How to really ride any kind of bike

From street bikes to two-strokes, 600cc sportsbikes to supermotos, different bikes require different techniques. Whatever you ride, get the best from your bike with the help of the finest riders on the planet

How to ride a fast sportsbike

By Nicky Hayden

Feeling unequal to the task of hustling 180bhp? Worried about highsiding on the high street? Let Nicky Hayden talk you through the black art of riding very, very fast

Uniquely placed to offer advice on riding the most powerful bikes on the planet, Kentuckian MotoGP ace Nicky Hayden is a glutton for horsepower. "Peak power or midrange? I prefer more power everywhere," confesses the American. "Horsepower is my friend." A very close friend – having smoked the supremely powerful 990cc RC211V Grand Prix bike to the 2006 MotoGP world championship, Nicky struggled on Honda's less spectacular 800 before signing to ride the most brutal GP bike of the modern era, Ducati's thorny Desmosedici.

Of the myriad skills required to tame a really fast bike, Nicky's clear on the most crucial. "Throttle control is very important," he says. "It's important in the dry but in the rain and when the tyres go off it's everything. I guess mine comes from dirt track racing (Nicky was a top-level dirt tracker long before he was a road racer). To work on it you need to focus on what you’re doing with the throttle. Then you can try to get a feel for it."

Loved for his lurid style, in 2009 Hayden is keen to calm his dirt track-style corner exits. "I don’t want to be sliding at all in most cases now," he says. "It may look cool but it doesn’t help lap times. With the electronics and tyres as good as they are now, you’re better off riding with the wheels in line – hooked up and moving forward – though sliding is a tool; you can finish off a corner with a slide if you’re running out of real estate on the way out."

What speeds up must slow down and Hayden insists speed on a really fast sports bike is as much about a confident braking technique as it is peachy corner exits. "The secret is to ease the brakes on, not just grab them – ease them on and then pull very, very hard," he says. "If you just grab them the rear wheel will come off the ground. It's also important to learn to brake deep into turns. Trail braking is one of the skills that separates great riders from good ones. I use a lot of rear brake; to slow down, to stop wheelspin and to load the bike and keep it more stable in transitions and over crests (dragging the rear brake will stop a powerful bike lifting its front wheel over bumps and humpback bridges) – but the truth is I rely on the rear brake too much. The reason I use such a big rear disc (at Repsol Honda Nicky's rear brake disc was far meatier than team-mate Danny Pedrosa's) is not so much for power but to keep it from over-heating."

  • Steering isn’t just about the handlebars. "I put a lot of weight through the footpegs and squeeze hard on the gas tank to help steer the bike," says Hayden.
  • Focus on throttle control. Play with gear choice and the speed with which you bring the power in on the way out of corners. Develop a feel for how much throttle you can use.
  • Use gears that are sure to give you a swift and accurate throttle response.
  • Practice braking. No sudden grabbing, just a gentle initial squeeze building to proper effort at the lever.
  • Never let your awareness drop behind the speed of the bike. "The real challenge with powerful bikes comes from things happening a lot quicker. Those straightaways are a lot shorter and braking more critical when you’ve got a lot of horsepower," says Hayden.
  • If the front washes away midcorner, er, save it on your knee. "Does it happen? All the time; way more than the folks in the grandstands will ever know," says Hayden. This tip is not entirely road-relevant.

The perfect launch

The perfect launch

By Gene Thomason

Pro drag racer Thomason bagged six championships and over 30 event wins working his way up to the V-Rod Destroyer he currently campaigns. Here's how to leave traffic lights

"Getting the perfect launch out of the Destroyer is as much about science as technique," explains Thomason of the V-Rod-based drag monster he races. "I'm always looking at the data from the computer to see how much the clutch is slipping or if the motor's bogged down. The main factors affecting grip are temperature and the condition of the rubber on the track – the less grip there is, the lower rpm you launch at and the lower the spring pressures in the clutch.

"The perfect launch is the right combination of the tyre pressure, clutch set-up and launch rpm – you want to be able to use as many rpm as you can without spinning the tyre. Get it right and the Destroyer will launch twice as hard as any street bike on the market.

"At production level drag racing is about doing the best you can as a rider given the limitations of the bike. The other extreme, top fuel, is getting the bike to go as fast as possible with engineering – the rider has to bring his level up to match the bike. Top fuel bikes use a centrifugal style clutch so there’s no lever; you just whack the throttle open."

