Common Tread

Brake break by the lake: A coaching lesson goes wrong

May 23, 2017

“No brakes! No brakes!” I scream, bracing for the worst and hoping I can avoid launching my motorcycle into the lake.

I am running out of pavement fast, headed down the boat ramp aboard my Kawasaki Ninja 650R. What seemed at first like a rather ingenious attempt to help me break a bad habit wasn't turning out the way either of us expected when my impromptu coach removed my front brake lever — and then my rear brake failed me, too.

Bill Dragoo and Teri Conrad
We can laugh about it now. Photo by David Bell.

Although I’ve been riding for years, I seem to have a mental block not only against using the rear brake, but also against making left hand U-turns. Halfway into the turn, I tend to get myself into a pickle. I freeze up, then pull in the clutch and grab the front brake lever, balling up traffic at times.

Even when doing figure eights, when I would get to the part where I was supposed to turn left, I would freeze up and drop the bike in the same spot repeatedly. However, when I reverse direction, the right turns were no problem. It baffles me. Perhaps, my brain is miswired. I don't know. Easy things prove difficult at times, and the difficult often seems easy. Left turns are not one of my easy things. My version of a U-turn ends up looking like the three-point turn I learned in driver’s education class at the helm of my Volkswagen Bug.

The experts say that when making a U-turn it helps to try incorporating a dip, then snap your head and eyes as far into the turn as you can, so you're looking over your shoulder, while keeping the clutch in the friction zone and dragging the rear brake. Sounds easy enough, right? The challenge is putting these skills to practice. Instead, I keep getting stuck by looking only halfway through the turn and then using my front brake to stop, then sort it all out. It’s frustrating.

I met my coach, Bill Dragoo, on a weeklong tour through Arkansas. We were with two other journalists, our bikes fully loaded with gear, out enjoying the twisties, taking photos and reveling in the motorcycle-friendly communities of The Natural State. There couldn't have been a more beautiful backdrop for a ride.

After watching me struggle on the narrow two-lanes while setting up for several photo shoots, Bill offered to give me a quick lesson on U-turns. Of course, I accepted. Bill is an avid adventure rider and experienced coach, and he seemed to understand my frustration. Since we had some free time I figured "Why not?" So we pulled into a parking lot near the boat launch at Cove Lake and found a nice shady area to do a series of exercises designed to help me get over my left turn phobia.

Bill Dragoo and Teri Conrad
Bill Dragoo explains how I am to navigate the circuit during an impromptu coaching lesson before providing a demonstration, while fellow rider James Pratt looks on. Photo by David Bell.

Bill set up a practice area lined with pine cones for me to work on weaving from left to right, then make a U-turn and repeat. At one end was the open parking lot, which I made full use of to turn around and ride through the cones again, and at the other end was a small cul-de-sac area next to the boat launch, which served as my left turn spot. He also made a quick “adjustment” to my bike by removing the brake lever to ensure I wouldn’t grab it in the turns. Still, even knowing it was gone, at first I would reach for it, but less and less each time. I repeated the circuit several times until it began to get easier and my instinct to grab the front brake disappeared altogether.

Bear in mind, the Ninja is light and easy to flick in the corners, but the cone exercise can be challenging at slow speeds. We must have been at this for awhile when the rear brake began to feel spongy. Neither of us anticipated what happened next. I was making my way back through the cones heading towards the lake when I realized my rear brake was completely gone.

Now, here I am, heading for the lake with no way to stop. I try again but nothing, not even a little bit of stopping power. Panic takes over and I blow past the cones, dragging my feet in a last-ditch effort to shut the bike down, frantically looking for some way to escape. Rolling past Bill, I skim past a metal trash bin and catch the front corner of a sidewalk bridge over the drainage ditch, slowing the bike and me enough to regain control. With water dead ahead, my only choice is to either turn now or ride on into the lake. I make a hard left turn, narrowly missing the boat launch, and coast to a stop a few feet later, stunned but dry.

Inspecting the Ninja 650
We inspect my motorcycle for damage after the near miss. Apparently, the repeated use of the rear brake during the drill caused it to overheat and fail. Photo by David Bell.

I catch my breath and my heart rate finally returns to some semblance of normal. My front rim suffered a small dent but I am unharmed. My riding mates congratulate me on my successful left turn and recovery, but the only thing I can think is that I just narrowly avoided an impromptu baptism of my Ninja.

It is evident that Bill feels awful about the whole thing. This certainly wasn't the intended outcome. Thankfully, it ended well. Without a front brake lever, I was forced to rely on my new skills to make that U-turn. It worked, but it was a close call.

As is often said just before we witness something that should not be happening, do not try this at home.