Jeff Allen

Cars Can Make Us Better Riders, Here’s How

Your winter of riding improvement is waiting in the garage

Winter hit southern Colorado early and hard this week. Rain, then snow and overnight temperatures of 16 degrees so far, and it’s only early October! What makes this slightly humorous: When this is published on Tuesday, October 16, 2018, I will be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains trying to ride my new bike back to Colorado from Las Vegas via Salt Lake City. More details next week, if I make it.

But this week’s article has nothing to do with my upcoming ride, but more with a plan that will help all riders not just deal with winter weather but emerge this spring as a better rider. Let’s take our “four-wheeled practice motorcycle,” often called a car, truck, van, or bus, and the next few months of winter to become better riders.

Steering Wheel Angle Is Lean Angle

Once you relate a car’s steering-wheel angle to a bike’s lean angle, your four-wheeled practice motorcycle starts to make a lot of sense. Riders must be smoother and lighter with brakes and throttle when we have a bunch of lean angle, and the same is true for cars with steering-wheel angle. All the smoothness you need on two wheels can be practiced on four. I have a few friends who are championship-winning car racers and what they can do with the throttle and brakes when the car is heavily loaded with steering is due to their amazingly light touch on the pedals.

Focus Practice

Many of us drive our four-wheelers with significantly less forethought, focus, and deliberation than we bring to our bike riding, so practice bringing your mental focus up every time you get in your car or truck. This practice will put you in the motorsports groove of being in the moment before you turn the key. This will probably make every drive better but will certainly make every ride safer. What you’re doing is training yourself to increase focus to match increasing risk.

YCRS sticker
This YCRS sticker on the door bar of my track car’s roll cage is my reminder to be as focused on four wheels as I am on two. Everything that happens behind the steering wheel is directly relatable to bikes, as evidenced by so many bike champions who jump in cars and do well right away. Use this low-risk environment to practice your riding on every drive.Nick Ienatsch

Winter weather often brings cold temperatures, rain, and snow which reduce the traction of all vehicles. Cars provide a relatively risk-free platform to lose and gain grip when compared to a streetbike, but more importantly you can realize not just brake and throttle pressures break traction at certain steering-wheel angles, but the rate of how that pressure is added. Stabbing the brakes or throttle versus gently adding pressure; tossing the steering wheel versus guiding the truck into the corner. You know how much that hurts us on motorcycles and you can fine-tune your movements to the available winter grip.

Throttle Versus Steering-Wheel Angle

You are already accelerating off corners, adding throttle percentage as you unwind the steering wheel, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it too much. The best riders carefully match throttle additions as they subtract lean angle, so you can play with this in your car. Get your brain on squeezing the throttle down as you unwind the wheel; focus intensely on your foot movement and your driving-wheels’ grip. When spring comes, you will transfer this focus to your right hand and rear tire automatically.

Chris Peris
At a recent Champ school Chris Peris’ left hand is showing lean angle, his right brake pressure, but he is also describing steering-wheel angle with his left hand. Four months before this shot, a group of car racers met at Inde Motorsports Ranch to document a driver’s vital signs while lapping. At the last minute they invited Chris to participate in the tests; he set the fastest time. No, not because he’s raced cars or even attended a car school, but because he applies championship-winning riding techniques to four wheels. An interesting side note: In the last 12 months we’ve had three car racers and one kart racer attend YCRS, not for their bike riding skills but to increase their in-car skills. At the pointy end it’s all the same, but bikes punish mistakes harshly and demand more focus and finer skills at the edge.fortheriders.com

Trail-Braking Practice

Practicing trail-braking (trailing off brake pressure as you add lean angle/steering wheel angle…or trailing brake pressure into the corner) is worth the price of your car! If you stand on a corner and watch drivers trail-brake their four-wheelers into corners, as I have, you will quickly see that everybody automatically leaves the brakes on past the turn-in point to better control their entry speed. But very few of them think about it and even fewer realize they are not just controlling their entry speed, but the steering geometry and front-tire contact patches.

This is the main point of four-wheel practicing: the realization of the driver’s effect on loading springs and tires, and the unloading of those components. A car usually has less suspension travel than a bike, but our focused practice of how we add and remove brake and throttle, and how quickly or slowly we add steering-wheel angle, will fine-tune us to feel even minor suspension movements.

The beautiful thing about car practice is that we can usually overdo it with little painful effect. We can snap on the brakes and feel the car overreact as the springs bottom. We can jump off the brakes and feel the suspension unload and the handling fall apart. We can feel the car stay planted as we linearly steer it and fall apart as we flick it. And this learning is all possible because we now drive our cars as practice for our motorcycles.

Be Like The Champions

There’s a commonality that motorcycle roadracing champions share, and that is their ability to be instantly fast even though they haven’t ridden lately. I began noticing it when I worked for Freddie Spencer and saw it in Eddie Lawson and Scott Russell, among others.

Initially I felt it was inherent skills I would never have, something inborn that set them apart. That could be true and in some ways I think it is, but now I realize why they were always quick whenever they touched a motorcycle: The rest of their lives were practice for our very risky sport. Away from the roadracing track they drove cars, rode dirt bikes, drove golf carts…and did it with the focus on maintaining and improving their on-bike success.

Your four-wheeler is now your practice motorcycle. Drive it with the intention to constantly improve your riding, to increase your focus and motor skills in a relatively low-risk environment so they are scalpel sharp when you need them—on your track- or streetbike.

More next Tuesday!