Novice vs. Veteran: 8 Best Ways To Improve Your Motorcycle Riding Skills

How To -


Riding Skills

Whether you’re heading out for your first MSF class or your leathers wear “93″ on the back, the act of riding a motorcycle remains fundamentally the same. Let’s look at the basic skills and break out how you can get better, no matter what your riding experience. It’s the eight best ways to improve your motorcycle riding skills.

The most powerful component on your motorcycle takes time to master and, because it’s so important to safety, is worth taking a little extra practice time to stay fresh on.

Novice: Find a big, empty parking lot and work up from low speed. Riding along at 15 mph, progressively squeeze the front brake lever until you feel the front tire on the verge of locking up or the rear tire lifting off the ground. You may dump the bike in this process; crash protection is always a good idea. Once you can confidently achieve maximum braking force at 15 mph, move up to 20, then 25 and so on until it’s a skill you can reliably employ at any road speed. Don’t expect to master this or any other skill in a single day, competent riding takes time.

Veteran: When was the last time you used your bike’s max braking force? Remember what it feels like? Bought a new bike recently? Have you taken some time off to hibernate? Go put in a little of that same parking lot practice, keeping this skill sharp may one day save your life.

Shifting Gears
What may seem simple and basic rapidly becomes and dance using both hands and feet if you want to achieve genuinely fast riding. Whether you’re a veteran or novice, your goal is smoothness.

Novice: Tried a clutchless upshift yet? It’s easier than you may think. While accelerating (not riding at a constant speed or decelerating) sneak your left foot under the shift lever and apply a little upwards pressure. Whatever it would take to select a gear if the clutch was pulled in. But, don’t pull in that clutch! Instead, hold that upwards pressure with your foot and quickly close the throttle a little bit. The gear should slip home, at which point you should get back on the gas. Practice until doing so is smooth, seamless and takes no mental effort whatsoever.

Veteran: Whether you’ve already mastered the rev-matched downshift or not, it’s something you need to practice. While braking for a corner with two fingers on the front lever, quickly pull in the clutch, blip the throttle, select the lower gear and pop that clutch back out. If you get it right, the shift is fast and doesn’t break the rear tire’s traction, allowing you to downshift more aggressively, later in the corner. Sounds easy, but it takes nuance and experience to nail it every time, so practicing is a great idea.

Lane Splitting
That most natural act of the motorcyclist can also be very dangerous if you don’t apply skill and experience. Getting better at it will save you time while making your riding much safer.

Novice: Try it! Find a long red light in town where cars tend to back up in two lanes or more, then try and approach it just after it turns red. Carefully pick your way to the front of the queue, quickly calculate the time remaining on the red and, if there’s enough, squarely plant yourself in front of one of the lines of cars, claiming your rightful territory. Once that feels natural, work your way up to more complicated splitting scenarios; just keep the pace of progress slow, this is a difficult skill to learn and one that has dire consequences should you make a mistake.

Veteran: Improve your ability by baking practice into your everyday splitting. Can you make it all the way home without touching a foot down? Can you do it without clipping a mirror? Without being taken by surprise even once or while reciting the age, sex and hairstyle of every driver you pass (keen observation skills are a must). Actively try and get better every time and it’s a skill you’ll keep sharp.

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  • Brian

    pick a road, any road, but only for a specific stretch. Now, in your car or on your bicycle or any convenyance not on your moto, see how many details you can pick out along that stretch. make a game of it by doing an internal monologue if you will. now, get on your moto and maintain safe control of your machine to pick out as many of those same details.

  • 200 Fathoms

    You reviewed clutchless upshifting but didn’t discuss *why* you would want to do it. Is it better to do this than use the clutch? All the time? I’ve read elsewhere that it’s better for the transmission to not use the clutch, but am not sure. More detail would be appreciated.

    • Ayabe

      I always thought it was quicker, smoother, and lessens clutch wear. That’s good enough reason for me.

      1–>2 isn’t really very nice though on some bikes.

      • Piglet2010

        Although this can improve with break-in, e.g. a smooth clutchless 1-2 upshift was impossible on my TW200 when new, but is only slightly clunky now after a couple of thousand miles.

