June 17 2011 by Jason Fogelson
Riding a motorcycle is all about managing traction, so it's important to understand what traction is and how your riding style, choices and your motorcycle itself affect the traction that you have available.
First, some basics. As it relates to motorcycles, traction is the resistance between your tires and the ground. Traction results from friction (surface resistance) combined with your tires' footprint combined with your bike's (and your) weight. If the available traction is less than the torque that you apply to your wheel, the tire will spin. When your wheels spin without traction, handling can be unpredictable, and very bad things can happen.
Think about some times when you've seen or experienced a lack of traction on a motorcycle. Starting out from a dead stop at a traffic light, a biker gives his engine a little too much throttle, and instead of jumping ahead, the rear wheel spins, smokes and slides to the side. Riding into a corner, your wheels encounter a patch of gravel and begin to slide instead of rolling. Or the light turns yellow, and you decide to brake hard in a straight line. Instead of rolling to a quick stop, you lock the wheels and your bike slides to a stop with a loud squeal and the smell of burnt rubber. All of these examples are cases of poorly managed traction.
The first, best advice in managing traction is simple: Slow down. Speed definitely affects traction, so if you think you're in a situation where traction is going to be an issue, reduce your speed smoothly and gradually. Apply smooth inputs to your throttle, brakes and steering.
Your eyes are very good tools for identifying potential traction hazards. Be on the lookout for surface conditions that might cause challenges: gravel, water, tar strips, oil on the road and other obvious detritus will show up as you ride. Avoid them, and if you can't avoid them, make sure that you ride over them smoothly and upright, not while turning your wheel or applying hard brake or throttle.
Watch for hints of hidden hazards, too: Shade can camouflage a wet road, and can even keep frost or ice from melting until late on a cool morning. A puff of dust from beneath a vehicle up ahead can warn you that gravel or dirt may be in the roadway. Also, beware of following vehicles that might be leaking or dropping liquids or materials on the roadway.
Another important factor in managing traction is to make sure that your motorcycle is in top condition, especially your tires. Check for proper inflation before every single ride. Inspect your tires, both front and rear, to make sure that your tread is in good shape, and that you have enough meat on the rubber to maximize available traction. Some custom bike guys even go as far as modifying their bikes to accept wider wheels and tires. Not only does a wide tire look cool, it also increases the bike's footprint, and its available traction, so it can have some positive effects. Of course, it can also make cornering more difficult, so you can't get something for nothing.
When it comes to physics and motorcycling, there's no such thing as a free lunch - or free traction. Learn to manage the traction that you've got, and your riding will be safer and more effective every time you take to the road.