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March 19, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn to ride a motorcycle

A few years ago I tried to learn to ride a motorcycle. I was on the bike, and was told to give it some gas, then a little more gas, then let the clutch out. I let go of the clutch, sped across the neighbors yard, dropped the bike and burned myself on the tailpipe.

So now I am taking an official motorcycle class (MSF), and they explain the wet clutch to me, so I realize what I did wrong last time.

But then we get to the range portion, and the instructor has me rock the bike, then "power walk" it across the parking lot. The problem is, now I am timid on the gas and clutch and I keep killing the engine. Obviously I am hung up on the last incident, but now I am stalled on this part of the lesson.

So I go back today, and I need to get over this roadblock. I am looking for advice on how to get over it mentally, plus advice on how to handle the clutch better physically.

posted by I am the Walrus to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Try revving the engine and holding it at a constant rpm. If you have a tachometer, great, if not, just go by the sound.

So say the bike idles at 1,200 rpm. Rev the engine up to 2,000 rpm and hold it there. Hold it there for 10 seconds. Repeat. You want to get the feel for how much wrist action makes the bike's engine respond.

So now you've got the muscle memory (or starting to get the muscle memory) for wrist-->engine. Now let the clutch out. S-L-O-W-L-Y. My MSF instructor would say "How many letter Ls are in the word slow? That's right, six." So it should take you six seconds to let the clutch out. This gives you an idea of what slow means.

So you've got the engine slightly revved, you're S-L-O-W-L-Y letting out the clutch, and the bike will start to move under you. You power walk a couple of steps, you lift up your feet, you don't increase the engine speed (remember what it feels like on your wrist to hold that steady RPM), and voila, you're riding a motorcycle.

Don't worry. You're not on a bike that's powerful enough to do this to you.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:02 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

[few comments removed "don't do this" is really not what the OP is looking for]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah, and as I previously said, the biggest takeaway in this exercise is to treat the throttle and clutch like hot, buttered kittens.

I seriously want to take the MSF Advanced Rider course not just for the knowledge, but in hopes I have the same hilarious instructor. Someone actually ran over him (like, literally hit him) by revving the engine and popping the clutch in my class. He was standing about one foot away from the front of the student's bike, and she was doing this exercise, but she had the bike in gear. She popped the clutch and plowed into him.

You'll get it. Do you have any experience driving a standard? If so, that helps. I think it's actually easier to manage the gas/clutch of a bike than a car, because you're using your dexterous fingers instead of your clumsy feet.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:11 AM on March 19, 2010

Even as an experienced rider, when I mount a motorcycle that's new to me, I spend a moment with my feet down slipping the clutch and figuring out where the sweet spot is. Each bike's clutch engages at a different spot, and knowing where that spot is is key to a smooth launch.

At a stop with your feet down, slowly release the clutch. Feel the bike start to move under its own power, and pull the clutch back in. As a novice, this will help train your hand not to dump the clutch, and it will show you where the clutch starts to engage.
posted by workerant at 9:11 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, what workerant said. I upgraded my bike's rubber hydraulic clutch line to a steel clutch line a few months ago, and that totally changed the point where my clutch engages. I kinda had to "re-learn" my bike again. What you're experiencing is totally normal and part of the learning process.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:15 AM on March 19, 2010

I had this exact same problem when I was learning to ride a motorcycle, I couldn't get it past the foot of the driveway because I kept killing the engine.
I agree with the advice that you should rev the bike at a constant rpm with the clutch in. Keep it somewhat low, and just hold the throttle there. Then when you have that constant hum going, think about the clutch as a "throttle cut-off" mechanism; since you're holding it in, you're not going to go anywhere yet. Slowly begin to let the clutch out and hold it at the spot when you can take your feet off the ground. Then, when you begin to coast like that, apply a little more throttle with the clutch still in. You'll hear and feel the engine revving at higher rpm, but because you still have the clutch in the same position that allowed you to coast, you'll still only be going the coasting speed. To accelerate, let the clutch out a little more while keeping the throttle at that higher rpm.
There's something called the "friction point" that your class may have explained to you. It's what other riders call the "sweet spot." Like workerant said, it's different for every bike. The more you practice you'll get a feel for where yours is, and how broad the "friction zone" is as well.

