Attend any bike week event or rally and you’ll see riders doing things that make you nervous: paddling their feet at stops, duck-walking their bikes across gravel drives and dropping their bikes in parking lots. Though not usually injurious (except cosmetically to the bikes), these low-speed situations have a common cause, and each can be easily cured with a little practice. The main problem in each of these situations is a lack of confidence and technique. To overcome this, a rider needs to practice with the friction zone of the cluth—it ranges from the point at which the clutch begins to engage, to the point at which it becomes fully engaged. In a quiet paved area, such as a parking lot, practice feeding in throttle as you engage the clutch. Your goal is to be able to make quick, confident and immediate starts without excessively slipping the clutch, and to be able to lift your feet to the pegs or footboards immediately while accelerating to stabilize the bike. Ride in a straight line until you feel confident, then make a U-turn and ride back the other way and repeat.
About that U-turn…you’ll likely find yourself throttling down and making a set of jerking corrections as you try to force the bike to turn. Here’s a tip to really smooth out your low-speed turns: Apply and gently drag the rear brake as you make that turn while simultaneously maintaining throttle control. Coordinate the throttle and brake while leaning, and you won’t believe how smoothly and confidently you can perform these low-speed maneuvers. It helps to sit straight up—like dirt-track racers do—and push the bike down into the turn with your weight on the outside peg or floorboard.
Things get a little tricky as we move to a gravel parking lot. If you’ve done any dirt riding, you may have heard the dirt-rider’s adage, “When in doubt, gas it!” This motto refers to the fact that going too slow in a straight line on an uneven surface, causes the front wheel to drop into ruts and be slapped around by rocks, causing the bike to jar, veer, and erode your confidence. That’s why riders duck-walk their bikes in the gravel.
Instead, now that you have your quick starts dialed in, find a nasty, straight section of gravel road or parking lot, pick out your path and eventual stopping point, and let ’er rip.
Grab those grips, spin the back tire if you wish, spray a little gravel and accelerate through that section with your feet up. Your goal is to go through fast enough that the front tire rises and floats over the high points without dropping into the ruts, so it smoothes out.
Allow the bike to squirrel around; stay loose on it. Just be aware that when you slow down again, the tire will drop back into those ruts and things will momentarily get rough. Keep a firm grip, apply the rear brake aggressively and be prepared to get those feet back down.