  • Get your weight forward to counter the tendency of the front wheel to lift.
  • "Because a street clutch is so soft, you want to get the clutch engaged and get to full throttle as soon as possible," says Thomason. "Don't slip the clutch forever. Get it in quickly at the ideal rpm, one that strikes a balance between a little tyre spin and the engine bogging."

How to really ride a big twin

How to really ride a big twin

By Shane Byrne

Spectacularly fast on Ducati race bikes, World Superbike contender Byrne reckons getting the most out of a big V-twin is all about accuracy

"Riding a twin like the Ducati is completely different to riding a four-cylinder superbike," explains Byrne, who's won two British Superbike titles on Ducati twins and is fighting for World Superbike honours on the 1198. "In terms of line and style a twin’s arguably more similar to a 600. You’re fastest with a smooth and precise riding style. If you make the apex nicely and get on the power perfectly the thing flows beautifully. You have to carry speed and momentum on a 600 and the Ducati works best ridden in the same way."

Byrne last raced a four-cylinder superbike in 2007, when he campaigned a Stobart Honda Fireblade; chalk to his Ducati’s cheese. "On something like a Fireblade, if you're running a bit wide you can still make the apex by backing the thing in. Then you can just stand the bike up and come out sideways with the rear spinning. For that reason you could argue a four-cylinder bike’s more fun to ride than a Ducati twin, but ultimately it's not about having fun, it’s about getting around the track as quickly as possible, and the Ducati’s very good at that."

If the difference is that pronounced, should you use different lines on a twin-cylinder bike? "There is a difference in line," explains Byrne. "If on the way out of a left-hander and into a right the Ducati uses say three-quarters of the width of the track, a four-cylinder bike will only need half of it. On the Ducati you have to run into the corner and make the most of the chassis and the traction control by letting the bike run right out to the outside kerb. A more flowing, traditional 250 line works well on the Ducati."

Long-regarded as the masters of corner-exit drive, Ducati have consolidated that edge with advanced traction control - a go-faster rider aid that’s already filtered down to the admittedly hugely expensive 1098R and 1198S production bikes. Has this area of development fundamentally changed a superbike racer's job? "While traction control can really help, it can also hinder you," says Byrne. "I roll into the last turn at the Portimao circuit in Portugal in third gear at 100mph+ and I’m at pretty much full throttle and full lean, banging fourth and just praying that a fuse doesn’t pop. If it did the accident would be enormous. But if the electronics held me back that much in some of the second gear corners elsewhere on the circuit I’d never be driving forwards."

  • "Use your feet to help you change direction by putting your weight through the footpegs," explains Byrne. "I had to get inserts for my boots because I was coming in with holes in them."
  • Ride arcing, graceful lines that let you hold high corner speeds. Use the full width of tarmac available to you.
  • Don't get lazy: "Everybody reckons the Ducati's got loads of torque but I still rev it like I would any other engine, it’s just that it doesn’t rev quite so high," explains Byrne.
  • If you're pushing hard on your 1198S or 1098R – and let's face it, that's most of us – keep the traction control setting low; an ultra-conservative setting will hold you back in tighter corners.

How to master a tourer or cruiser

How to master a tourer or cruiser

By Andy Morrison

One of the fastest police riders in the country, Andy Morrison is a former racer who now trains officers and civilians alike in the fine art of safe speed

"Riding fast on the road is an extremely complex thing – there's a lot going on – but the key to being fast on something like a Pan European or a Yamaha XJR1300 is accuracy," explains Morrison. "The limitations of the bike are arguably weight, a relative lack of ground clearance and perhaps soft suspension, but with accuracy you can minimise these limitations." An ability to read the road ahead and place your bike accordingly is a fundamental part of riding any bike fast, but it’s critical on bikes less able to improvise. "On bikes like these you need to be really sharp, judging the perfect line and speed through each corner," continues Morrison. "You need to take into account things like the road surface too; if it’s broken or bumpy you need to trim your speed because those bumps will compromise your ground clearance. And if you run into a corner too fast you may not have the options you’d have on a sportsbike."

While experienced police riders like Morrison undoubtedly possess an ability to lend the act of thrashing a Pan European a calm serenity, he insists it’s road racers who are the prime exponent of really accurate riding: "The best of them don’t look fast but road racers are all about accuracy, even more so than circuit racers. At the TT for example you have to be inch-perfect with your line so as not to compromise yourself for the next sequence – you can't just ride each corner as you come to it. Steve Hislop used to hit the same inch-square of tarmac lap after lap."

