the rear brake. Every time I let the front brake go, I started rolling back. Cars had to go around me as I reached across the handlebars with my left hand to start the ignition switch (because I had stalled out) while I held onto the front brake. Eventually, I got the bike started and walked it to the side of the road. Only then did I remember …. use the rear brake!!! This column would have saved my legs and back from the aches and pains I got from trying to hold the bike with my legs on a hill.

Scroll to Top