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Common Tread

Riding the SkidBike: Lessons from a motorcycle you can't crash

Aug 12, 2019

After refining a safe, low-speed means of replicating skids in cars, SkidCar took on a harder challenge: motorcycles.

SkidCar got its start in Sweden. Since that country extends above the Arctic Circle, and is home to the only round of the World Rally Championship held entirely on snow, you might guess that Swedes have a strong interest in traction — or the lack of it!

Curt Cedergrens
Curt Cedergrens is an engineer based on the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland. He’s been developing the SkidCar for decades, but has only been working on the SkidBike for the last few years. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
An inventor on the Swedish island of Gotland first had the idea adding four large casters to the corners of a car in the early 1980s. The idea was acquired by Cedergrens, an engineering and specialty fabrication firm, which moved research and development to the Swedish police driving academy, in Stockholm.

Basically, the idea is that the casters can be adjusted to take most of a car’s weight, reducing the amount of traction at the tires. Driving a SkidCar at normal speeds on bare asphalt allows you to simulate the loss of traction you’d experience in rain, or on snow or ice — or the loss of traction you’d experience if you exceeded the limits of adhesion on asphalt at much higher speed. It’s a safe way to teach drivers how to regain control in a skid.

Dane Pittaresi, a race car driver and race school operator based in Portland, acquired the U.S. rights to SkidCar in 1990. Police departments were obvious potential customers, since cops are expected to drive in all conditions, and sometimes engage in high-speed pursuits; the famed Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving was also an early adopter. Over the last 30 years, Dane’s sold literally hundreds of SkidCar rigs to police departments, race schools, and driving schools. Cedergrens has also developed heavy duty skid truck rigs that are used by fire departments and military clients. The system is highly regarded in the four-wheel world.

Dane Pittaresi
Dane Pittaresi has been a race car driver and race school owner, and is the U.S. distributor for SkidCar and SkidBike. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Last fall, I ran into Pittaresi and Skidcar company owner Curt Cedergrens at the AIMExpo in Las Vegas. They’re both also motorcyclists, and knew that most street riders hate losing traction even more than car drivers do, especially at the front!

“We had many police departments who wanted something [similar to SkidCar] for motorcycles, and we thought it was impossible,” Cedergrens told me. “But one day, Dane and I were up in Sweden driving on ice and having a little fun, and a solution occurred to me that would allow us to reduce grip at the front. We tested it on a bicycle, and it was scary! That’s when I realized I needed the wings. Then we brought that prototype to America, but all our customers wanted to lift the rear end, too."

Cedergrens brought a SkidBike-equipped Honda CRF250L to the Vegas show. I sat on it in their booth and let it topple onto one of the outriggers. An uncrashable motorcycle? I was immediately curious to try it out.

Luckily for me, one of the first SkidBikes to be put into service is based an hour from Kansas City, at the Missouri Safety Center Training Complex in Warrensburg, Missouri. It’s in care of Ray Pierce, an expat Oregonian who recently moved to Missouri to manage my adopted state’s motorcycle training program. The SkidBike I rode was a modified KTM 1190 Adventure, very similar to the 1290 Adventure S that my wife and I rode around Sicily last summer. The KTM has lean-angle-sensitive ABS and traction control and is a bike that can seem alarmingly big, tall, and heavy at slow speeds but which proved reassuringly competent on everything from wet asphalt and cobblestones to gravel, standing water and mud in Sicily.

Building a SkidBike

Compared to a SkidCar, there are three huge additional challenges in devising a SkidBike. The first is that while a SkidCar needs only one rigid rectangular subframe, the motorcycle version needs independent carriages on each wheel. The second challenge is that both motorcycle wheels must be able to lean left and right, so both carriages include ultra-strong gimbals. The third challenge is that, for safety’s sake, the whole motorcycle must be prevented from tipping over. That’s handled by a central subframe with outriggers.

front of SkidBike
This front carriage is essentially a massive gimbal that tracks with the front wheel. Cedergrens’ clients were initially looking for a device to simulate front-end slides, and his first prototype, fitted to a bicycle, didn’t even include the outriggers. “It was scary,” he admitted. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

As with the cars, the SkidBike has adjustable lifters to transfer weight from the tires to casters. Each carriage has three casters, and there are two additional casters on the outriggers.

The amount of downforce at the tire contact patch is completely adjustable, depending on the road and grip conditions you want to simulate. If most of the weight is on the tires, the motorcycle handles quasi-normally. If most of the weight is on the casters, the experience is similar to riding a street bike on a frozen lake in Sweden.

Last but not least, the SkidBike system includes a remote control, so an experienced operator can adjust grip levels on the fly. The remote also has a kill switch, because while the outriggers make it nearly impossible to drop the bike, a rider can still lose control of it, or even be flung clear off it under rare circumstances. The remote operator, standing out on the practice range, can kill the motor if he sees anything like that happen.

rear of SkidBike
I view of the rear carriage. That thing that looks like a shock absorber, mounted behind the rear wheel, is a mechanical jack that transfers weight from the tire contact patch, to the rear carriage. The more weight you take off the tire, the less grip is available to the rider. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

You can operate the SkidBike with either of the wheel platforms independently. (In fact, Curt Cedergrens built the first one, in 2013, to simulate front end slides; that bike had a front carriage and the safety wings, but no rear carriage at all.)

briefing on how to ride the SkidBike
Pierce and Pittaresi brief me on how their Skidbike works. It doesn’t need a kickstand. At a stop, it can just rest on the outrigger. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Riding the SkidBike

For the first few minutes, I rode without the front platform, so I had full grip and normal-feeling steering at the front, and adjustable grip at the rear. I got used to feeling the front ABS kicking in, in hard braking exercises. It was very interesting to transfer weight from the rear tire to the casters, and experience both the ABS working at the rear, and long rear-wheel powerslides at 15 mph.

