May 11, 2015

#108 Why Stop?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

I've written before about the newbie claim "I'm good as long as I'm moving," but this is a different take on changing momentum. Holding on to momentum is not a "skill." The fact that you're able to continue wandering in a generally forward direction is less about your ability and more about Newton's Laws of Motion. When you jump off of a cliff, you're "ok" as long as you're falling. It's when you stop that you discover Newton's second law also applies as your mass and acceleration result in forces that rearrange your body parts.

Stopping quickly and safely is a basic motorcycling tool. Everyone needs to know how to do it and the only way to perfect any physical skill is practice. You can read books, listen to riding coaches preach technique, and sit in your garage squeezing controls until your tires rot off and you won't be better at stopping until you do the real thing. The best time to practice an emergency skill is in a safe, low stress, non-emergency environment. By that, I mean you should be practicing your braking technique every time you need to slow down or stop. By "every time," I mean every time. Every opportunity you have to decelerate, you should be working on your technique so that it is automatic when the cell-phone-yakking, coffee-sucking, self-absorbed bozo in a 4,000 pound SUV sails through a stop light and obscures the sun with his rolling mobile home. One of the great advantages of learning to ride the old fashioned way, off-road and on little (250cc and under) motorcycles, is that learning to use both brakes in a variety of situations is less threatening. When all conditions are less-than-ideal, you get used to sliding tires and shifting center-of-gravity when your brake application is imperfect. Dropping a hippobike on asphalt is almost always a catastrophe of some sort. Dumping a 225 pound dirt bike in gravel or grass is often just funny.

Late last season, I took my street-tire attired WR250X out for a trail ride with a friend. On the gravel roads, in deep sand, and through the muddy sections, I spent a lot of time sideways, but stayed upright and did ok with the throttle and brakes. On a couple of soaked clay sections, those street tires let me down and breathing on the brakes or bailing from the throttle resulted in an unceremonious, but comedic, dip in some pretty sloppy mud puddles. My Aerostich needed washing and my friend needed entertaining, so it was all good. By the end of the ride, my braking and throttle technique was a lot smoother and when we hit the gravel road back to the truck I was a lot more confident in my skills.

Move that experience on to my 470 pound V-Strom and the chances are that I wouldn't have been laughing when I ended up under the bike in a foot of mud. Move that experience to the street and put me on something like the Honda VT1300CX I tested a while back and there might not be enough protective equipment in the world to keep me whole.

One of my biggest complaints about hippobikes and cruisers is that they are not designed for emergency maneuvers. I know there are riders who can haul a Harley or a Goldwing down to full stop in incredibly short distances, but most riders are afraid of their brakes and couldn't swerve around a 747 on a full runway at LAX. I spent an afternoon working on the MSF braking exercises, while I had the VT1300 Honda and I never hauled that monster down quickly enough to feel good about my personal safety in heavy traffic. I can stand my WR on its nose and approach the maximum G-force my arms can support on the V-Strom without feeling out-of-control. I'm not saying I'm a great rider and those big bikes are beyond anyone's capability. I am confident that I'm a better rider than anyone who comes out of one of my MSF beginner classes and I'm not worried about putting my skills against the majority of riders who take the Experienced Rider Course. Many of those people are going to hop on to bikes I am uncomfortable around and I know they are hoping that Newton keeps them vertical and that exhaust noise and the kindness of strangers keeps them safe.

So, what do you do if your faith in luck and momentum is realistic? First, buy a motorcycle that fits your skills and ability. If you're an inexperienced rider, that won't be an R1, a Fatboy, a Goldwing, or a customized piece of garage candy. You don't need big power, nothing you can do will make you look cool if you aren't cool already, and the more mass the more force required to rapidly decelerate. Go small and go light and put your body in a riding position not a rolling Lazy Boy.

"Standards" often fit the bill in all of their available sizes, from 125 to 650cc. The standard riding position is familiar to anyone who has sat on a mountain bike. The weight distribution is rational and functional. The upright riding position provides a slight advantage in visibility, too. You can see over most cages and most cagers will see you, too. Since your feet are under you, strong deceleration doesn't feel like you are being launched over the bars or sliding over the tank and that gives you confidence to put more power into stopping.

The MSF Basic and ERC classes shoot for a 20' or less stopping distance with an entrance speed of about 15mph. (20feet/second). I think that's a worthwhile goal. If your stopping distance is in that territory, you are riding a motorcycle that you might be able to stop in an emergency. If you can't squeeze your braking into that space, when your speed gets up to highway velocity you're going to be counting on magic for your survival.

MMM May 2012


  1. I am always practicing my quick stops, usually out on a deserted country road, reining in my 550 lb. Tiger from 60 mph. Or I'll sign up for a instructional braking clinic. I'll also stay after class and run my bike around the range to practice.
    Students and new riders are always eager to get going, but rarely stop and think.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. "I'm ok as long as I'm moving" is pretty much what someone says when they fall out of an airplane.

    Getting stopped safely is a critical skill.


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