The final piece of the puzzle is stability. Heavily laden touring bikes can suffer with weave but Morrison insists there's much the rider can do to mitigate the problem: "Relax on the bike and try to shift your weight forward a little – that should naturally put a bend in your arms and relax your grip on the bars. It's easy to get into a vicious circle of gripping the bars more tightly as the weave develops, which just makes things worse of course. And if you don't find that working just throttle off 5mph."

  • Work on your road-reading skills and the accuracy of your lines. The key to swift progress on a tourer is not being caught out – analyse each corner, then put the bike on the ideal line at the right speed. From experience you’ll learn to gauge the optimum entry speed for any given turn. And be critical – did you manage to get the bike exactly where you wanted it?
  • Be smooth. Violent inputs with the throttle, the brakes or the gearbox can upset a softly suspended bike.
  • Ride to the bike's strengths.
  • "Something like an FJR has great brakes and a strong engine, and on the road you can rarely exploit the lean angles a sportsbike can achieve," says Morrison. "It's possible to stay with bikes that, on paper, should leave you for dead."
  • If you feel the bike start to weave, sit forward on the bike and relax your grip on the bars.

How to master a street bike

How to master a street bike

By ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer

With a textbook style that combined mind-altering corner-entry speeds with an ability to pick up the throttle metres before anyone else, 'Fast' Freddie could make anything go quick, even reluctant street bikes Synonymous with the unique achievement of winning the 250 and 500 world championships in the same 1985 Grand Prix season, truth is ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer is equally famous for the epic, street bike-based dust-ups he and Eddie Lawson enjoyed in the glory years of the AMA superbike championship. The early 1980s were a golden age of production-based racing; ordinary machines made brutally powerful and unforgiving by big-money tuning and pushed far beyond their limitations by two hungry and prodigiously talented superstars on the ascendancy. If you want to really hustle a street bike, make Freddie Spencer your Yoda.

"Bikes like the CB1 rode in superbikes were brutal, no doubt about it," remembers Spencer. "The bike I rode in '82 was 1023cc and so highly tuned it had a power delivery like a two-stroke. It made something like 120-130bhp in a powerband between 9,000rpm and 10,500rpm. And of course the rest of the bike couldn’t keep up. It had a tube frame, skinny front forks and DOT tyres designed to last 10 years. They’d go blue or perish long before they wore out, that’s how little grip mattered when it came to compound.

"The bikes just weren’t rigid," continues Freddie. "They were designed as street bikes first and foremost and then adapted for racing. We prepared them for racing with lighter, stiffer wheels, better brakes and bias-ply slicks, but the bikes were heavy and there was no way around that – they had to be; the technology didn’t exist to build a frame that was light and rigid."

So just how did Spencer get such awesome speed out of such an unpromising package, and how did a rider so clearly in love with the purity and delicacy of two-stroke racing prototypes enjoy wrestling over a quarter of a tonne of trouble? "Those AMA bikes taught me a lot," says Spencer. "I learned not to go in as deep as I'd like to. You had to square the corners off, get the bike turned and then take out the lean angle as soon as possible. The faster I could pick the bike up the sooner I could get on the throttle. The power delivery was so brutal it would always spin-up, even if the tyre hadn't chunked, which was common – a couple of times I still won with a rear so chunked you could see the chord. The key was picking the bike upright just as the engine came into its powerband and the rear tyre began to lose traction, then you could make the necessary corrections. The worst situation you could be in on that bike was maximum lean angle and picking up the throttle too aggressively. That led to all sorts of trouble.

Another thing I learned was that the very edge of the tyre, where the contact patch is real small, is only for changing direction, not for accelerating or braking. You still see riders making that mistake today, particularly when the tyres go off."

Despite modified suspension, Spencer’s super-CB wasn’t overly blessed with ground clearance. Neither did it have anything like the featherweight flickability of his two-stoke Grand Prix bikes. Freddie: "The AMA bikes didn't have a lot of ground clearance, no. You'd try to run with the least amount of lean angle you could. I'd hang off a little more to do that, with my head dipped right down by the handlebars as I picked up the initial throttle coming out of the turn, making that one fluid movement. You’d try to hold a tight line on the way out but a big superbike tends to go out to the edge of the racetrack no matter what. I'd over-turn to compensate; I'd keep turning until it looked like I was going to run over the inside kerb. Then, when you got on the power, you'd have the full width of the track."

