Reg is a natural for writing a book on technique. He has the requisite credentials and scary personal stories. He has a coherent philosophy for riding a bike well. He has successfully taught zillions of riders to ride better and safer. He’s built a successful business or two in motorcycling. He’s a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He’s the full-meal deal.
Reg is one of the original Ton-Up boys, those wild and wacky post-war hooligans who hung around the Ace Café, Ted’s Diner, and Ma Johnson’s over in Blighty scaring the beejeesus out of the straights with loud exhausts, lunatic antics, and high speeds. If you haven’t read anything about this period in UK cycling, you should. The stories of getting round and back before Elvis stopped crooning on the Wurlitzer are just priceless. Hair raising, but priceless.
Miraculously, Reg survived his adolescent craziness and went on to achieve great success on the race track, winning on superbikes when riding them was a really bad idea and the Isle of Mann piloting side car rigs. During and through it all, Reg developed his maniacal devotion to smoothness that was his hallmark as a racer and is the foundation of his hugely successful CLASS riding school.
The book is organized into the following chapters. I’ve included a quote or three from each.
“Control is the core of my writing philosophy. It starts with the proper attitude, including such things as discipline and focus. In this book I devote an entire chapter to attitude and mental awareness. With this foundation in place, you had the proper technique to make the writer and machine flow as one.”“The philosophy of control is valid both on the track and on the street. Control is the essence of being fast, and it is the essence of being safe, wherever you write.”
“Most of my techniques were honed at the race track. For instance, I put a lot of emphasis on smoothness. I believe that being smooth isn’t just an artful or elegant way to ride the bike (though it is those things, too). You need to be smooth before you can go fast, and you need to be smooth to be safe. Elsa put a lot of emphasis on (body steering): using subtle weight shifts to initiate turns, rather than being forceful with a handlebar.”
Chapter 1: Attitude. Starts in your head.
I can’t think of a book on riding that doesn’t start here. Early on, riding is, or should be, all about technique. Until you know how to do the right things in the right ways, you’re a danger to yourself and the people around you. After that, it’s all attitude all the time.
Building technique requires practice. Few of us like to practice anything. I remember when I took up golf some years ago (I went from aspiring golfer, to golfer, to someone who golfs, to someone who golfs occasionally, to ex-duffer in the space of about five years). The first pro I worked with said I would have to hit 500 balls a week and practice on the range for a year before she would let me out on the course. I’m strange that way, so that’s what I did. Me and three other people are like that.
For normal people, practice is drudgery, and that’s where the part about attitude comes in. The penalty for lack of practice, for lack of consistency on the gold course was a lost ball and a high score. You can finish where this thought is going without my help.
So Reg begins by making the case for consistency, something that is mental long before it’s physical.
“One of the ways I challenge my students is on their consistency – or lack of it. I’ve known a lot of my students for a long time, and some of them can get around the track very fast. One of the things that makes me faster, and safer, is my consistency.”“I define consistency is the ability to repeat a certain exercise properly, over and over. You should constantly critique yourself and strive to be better. Don’t repeat bad habits.”
“On the street, discipline means positioning yourself in a way that makes you visible to other vehicles at all times. It means always maintaining the right RPMs to accelerate out of a bad situation. It means constantly painting a picture of what might happen around the next corner. In a blind right-hander, you need to imagine the biggest, ugliest thing possible waiting for you around the bend. This way, you can meet any challenge that’s ahead.”
“Consistency doesn’t just apply to the track. You must be extra disciplined and focused on the street. Do you ever ride around without knowing what gear you’re in, or with your foot poised over the rear brake? When crisis strikes and that car pulls out in front of you, these things can mean disaster.”
“Focus is another key. Often on the road or track, our thoughts are in the wild blue yonder. We are thinking about what’s for dinner, family matters, or our jobs. There are times when you can get away with this – but there are times when it will bite you.”
Chapter 2: Smoothness. How to be a smooth operator
This chapter is the heart of the book. Everything that follows builds on what’s laid out here. I’ve recently read it twice and have lots of underlines. I’ve highlighted many of them here. Much of it tracks with what you’ll find in other books.
One bit that does stand out, particularly if you’re recently graduated from a basic skills course, is Reg’s counsel to use only two fingers on the front brake, rather than grabbing a handful. From my own experience, I’m with Reg. I don’t see how you can smoothly modulate the right lever with all four fingers, particularly when the adrenaline flows. Try picking up a pencil with all five fingers or maybe squeezing a tube of toothpaste this way. You’ll get the point.
How to hold the throttle
“Here’s a specific technique for gripping the throttle that will help you “roll it on.” Start by placing your third and fourth fingers around the throttle. Then place the first and second fingers on the front brake lever. I “cover” the brake this way 90% of the time I’m riding. With your fingers in his position, the action is like that of a “rocking horse”; if you’re rolling on the throttle, you should be easing off the brake. If you’re squeezing the brake, you should be rolling off the throttle. These two actions should flow seamlessly into one another.”