Remember that you have that power to the rear wheel available as you're revving, but you only use it as you decide to by letting the clutch out. If you start going too fast, bring the clutch back in. Too slow, let the clutch out and apply more throttle.
posted by Demogorgon at 9:42 AM on March 19, 2010

Are your hands small? if so ask the instructor to adjust the cluctch so that its not so far out. This helped me as a beginner greatly.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:44 AM on March 19, 2010

No, I am a big guy, so I assume I have large hands. It did help me to move me hand out on the handle to the wider part of the clutch lever.
posted by I am the Walrus at 9:53 AM on March 19, 2010

Mentally - I don't think there are any tricks to pull, just try out the advice you've been given and it will happen even if it takes multiple tries. I think as soon as you've successfully controlled the bike for even 50 feet you'll almost immediately associate motorcycles emotionally with "tons of fun" rather than the "out of control pain machines" you picked up from your first experience.
posted by MillMan at 10:25 AM on March 19, 2010

Unlike with a car, you can rev the hell out of a bike before and while engaging the clutch. Really, it's OK to run it up to ~7000 rpm and let it out so it doesn't die on you.

Once you feel it pull forward, let off and rock back. try that at several different RPM ranges to get used to how the bike reacts and sounds.
posted by anti social order at 10:35 AM on March 19, 2010

It is possible to practice clutch control and throttle control separately, and then put the two together when you're fully comfortable with both. I personally recommend it, as learning both at once can easily be overwhelming. Especially where safety is concerned, why make it any more difficult than it has to be?

When I took the riding course, I the instructors turned up the idles so that a) we wouldn't kill the engines so easily and b) the bikes would readily go without adding any throttle. This way we learned how to find the friction point on the clutch and how to feather (slip) the clutch without yet worrying about throttle control. Also, if anyone "lost control" during the exercise, instead of whizzing across the lot at high speed, he/she would simply putter along without cause for panic.

Once we were confident with clutch control, the instructors turned the idles back down. Then with the bikes in neutral, we practiced holding the rpms at a constant speed, and then smoothly speeding up and slowing down the engine. When we were comfortable with that, we put the two together and wah-lah, we were riding motorbikes!

You can ask your instructor to turn up the idle for you, it's a very simple adjustment. But if not, it's still possible to practice this type of start as long as your bike is well warmed up and you're on nice level pavement. The engine will stall more easily, but that's no big deal. Start letting the clutch out slooowly. If the engine dies, just start it back up and try again even more slowly. Pay attention to the sound of the engine right when it's about to stall. Practice pulling the clutch back in right before it stalls.

Then go ahead and pop the bike into neutral to get comfortable with the throttle. Hold the rpms constant between 2000-3000. Then smoothly go up and down from idle to 6000. Don't just watch the tachometer, listen to the sound. Get used to the sound of the engine at different revs. Do what anti social order said and rev the hell out of it. The first time I heard a bike revved (an R1 with an insanely loud aftermarket full-system exhaust) I nearly peed myself. Getting used to the sound of a screaming motorbike engine went a long way toward getting comfortable with handling one.

Don't worry if your starts aren't ultra smooth right away. Assuming you're learning on the school's bikes, those small-displacement engines are very "herky-jerky." The best tip I ever got for this was, instead of turning the throttle grip, SQUEEZE it. Think about it as slowly tightening your fist. It sounds odd, but it works.
posted by keep it under cover at 12:38 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the answers. The tips were very helpful. Friday's lesson went much better, and I was able to pass the skill assessment this weekend. I now have the motorcycle endorsement for my license.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:07 AM on March 22, 2010

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