Just as two-stroke man Niall Mackenzie reckons the TZs and LCs he grew up on gave him the perfect road-race education, so Spencer says the heavy four-strokes he raced gave him a great grounding for Grand Prix success: "Racing those bikes taught me feel and the importance of being smooth. You had to develop a feel for the feedback coming from the bike – was that a slide you just felt or just some movement in the bike? Being smooth was crucial too. Any additional stress you put into the bike by being aggressive ultimately gives you less grip from the tyres, and the more grip you’ve got, the faster you can go."

  • Play to the bike's strengths. Street bikes tend to be heavier than sportsbikes, with less ground clearance and softer suspension. Slow down more for a given corner, get turned and, with the bike back up at a safe angle of lean, tap on the power hard.
  • Try hanging off more to reduce the lean angle required to tackle a given corner at a given speed.
  • If stability’s an issue, don't try to do two things at once: brake or steer; turn or accelerate hard.
  • Be super-smooth. Aggressive use of the brakes or throttle will upset the bike's composure, compromise its stability and ultimately reduce the amount of grip available from the tyres.

Master a 600cc supersport bike

Master a 600cc supersport bike

By James Whitham

How to wring every last drop from a wailing 600

Following an early career dominated by big-bore superbikes, Whitham made the move to the World Supersport championship in 2000 and promptly won his first race. Despite the lower peak power figures, Whitham remains a massive fan of the 600cc class.

"I went from a 750 with 160bhp to a 600 with 130bhp and there was a big difference," he says. "Generally the smaller the capacity the higher the revs and the harder you have to rev it to get the power. The other big difference was treaded tyres instead of slicks. This meant the bike punished you more for every little mistake. You had to be spot on with everything; carrying speed into, through and out of the corner. There's more movement from the tyres and that too forces you to be accurate – you lose time with every little slide and every little mistake. On a more powerful superbike you can be a bit lazier."

If a 600’s harder to ride well, does that make it the more effective go-faster learning tool? "I do track instructing and you get lads on 1000s who want to be quicker," says Whitham. "The answer is to get rid of the 1000 and change it for a 600. On a 1000 they’re not using any corner speed, then they’re opening it up and braking way too early because they're shitting themselves. If you want a 1000, buy one, but on a 600 you have to ride it properly. Ride a 1000 hard on the road and you’ll either lose your licence or hit something hard."

  • Keep it neat. 600s are about corner speed and fast, flowing lines.
  • Keep the wheels in line under braking by using the front brake almost exclusively. "Craig Jones used to back it on the back brake," says Whitham. "I’m not sure why because you can’t turn-in until the back wheel's come back in line. I think Craig just used to do it to look the part."
  • Work the engine hard. Short-shift and you’re denying yourself power, useful engine braking and beautiful noise.

How to really ride a supermoto

How to really ride a supermoto

By Christian Iddon

Sideways ace Iddon on getting the most out of bikes on tall suspension and road tyres

Motocross kid turned tarmac vandal Christian Iddon first burst onto the supermoto scene at improbable angles some five years ago. Since then he’s been at the sharp end of the world scene, racing Aprilia’s fierce V-twin in the S2 championship. From '09 he switched to KTM.

"One of the key supermoto skills is backing it in, and it's not just about showing off," explains Iddon. "Backing it in does three things for you. It helps you make the corner because, with the back end out of line, the bike's already pointing in the right direction. Second, it evens out the load between the tyres – when you're braking hard all of the bike's weight is on the front tyre. By backing it in you reduce to that to perhaps 70:30 front/rear, giving the front tyre an easier time. And thirdly, you can still brake hard because although the bike's sideways, the front wheel's still pointing forwards and is still kind of upright.

"Backing-in is about getting on the front brake hard to get all the weight off the back wheel, shifting down the gears to use the back-torque of the engine and getting the rear wheel to roll maybe 2mph slower than the front, nothing more – it's not about locking it up.

"The next phase is the most dangerous for me. You've got to time the backing-in perfectly so that the rear tyre hooks up just as you start to get into the corner properly. If you get it wrong it's pretty easy to fall off. In the middle of the corner you push the bike down into the corner – very few supermoto riders hang-off, though former WSB man Giovanni Bussei is one. The bikes are lighter than any sportsbike, the tyres are really grippy and, with your foot out, you have to be on top of the bike – there isn't the room under the bike to hang-off. And with your leg stuck out near the front wheel you're ready to save the front if it tucks."