    • BigHank53

      And if you do it badly you can round off the corners of the second-gear drive dogs. Disassembling the top end and splitting the cases is lots more affordable than new clutch plates!

      The only people concerned about “saving the clutch” are elite-level racers, who don’t care if second gear gets trashed. They’re getting a fresh motor before the next Superbike race. But if they cook the clutch and come in eighth…well, next year’s contract might not look so hot.

    • Eric

      Like many items in mechanical lore, this one just as debated. Good:Bad to clutch-less shift, I haven’t found any certifiable information leading to a definitive answer one way or the other as far as damage to the engine. Most remark they’ve been doing it for years, tens of thousands of miles and no issues. The other side of the court claims it can be hard on engaging dogs and shifter forks. From the internet to Family, always debatable. My Father-in-Law has been riding his whole life, a master mechanic on heavy equipment does clutch-less shifting on his lifetime of bikes and heavy milage, claims no issues. I should trust him (I do on every other topic), but I always looking for a concrete second opinion. But personally I use the clutch on every shift.

  • Philip Azzara

    Also, try reading some of the growing body of literature (like the one written by a certain associate of Tom Cruise) on the subject of proper performance riding technique to improve your riding skills.

  • Rameses the 2nd

    The 2nd video on Throttle Blipping is confusing and unnecessarily long. Isn’t it the same thing as Rev Matching? I found the video on Rev Matching, that RideApart shared last month or so ago, much easier to understand.

    • Piglet2010

      I was taught by Lee Parks that cornering on a cruiser is no different than a sport-bike, other than body position is even more important (in street riding) since ground clearance/lean angle and (generally) tire traction are lesser on the cruiser.

      And of course, the proper line on the street is one that lets you see as far around the corner as possible and allows you to move more to your side of the road if a cager drifts across the center-line, not the one that allows for maximum radius as would be used on the track.

    • Charles Quinn

      Having switched from a CBR600F to a midsize cruiser (VN900) I’ve found that the handling rules are pretty much the same. In fact I spent about a year riding my Vulcan the way I thought cruisers were supposed to be ridden (back in the saddle, lots of rear brake etc) before I realised it wasn’t working.

      The most important things for cruiser riders to remember are that your bike is rear-heavy (the overall weight isn’t as important as the distribution) and has less ground clearance than other bikes. That means you need to use your own body weight a bit more. Getting your weight forward over the bars as much as you can when braking really helps, just remember to bring in the rear brake gently as soon as you feel the front end load up — you don’t want the back wheel trying to overtake the front, which the rearward weight bias inclines it to do.

      Cornering is less about leaning the bike and more about moving your body — I’m much quicker than I was a year ago but I scrape the pegs a lot less. I can’t stress the “kissing the mirror” principle strongly enough — get your weight wide and forward and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can take a tight corner on a cruiser. And as on any bike, keep your chin up, turn your head where you want to go and keep your eyes level with the horizon.

      No cruiser can compete with a sportbike though, and cruiser handling generally falls into one of two categories — heavy steering so that they’ll hold a line well but won’t want to change it (Triumph Thunderbird springs to mind), or light and floppy so that they turn in easy but need some input to stay on course (my VN900 Custom with its 21″ front wheel falls into the latter group). You’ll never get that on-rails feel you get with a sportbike (or can those who’ve ridden a new California 1400 prove me wrong?).

  • Michael Howard

    I think one of the reasons so many people don’t understand countersteering is because it’s usually described as a technique for turning the bike (ie, push on the left grip to turn left). But countersteering doesn’t turn the bike, it “only” initiates the lean. Once the bike is leaned, THEN you turn the front wheel into the corner.

    So, to be more accurate, we should say “you push left to LEAN left”.

  • William Connor

    Good stuff. I enjoy riding with a passenger often. Some of the techniques described discuss hitting the limits during normal riding. I think it’s important to know where the limit is but ride below the limit so you always have some room for error.

  • Kemal Kautsar

    when i reach the brake lever and downshift, i kinda ease the brake while blipping the throttle (i cant keep a constant braking pressure on my front brake while blipping the throttle). do i need a shorter reach lever?

