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Common Tread

Riding tip: Give it gas

Oct 30, 2015

I am not a racer. I never was. I have no idea what the MSF teaches to anyone. This is not Code Break. My riding tips usually involve directions to a place that makes tasty soup.

I tell you this because I have no real riding résumé. I am not particularly fast. I crank out a bazillion miles a year, all of them on the street or on fire roads. I’m learning still — aren’t we all? I ride differently depending on my mood and bike, but regardless of my destination, my main riding goal is to get where I’m headed without being turned into a long, skinny puddle.

Now that I’ve sufficiently tempered your expectations, let me get to the meat and potatoes of my point here: All motorcycles can go, stop, and turn. Humans are conditioned to stop when things start getting unpredictable at velocity. Nearly everyone has that instinct. Sometimes, though, other methods of avoidance are safer and more effective. A lot of riders — especially newer ones — forget that the throttle can be a great way to make a hasty exit if trouble rears its head. I’ve heard “if in doubt, gas it out!” by more than one oldtimer, and I guess now it’s my turn to be the greybeard.

Nearly every bike I’ve ridden is faster than the average car. Even “slow” motorcycles are quicker than all but the fastest of cars if they need to be. Sure, most bikes have great brakes, but the razor-sharp handling and powerful acceleration many bikes offer shouldn’t be overlooked. I’d like to examine the throttle, because it's not the go-to for riders. Often it's the last thing considered, if it's considered at all.

It seems to make sense. Speeding along on a bike got you into a sticky spot, so slowing down will get you out, right? This instinct hampers many riders! They forget they can give the bike some gas to get out of a bad spot. Inexperienced riders don’t realize they need to get out of “ride legally” mode and into “stay alive” mode from time to time.

I’m not advocating being a scofflaw, but maybe you’d rather pay a ticket than a hospital bill.

The point is to put some distance between you and the danger. I find myself using my throttle often, for instance, when someone merges into me on the highway. The driver obviously can’t see me. A horn honk might not grab the driver's attention, and often, there’s not even time for it. Sudden braking might just involve the car behind me in the impending accident. Rather than let the problem start becoming a black hole of bad decisions, simply twisting the wick often mitigates the issue. Not only do I stay safe, but I am helping drivers around me who may not be aware of the fomenting traffic snafu.

“Drop a gear and disappear” sounds aggressive, but it doesn’t need to be. Let me present to you another real-life scenario. There are many intersections where the traffic lights are simply timed incorrectly. Yellow doesn’t last as long as it should given the road’s speed limit. Personally, I feel safer coming through an intersection 15 mph hotter than I should as opposed to decelerating quickly on a yellow light if I have a clear line of sight. Who knows what the person behind you is doing? Do you want to bet your safety on their level of attention? Even if that driver is alert and can make a safe stop, you have to worry about your stopping distance. If you don’t have enough when you drop the anchor, you may overshoot and wind up in the intersection as you come to a stop.

Keeping the revs in their happy zone is the key to making best use of the throttle's ability to rapidly whisk a rider away from danger. Revzilla photo.

Being saved by liberal throttle application from time to time has even shaped the way I approach some bikes. I’ll ride a big-bore I-4 or a V-twin without much thought. They usually make lots of torque, so throttle response is usually quite crisp. On the other hand, I ride middleweight inline four bikes a bit differently, depending on my surroundings. I tend to leave those bikes “spun up” a little bit, maybe riding a gear or even two gears lower than I normally might. I’m not doing this all the time. On a lonely highway I’m sure not revving a bike way up for no reason at all. However, in tight traffic where escape routes are hard to come by, I’ll certainly be in the higher end of the rev range. I like to keep bikes that have peaky powerbands in the area where they’ve got some “squirt,” so I can make use of the throttle if I need to.

As another facet of this technique, let’s consider a spot we’ve all been in: the blown turn. Maybe you picked the wrong line. Maybe you were riding a bit too fast on an unfamiliar curve, and the radius tightened up beyond what your eyes could see at the beginning. Perhaps you came upon a road hazard in the turn that forced you off your line. No matter the cause, I’ve overcooked a corner or two, and I know all of you have, too. It may surprise you, but that right-hand grip can potentially save you here, too.

The middle of a turn is usually a poor place to reevaluate. Hang tight, maintain throttle and lean more to survive a corner that's turning out to be trickier than it appeared. Revzilla photo.

It takes practice and nerves, but sometimes hunkering down and fighting your intuition is what that occasion demands. Rather than stand the bike up mid-turn and try to ride out the aftermath, trusting the tires and staying on the gas could be the smarter way to go. Velocity “pulls” you down into the turn. If you simply maintain the throttle and lean further, you’re likely to come out of things OK.

The rookie mistake is to back off the throttle, causing the bike to stand back up and run wide. To add insult to injury, running wide in a turn puts you into “the marbles,” that spot where the gravel collects at the outside of the turn. (That term was stolen from Boutique Geek Bobby B.) Stay the course, look where you want the bike to go, and hang on. Assuming you’re not leaning hard enough to drag hard parts and high-center the bike or lose traction, this is the course of action most likely to save you from going down. Most bikes are ready and willing to lean way farther than street-riding owners take them.

To recap: Brakes aren’t the only way to deal with hairy on-road “situations.” I suggest you consciously practice exit strategies that involve throttling your way out of a dicey spot. Your right wrist is certainly not a cure-all, but it’s a potential tool in your toolbox. I don't know about you, but I prefer poor drivers see my taillight, not hear my horn.