Practical Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring

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Table of Contents:

How many of you hate your big bosses?

You know the kind… the ones who sit in a corporate office somewhere enforcing rules that matter on paper but don’t make sense in the real world.

Yeah, me too.

Because while these rules tick all the right boxes (in theory), they hardly ever transfer over to real-world settings.

Why?

Well, because the real world is made up of real people. And real people think, act, and behave differently from fictitious ones in theoretical scenarios.

And the same can be said for a lot of the slow-speed training we do.

We learn a lot of riding techniques that are fine in theory but impractical in real life. Such as overly complicated obstacle courses involving 34,692 traffic cones.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - learner riders
Image via The Ride Academy / Unsplash

Impractical Slow-Speed Drills

I agree that new riders (or those learning to ride) need to practice in a car park to avoid carnage on public roads.

And some of the exercises we learn, such as U-turns, are indeed practical in the real world.

But dancing the bike around a million traffic cones doesn’t make you better at slow riding. It just makes you better at, well, dancing your bike around a million traffic cones.

So in this post, we’ll look at some basic motorcycle drills as well as various tips for slow-speed riding that are practical for motorcycle touring.

physical handling motorbike
Image via The Ride Academy / Unsplash

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring

The importance of slow-speed riding ability whilst motorcycle touring is three-fold.

Firstly, most motorcycle incidents aren’t severe crashes at speed. The vast majority of them are slow-speed drops.

And the reason for this is simple. Bikes are heavy, and most people don’t have the necessary skills to control them.

Riding down the autobahn at 100mph isn’t hard. Doing a U-turn on gravel (with a fully loaded bike) at 5mph is far more challenging!

Secondly, you can’t afford to drop your bike on tour. Imagine if you’ve worked hard all year and saved up a few thousand pounds (or dollars, or whatever) to go touring.

Now imagine you drop the bike whilst attempting a U-turn and damage your steering. Or the subframe (like I did.)

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - fixing bike after drop
Image via Anthony Shkraba / Pexels

Unless you can get it fixed, your bike will be getting towed home.

At the very least, it will put you behind schedule, cost you quite a bit of money, and potentially ruin your trip.

How embarrassing!

Thirdly, I guarantee that you will find yourself in more sticky situations on tour than you will whilst riding around your hometown.

You’ll find yourself on a trail that was supposed to be a road.

You WILL go the wrong way and have to turn around.

You’ll find yourself on tricky cambers, awkward paths, steep hills, and a whole host of other inconveniences that you won’t find yourself in at home.

When you put all these together, it’s simple. You NEED to have at least some semblance of slow-speed control.

You’ll touch on these if you do any kind of advanced rider training – such as with RoSPA.

But below, we’ll go through some practical, slow-speed riding techniques that apply in the real world of motorcycle touring.

biker stuck on gravel

Manual Handling & Centre Stand

If I had a pound for every time I saw (or heard of) someone dropping their bike whilst pushing it or getting it on/off the centre stand, I’d be swimming in high denomination notes.

And it’s daft because all it takes is a bit of practice!

People don’t learn to handle their bikes at slow speeds for the simple reason they’re scared of dropping them.

But this means they drop them when they have to handle them because they haven’t fricking practiced doing it!

Whilst understandable, the whole way of thinking is counter-intuitive.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - pushing bike

How To Fix It:

Getting the bike on/off the centre stand is an easy fix to remedy because you can use someone to help you.

Position yourself on the left side of the bike and have an assistant on the right-hand side of the bike.

With a person on each side of the bike, it’s in safe hands, and you can practice until you’re comfortable doing it yourself.

Then repeat the entire exercise with a fully ladened bike.

Put your panniers on and notice how it hinders your closeness to the bike.

Try it with a roll-bag and see how it limits your hand position on the grab rails.

Now do the same with pushing it (forwards, backwards, and turning) whilst loaded and unloaded.

Practicing this stuff now will save you a lot of fuss when touring.

biker putting bike on centre stand

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: Straight Line & Turns

One of the simplest ways to gain mastery over slow-speed riding is to do it in a straight line.

