As women riding motorcycles, we are often subject to many discouraging statements from well meaning friends and family. Don’t let this soak in. It wasn’t that long ago that I was told this very thing, because I was always tipping over my bike.
In 2 years, I’ve gone from a timid little rider to a confident rider. In fact, a woman who recently rode with me called me a “floorboard scraping, ride-it-like-you-mean-it-woman”. Here’s the evolution of that transition.
Part 1–I’ve had a motorcycle endorsement on my license since they were first invented. However, riding a 90 cc Honda around campgrounds and occasionally on city streets is nothing like putting a 700 pound rumbling thunder Harley between your legs.
I wanted an open road bike, found a cheap used one at a Harley Dealership and made it back from the test drive. I took that as a sign. I know, right?
Tipped it over the first day in my driveway. It took me 30 minutes of pulling, tugging, pleading and determination to get it back upright again. I learned rule #1 in “How to tip over a bike”. Turn the handlebars. As soon as I did that, I was down. Scared me to death. So, I had to learn to be very careful in tight quarters and not treat this thing like I was back on my trusty Trek bicycle.
That 2004 Fat Boy broke down on me out in the country after dark when I was alone. It was just me and my favorite coyotes (in the distance, of course). I was never so scared in my life. I didn’t tip it over, on the plus side.
When that bike did that to me, the love affair was over. Just like when your guy cheats on you, if they do it once, they’ll do it again.
So, I get one that’s a little newer and nicer, a 2009 Fat Boy. I truly loved this bike and promptly tipped it over the first day I got it. Apparently, a rite of passage.
I continued my tipping adventures, but by this time, I was in the advanced stages of both conditioning and technique for restoring a fallen bike to upright position. I must say that all my tipping experiences have been done when either stopped or nearly stopped. Once the bike is moving, I’ve been fortunate to stay up.
Rule #2. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. Don’t get discouraged when you tip a bike. It’s a normal part of learning how to bike. Don’t let others affect your determination. This is simply measuring how badly you want to ride, as well as learning your risk level.
When I took snow skiing lessons, the first thing we did was lay down on the snow. The instructor told us that falling was normal, so the first thing we needed to learn was how to get back up.
There’s an old proverb that applies here. “Fall down 7 times, get up 8”. This is probably another reason to always wear protective gear.
Rule #3. “Learn how to use the friction zone”. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Big deal, friction zone. Think about how a bike leans over when making a tight turn. What keeps it from falling over then? Why does it not crash into the ground when leaning at a steep angle?
The answer is centrifugal force. That’s the momentum of the bike trying to push it straight. That force is pushing up on the top of the bike and counteracts the weight of the bike trying to fall to the ground.
When turning very slowly, there’s very little momentum. Applying the throttle, using the torque of the engine, can also provide force to push the bike upright. The problem is that at slow speeds, the engine has very little power and tends to stall. Then, you fall down, go boom.
The “friction zone” is where the engine is revving higher than normal for the speed of the bike and you’re slipping the clutch. Under ideal conditions, you can use the rear brake to change the speed of the bike, instead of the gas or the clutch. Mastering this technique is easier said than done, but is THE key to tight, slow speed maneuvering. Want to pass the rider course? Get this one figured out and you’re a pro on a bike.
So, I’m practicing this on a bike that’s new to me. I had the zone down pat on my previous bike, but this one had the sweet spot in a different place. But, hey, I’ve got this all figured out. I’m alone on a deserted parking lot. The perfect place to practice. I lean in hard, hit the friction zone, and it’s not where it’s supposed to be. Holy jeepers, my brand new bike is going down on my first day with it. I try to hold it up and finally just ride it into the pavement.
I find that I’m now pinned to the pavement by my bike. She’s explaining to me the need to bond and understand each other. She’s not having any of this, “I am the master, you are the bike” stuff just yet. Like a new horse, we have to learn to trust each other. She knew I had no solid understanding of just where her friction zone was. So, she would hold me down until I screamed “Aunt”. (That’s the girl version of Uncle).
I’m pinned tight to the ground by a 650 pound bike. It’s weight is resting on my left heel. Fortunately, I’m wearing Genuine Harley Davidson motorcycle riding boots. They have a huge solid hard rubber heel and are now preventing my foot from being crushed. Had I been wearing flip flops, I might have lost my foot. Tennis shoes wouldn’t have been much better. Regular fashion boots might have got me out with some surgery.
So, here I am and there’s no one to help. Had there been coyotes in the neighborhood, I could have been picked clean. I try to lift the bike. She won’t move a lick. I twist and squirm. Nothing. I try to slip out of the boot. Won’t give and won’t release my foot.
Rule #4. Always, and I do mean ALWAYS wear proper gear. Even when messing around at super slow speeds in a parking lot. Also wouldn’t hurt to have a Snickers in your pocket for when you find you’re going to be there for a while. More rules to follow. 🙂
So, I’m still pinned to the ground and all alone. A car drives by and I wave frantically. A cloud of dust. Another and another cloud of dust.
Finally, a woman sees me and stops. Wouldn’t you figure it would be another woman who’d save me? She runs over and between the two of us we get the steel beast to relent and let go. I’m free and thank her profusely.
Rule #5. If, or should I say when, your bike is going down, don’t think you can save it. Don’t put your arm out to break your fall and, above all, don’t ride it into the pavement. Jump clear. Save yourself. I repeat–jump clear. You risk serious injury or worse.
I’m learning the friction zone on my new bike and have dropped it on the first day, per regulations. I’ve only been riding a few months at this point, but the learning curve continues. I drop my new bike several times coming to a stop for cross traffic. The angle intersections seem to be quite troublesome, as I still have the handlebars not straight when I’m trying to assess traffic while stopping. I have to twist around to see what’s coming or not coming from one side or the other. My distraction is my undoing.
Furthermore, I also seem to have difficulties getting it into neutral while pulling up to gas pumps or out of driveways. This leads to Rule 6.
Rule #6. When coming to a stop, you need to first stop safely. It’s of no use to be in neutral if you’re falling over. It doesn’t matter if traffic is clear or not if you’re on the ground. So, just stop. Focus on keeping the bars straight and the bike upright and then stop, supporting the bike as you do. This technique has been extremely helpful to me. I have to master one thing at a time. First stop, then look. First stop, then shift. I don’t know why I had to make this all seem so difficult.
Mastering the first 6 rules made a huge difference. I became pretty good with the friction zone and began to ride more like a pro. I had about 6,000 miles on my bike(s) over the winter when I was able to take the first Basic Rider Safety course in the spring.
The instructor asked each of us our riding background. When I told him of my experience, he looked at me and said, “what on earth are you doing here?” I replied that I hoped to learn something. I never want to stop learning. He smiled.
I learned a lot. One important thing I learned was to never be in neutral at a stop. He taught us to stop way short of the car in front of us and to watch our mirrors while stopped. Being in gear makes it possible to take fast evasive action in case traffic behind doesn’t see us. Always be thinking of evasive action. I’m feeling better about this biking thing by now. I arrive at a stop with the clutch in and stop safely almost every time.
I prepare for my next big biking adventure, The Women’s Freedom Ride. I’ve only been on one overnight bike ride. This will take me across 10 states in 10 days and I’m freaking out over it.