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Common Tread

Dusting off the cobwebs: Simple drills for sharper skills after a winter layoff

May 15, 2014

It was a long and bitter winter here on the east coast and only recently was I able to pull my Suzuki SV650 out of hibernation. And what a busy hibernation it was!

The entire front end was disassembled, and spent just about two months in bits and pieces while the forks were rebuilt with new internals from a GSX-R600. I now have a new chain, a new shock setup, a new throttle tube, and upgraded brake pads. It is safe to say that I now have a lot of new things to get used to.

The biggest stumbling block, though, is mental, and I see this year after year, without fail. Like any physical activity, riding a motorcycle proficiently takes plenty of practice, and winter for many motorcyclists is a time when we cannot (or choose not to) maintain our skills.

On my first long ride after the winter, I always find myself making a surprising amount of basic mistakes. My throttle inputs are choppy, I am not smooth on the brakes, my upshifts are not as quick as they used to be, and my downshifts lack a smooth throttle blip. This list goes on, but these mistakes become less frequent as the miles pile on and I rebuild lost muscle memory.

But there are a fews things you can do to avoid some of these mistakes in the first place, or at least speed up the process of dusting off the cobwebs.

Practicing low-speed turns helps work on throttle and clutch smoothness. Always look through the turns. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Before you run the gauntlet of the urban jungle or attack your favorite canyon, spend a lovely Sunday afternoon on an empty parking lot going over the basics you practiced on the first day of your Basic RiderCourse. Remember all those clutch control, controlled stopping, and low-speed maneuvering drills? Go through as many as you remember over a few hours (make sure to hydrate!) and you will be surprised at how confident you feel the next day.

An empty parking lot is a good place for practice. Use the lines to measure braking distance. Photo by Lance Oliver.
My favorite thing to do is to grab my dad and a few friends and find an empty parking lot that has clearly marked spaces. Most parking lots have 10-foot-wide spots so the lines make great reference points for applying the brakes and measuring our stopping distances. They are also useful for practicing low speed U-turns and lane changes.

The next thing I like to do is go for a moderate-speed ride along some familiar back roads. I pick a few roads that offer the most variation in corner type combined with the least traffic. I go up and down these roads to make sure there is no gravel hiding in blind spots, and then I focus on a few corners and repeat them a few times in each direction. Things to work on here include finding the correct turn-in point, rev-matching downshifts, and executing a smooth roll-on of the throttle. Usually after a weekend or two of doing this, my confidence is back to pre-winter levels.

That is all there really is to it. Regaining lost muscle memory is a straightforward process as long as you give it some time. A Sunday afternoon in a parking lot may not sound like the most exciting motorcycle ride, but it does yield results. Put some time and effort into retraining your body to ride before you demand full-throttle performance from yourself and you’ll be more likely to have a fun and safe riding season.