Do You Struggle Going Slow On A Motorcycle?

When it comes to a 5-mph U-turn, all humans are not created equal

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Contributing Editor Peter Jones shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

Are there two types of balance for humans? One concerning how a human balances itself and the other concerning a human balancing itself on something else? I’m guessing there is because I’ve come to the conclusion, regarding the second type of balance, that we are not all created equal.

Concerning balancing my own body on my own feet, I generally have no problem walking, even on uneven surfaces. In fact, I can walk and chew that proverbial gum at the same time. Sure, I might bite my cheek, but I won’t bruise my knees.

Although I’ve ridden motorcycles for years, nay, for decades, I’m still a low-speed buffoon. I just can’t shake it. Bed wetters likely know exactly how I feel, living with this personal curse. The shame, oh, the shame.

As you can guess, I suck at doing wheelies. I took the short-lived Keith Code wheelie school years ago, and I sucked. Had we been graded, I’d say I clearly failed: F+. The + is for trying. But I also hadn’t actually enjoyed myself.

I have dropped a $100,000 motorcycle while doing a U-turn. Minutes later I set a 200-mph land-speed record on it.

I took a four-day civilian riding class at the Midwest Police Motorcycle Training school (MPMT) in Troy, Michigan. It's one of those schools that trains you how to ride a Harley-Davidson at low speeds through tight turns and narrow, twisting courses. Conceptually it sounds pretty easy, but my skills have never been more thoroughly tested and put more into question than at this school. This school did grade its students. I did fail.

Were I unable to comfortably and confidently ride a motorcycle at higher speeds—speeds in which a motorcycle’s geometry and spinning masses establish the vehicle as having motorcycle dynamics—I’d have given up riding. Bottom line: At speed a motorcycle requires no further skill of balance than does sitting in a chair. At low speed, it’s like a windy day on the edge of a precipice. Standing on one leg.

I've never come close to failing a racetrack-based school, and I have enjoyed every one of them immensely. While attend­ing the school Freddie Spencer hosted at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, I found it giggly fun to glance down at the speedometer, my knee strafing the pavement, just before hitting the transition onto the front straight's banking. I did a Penguin school with guest instructors Randy Renfrow and Dale Quarterley. Hey, I also roadraced, and rarely did anyone ever point at me and laugh while I did that.

Going back to that MPMT school for a moment, I botched the part of it that had to do with low speed, but on the final day we were required to ride at a “high” speed up toward an instructor, who would suddenly signal when we could brake and then enter a tight course. I loved that exercise. I had both tires chirping, modulating the brake. I was warned that I was braking too hard. I laughed. As far as I was concerned, I was braking comfortably and reading the feedback. I was chill. Doing U-turns, I was hating life.

These experiences have shown me that there is a grand difference between the sweet comfort of a 140-mph sweeper and the hell of a 5-mph U-turn. The skill sets for each have nothing to do with the other. I know how to intellectually deal with the risk of high speeds and how to read the feel and feedback, though it does fade at times of little practice. On the other hand, I’m inept at balancing things that are not me.

The fastest I saw just before hitting the banking in Vegas was 114 mph. Knee puck on the pavement. And I’m a parking-lot disaster.