HOW TO MAKE YOUR HARLEY HANDLE...
...RIDE IT PROPERLY!
By Derek Putley.
Over the last seven years I have covered just over 100,000 miles on a wide selection of different Harleys, mainly Evo Sportsters and Big Twins. From this experience, this article gives my views on the key skills that I think are needed to get the best out of a Harley. I hope that this write up will be of interest to HDRCGB members, but hopefully, most of what’s in here should not be 'new news' to most members.
My emphasis will be on Harley related aspects of motorcycle control, as opposed to more general roadcraft. The latter topic is already well covered in the literature, most notably by "Motorcycle Roadcraft", the police riders manual, as published by HMSO.
Personally, I find it quite annoying when I see the motorcycle press telling us that Harleys have hopeless brakes and don't go round corners. As I don't have to go around continually pulling my FXRT out of the ditch, or the out of back of the Toyota in front, I know that there is no absolute truth in these statements. This makes me think that such statements are more a product of the limited riding skills of some journalists, than a result of any serious problems with the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Having said that, there are a number of technical reasons why an "expert" rider of sports bikes might not be able to ride a Harley well. This is because Harleys are heavier, longer and lower than most other motorcycles. They also have less steeply inclined front forks and thus slower steering.
Figure 1 – This year 2000 SuperGlide is one of the best handling Harleys. It’s still long and low though.
The combination of all these factors means that even experienced riders of other makes may need some practice before they can become really proficient at riding Harleys. Those of us who like to ride Harleys normally make the effort to tune our riding abilities to suit our choice of motorcycle.
After all, Harley riding is just like any other sport. If you put more effort into practising your skills, then you are likely to get more enjoyment out of your riding. In my case, I definitely found that Harley riding became easier and more enjoyable as I mastered the necessary skills.
So what do you need to be able to do to enjoy a safe ride? Really, everything should be common sense. As I see it, the most important thing for safety is the responsible use of speed. I hope this won't be too difficult for people to take on board. After all, Harleys aren't the fastest bikes around and most people don't buy them with the intention of setting new land speed records.
A safe speed is one that is always appropriate for the local road conditions, including:
- speed limits
- the limits of your forward vision (could you stop safely if you had to?)
- road surface conditions (is there enough grip for braking and cornering?)
- other road users (and what in the world are they up to?)
- weather conditions (might there be black ice around the next bend?)
- potential hazards (junctions, entrances to premises, etc.)
- your current physical and mental state. (is it time for another coffee break yet?)
Figure 2 – with a clear view of the road ahead,
John can safely enjoy the full cornerning performance of the SuperGlide. Ground clearance, what’s that?
As a vulnerable road user, you should always "think safety". It also pays to show courtesy to other road users. Like it or not, whenever you ride your Harley you become an ambassador for all of us.
When riding in traffic, you should always remember the "two second rule" and try to keep at least two seconds behind the vehicle in front. In the wet you should increase this gap to at least four seconds, to allow for increased braking distances.
It also pays to make good use of the gearbox, as this is a great aid to machine control. Too many Harley riders make the mistake of trying to stay in top gear everywhere. They treat their bikes as if they were single speed automatic mopeds. Don't be one of them!
Figure 3 – to get the best out of your Harley, you’ll need to use this properly.
Finally, when you ride, learn to relax and enjoy yourself. If you tense up and grip the handlebars too tightly you will tire easily. You may also have difficulty steering.
As my old friend Andy Downes might have said, "Speed kills - Be safe, ride a Harley!". If you can't chill out and cruise at a nice safe speed on a Harley of all bikes, then perhaps you should not ride on the roads at all.
Excessive or inappropriate speed is one of the most common causes of road traffic accidents. Where there are speed limits, you should remember that they are there as much for your own safety as anyone else's. You ignore them at your peril.
Figure 4 – Always respect speed limits. They are there for everyone’s safety.
If you want to ride safely, you need to avoid a fixation with speed - even if you want to go fast. It is much better to concentrate on the quality of your riding. If you get the latter right, it becomes very easy to go fast and smoothly.
Always remember that your speed should be chosen with due consideration for factors such as forward vision, road surface condition and your physical and mental condition.
The faster you go, the better you need to be at braking. You just never know when you might need to do a real emergency stop.
As I mentioned earlier, Harleys tend to be longer and lower than most other motorcycles. This means that you need to make good use of BOTH the front and rear brakes during normal braking.
Figure 5 – you need to use both of these to get the best braking performance
from your Harley.
These year 2000 discs and 4-pistion calipers are a big improvement on earlier designs.
So when did you last practice your braking skills? If the honest answer is never, or it is some while since you last did, then why not go and practice? Find a quiet, straight and level stretch of road with a good surface and then try:
- using the front brake only
- using the back brake only
- using both brakes together.
Start out at low speeds (20 - 30mph) and gradually increase the amount of braking used. Always apply the braking effort progressively - never slam the brakes on as this makes life harder for the tyres and increases the risk of locking up the wheels. Once you’re confident at low speed, you might want to try stops from higher speeds.