Riding a motorcycle in slow traffic, negotiating a busy car park, making tight maneuvers, filtering, or even making your way to a campsite requires slow-speed riding.

Practicing in a straight line (otherwise known as the ‘slow race’) helps with machine control, finesse, vision, and balancing your motorcycle at a stop.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker dragging brake in carpark

The Fix:

Start in a car park where you have a lot of room in front of you. Set off, get your feet up and set your speed.

From here, the goal is to creep forward as slowly as you can – slow enough that you need clutch, but not so slowly that you stop.

Get used to balancing positive throttle with back brake and clutch.

Look as far ahead as you can. Looking down brings your target closer to you – and that makes it harder to balance.

Relax your body and work on controlling your throttle, clutch, and rear brake.

You can make this more difficult by introducing turns and twists to simulate practical situations.

Want to take it a step further? Try it on a gravel path. This sort of exercise gets you into the habit of not dipping your clutch out of fear when you find yourself on dodgy surfaces.

Finally, start adding 90-degree turns to simulate mini-roundabouts or other slow, tight turns on a motorcycle.

biker practicing in car park

U-Turns: The Daddy Of Slow-Speed Riding Drills For Motorcycle Touring

The U-turn is one of the most valuable slow-speed motorcycle riding techniques you can master.

I’m from the UK, which means I’m used to driving on the left. When performing a U-turn in the UK, it’s natural for me to steer right.

And no matter how many times I do it, performing a U-turn in a country where they drive on the right (and therefore steer left on a U-turn) always catches me off balance.

Have confidence in your ability and approach a U-turn with spirit.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing it too slow. If the road allows, take advantage of a little bit of pace and use all the available space.

Spin your head and look where you want the bike to go.

The key to mastering the U-turn is balancing positive throttle, rear brake, and clutch control.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker practicing u-turn

How To Fix It:

Start with a car park that has painted bays. Begin with a U-turn that covers three bays (or as many as you feel comfortable with.) Keep it simple for now.

Once your confidence has grown, perform the U-turn within two spaces.

From here, you can tighten the turns to as much as you feel comfortable with.

Remember, practice them both ways!

biker doing u-turn in capark

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: Hill Starts

People forget this one because we all do hill starts all the time within our ordinary riding remit. But how often do you do it with a fully ladened bike on mountains twice as steep as you’re used to?

If you stop on the side of a mountain for a photo opportunity, 99% of the time, it will be on gravel or some other dodgy surface.

You’ll need revs to get going, or you’ll stall and potentially drop the bike.

Got a pillion on the back? Then you’ll need even more revs.

But not balancing the clutch and throttle could affect you the other way, too. With too many revs and too much clutch, you could spin the rear wheel on the gravel.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker left foot down

How To Fix It:

Find some steep hills in your local area and practice setting off with a fully ladened bike. If you’re preparing to travel with a pillion, get used to hill starts with both feet on the ground.

In an ideal world, you’ll have your right foot on the rear brake. But with a pillion on the back, you might choose to have both feet down.

This means knowing exactly where the biting point is and how many revs you need to stop the bike from rolling backwards.

biker on gravel surface

Awkward Cambers

I’d like to think I’m a pretty competent rider – in control of my bike in sticky situations. But one scenario that has caught me out multiple times is awkward cambers.

Out of habit, most of us stop with our right foot on the rear brake and our left foot down on the ground.

But what if the camber slopes from right to left?

If you stop the usual way, you’ll put your left foot down, and there’ll be nowhere to put it! The ground will disappear from beneath you, and you’ll drop the bike – probably on top of you.

You need to be comfortable stopping with your front brake and putting your right foot down when the situation calls for it.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker practicing cambers

How To Fix It:

You need to be almost ambidextrous when it comes to controlling a bike. 

Of course, we all have one side that is stronger than the other. But we need to practice so that the weaker side matches our stronger side.

Practice setting off with your right foot down, your left foot down, and both feet down. Do this on flats, inclines, declines, and off-road.

Now practice stopping on your rear brake with your left foot down – then on your front brake with your right foot down.

You need to be comfortable setting off and stopping with any combination of front brake, back brake, and either foot down.

bike right foot down

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: Setting Off On Lock

Setting off on full lock is a bugger to master. But master it we must – in some form or another.

