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Parking Lot Practice to MASTER
your Clutch and Front-brake Levers

By: James R. Davis

Some readers are already trained in how to ride a motorcycle yet are less than masters of their clutch and front-brake levers. Since those two controls can save your life, it makes a lot of sense to me that you should MASTER their usage. This article describes a simple set of parking lot practices designed to help you do that as well as to dispose of some likely misunderstandings or misconceptions about what those controls do.

I will describe a possible practice for you in an effort to plant the objectives in your head, not just a simple set of 'rules'.

Please note that this all assumes that you are already trained and can ride a motorcycle - this is not a set of exercises that trains a total newbie how to ride!

As mentioned earlier, the two controls you must MASTER early in your riding career are the clutch lever and the front brake lever. What you must learn in regards to your clutch lever is how/when to use the friction zone and how to ALWAYS ease it out rather than 'release' it.

What you need to learn about the front brake lever is how to comfortably cover that lever for extended periods of time (so that you don't cramp), and how to SQUEEZE it rather than 'grab a handful' of it in order not to overuse it. You need to learn that your brakes are not binary switches that are either on or off and to recognize, as a matter of 'feel', the appropriate amount of pressure to use on that lever to accomplish TRIVIAL to increasingly significant rates of deceleration. In other words, how to use your front brake like a reverse throttle.

On a parking lot your principal challenge is working at low speeds - the most difficult aspect of controlling a motorcycle. Other than avoiding hitting anything while moving, you need only realize that your job at low speeds is to keep the bike on its tires instead of on its side - something you do not have to do at higher speeds. So, what that means is that you need to provide some amount of balance assistance to a bike that is moving at slow speeds and that requires that you can 'feel' your attitude with some confidence - which requires that you be healthy and that your vision is not impaired. So, you do NOT practice slow speed control in the fog, nor do you do so under the influence of drugs (legal or otherwise), and you do not practice slow speed control at night unless the area is WELL LIGHTED.

I propose that you focus entirely on ONE CONTROL to learn how to use it properly. Further, and this might sound goofy, but I propose that you learn turning maneuvers at relatively fast (for a parking lot) speeds of, say, around 20 mph, but that you learn slow speed control beginning at VERY SLOW SPEEDS (less than 10 MPH) while moving in a straight line.

The very first exercise I suggest that you MASTER is starting to move - from a dead stop - and slowing to NEARLY a dead stop. That is, while your bike is pointed straight ahead, you hold your throttle in such a way as to get your engine running at about twice your idle speed AND LEAVE IT THERE! Starting to move your motorcycle does NOT necessitate that you 'rev' your engine, nor does it involve your leaning your body forward and 'launching' with a push-off with your feet! Your objective is to begin to move the bike using ONLY the easing out of your clutch lever - and by that I mean, INTO the friction zone BUT NOT ALL THE WAY THROUGH IT!!!

Your bike will begin to move at which time your objective is to plant BOTH FEET on your pegs. If in the beginning you need to take a step or two while the bike is still unstable, so what? Soon you will not have to do that, but this exercise is to get control of your clutch lever, not your feet or balance. You are to continue moving and easing the clutch out slightly more in order to increase your speed until you are STABLE.

For some of you, whether experienced or not, while doing this exercise you may stall your engine. That means, of course, that you did NOT hesitate as you entered your friction zone to allow your engine speed and rear wheel speed to synchronize. If that happens with any regularity at all, I propose that you make the exercise HARDER - by learning how to start from a dead stop in SECOND GEAR instead of first. When you can do that, you can certainly do it in first gear without ever stalling your engine.

Then you are to reverse the direction of clutch lever movement - drawing it toward the grip instead of releasing it - which will cause your bike to slow down. I am not suggesting that you here 'grab' your clutch lever and draw it to your grip, but that you begin EASING IT OUT OF THE FRICTION ZONE - but not all the way. Continue that until you are no longer stable and THEN reverse the direction of movement on your clutch lever (now easing it out and more deeply into the friction zone again) until you recover bike stability with a slight increase in speed.

Continue this easing in and then easing out of your clutch lever until you are certain that you know where the friction zone is and how to use it to modestly control your SPEED. Note that you have not touched your brakes or varied the throttle at all! Instead, what you have learned is that, like your brakes, your clutch is not a binary device - either engaged or disengaged. Rather, it is a vernier device that controls in a very precise manner, the amount of engine torque that reaches the rear wheel.

Obviously you use your brake(s) at the end of this straight line when you want to STOP - and squeeze your clutch lever all the way to the grip.

Once you have EXCELLENT control of your friction zone as a result of this practice you move on to a similar exercise - friction zone control while in a turn. You do that by getting your bike up to a reasonably fast parking lot speed of about 20 mph and start riding a LARGE open course - either a HUGE circular path or a large box with LARGE quarter circle corners. Again, your objective is to learn to use your friction zone to control your speed while in a turn. No brakes!