If you practice a lot, you will probably find that it is quite easy to lock up the back wheel. This will not be a problem if you are travelling in a straight line on a perfect surface, but it is best avoided during routine (and emergency) braking.
You may also want to practice "cadence braking" where you pulse the brakes rapidly on and off. This technique is particularly useful as a way of avoiding locking up the front wheel on wet roads. On some of the older Harleys that I've ridden the brake disc and pad materials are particularly prone to "wet lags" - i.e. the brake performance is severely lacking when the brakes are first applied and then suddenly increases when the pads "dry out". This makes it all too easy to lock the front wheel (and then fall off) if you ever need to stop suddenly in the wet. (Yes, I did find this out the hard way.) Later Harleys are less prone to the problem, but it is still worth learning the technique.
Finally, note that excessive amounts of engine braking should not be used as an alternative to using the brakes. After all, it is a lot easier to fit a new set of brake pads than a new set of pistons and rings.
Modern Harleys are fitted with five speed gearboxes. If you want to be kind to your Harley, then you should learn to make good use of the gearbox. With most Harleys you normally should aim to keep the engine speed between 2000rpm and 4500rpm. This will help to improve throttle response and minimise wear and tear on the engine.
Here's my guide to the best use of the various gears:
5th is best used for relaxed cruising or high speed riding on motorways and so on. As a cruising gear, 5th is best used for speeds of 50mph and upwards. Remember also that a lower gear will normally result in faster and safer overtaking manoeuvres.
4th is best used for low speed cruising or making fast progress along interesting country roads. Most European specification Harleys are a bit overgeared in top, as this helps them to get through the very stringent German noise regulations. 4th is also a good gear to use for high speed overtaking manoeuvres, especially if you have plenty of space in which to complete the manoeuvre. Typically, the happy operating range for 4th will cover speeds from 40mph up to about 110mph (if your Harley will go that fast).
3rd is useful for slow urban roads, when you need to travel at around 30mph. It is also a good gear to use for medium sized and larger roundabouts. 3rd is also the best overtaking gear to use on most back roads, when rapid acceleration is often needed. The typical speed range in 3rd varies from 30mph to about 80mph.
2nd is a useful gear for tight corners, smaller roundabouts and crawling in urban traffic. The useful speed range in 2nd covers speeds between 15mph and 60mph.
1st is normally only used for moving off from a standstill, low speed manoeuvres, very tight hairpin bends and crawling in traffic jams. The usual speed range in 1st is for speeds up to 30mph.
As any good armchair motorcyclist will tell you, "Harleys don't go round corners". They probably read it in the motorcycle press, so it must be true.
Figure 6 – roundabouts can be a good place to practice your cornering
Here the road surface is in good condition, so Derek can safely use all of the SuperGlide’s ground clearance.
In reality, the cornering performance of Harleys is normally only limited by their available ground clearance, which is quite low in many cases. But, to get in and out of the turns quickly, you will need to master the following skills:
This is the name given to the technique whereby you start a turn by trying to turn the handlebars "the wrong way". So, to begin a left turn you push on the left handlebar or pull back on the right handlebar, until the bike is leaning over the right amount for the turn. For a right turn, you do the exact opposite, so you push on the right bar or pull on the left.
This is the only steering technique that really works with a bike as heavy as a Harley. Also, because Harleys are big heavy bikes with slow steering, you need to apply more effort to countersteer them than you would need for a lesser motorcycle.
Note that you only need to steer with one arm at any time. Keeping the other arm relaxed can help to avoid panic reactions where you tense up in both arms. Under the latter conditions it is easy to end up by going straight on and thus failing to get around the turn.
You should aim to do any required braking and gear changing before you enter the turn. Then you need to drive the bike through the turn under power, not on a closed throttle. You should apply enough throttle for you to be able to feel the back wheel driving you through the corner.
If you use the front brake while cornering, you make it harder to steer the bike and you also increase the risk of a front wheel skid. If necessary, use the rear brake, e.g. for speed control on downhill curves or to help stabilise the bike during low speed U-turns. (I find that the latter technique helps to remove the temptation to "paddle" round and helps to produce tight "feet up" turns.)
You may also find that low speed turns become easier if you lean the bike over more while keeping your body vertical. This trick allows you to make better use of the tyre profile to help turn the motorcycle.
Most cornering manoeuvres can be broken down into four main stages, as described below.
1 - The Approach.
Look ahead at where the road starts to turn and:
- using your skill and judgement, select your entry (peel off) point, where you will start to turn the motorcycle
- choose an appropriate entry speed and gear for the turn
- set your road position for the turn entry. Try to position yourself for a good view around the turn, but avoid poor road surfaces if necessary.
- look around the turn to see what you can see of the road ahead.
2 - The Entry.
When you reach your planned entry point (and not before), countersteer the bike into the turn. When the bike has leaned over enough, you should be able to revert to your normal relaxed grip on the handlebars.
3 - Drive Round the Corner.
For a constant radius turn, maintain a steady speed and lean angle until you can see the exit of the turn. Your speed should be chosen so that you can always stop safely in the distance that you can see to be clear. The point from where you begin to exit the turn is known as the apex of the turn.
4 - The Exit.