    • Wes Siler

      Play with both the reach and angle of the levers, they’re a very personal thing. It’s also just kinda practice. One of those things you should go spend an afternoon trying to figure out.

      • Kemal Kautsar

        ah, yes. i remember about changing to an adjustable brake & clutch lever on an article about improving riding interface

        • Ben Mcghie

          I find my hand doesn’t want to keep two fingers on the brake while the other two wrap the throttle… something about the geometry doesn’t feel comfortable. Short adjustable levers come in this week, hopefully should help.

          Thanks for the article Wes. Good stuff for us newbies.

  • Piglet2010

    As for downshifting, I was taught at Star to downshift early and at relatively high engine speed*, and to be done before corner entry.

    Sliding – if you are lucky, your local OHV park has a sandy area or sandy trails – falling on these does not hurt much (or at all).

    *I was downshifting at about 10K rpm and upshifting at the rev limiter on a pre-gen Ninjette.

  • Mister X

    And folks, please don’t forget to bump up the pre-load on the rear
    shock/s when riding two up, or you could bottom out in a corner, not so

  • Scheffy

    If you’re trying rev matching and having trouble controlling the blip, try only using your middle finger on the brake lever instead of two fingers or just your index finger. It gives you extra leverage on the brake lever vs. your index finger, and you can get a lot more control over the throttle when your index finger is involved as opposed to the middle finger. This works especially well on modern bikes with touchy throttles and ridiculously powerful brakes. If you need an endorsement, Mladin and Stoner seemed to like it this way. It works for non-Aussies too.
    Just know that on older bikes or anything with sub-par brakes, two or more fingers may be the only way to go if you want/need max power. Middle finger braking works fantastic on my newer Duc right up to (and past) lockup, but e-stopping on the old Norton takes all four fingers, a strong left foot (reversed controls), a helmet full of obscenities, and I might still have enough time to check my email one last time before I’m stopped. Match your technique to your machine.

  • Kr Tong

    Minibike/SuMo racing’s another fun way to get some cheap track seat time

  • ThinkingInImages

    I tend to clutch upshift most of the time. It’s a bit conditional – it depends on the motorcycle and the riding circumstances. If I have to accelerate quickly, merging onto a highway, then I’m more likely to do it. Now that I think of it, it’s really the top three gears, to get to traffic/cruising speed. Downshifting is always a bit of alchemy. A lot of it is knowing where/when as much as how, and knowing the power-band of that particular engine. Since I prefer smaller motorcycles and twisty roads you tend to use the throttle/gears to “ride ahead”.

    Something to always practice is riding slow, real slow. Motorcycles come into their own once they’re at speed. Going slow can really make a motorcycle feel like horse on ice.

  • Mark Vizcarra

    Here is my breakdown on rev matching. CLUTCH, BLIP, SHIFT. Now go practice

  • ‘Mike Smith

    If I did lane splitting, I’d lose my license before long!

  • Max

    “Can you make it all the way home without touching a foot down? Can you do it without clipping a mirror?”

    If you’re coming to a complete stop and/or clipping mirrors, you aren’t a veteran at lane splitting. Not even close.

  • HunteR

    ” Can you make it all the way home without touching a foot down? Can you do it without clipping a mirror?”

    Not sure you should be lane splitting at all if you are clipping mirrors every time you do it….

  • GP

    The #1 best way to improve your riding skills? Get a Dirt Bike, and ride it as often as you can.

  • bammerburn

    One more suggestion is to set up your bike’s suspension and ensure excellent tires. They make all the difference in confidence and riding style development.

  • David Basile

    Umm, lane splitting is illegal and highly prosecuted in the U.S. every but California. This is a horrible suggestion

    • RobG

      Better yet, get the word out! It needs to be legalized nationwide. It’ll just take some dedication of us riders to make it happen. We almost had it legalized in Nevada last year. Hopefully it’ll happen this year.

      • David Basile

        Once its legal I’m 100% in. But cops around here get real pissed about it now. Most cops don’t ride or understand though