You establish a fixed speed with your throttle and LEAVE IT THERE. Then, while in a turn, squeeze the clutch lever INTO THE FRICTION ZONE but not all the way through it. Note that the bike slows down, modestly, and also note that the bike stands a little taller and your path of travel slightly widens. Reverse your clutch movement - now allowing it to go back through the friction zone on the way out. Note that your bike speed increases and the bike leans slightly MORE as its path of travel also tightens modestly.

You should pay attention to what a 'modest' change in speed is and what it feels like as you do these simple exercises because you are now ready for the first front brake exercise.

Ease your clutch out all the way and leave it out. Maintain the same path and speed (about 20 mph) on the LARGE circuit you have been using. Now the only control that you are going to practice using is your front brake lever. You begin your practice by COVERING THAT LEVER with as many fingers as you want, finding the most comfortable, for you, position possible.

This might sound goofy as well, but the first thing you should learn how to do is 'tap' your brake lever without causing any noticeable speed decrease. Indeed, your ONLY objective in doing this is to light your brake lights. You are to 'tap' your brake lever TWICE in order to get familiar with how that feels and how little energy is used by you to do it. You have just learned the universal CAUTION-WARNING-DANGER signal that you can, as a courtesy, provide anyone who is following you (whether a bike or not) to indicate that you MAY have to make a fast stop soon.

You also learned that your brake lever can be used for other than STOPPING. What you are about to practice is using it to GENTLY SLOW DOWN - NOT STOP!

While you are in the curved portion of that path GENTLY apply braking pressure with however many fingers you have used to cover the front brake lever. What you want to do is MIMIC the same modest deceleration that you experienced when practicing friction zone management.

What you will quickly discover is that it is virtually impossible to be that gentle with the brake lever. Compared to your friction zone, the brake lever is a very crude/coarse control of modest speed changes. But it IS POSSIBLE to get close if you are gentle enough.

You should, using only the front brake lever, reduce your speed from 20 mph to 15 mph, then EASE the brake lever back out in order to regain a speed of 20 mph.

Notice that there was not the slightest possibility of falling down while you were using your brake to slow down!!!! Because you were GENTLE with it.

Please also note that, again, just as was true when you used the clutch lever to slow down, when traveling at speeds over about 10 mph, when you slow down the bike tends to stand taller and your path of motion tends to widen.

Now you are ready to begin SLOW SPEED practice. 10 mph is actually pretty fast. You need only think about how fast you are moving when you turn a corner on a surface street to recognize that fact.

Get your speed down to 10 mph and maintain it as you begin a LAZY circle. That is, a circle large enough that you can EASILY maintain it at 10 mph. This is NOT an exercise to learn how to do a tight turn!!! Select a lazy circular path and maintain it. Keep your fingers OFF the brake lever (uncover it). This first exercise is clutch control. Do NOT change the setting of your throttle. This is ENTIRELY clutch control.

Using your friction zone ONLY, reduce your speed to 5 mph and then increase it back to 10 mph. What you are to notice is that at very slow speeds when you slow down your bike will lean MORE and your path of travel will tend to tighten up instead of what you experienced at 20 mph. You have just verified that counter-steering happens somewhere just south of 10 mph!!!

You also are to notice that because this is a lazy circle you are riding that the bike does not simply FALL DOWN when you slow down, as long as you do so GENTLY. This is enormously important for you to get hold of as a concept because you will soon be doing the same thing using your front brake lever instead of the clutch lever. You must not be afraid of your controls! They are YOUR CONTROLS.

While you are practicing this slow speed maneuver you should with some frequency reverse directions of that lazy circle so that you avoid dizziness!!

After you have MASTERED the friction zone usage so that you can with absolute confidence increase or decrease your SPEED with it while in a curve, you ride out of that lazy circle and then reestablish that path of travel at 10 mph while covering your front brake lever and NOT covering your clutch lever. You are now going to practice using ONLY the front brake to VERNIER CONTROL your speed while in a slow speed turn. No clutch action! Leave your throttle in the same place and use ONLY your front brake lever to GENTLY reduce your speed from 10 mph to 5 mph, then release that lever and get back up to 10 mph.

What you will notice, again, is that your brake lever is a clumsy way to control trivial amounts of speed difference as compared to your clutch lever. But it can be done, and safely.

To wrap up the training session, after you have reoriented yourself and gotten rid of any slight dizziness, do the final exercise a couple more times using BOTH the clutch lever and the front brake lever at the same time!!!! Learn how they can compliment each other - that if your speed, for example, increases to 15 mph it is easier to use a GENTLE bit of brake to get it back down to 10 mph than it is to use the clutch to do that, but if your speed gets too low you MUST use your clutch lever to increase your speed as your brake lever simply doesn't work that way.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on practicing clutch and brake usage in slow speed turns. Enjoy yourself while out there. Practice is only stressful when you use it to get better at something. As you get better, stress levels disappear. That's where you want to be - without stress, out there merely confirming that you still 'have it'.

Copyright 1992 - 2024 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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