After reaching the apex, you can begin to steer the bike out of the turn. As you reduce the lean angle, you can begin to accelerate out of the turn. Alternatively, if you're in the middle of a series of bends, you will want to start setting the bike up to enter the next bend.
Figure 7 – with the SuperGlide positioned for a good view around the corner, safe and rapid progress can be made.
This section considers the topic of cornering from a more technical viewpoint. This should be of interest for anyone wanting a better understanding of the processes involved when riding a motorcycle around corners.
In a corner, a motorcycle is constantly changing its direction. From a physics viewpoint, this means that it is accelerating, even if its speed is constant. Thus a cornering force needs to be supplied to produce the acceleration.
For a constant speed turn, the cornering force will need to act radially towards the centre of the curve. This causes the bike to continually change direction without altering its speed. In practice, we already know how to supply this force. It is generated by leaning the bike into the turn.
Leaning the bike overloads the suspension by forcing it to work at an angle. The total suspension force then has vertical and horizontal components, where the vertical component is always just enough to support the weight of the bike. The horizontal component provides the cornering force.
Figure 8 – leaning the bike over generates the forces needed to make the bike turn the corner.
Increasing the lean angle increases the horizontal force. So the bike turns more rapidly. At the road surface, however, the sideways grip of the tyres must be good enough to support the cornering force. If it isn't, the bike will skid.
To help the tyres to grip, it is important not to overload them with braking or acceleration forces while cornering. A front wheel skid will cause the motorcycle to run wide in the turn, often with disastrous results. On the other hand, a mild rear wheel skid will cause the back end of the motorcycle to step out, increasing the rate of the turn. This makes it much easier to safely control rear wheel skids.
Thus it is best to avoid front wheel skids while cornering. The normal way to do this is to not use the front brake and to keep the throttle open enough so that the bike is either gently accelerating, or at the least just maintaining a constant speed. Then if any wheel skids, it will be the back, which can actually help the process of cornering.
This should explain why the best way to tackle corners is to crack the throttle open once the bike has been leant into the turn. If you do this, you can relax your grip on the handlebars and drive through the turn "on the back wheel". It is also good practice to maintain a steady throttle opening as you go around the corner. This helps the already overloaded suspension to do its best to cope with any bumps that may be encountered on the road surface.
Overtaking is one of the most hazardous manoeuvres possible. You need to be constantly aware of the risks involved. When in doubt - chicken out. Wait for a better opportunity.
You will also need to be decisive in planning your overtake. First, you need to be really sure that it will be safe to execute the manoeuvre. This means that you need to look out for oncoming traffic, faster following traffic and local road hazards. Where appropriate, you should give a signal before an overtaking manoeuvre - but remember that the act of signalling does not give you right of way and cannot make an unsafe overtake safe. Finally, you need to be in the right gear for the manoeuvre. Choose a low enough gear to give good acceleration, but try to avoid having to change up in mid-overtake.
Figure 9 – with the SuperGlide closing rapidly on the car, Derek will already be starting to plan his overtake.
The above text has reviewed the basic areas of machine control that must be mastered before a reasonable standard of riding proficiency can be achieved. All this article can do however is to point the way - there is no real substitute for training and experience. Many good riders treat every ride as a opportunity to practise and develop their skills. To do this you need to be able to learn from all of your riding experiences - both good and bad.
During the research for this article, I tried to read as many books as possible on the subject of motorcycle riding. From these, I've already mentioned HMSO's 'Motorcycle Roadcraft'. This is probably the best general manual available, so it is well worth getting a copy and studying it. The IAM book 'Pass Your Advanced Motorcycle Test' is also full of good advice.
For more detail on machine control skills, I found Keith Code's "A Twist of the Wrist" (two volumes and a video) to be a worthwhile investment. Keith Code runs the California Superbike School and trains world champion racers. Some of his material is intended for race use only, but much of it is equally applicable to riding both on the street and on the racetrack. There's even a token Harley - an FXRS LowRider Sport in some of the video footage.
For the ultimate in training, you'll need to find a good instructor. The least expensive option is to join your local IAM group as an Associate. They'll then assign you to an Observer who will give you free training to prepare you for the IAM test. The IAM training is based on the methods in Motorcycle Roadcraft and their examiners are all professionally trained police motorcyclists.
If you have a bit more money to spend, then there are a number of professional instructors around the country who will be happy to provide advanced instruction. Many of these will be ex-police riders and should be able to tailor a course to suit your individual needs. Harley-Davidson UK also now sponsor the Riders Edge school at Builth Wells in Wales (near Talgarth). Riders Edge run a whole range of courses and can be contacted on 01982 551331.
The author would like to thank John Davies, who is a professional instructor (and HDRCGB member), for his help with this article. Not only did John check over the draft text, but he also helped out with the photography. Thanks are also due to Motex of Worcester for the loan of their SuperGlide for the photo session.
Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this text, neither the author nor the HDRCGB will accept any liability arising from the use or misuse of this material.
This version dated 21 May 2000 was published in ‘HarleyQuin’, The magazine of The Harley-Davidson Riders Club of Great Britain,
and is published on the web for the benefit of riders worldwide
by kind permission of the author.