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Stayin’ Safe: Goldilocks and the Three Gears

Eric TrowSeptember 15, 2015
Select the appropriate gear for corners.

Select the appropriate gear for corners.

Through our Stayin’ Safe on-road training program, we’ve seen several consistent rider habits. One is failure to shift to an appropriate gear for corners. Riders often pick a low-rpm gear and stick with it, counting on the engine’s torque to do the work. But every motorcycle engine—including a large V-Twin—has a performance sweet spot. Which gear puts it there? Allow me to bend a classic fairy tale to explain. Once upon a time, a golden-haired rider was exploring a delightful section of back-road blacktop. Through long sweepers the rider loped along in high gear, the engine calmly burbling and chuffing. Venturing farther into the forest, turns became tighter and more daunting. With the tachometer needle hovering on the left end of the gauge, the rider pondered a shift. “This gear is too laid back,” the rider concluded. “It’s sluggish when I need power and seems to freewheel when I roll off the throttle, causing me to rush the corners.” So, the rider boldly clicks down a couple gears. “This gear is too low!” the rider yells above the now screaming engine as the tachometer needle shoots toward redline. “It’s much too twitchy and abrupt.” Our pilot shifts to a gear between the two extremes and the tach needle lands precisely midway between zero and redline.

Immediately, the rider finds plenty of available power on demand plus abundant, manageable engine braking to help modulate speed when the throttle is closed. “This gear is just right!” the rider exclaims joyfully.

The moral? Riding twisties in the wrong gear can be a real bear. When riding in the forest—or on twisties anywhere—continually select the gears that keep the needle squarely in the middle of the tachometer. And, like the rider in our story, you too will be…ahem…golden.

4 comments

  1. There is a switchback on NC 80s (Devil’s Whip) near the north end, less about 1/2 mille south of the Blue Ridge Parkway that has several bikes (usually cruisers) a year literally tip over because of the sharpness of the corner, combined with a surprisingly steep incline and the rider being in too high of a gear and there literally is no power left to keep up the momentum in the turn. The bike comes to a stop and just falls over on the right.

    • I know the Devil’s whip…lol I ride fairly aggressive. Both the bikes I ride are big bikes. One is a Valkyrie and the other is a GoldWing F6B. I usually keep the RPMs up and actually shift very little in the twisties. Keeping a constant smooth amount of power to the rear wheel is one of the key elements in good cornering practices. Throttle control is very important, and I definitely agree with the premise of the article. The flat six engines in both my bikes have very wide smooth power bands with lots of torque available across much of the tachometer range. However, there still is a sweet spot where things are really nice between 3 to 4500. On a lot of twisty sections, I spend the most time in 4th (5 speeds) dabbling in 3rd or 5th when needed.

  2. Hy Eric, I am never safer on the road than when I’m reading your wondrous column – gotta avoid being macadamized! Anyhow, my questions concern sharp corners with precipitous drop offs – is it safer for motorcyclists to have guardrails there or not? Also, has it been long enough now to re-visit the subject of why we can go more quickly and confidently through left versus right sweepers or is it right versus left? 🙂 Appreciatively, Myke Muller

    • Myke – Regarding the first question specific to which is safer—a corner with precipitous drop offs that has a guardrail or one that does not. Quite simply, both are bad news. I would opt for a third choice: avoid the prior two choices at all cost. In pondering the question I began to weigh the pros and cons of guardrail versus no guardrail. And in the process I realized that it shouldn’t really matter what is to the outside of the curve since our choice needs to be to avoid the drop off or the guardrail in the first place. If a rider does allow something bad to develop in such a corner (just watch YouTube videos of Deals Gap or Mulholland), he doesn’t get to choose whether there is or is not a guardrail at that spot. In that scenario—and any unexpected situation for that matter—the rider is forced to deal with whatever nasty thing is present at that particular place and time where he or she lost control. That’s why it’s so very important to maintain continual control of as much of the ride as we can. The rider maintains that control by selecting a conservative entry speed that provides him or her with a suitable safety margin and some options to work with in the event a hazard presents itself mid corner. I continue to believe that as much as 99% of all crashes are avoidable through effective road/environment-reading skills, anticipation of scenarios, strategic lane placement and speed management based on what the rider can see (asking ourselves, “could I stop or negotiate this curve if something appeared from just out of my current view?”). So, in short, in response to the question with choices A or B, I suggest answer C.

      As for revisiting the subject of confidence on right and left-hand bends, that’s a great suggestion for an upcoming Riding Well column. Stay tuned!

      Eric

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