Slowing things down- low speed maneuvering.
Here you go, Dan. Be careful what you ask for because you might get more than you wanted!
The dreaded cone weave in the skills test! I hear so many stories from folks who've gone down to their local DMV office for their endorsement test. Never have 5 to 7 traffic cones, spaced 12 feet apart and a foot off centerline from each other, caused such terror to the motorcycling population!
I'll offer some guidance for controlling a bike at low speeds a little farther along in the post. For now, though, let's talk about why this exercise is even in the skills test.
Almost all of the licensing agencies use a modified form of the MOST ( Motorcycle Operators Skills Test ). This is a test that was developed by the MSF ( Motorcycle Safety Foundation ) in conjunction with the National Public Services Research Institute. Each of the exercises was designed to evaluate a rider's ability to control a motorcycle in different ways.
Initially the test course used electronic timing lights in the applicable exercises. For example, the approach speed for the quick stop and the swerve were timed. So was the speed through a marked curve. Like anything exposed to the weather for a long period of time, the electronic equipment would eventually fail. This would cause the test to have faulty or inconsistent time readings. At other times it would become necessary to totally cancel testing. Despite their fear of the cone weave this would leave a bunch of disappointed endorsement applicants!
A modified version of the test was developed, called the ALMOST ( Alternate Motorcycle Operators Skills Test ). The primary difference is that the examiners now accomplish the timing functions by use of stopwatches and painted timing zone marks. As you can imagine, there's now a little room for operator error in the timing. Here in Oregon our Department of Motor Vehicles is very conscientious about accuracy. The person in charge of applicant driving tests regularly gathers groups of examiners, both new and experienced, for training. That's where I often come in.
There's a few of us instructors who regularly volunteer to ride the test circuit over and over so the the examiners can practice their craft. I know, talk about your gluttons for punishment! Weirdly enough, most of us are either current or past motor cops. What the DMV wants is not just riders. One manager in particular wants us to make minor mistakes on purpose at certain points. Not only do we need to be concerned about making the sharp turn for instance, but we're expected to do something like let the front tire drift over onto the painted line just slightly. It's one thing to screw something up and be able to claim you did it on purpose. It's quite another to be expected to make a specific mistake at a specific point! It also helps to have a basically sound but devious attitude.
The training really helps the examiners. This, in turn, greatly contributes to riders getting a fair shake in their skills test. Most examiners don't ride and so don't have an understanding of a motorcycle's dynamics. We try to help impart this along with their practice in scoring accurately. One other thing we do is respond if a rider claims the test is impossible to do on their bike. The DMV will call us. One of us will arrange to borrow an identical bike if possible. Once in a great while we'll use that person's bike. Then we take it through the course to show it really is possible. From small bikes to big cruisers to full dress tourers they will all make it through. We've had only one bike that wouldn't. It was a customized Ducati cafe racer with an impossibly small amount of handlebar lock.
Perversely, one of my favorite things to do with new examiners is to mess with them in the braking chute. By the way, the folks moving into the motorcycle testing are already experienced automobile examiners. Back to the braking chute.
The objective in the braking chute is to get up to a certain speed on the approach, start the braking at a given point, then stop within standard. The proper approach speed is verified by the time it takes the leading edge of the front tire to pass between the two lines in the timing zone. Examiners then look to see where on the distance scale the front tire ends up. So almost all of their attention is on the front wheel. Too bad. We'll fix that.
I'll do quite a few consecutive runs for them. My speed is correct. My stopping distance is within the standard mark. On each run, though, I start my braking a little earlier. So after several runs I'm still within standard but I'm now starting to brake way early. The person in charge knows what I'm doing so they can verify it when I point it out to the examiners. They learn that, not only do they need to watch the tire, but they need to keep an eye on the front fork for where it starts to compress. These kinds of lessons help keep it fair for everyone.
As an interesting side note, it was while participating in this activity that I nearly crashed Sophie in front of everyone. A couple of years ago I was in Corvallis. It happened that the motor cop who was going to work with me got called onto duty. That left just me to do error runs. In order to give the examiners as many runs as possible in the time available, I would cut very short corners during the turnaround. It had started to sprinkle. At the tightest point of my turn was a big, wide, yellow painted line that ran perpendicular to my path of travel. You can imagine what the rain was doing to it. I really hadn't felt any traction loss so was pretty confident. Just as I quit worrying about it, I felt Sophie's front tire start to slide sideways along the paint stripe. Right in the deepest part of the lean. My first thought was unprintable. My second was,
"Okay, tire, you can come back underneath me anytime, now!"
Fortunately it did. Furtively looking around to see who was watching , out of the eight or so people there only one noticed what had happened. I'm glad of that. How humiliating would that have been for the so called "expert" to drop the bike?