Don’t pull a clutch all the way to the bar
“I recommend that you pull the lever and about one-third of its total throw—just enough to disengage it. If you pull the lever all the way to the bar, you’ll tend to quickly “dump” it again and to engage the gear: Not good for smoothness, or traction.”
Err on the side of more RPMs.
“In CLASS I draw an enormous one-foot tachometer on the board and tell people: RPMs are your friend. It’s one of my golden rules. So much of good clutch technique involves “matching” RPMs to your speed. When you pull the clutch, don’t let the RPMs drop or the engine will become a brake, and you’ll risk locking the back wheel. Your engine speed should be at least at the same level as when you pulled the clutch in.”
Do it right now
“Don’t be lackadaisical about your clutch work. Master the timing so you can do it quickly, but smoothly. Don’t procrastinate!”
“The initial squeeze should be gentle: just enough to achieve contact between the pads and rotor. Then you should squeeze a progressively harder, as needed.”“One key technique to smooth the front braking is using just two fingers. Many instructors emphatically teach the use of four fingers, but with modern bikes, two fingers are adequate and this method will encourage you to use the brakes with moderation. Also, don’t “dump” the brake when you’re done with it. Try to feed to brake back out as smoothly as you applied it.”
Chapter 3: braking. The art of slowing down
I’ve probably read this some place else, but it stands out with Reg: Use your gearbox. He makes this point here in conjunction with managing corners, and again later when he talks about the importance of keeping the revs up around town.
“A lot of writers navigate the twisties by simply rolling the throttle on and off. I tend to avoid this. I always prefer to downshift. This slows me just a bit, and enables me to come back on the throttle very quickly. It puts me in a more commanding position, and keeps the RPMs up. (Remember: RPMs are your best friends!) I always prefer to manage a corner by accelerating through it.”“I also have a “golden rule” that applies to deceleration for corners: downshift first, then apply the brakes. Many people find the timing difficult if they try to brake first and then downshift. What generally happens is they try to blip the throttle for a downshift fall maintaining pressure on the brake, and his hand action fluctuates the brake, unsettling the motorcycle.”
Like many other instructors, for example Lee Parks agrees here, Reg is a believer in the back brake. He makes this point after making the point that the front brake does most of the work. Apparently, and I didn’t know this, there are folks out there under the impression that the front brake is for decoration and not to be used. If you’re one of those people, and you’re not riding dirt bikes down steep descents, you should bone up on your physics. For the rest of us, particularly sport bike riders, here’s what Reg has to say about that little pedal on the right.
“You need to understand the rear brake and its qualities. Envision the application of the rear brake “stretching” the frame. In effect, it drags the rear wheel and settles the front.”
Chapter 4: the throttle management. The secret to control
I ride big twins and a big-torque FJR1300, so I’m guilty of up-shifting and riding around in a higher gear much of the time. Some of it is I can “get away” with it given the bags of torque available on my bikes. Some of it is left over from the gas-crunch days of the 70s when we all lugged our engines in search of a bit more mpg. But reading chapter four has me rethinking my gear selection strategy. Hint: this doesn’t work well if you’re not otherwise smooth on the gas and brakes.
“You’ve heard me say it before, but it bears repeating: RPMs are your friend. This is one of the basic corollaries of throttle management, and it will pay dividends that you won’t believe.“For the sake of instruction, let’s look at how not to do it. Say you’re in a corner at about 2000 rpm. Here’s what’s happening with the dynamics of the bike: First, when you try to accelerate in mid-corner, the bike simply won’t respond. The engine is not in its power range. Second, the bike will not hold the desirable smooth line. Third, suspension action will tend to be unresponsive because it’s near the bottom of its travel. Because the bike is “squatting” in this way, ground clearance will be reduced. Weight distribution is also altered, with an inordinate amount on the front and not enough on the rear.”
“Now let’s look at how things are changed with ample RPMs. First, you have power at your command for proper corner entry and exit speeds and anything you might encounter mid-corner. Next, by simply rolling the throttle on or off, you can widen or tighten your line in minute increments.”
“Keeping on the gas in the proper RPM range also lifts the bike slightly, putting it in the middle of its suspension range and increasing ground clearance.”
Chapter 5: Body Steering. A full body approach
This is where Reg departs from other instructors, most notably Lee Parks. I won’t recount the physics of how bikes go around corners other than to remind you that the bike needs to be leaned over for that to happen at anything above walking speeds.
Once up to speed, there are three ways to cause the bike to lean and thus turn. One is counter steering: pushing on the inside grip to momentarily deflect the wheel in the opposite direction you want to go, causing the bike to lean in. A second is weighting the inside of the bike; literally pushing down on the peg with the expected results following. A third is to move your weight to the inside of the bike’s centerline. You can think of this is pushing the bike in with the outside knee or pulling the bike in by getting your body mass inside the center of gravity. Same thing.
