In Motorcycling Traction Is Everything

In the last blog (How Riding Off-Road Will Make You Better and Safer Everywhere) we discussed all of the reasons why all motorcyclists, but especially Adventure Touring motorcyclists, should learn how to ride off-road, and do it well. Now, it's time to expand on that.

Point number one in the inaugural blog was "Traction is a myth." This is true. But traction really is everything. I'll explain:

In order to be a safe (and good) motorcyclist, you need to be able to trust what you feel underneath you. Motorcycles have the potential to be even safer and more stable than cars, but the responsibility for that potential falls on you. And that all starts with the "seat of the pants feel" that you need to develop, and that feel is what allows you to react when things go unexpectedly.

"Feel" in this context is essentially another way of saying "ability to judge how much traction you have, front and rear, in order to determine body position, and throttle and brake application."

Defending Supercross Champion Ryan Dungey showing how it's done as he exits a flat right-hand turn on his KTM 450 SX/F 
Defending Supercross Champion Ryan Dungey showing how it's done as he exits a flat right-hand turn on his KTM 450 SX/F. Notice he's sitting on the outside corner of the seat, his weight pushing down on the outside peg and outside handlebar for maximum traction as he accelerates. His leg is out not to hold him up by rather to move more weight forward and add traction to his front tire.

Speaking of off-road, specifically, "traction" truly is a myth. You never have complete traction in the dirt, and it's dangerous to "just believe" you have traction on the pavement as well. Pavement can give you a false sense of security, since you have a lot of it nearly all the time. This false sense of security can get you into trouble as soon as your traction goes away.

And this is why riding off-road is such great training. Off-road, you're constantly making adjustments to maximize traction, but there are some key differences between how you approach riding off-road and on pavement.

First, there's body position: Off-road, you spend most of your time making sure your weight is on top of (above) the motorcycle, usually balancing forward and backward depending on traction and terrain. In turns (flat turns, not berms) this means you lean the motorcycle over underneath you while sitting on (or standing above) the outside corner of your seat. This ensures that you are pushing the tires down into the dirt with your body weight. The phrase you hear about this in off-road and motocross is "weight the outside peg," but it's just as important to weight the outside handlebar.

Ryan Dungey taking a corner 
From behind, even with a small berm to bounce off of, you can see a little bit better where Dungey is sitting on his seat as he corners.

Since there's so much traction, and since the motorcycles typically weigh much more, this body position while cornering doesn't generally apply to riding on pavement. On pavement, you can often lean off the inside of the motorcycle through corners, but what happens when the front or rear tire loses traction and begins to go away? Often, in this case, you'll have to resort to your off-road instincts and tr

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