Anyway, I got off track, here.
The reason that the cone weave is part of the testing is that the powers that be feel this exercise is a good way to assess a rider's balance and clutch control. The 90 degree sharp turn that follows the cone weave assesses the same thing with the addition of head and eyes. I agree with their premise. While nobody is going to ride the equivalent of the cone weave in real life, riders will do similar things. Think about turning around in the width of a road. Or contemplate going on a poker run. These usually start in a dealer's lot that's crowded with bikes. A rider can look like a dork while trying to park the bike. On the other hand, having low speed skills, a rider can look pretty cool!
In order to be successful at low speed maneuvers, a rider has to correctly answer two questions.
1. What holds a bike up when it's moving?
2. How do you make the bike go in the direction you want it to?
The answer to question number one is power from the bike's motor. Oh sure, there's a lot of fancy engineering terms for what happens. What it boils down to, though, is the stability provided by the motor's output to the rear tire.
The answer to question number two is: You go where you look, so be sure you're looking where you want to go! The bike will go where you look, I promise you. Whether that's where you intended the bike to go or not.
Let's look first at the cone weave. Again, I don't expect someone to be riding this often. God forbid you should spend your riding career in a parking lot full of cones! We can , however, take away a couple of principles that we can then apply to other situations.
The secret to being successful in the cone weave is two fold. Firstly, let's look at the head and eyes. No pun intended. What's your target? It's the end of the weave, isn't it? The cones aren't really set very far off the centerline so there's no need for a head turn. It's essentially a straight path with some very small turns. Head and eyes up looking well ahead to the end of the weave. Eyes level with the horizon. This provides stability from a directional control perspective. A lot of riders get worried about hitting cones so they stare at the cones. If you go where you look, then what's going to happen as a rider stares down at the cones? The bike will respond by trying to fall down towards them, that's what. Eyes up and level will also help the bike "lift" out of the small weaves.
Secondly, remember the part about power holding the bike up? Most of the trouble riders have in the cone weave relate to this part. They end up putting a foot down to catch the bike or go wildly off course due to the bike's instability. Use the clutch! More specifically, the friction zone. Just in case you're not familiar with exactly what the friction zone is, here's a reminder. The friction zone is that place in the clutch lever travel where power is just starting to be transferred to the rear wheel. The zone is very small. It's a place where we're literally slipping the clutch. Most bikes have wet clutches so it's not a problem. Once in a while I get older riders who learned to drive a stick shift from Dad or Grandpa. These words are still ringing in their ears.
"Get your foot off the clutch. If you ride the clutch and burn it up I'm going to break your leg!"
Slipping the clutch for control on a bike is not a bad thing for short periods. Even on bikes with a dry clutch. So here's how we use the friction zone for slow speed maneuvers.
Remember the fact that power holds the bike up. We need power but it needs to be modulated somehow for speed control. A lot of riders try to do this with the throttle. Since we're in first or second gear there's a lot of torque. Using the throttle for speed control causes too much jerky bike movement. This, in turn, transfers to the rider's throttle wrist. Which makes the bike lurch even more. Things just keep getting uglier.
Some riders try to modulate the power with the clutch. They're on the right track but lack the proper execution. Most pull the clutch in all the way and then fully release it. Again, it creates too much movement. It's the same thing as full power on and full power off. The key is small clutch lever movements, keeping the bike right in that small friction zone.
The actual turning of the bike is done by physically steering the bike. At higher speeds we need to use countersteering for turns. At low speeds, somewhere below 12 miles per hour or so, the rider must steer by turning the bars. The bike still needs to lean to turn but the method of initiating the turn is different here. So let's put it all together.
Approach the weave. Fix our eyes on the end of the weave. Keep them there. Do not look down at the cones during the weave. Eyes up and looking well ahead for the entire drill. With the right hand roll on a little throttle and hold it steady. It won't take a lot but closed throttle won't work. There would be nothing available to pull the bike out of the lean. As we approach to the right of the first cone we're going to need to lean the bike to the left. Start the turn slightly before we might think we need to. The bike will need a little time to react. Turn the bars slightly left and pull in the clutch just a little bit. We're taking away just a little bit of power to let the bike lean. When it's time to come out of the lean let the clutch out a little bit. Since we're holding steady throttle there's be a little power available to pick the bike up. Pull the clutch in just a little to take power away while we turn the bars slightly right. The bike will lean right and then we give a little power to pick the bike back up once more.
Do you see the difference? Power is steady and we use very small clutch movements to control speed. Think of the throttle as the electricity coming into the house. It needs to remain constant at a usable voltage. Not too much, not too little. The clutch is a dimmer switch. Not all the way on or all the way off. Just a little brighter, just a little darker.
