Low Speed Tight Motorcycle Turns


A few years ago, I had my mind blown by a two-day private police motorcycle course with a great instructor. It really opened my eyes, and I came away with an appreciation for a part of my riding that I had ignored – low-speed maneuvers. Jerry the Motorman Palladino makes a business out of teaching the police techniques that make motorcycle cops so comfortable with the low-speed stuff. By low speed, I mean walking speed. By maneuvers, I mean stuff like pulling away from a curb while making a u-turn and doing a u-turn within two parking spots in a lot.

If I’ve lost your interest already, good luck making a u-turn on a narrow country road or doing your role in a group ride that needs to do something in a parking lot. Personally, I find it embarrassing to have to paddle around, and I just prefer to choose to ride my way into and out of tight spots in parking lots and other low-speed venues.

Once you master pulling from a curb into a u-turn and making tight, low speed turns, it is always a satisfying experience. Confidence in controlling your motorcycle is always an up, just as lack of confidence is always unsettling.

The Friction Zone

The key to doing this is what Palladino calls the use of “the friction zone”. The basic idea is that, at low speeds, you use the clutch to modulate forward motion, NOT the throttle (although there are times when you can also use the throttle to your advantage).

In the course, they had cloverleaf and tight u-turn and other setups to challenge the rider. The instructor was fantastic at spotting my weaknesses and creating situations that simply could not be mastered without improving in the areas that needed it. My personal challenge was making either a left or right turn at full lock from a stop, on command. (The instructor would say “right” or “left” at the last moment).

The reason I had trouble with this is simply that I did not have enough really low-speed saddle time to develop a subtle clutch hand. I noticed that few of the online “how to u-turn a motorcycle” videos sufficiently emphasized using the clutch for speed control.

What Are The Risks of a Tight U-Turn

It’s perilous enough to make a rapid turn on the road with your motorcycle. It’s dangerous to make the same maneuver with a vehicle that may effectively block many lanes, like a truck. It’s a maneuver that no approaching motorist can fairly expect, and it leaves you with few alternatives if someone comes up behind you. When high speeds, darkness, rain, snow, fog, road slopes, or bends are added to the equation, the maneuver becomes much more perilous.

The basic line is that when a driver performs a U-turn, they increase their chances of being involved in a serious collision. They frequently have to slow down in the inner passing (fast) lane, obstructing most or all opposing lanes in the process. U-turns are uncommon, and most drivers do not anticipate another car making one. These factors increase the likelihood of a major accident and a large insurance claim. As previously stated, accidents when doing a U-turn are frequently serious and result in hefty claim amounts.

How To Perform a Low Speed Tight Turn

To get started, simply get your rpm to 2000 or 2500 (depends on the bike), and give the bike just enough clutch to start moving forward. DO NOT adjust the throttle. Once you are comfortable with this, start with basic snaking around, circles, u-turns, and other maneuvers to get good at modulating with the clutch. As you get better, try starting up combined with a turn. Then make it tighter.

Like most things motorcycle, a little practice on a regular basis will yield enormous results. Surprisingly, you can’t help but be better with both throttle and clutch at higher speeds, once you are smoother at lower speeds.

Is that all there is to it? No. of course not. Will this make a huge difference? Absolutely. It is much easier to lean at low speeds and weight the outside of the bike, once you can confidently accelerate or maintain speed by using the clutch.

Honestly, I don’t know all the physics involved, but it seems logical that by keeping the engine revs up, you also get the benefit of the engine’s gyroscopic effect. Inherently, using the clutch to modulate speed seems to be smoother and seems to provide a smoother weight shift on the bike. Whatever the reason, this is just one of those things that work.

If you want to look at a step-by-step walkthrough on How to make a tight U-turn on a motorcycle, please see my previous blog post on the topic.

Essential Tips

Clutch control

The clutch comes first. You may be going 8 mph in first gear at tickover. Pull the clutch half way in if you want to maintain a consistent 4mph. This is similar to having a second gear that is half as short as the first. You may also draw it in three-quarters of the way and go at 2mph. It’s quite effective, but if you do it for too long, it’ll injure your hand.

The second option is to buy a contemporary bike, which will almost surely come with a light clutch, a featherweight ride-by-wire throttle, and the massive benefit of concentrated mass. Low-speed manoeuvring is a breeze compared to anything like my 1998 Ducati 900SSie (low, narrow bars, leaned-forward riding posture, bumpy engine, inconsistent dry clutch).

Back break

The next method is to continuously apply modest pressure on the back brake. Pulling in the clutch gives a similar sensation, but because you’re dragging the engine down by making the rear wheel harder to move, the bike seems more rooted.

U-turns have become quite simple. Give it a go. Anyone who isn’t aware of your plans will believe you are a magician.

All you have to do now is practice, practice, practice with left and right hand turns, and you should be able to glide through this section of your exam with a crucial skill that you’ll utilize on most days you ride.

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