Contrary to popular belief the slow riding part of the IAM test is not an exercise in sadism. There are even rumours of riders who enjoy it!The real purpose of the slow riding part of the IAM test is to isolate a very specific point of motorcycle control. If you had a wobble at a junction during the test, how could the examiner tell whether it was due to poor control or poor planning? Doing some tight circles at walking pace in the car park in absence of any traffic will answer that question.
The ability to do a controlled tight circle will serve you well beyond your test. Each time you filter in traffic, you need to move at slow speed in tight places with traffic and other hazards surrounding you. The ability to keep the bike in full control is vital. Furthermore you want to be extremely alert to what is going on around you; you will not be if you are worried about balancing your bike or struggling to hit the brakes. The same is true each time you approach a junction, especially in town. You will need to slow down and assess the hazards around to determine the safest course of action. If your mind is busy thinking about the bike then you are in serious danger of missing a potential hazard. Slow speed riding must become second nature to you; you must be entirely comfortable with it and devote all of your attention to the road.
Imagine you are approaching a set of red lights. You slow down to stop. Just as you reach a standstill the lights turn. Are you always in a position to go, having surveyed the junction and established it was safe, having selected the correct gear and the bike perfectly stable and poised for action? Or do you sometimes find that by the time you have stopped you have not had time to look around, perhaps you are still in second gear, or struggling to catch the bike as it is off balance? If you fall in the second category, then you most definitely need to work on your slow riding.
A Japanese sport bike weighs roughly 170kg dry weight, close to 200kg with a full tank and a few bits and pieces, roughly 450 lbs. Touring bikes can weigh over 300kg. So do you need to be a body builder to ride a bike? You do not carry your bike around on your back! Well at any rate, advanced riders do not. It requires remarkably little strength to keep the bike balanced; they are specifically designed for that. You should never have to contend with more than a fraction of the weight of the bike.
Build it up. Oddly enough the first thing to do does not require the engine to be turned on! You should first learn the distribution of weight of your bike. Get used to how it feels. A good start is to learn getting the bike on and off its centre stand, provided it has one of course. Then learn to wheel your bike around, forwards and backwards. Push it round in a circle. If you are particularly uncomfortable doing this, get a friend to help you. Don’t stare at the ground while you’re pushing the bike, keep your head up checking around you for hazards and you’ll find this helps you to balance the bike. ‘Looking where you want the bike to go’ still applies even when you’re pushing! This might sound irrelevant to riding, but if you do not feel comfortable wheeling your bike around you are unlikely to feel happy filtering traffic at 3mph. Once you build up confidence in the bike’s balance and yourself, you will feel far more at ease at low speed, safe in the knowledge that you can steady the bike and stop it from falling over.
With the correct technique, you can easily pick up a dropped bike. The point being that you never lift the bike clean off the ground, only move its centre of gravity up a little; the wheels touch the ground and bear most of the weight for you. Learning to pick a bike up is a great confidence booster; it illustrates perfectly how riding is all about technique, not strength. Besides, knowing how to get out of trouble makes you less likely to land in it in the first place. But do not try this without supervision: with the wrong technique you could easily injure yourself, not to mention damage the bike.
Now that you feel more comfortable around your bike, time to get on it but do not turn the ignition key just yet. The first thing you must do is relax. If you are tense you will not feel the small shifts in balance, you will not react quickly, and you are unlikely to control the bike well. On the day of the test, look around you, take visual markers, decide where you are going to do tight circles and how you will go about it. Do not rush into things; this is slow riding not the fastest full lock circle competition!
One of the most important aspects of controlling a bike at slow speed is how you sit on it. You must sit comfortably in the saddle. Relax your grip on the handlebars, gripping like a vice will make your arms and shoulders tense up. Imagine you’re holding your pet hamster! Take a pen and paper and try writing a full sentence across the sheet with a totally straight arm; this will be unnatural and difficult. Riding a bike is just the same, your arms need to be slightly bent and relaxed to allow you to move the handlebars easily. You should grip the tank firmly with your knees, this will allow you to shift input weight easily and feel the bike’s response more clearly. The balls of your feet need to rest on the foot pegs, your right foot ready to cover the rear brake. Look up as in every aspect of riding vision is key and you must keep your vision up. If you look down while doing a U-turn you will unconsciously shift your weight on the bike towards your focus point, which will destabilise you and force you to put your foot down. Put simply, you go where you look. Ever heard that one before?
Remember that our peripheral vision works very well downwards, not upwards. Try putting your lid on the ground, stepping back a yard or so, looking straight ahead of you. You will still be able to notice what surrounds you, including your lid on the ground. Now stare at your lid, you will not be able to see much beyond it. In other words looking up you will still be able to see potential hazards on the ground, looking down you will not see anything more than a few feet away.
We have two built in mechanisms to balance ourselves. One is in the inner ear and detects changes in acceleration, the other is sight. Try standing on one foot with your eyes closed, this illustrates sight is by far the most important of the two.
Your brain uses your eyes to determine if you are level with the horizon. The further away you look the smaller the change in your position is required to tell your brain that you are moving out of the vertical. This means that the further away you look, the faster you will detect a shift in balance and act on it. Out of the car park let us remember the whole aim of this is not pleasing an examiner, but learning to control the bike at slow speed easily so that you may focus on the important thing, you, not at your front mud guard! You will find that most bikes will not plod along at 3mph with the clutch fully out and on the engine on tick over, it will be faster than walking pace and you need to have better control. So you need to have the engine revs around 2000 – 3000 rpm, (it’s only a guide so don’t fixate on it) clutch slightly pulled in, near the biting point. You will also need to use your rear brake to pace things whilst keeping the engine revving and clutch engaged. Imagine a string held loosely at both ends it dangles about, but add some tension by pulling both sides and it is nice and taut.
So why rear and not front brake? At walking pace you do not need a huge amount of stopping power. Pulling the clutch in and hitting rear brake will stop you quite nicely. So there is no need to use the front brake. The use of front brake shifts the centre of gravity of the bike forward, producing the well-known fork dive. This does not help stability. Obviously in case of an emergency, use the front brake as it has most of the stopping power on the bike. But with careful planning this should not be required most of the time.
So where and when can you practice slow riding? The obvious place to go is a Machine Control Day. They are run regularly and you will pick up lots of tips and polish your skills in a safe and controlled environment. You might also do other exercises such as the braking lane, counter-steering drill or the all-important tea drinking and biscuit munching while chatting to fellow bikers drill. Another obvious place for you to practise in is any empty or quiet car park you can find. Just pop in and do a few circles for fun.
Do not do this in busy traffic, but if you are coming up to a set of red lights with no one behind you, simply slow down as much as you can and aim not to put your foot down while waiting for the lights to turn. It sounds silly but gets addictive very quickly. Get on with it! Slow riding skills are essential to tackle junctions, town riding, U-turns and other slow manoeuvres. Typically when you have to perform those you are surrounded by many hazards. It is vital that you are able to focus on them rather than struggle to keep the bike upright. For slow riding to become second nature, you need to be relaxed, know your machine and feel confident handling it, sit comfortably on your bike, keep your vision up and apply smooth clutch, throttle and rear brake control. It really is not that hard. It can be fun. But it does require practice, lots of it. So, see you at the next MCD?
In case we haven’t already mentioned it …. PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!!
LAM Training Team
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