By the way, if we find ourselves in a low speed maneuver and feel the need to put a foot down, let the clutch out a little more or very gently roll on a little more throttle. Let the motor do the work instead of our relatively fragile lower leg, ankle, and foot.
Now jump forward to something we're more likely to face. We often need to make turns in tighter spaces. As an example, picture pulling a U-turn within the width of a standard two lane road. The majority of riders can't do it. Taking what we've learned from the cone weave, let's break it down.
This is really just a turn on a motorcycle. Tight, true, but just a turn. The four step process for a turn is Slow-Look-Roll-Press. It's the exact same process at slow speeds except we need to substitute steering for the countersteering press.
Decide where we're going to make the U-turn. Since we usually ride in the right lane here, our U-turn will be to the left. Like any corner, we set our entry speed and line while the bike is still straight up and down. Then we look to our target. Which is now going to be behind us, right? Make like an owl and look clear over our left shoulder. Come on, you know your neck will flex more than that. Ok, despite the alarming cracking sounds we have managed to look over our shoulder and fix our eyes in the opposite direction from which we're currently travelling. It will feel really weird at first but it's the only way, trust me!
Now it's time to make the bike move. Just like in the cone weave we need to roll on a little throttle and hold it there. That makes us go too fast to make the turn but we need the power to pick the bike up at the end of the turn. Resist the urge to move the throttle. Hold it steady and slightly squeeze the clutch. Remember, not all the way. Just enough to let it slip so it takes away a little power from the rear wheel. What holds a bike up?
Just like steady throttle should be applied through a curve steady power needs to be available during the entire U-turn. Take away enough with the friction zone to help the bike lean but leave enough to hold the bike up at the same time. Yes, keep looking clear back in the direction we want the bike to end up facing. It will follow your eyes if you trust it. Once the bike is pointed in the new direction, give it back it's power gradually by easing the clutch through the friction zone. Think about rolling the bike back upright around it's center axis rather than snapping the bike back up suddenly. Once you're heading in the new direction you can take your hand off the left handgrip to massage your sore neck. Your neck will hurt less each time you make these big head turns!
Here's where we really see the power of these head turns. We started by looking clear over our shoulder. Remember the eyes up and level with the horizon thing? My repetitions are designed to drive home a point, did you notice? As the bike turns we are still focused on our target. Which means that what essentially happens is we end up looking forward again without consciously moving our head. Our head is turned a lot at first but our body and the bike will pivot underneath our head until everything comes back into straight alignment. Sounds weird, doesn't it? The interesting thing is that by keeping our eyes focused up and well ahead, it will contribute to helping the bike come out of the lean. As you ride, experiment with it. Notice how you can use your eyes to "lift" the bike out of a lean.
If we're forced to make an even tighter turn, use the same principles but help the bike's center of gravity by something called counterweighting. In normal speed turns we would lean with the bike. In slow, tight, turns we should remain upright and let the bike lean without us. To enable an even tighter turn we can either put weight on the outside foot peg or actually shift our body slightly towards the outside. Again, the reminder is that a big head turn and steady throttle are required the same as any other turn.
Now that we're armed with the basics of slow speed maneuvers, let's go on that poker run. We arrive on our bike into the crowded parking lot. First task is to find a place to park. There's already a lot of riders there. These folks are drinking coffee and munching on the free donuts. We don't know what their skill level is but we know for sure all eyes are on new arrivals. We watch another rider try to park their bike. Finally, resorting to paddle walking, they manage to see-saw into a spot. A couple of times there was silence as the crowd though the bike would tip over. We, on the other hand, know how to do this. Our parking spot is targeted but we need to make a couple of tighter turns to get there. We know to use a big head turn to control where the bike goes. We know to use steady throttle and the friction zone. Looking left for directional control, we squeeze the clutch slightly to help the bike lean, then give it back some power to pick it up again. Now we need to make a right turn so we end up with the back of the bike towards our parking spot. Cool riders back in, don't they? Big head turn right, a little clutch squeeze, steer the bars right, move our head to look well in front of us in a straight line, give the bike back it's power through the clutch, straighten out, square the bars, and all we have to do now is push the bike back a few steps to park. We're stylin' 'cause we got skills!
Squaring the bars goes back to that thing about holding the bike up. The bike's barely moving by now so we are taking over the holding up duty. Do yourself a favor and don't come to a stop with the bars still turned. It might be more exciting than we wanted that early in the morning. Squaring the bars is a little thing that helps the bike stay balanced. Now go get some coffee but not too much. Who knows how far apart bathrooms will be on the poker run?
Miles and smiles,