Then I brought the bike in and Dane, Ray, and a couple of helpers installed the front platform. With minimal grip dialed in at the front and ABS turned off, I could replicate my own most recent crash — which was the result of trail-braking too aggressively and locking the front in mid-corner. Except instead of doing it at 60 mph and breaking my thumb, I was able to do it at 15 or 20 mph. Sometimes I caught it, and sometimes the outriggers saved me.

I wrote “the motorcycle handles quasi-normally” above, because the experience of riding is profoundly affected by 160 pounds of SkidBike hardware. It adds weight in places where other motorcycles have none at all and it’s coupled to the motorcycle in ways you’ve never experienced. I’m sure it more than doubles steered mass. On top of all that, the outriggers prevent the motorcycle from leaning much more than 30 degrees from vertical. I did not think that was going to be a problem riding such a tall, heavy rig on a practice range that was 150 yards by 150 yards, but it was. Last but not least, there’s a distracting clattering soundtrack from the casters.

test riding the SkidBike
I trundle off to the rattle of eight casters. The system restricts lean angle to a little over 30 degrees, which was a more frustrating limitation than I expected it to be. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

In the morning I was able to spend on the SkidBike, I never came close to adapting to it. The bike and rig felt so strange that it was hard to sort out the subtle feedback I was getting at the contact patch. Another rider might have adapted quicker and been able to get more practice actually feeling and "learning" skid control. That’s the way SkidCar is used.

Years ago, I attended an American Supercamp workshop where we did something Danny Walker called a mud drill. He flooded part of the dirt track, turning it into a slick mud bog. Then we rode around on little XR100 Hondas (that’s how long ago it was; Supercamp’s a Yamaha school now). On that surface, it was like riding a snake; both ends of the bike were skidding constantly. The wheels were never in line. I’m sure I fell several times, and rode to the point of exhaustion. For me, personally, that was a more useful experience in terms of learning to feel a bike sliding, and losing and regaining control.

But is that a fair comparison? Danny Walker’s all about the rider controlling the slide, and falling down is definitely standard practice. Dane and Ray don’t really talk about SkidBike as a tool a rider would use for hours, to develop his or her own control skills. (Considering that the rig I was riding cost close to $50,000, it’s unlikely any student in an ordinary class will have access to it for very long.)

SkidBike demonstration
Dane Pittaresi demonstrated the ability to dial out rear grip for me. You can see that he’s leaving a faint dark line on the asphalt, despite the fact that he’s only going 15 mph and using a very small throttle opening. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

The best use of SkidBike

What SkidBike is unequivocally good for is this: It’s a great way to feel ABS and traction control working, in a safe and controlled environment.

Ray Pierce told me that one of the main ways he justified buying Missouri’s SkidBike was the value of bringing instructors working across the state to Warrensburg to really make them understand how well modern ABS and traction control work. He wants them to fan out and pass that knowledge on. Too many people — even experienced riders on bikes with modern ABS like the KTM I was riding — are afraid to brake hard, especially using the front brake in corners. That fear results in a lot of avoidable accidents.

The exercise I did without ABS, trying to lock and then save the front while turning, was something I only managed some of the time. With the ABS turned on, I could brake much harder in mid-corner and learn to trust the ABS to keep me rubber side down. I rarely if ever needed the outriggers.

Another exercise I tried, with the traction control turned off, was purposely spinning up the rear wheel in mid-corner by opening the throttle too hard. Something you can learn in relative safety on a SkidBike is that the key to avoiding a high-side is to not chop the throttle — even though that’s most riders’ instinctive response. The correct response is just to stop opening the throttle — you don’t close it, but rather you just hold it where it is, and let traction catch up to your enthusiasm. That’s an incredibly good lesson to learn, and I can’t really think of any other way to experience it at 15 mph (nor can I think of any other way to learn it on a motorcycle that can’t fall over).

After doing it that way, I turned the traction control back on and proved to myself that the KTM was even better at handling that problem on its own. If I had any doubts about the merits of ABS and traction control, my morning on the SkidBike would have erased them.

The thing is, I didn’t arrive with doubts about anti-lock braking systems or traction control. I love state-of-the-art, IMU-based ABS and TC. I already know that those systems have saved my ass in moments when, testing modern bikes, my enthusiasm exceeded my talent.

But I don’t own any motorcycles new enough to be so equipped. I’d been hoping to use the SkidBike to hone my own braking and throttle control, which I think could have happened, but it would’ve taken much longer, and I would have had to translate those kinesthetic skills onto a motorcycle — my own — that felt very different.

SkidBike
Ray Pierce and Dane Pittaresi with their SkidBike. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

The cost of the unit is undoubtedly a hurdle, but I expect that more and more rider training programs will acquire them because they represent a step up in terms of training riders in a safe environment. Companies that insure rider training programs may eventually start telling policy holders, “If you want to stay insured, you need to get a SkidBike.”

At the moment, there are still fewer than a dozen of them in the United States, so it may be a while before you get a chance to try one for yourself, unless you’re a safety instructor or a motorcycle cop. Unless or until SkidBikes get more common, you might have to take my word for it: It’s a unique training tool that can safely teach lessons that, until now, have usually been too risky to try on asphalt.