Advanced Riding Course: Throttle control

Get on the gas with the best, Niall Mackenzie walks through a guide for throttle control

Ask any youngster what the right handlebar grip on a motorbike does and he’ll tell you it’s for making the bike go faster.

Which is true but it will also help you slow down, steer you into corners, steer you out of corners and assist greatly when it comes to changing up and down through the gears, especially at speed.

It really sunk in how big a part the throttle plays in riding while watching my two boys as toddlers learning to ride their PW50s. They quickly sussed that every time they were about to fall over, opening the throttle would pick the bike up and they could avoid eating dirt for another garden lap at least. Before we go any further though I’d like to talk about the importance of free play.

I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly fussy person (life is far too short), but I do like my throttle free play to be just right. Too much and the throttle just feels plain sloppy, whereas too little (or none at all) can sometimes be dangerous. In the perfect world I would actually prefer zero play with an instant response when I open the throttle, however the reality is (and I’ve found many a Triumph guilty of this), if you have no free play and turn the handlebars there’s a possibility the throttle will open. Not ideal in your Tescos car park.

Opening the throttle to blast down the road or the main straight on a track day is a pretty straight forward task, you’d think. However I regularly see an awful lot of riders getting this completely wrong.

As energy is valuable on hot track days and you might make over 20 gear shifts in one lap, it is wasted energy gripping tight while wrenching the throttle open at every gear change. Never mind the stretched cables and arm pump, I used to do this but found out in my youth it really doesn’t make your bike go any faster. Being all aggressive and furious on a bike’s throttle doesn’t actually make you any faster. Most throttles have a very light action so a gentle twist of the wrist with minimum shoulder movement is plenty. Plus it looks so much tidier. 

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And this leads nicely on to using the throttle for gear changing. If you’re not already managing clutch-less up shifts then you should have a go. Done properly, it saves time, is much smoother and is kinder to the gearbox and clutch. When you are ready to change up all you have to do is put a tiny amount of pressure on your gear lever, back the throttle off a few mm and you’ll be into the next gear. It’ll only take a small amount of practice to master this worthwhile trick and it makes a huge amount of difference. Racers save as much as half a second a lap using quick-shifters and this is the quickest way of changing gear without shelling out £300 for one.

Using the throttle when changing down, or ‘blipping’ also makes life a lot easier for the transmission but is slightly trickier to master. It is best to first practice this when not using the front brake. When you’re riding along, close the throttle, pull the clutch in then give a quick blip on the throttle the instant before you change down and gradually let the clutch back out. This helps the gears to mesh together giving nice smooth down shifts. Doing this whilst braking is more difficult as it means you have to control the front brake while blipping, so if you are new to this, do lots of practice beforehand while stationary. It might feel a bit funny at first, and clumsy, but smoothness and fluidity will come with time and practice.

As with any corner entry, transferring weight to the front tyre and suspension is the first step and this starts with closing the throttle. It then becomes a balancing act but it is important to never unload the front suddenly by reopening the throttle or things can often end in tears and broken plastic.

Using the throttle for steering while in a corner is relatively straightforward, but as with all aspects of riding smoothness is the key. For example, if I’m entering a corner on a racetrack and I’m heading for the apex too quickly I’ll open the throttle to take me wider. If I feel like I’m about to miss an apex, I’ll close the throttle, which will bring me back on course. If I’ve missed the apex completely (it does happen), on most occasions, simply closing the throttle completely, will bring me back to a late apex which isn’t so bad as the corner will then be ‘squared off’ and I’ll have a faster exit line.  With careful use of the throttle most minor problems with lines going into a corner can be tweaked or corrected, if not completely overcome.

On a corner exit the weight transfer back to the rear tyre and suspension comes purely from throttle control. This process has to start with gentle throttle opening mid-corner, but as you transfer weight to the rear tyre and the bike gets more upright, the tyre contact patch gets bigger so you can increase the rate that you open the throttle. The bigger the tyre contact patch, the more grip it is providing so the more power you can put through it without the fear of it losing grip and catapulting you into the middle of next week. If you watch racers at trackdays this is where they make up the most of their time when compared to most trackday only riders. Mid-corner there is little to split riders, but racers will open the throttle earlier and harder once they have reached the apex.

The key to everything with the throttle is to be smooth. Roll it on, roll it off. This way you won’t upset the balance of the bike and minimise the chances of the rear losing grip or sliding. When you’re on the throttle, the front is light and the bike will run wide. When you close it, the front is heavy and the bike will steer faster. Practice this theory, experiment and you’ll get the hang of it.

Things to remember

I never ride on the ragged edge while away from race tracks but these basic principles also work fine for me while on the road, however I am always mindful that I have a lot less tarmac to play with. So with the throttle being such a wonderful tool when it comes to riding, surely there can’t be anything more satisfying you can do with your right hand?

Niall’s homework

  • Free play. 2-3mm is about right. Too much will affect your control. Too little could make the bike increase revs on full lock.
  • Clutch-less shifts. Get these right! Keep them smooth and seamless for maximum acceleration
  • Blipping the throttle to change down. Better for control and easier on the transmission.
  • Use of the throttle mid-corner. Simple. Open it to go wider, close it to go tighter.
  • Rear tyre feel. Opening the throttle slowly and smoothly even at maximum angle will keep you safe.