And of course, this being supermoto, the madness doesn’t end at the apex. "When do I get back on the power? Sometimes, when I’m really on it – when I’ve got the feel and everything's flowing perfectly – I get on the throttle almost immediately and everything flows as one continuous movement," says Iddon. "The back wheel's sliding on the way in, it hooks up just in time to turn and then the front will begin to go. To save it I whack the throttle open as hard as I dare, which pushes the back end out and brings the front back. On the way out you don't want the back tyre spinning wildly – no black lines, just a faint grey one. And from there on the style comes back to road racing; you’re trying to pick the bike up for maximum traction, so you're leaning off the inside of the bike, driving out hard."

  • Set the bike up for tight corners by getting the rear wheel light. Brake hard with the front brake, change down and tap the rear brake lightly to get it moving. This is best practiced on the dirt.
  • Don't bother hanging-off – the ergonomics of these kind of bikes are best steered by pushing them down into corners.
  • Pick the bike up as you get back on the power. Wide bars and a linear delivery mean these kind of bikes lend themselves to sliding but build up to it. Again, practice off-road.

Master a two-stroke

Master a two-stroke

By Niall Mackenzie

A top-flight 500 rider in the sport's hairiest years, Niall Mackenzie reckons the bikes were pussycats. Kinda…

"In 1986 I was riding a 250 in the British championship and a 500 in the world championship," remembers Niall Mackenzie, who grew up on LC and TZ Yamaha strokers. "At that time there were plenty of riders who'd already decided they were 250 riders and that they couldn't ride anything bigger. But in a lot of ways the 500s were easier to ride than the 250s. The powerband was wider. Most 500s revved to 12,500rpm and the Hondas were revving to 14,000rpm or more in 1988 and 1989. You’d get smooth power from 9000rpm and really strong power from 10,000rpm to the rev limit, but the transition from 8,000rpm to 10,000rpm was pretty smooth. There was always a bit of a delay on the two-strokes though - you’d open the throttle and there’d be a moment before anything happened."

Much has been made of how easy today's four-stroke GP bikes are to ride, how you and I could ride one to the shops. Surely a 500 could sort men from boys before the end of pit lane? "Anyone could ride a 500 to Tesco, they are really easy to ride," counters Mackenzie. "It was just riding them on the pat on the back. Mackenzie: "Two-strokes are the best for learning to ride. If you can learn feel and throttle control on a two-stroke then jumping on a four-stroke’s easy. If you start off on a four-stroke you never learn those skills to the same degree.” limit that was tricky. A lot of that was down to the tyres and a lack of grip. That's why the Americans ruled 500s in that era. A lot of them came from dirt track backgrounds, which is all about sussing out when the rear tyre is going to let go. The mile-oval guys in particular, who’d done the really fast stuff, just had a confidence – they knew nothing was going to happen if they kept the power on. It was trickier for the Europeans.

"I remember Mick Doohan saying everything changed in the mid-90s with the move to unleaded fuel. Riders like Max Biaggi came in, guys who couldn’t slide like the Americans, but they did well because 500s had become easier to ride, you could carry corner speed with more confidence. Tyres had caught up us well. Highsides were less of a problem. In the 1980s powerbands just got narrower and narrower. The bikes got faster but they also got trickier to ride. There was a period in the late-1980s when everyone was getting beaten up after highsiding all over the place – the likes of Gardner, Rainey and Schwantz were all wrecking themselves.

"But while racing a 500 was tricky, it was really satisfying when it all came together. I got a pole at Suzuka and my first rostrum was at the Salzburgring in Austria. That was my first memory of riding a 500 and thinking ‘I can do this’. Then of course at the next race I crashed and broke my ankle – back to square one."

  • Give yourself a pat on the back. Mackenzie: “Two-strokes are the best for learning to ride. If you can learn feel and throttle control on a two-stroke then jumping on a four-stroke’s easy. If you start off on a four-stroke you never learn those skills to the same degree."
  • Get your engine set-up correctly. If you’ve got a two-stroke that’s not carbureting properly you’re never going to enjoy riding it. Check the carbs, the air cleaner and the reeds if you’ve got them.”
  • "In racing you keep your head buried in the screen," says Mackenzie. "You need to constantly monitor the rev counter to learn where the power is, where it isn't and when you need to be changing gear."
  • Consider keeping a hand over the clutch lever. Mackenzie: "I raced for Armstrong for four years and I was also their development rider. Their engines seized a lot and I was chucked off on pretty much every corner of every racetrack in the UK. You can hear and feel an engine seizing. Often it just drops silent – either whip the clutch in or curl yourself up into a ball."