And whilst I wouldn’t recommend setting off on full lock unless you’re particularly advanced, it’s worth trying it at an easier level. Because the day will come when you have to turn a motorcycle from a stop.

You see, the biting point of a clutch (or its perceived biting point) changes when we apply lock.

With the handlebars turned to the left, our clutch comes closer to us. And whilst it doesn’t physically change where the biting point is, it feels like we get to it quicker.

Conversely, with the handlebars turned to the right (outstretched left arm), it feels like it takes longer to get to the biting point.

If you’re not prepared for this perceived shift, you could find yourself stalling when trying to set off on lock – simply because the biting point isn’t where you thought it was.

And in such a precarious circumstance, it could lead to a drop.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - controlling the clutch

How To Fix It:

Try setting off with the bars turned to the left a tiny bit. I’d recommend keeping both feet down, to begin with.

Then gradually increase the turn angle and see how the biting point changes.

Again, I wouldn’t recommend you try setting off on full lock – it will end in disaster unless you’re particularly advanced.

But you can practice with both feet down to note how the biting point shifts. You don’t even have to truly set off – just take it to the biting point and then bring the clutch back in when the bike starts to move.

It’s also worth trying this whilst wearing winter gloves and summer gloves as the biting point (and its location) can feel different depending on the gloves you wear.

biker clutch control

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: The Basics

There are some basic things we need to remember. And they apply to all aspects of slow-speed riding.

The following sets of skills should be practiced so they become natural – no matter if you’re on tarmac, gravel, going in a straight line, making a turn, or pushing your bike.

Throttle, Rear Brake, And Clutch

Many disregard the notion of balancing your clutch whilst applying power and using your rear brake. (Some people refer to it as using your back brake as a throttle.)

The reason they avoid it is that it will burn out your clutch and your brakes.

And they have a point – if you’re doing it for an hour.

But in some situations, it’s the best way to control your bike for the few seconds that you need it. So practice it.

You NEED drive when slow maneuvering a motorcycle.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - motorcycle binnacle, positive throttle

Have you ever tried doing a U-turn with the clutch in? It’s hard to coast around a U-turn because you lose momentum as the bike slows down, and it will want to drop. 

Putting power to the rear wheel steadies the bike and gives it motion. Using the clutch and the rear brake, we can control how much of that power we turn into forward momentum and speed.

In the world of motorcycle tuition, many instructors don’t like this method as it can lead to dangerous mistakes if the clutch is not controlled.

But you’re touring, so learn how to finesse the clutch.

finessing motorbike clutch

With positive throttle, release the clutch slowly until you start to move. Once your feet are on the pegs, maintain positive throttle whilst feathering the clutch and using the rear brake to slow you down.

At this point, your throttle and clutch don’t move – hence the expression of using the rear brake as a throttle.

I see why people advise against it. But it’s the one technique you can master to improve your overall slow-speed riding.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker using rear brake

Look Where You Want The Bike To Go

As a former motorcycle riding instructor, I used to say this about 24 million times a day. And nobody ever believed me – until they tried it.

For example, when doing a U-turn, you want the bike to turn (sometimes tightly) and face the opposite way.

Naturally, you will want to look ahead. But you need to spin your head and look up the road behind you as you turn.

If you look straight ahead, I guarantee you’ll struggle to turn the bike.

race bike on track
Image via Max Frajer / Unsplash

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: Relax

Another thing we all do when we get anxious is tense up. But the more you tense up, the harder it is to control the bike – it just wants to go straight.

Relaxing your upper body allows you to turn and twist. And it allows movement and flexibility in your arms – which are, of course, attached to the handlebars.

Rigid arms make for immovable arms. And the result is a bike that doesn’t want to turn. Stiff arms also lend themselves to a tight grip which doesn’t help matters, either.

We need our upper body to be loose and amiable.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker relaxed posture

Look Ahead – Way Ahead

We’re taught to look ahead when riding out on the open road. But it’s also true for slow-speed riding.

Looking down in front of us doesn’t serve us well in any way, shape, or form because we can’t prepare for what’s to come.

We need to be one step ahead of the game – continuously. We need to see dips, stones, and potholes before we get to them – not as we get to them.

This allows us to plan a different course of action before we get there rather than simply reacting to it and hoping for the best.

Keep your chin up and your eyes straight ahead when going forward. When performing a turn, keep your head high and look as far into the turn as you can.

biker looking ahead in mountains
Image via Yogendra Singh / Unsplash

Speed & Perspective

To go with the above point of looking ahead, we need to look at perspective.

If you look at the ground when travelling at 50mph, you’ll see it flies past you incredibly quickly. But what happens when you look ahead?

Well, we have a greater field of vision. Of course, things are still coming towards us. But because we’re looking so far in front, they come towards us at a perceived slower rate. And this allows more time to anticipate what’s up ahead.

It’s why Moto GP riders look up the track and not down by their front wheel.

The perceived slowing down of time allows them to think and plan. In turn, this gives control.

And we need to do the same when slow-speed riding.

Looking down will only serve to bring potential hazards towards you at a faster rate. So look ahead, and anticipate hazards early.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - relaxed body position

Target Fixation

As mentioned above, the bike will always go where you look. That’s why so many bikes end up in fields – the rider looks at the field because they don’t want to hit it.

And what happens?

They miss the bend and end up in the field.

But what about when doing a U-turn?

If you look ahead, you’ll find that the bike doesn’t want to turn, and you’ll end up going more or less straight – because that’s where you’re looking.

It’s the hardest thing to master. But if you find yourself in a situation where you’re staring at a hazard you want to avoid, you’re doing the worst thing you can possibly do.

Avert your gaze, and instead, look where you want the bike to go. Like around the bend rather than into the field you’re looking at!

rider on harley-davidson under tunnel
Image via Harley-Davidson / Unsplash

Practice With Your Feet Down

As a former riding instructor, I know how hard it is to get new riders to bring their feet up to the pegs once they’re moving.

The natural instinct is to keep your legs out.

But once we get into the habit of bringing our feet up, many riders find it difficult to purposefully leave them out when they need to.

In some situations, like trying to turn your bike around on a narrow dirt road, you need to keep your feet down and walk the bike forwards and back whilst turning.

Your control over the throttle and clutch will remain the same. But with the handlebars on full lock, you’ll need to control the throttle and feather the clutch whilst keeping both feet down.

It’s the same if you find yourself unexpectedly on gravel.

If you’re trying to turn your bike around on gravel, don’t just set off and put your feet up like the gravel isn’t even there.

Put your feet down and control the bike with your throttle and clutch.

It’s a simple method – but it’s one many fail to master.

It’s also worth remembering that there is no shame in maneuvering with your feet down.

Yes, it looks better if you can do it with your feet up. And you arguably have more control over the bike because you have access to the rear brake.

But in sticky situations where you might drop the bike, don’t be a hero. Put your feet down and get the bike to safety with both feet down.

slow-speed riding for motorcycle touring - biker on gravel surface

What If You Have A DCT Bike?

It makes absolutely no difference! In fact, it makes it a whole lot easier.

Above, we mentioned learning how to ride with positive throttle whilst feathering your clutch and using your rear brake.

With a DCT bike, the process is the same; except the bike looks after the clutch element for you.

Maintain positive throttle and feather your rear brake. The bike will do the rest.

honda africa twin dct
Image via Honda Press

Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring: Conclusion

Slow-speed riding is the one aspect of motorcycling that most people neglect to practice. And the main reason is that it’s difficult, unsexy, and you could potentially drop your bike.

But is that really a reason not to practice it?

If touring is on your agenda, it’s never too late to get better at riding a motorcycle.

You can find yourself in all sorts of situations you haven’t planned for. And it’s in these situations that you need to have complete control over your bike.

Bikes are heavy enough at the best of times. But with a pillion and two sets of luggage, they’re even more of a challenge to handle.

Do the hard work now and practice before you go. Build yourself up and progress through the stages of making it more difficult.

When you know what you are capable of, you have the confidence to manage your bike. And you’ll be surprised at just how much you can achieve.


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