If you read my review of Total Control, you’ll see that Lee has you moving your mass inside the bike’s centerline. He doesn’t really talk about counter steering, so in that regard, he and Reg are on the same page.
Where they diverge is in how you get that done. With Reg, it’s all smoothness all the time. You move your body in increments off the bike, smoothing it over while you round the corner. With Lee, the strategy is almost completely different. You hold the bike up with your off-hand while you move your weight inside the centerline. You wait to the turn point and then release the off hand, allowing the bike to flop into the turn. It’s a sort of auto-counter-steering sort of thing. The “flopping” in part doesn’t come out quite this clearly in the book, but it’s there. And that’s where he and Reg differ.
Which is better? I’m not sure I’m the guy to ask.
“I’m always seeking ways to eliminate tension. When your input comes from of the whole body-body steering-you are reducing tension on your arms. You should have so little tension in your upper body that you can literally “flap your wings”-move your elbows up and down with total ease. Do this as a reminder to release tension in your upper body.”“Does counter steering work? Of course it does. You can get a motorcycle to follow the desired path exclusively by applying pressure to the handlebars, with no other body movement. Is it the best way? Not in my experience, and not in the experience of most racers I know. Try riding a tight figure eight with your feet off the page. It’s not too easy, is it?”
Chapter 6: correct cornering. The best way around a bend
Yet another place where Reg has a firmly held belief that runs counter to what others teach is the whole theory of the best line on the street. A lot of people are big fans of the idea of setting up as wide as you can so that you can see further down the road. So on right hand turns (in the US), you set the bike as close to the centerline as you dare and cut across the apex of the turn as late as you can, maximizing your sightline and keeping the bike upright for as long as you can.
Reg doesn’t argue with the physics, but thinks it’s a bad strategy given how sloppily people drive their cars. In his mind, and it’s hard to argue, the centerline on a back road is last place you want to be.
Keep a tight line
“On the Road for most right-handers and on the track for most turns, I recommend you keep a tight line. It’s another one of my golden rules.”“The tight line keeps you safe by maintaining ample distance between you and oncoming traffic. By entering a corner from the middle of your lane, you keep distance between you and vehicles in the opposing lane. This is especially important when these vehicles drift into your lane—as they so often do.”
Decreasing radius turns
“What you need is more lean angle. One of the things that will pull you through is to look through the corner. This means swiveling your head—not just your eyes. Look as far up the road as practical, and the bike will follow. On bikes without a lot of clearance, leaning farther may not be an option, so you will need to be even more careful about getting into a turn like this too hot.”
Chapter 7: Street strategies. Effective everyday tactics
If you’ve never read or thought about staying safe around town, this is as good a place to get into that as any. You must surely know that most crashes happen around town, quite close to home, often involving cars, usually when the biker has the right of way. The bit that really stood out to me here was the importance of being predictable.
“We’ve already talked about the importance of discipline and focus in all your riding. On the street, these things translate to predictability for those around you. It means operating at or near the speed limit in town, avoiding rapid lane changes, stopping in a smooth and controlled fashion, and not cutting back in too close to a car you just passed.”
Chapter 8: special conditions. Dealing with hazards
A lot of riders hate riding in the rain. It’s not like that’s hard to understand, particularly if you’re not geared up for it.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m well acquainted with the stuff. The first few minutes when it starts to come down suck. Besides putting a bit of a damper on, the roads immediately turn to squirrel snot. This goes double for white lines on the road, and triple for white arrows and anything metal. I know about the white arrow thing from painful experience. So you slow down and pay extra attention.
Once past that part, riding in the rain has its own rhythm and can be decently fun. I’ve racked up some big miles in pissing rain. I’ve also dragged pegs going round a 40-foot circle in a parking lot. Modern tires, assuming they’re in good shape and a proper street compound, are pretty damn good in the wet stuff.
The bit that caught my eye was Reg’s rejoinder to use your body in the rain. Don’t just sit there like a frozen-dope, bolt upright in the saddle thinking that if you don’t twitch the bike will be just fine. You’re going about it backwards.
“If the handlebar is your primary means of steering, it will get you in trouble. Handlebar input tends to be too abrupt, and will cause the front end to break free in slippery conditions. You need to eliminate tension in your shoulders and arms to avoid giving the front and a bad message.”
“Time and again, people try this body steering method in the rain, and come back to me and say: “I see what you mean about releasing pressure.” By easing up, they find the control they are looking for.”
Braking in the wet
“Low gears and throttle management should be your first means of control in the wet.”
Chapter 9: Equipment, Setup, & Gear. How to choose the right stuff.
If you’ve never read or thought about gear, again, this is as good a place as any to start. I’m a gear hound. I’ve read leagues of stuff and own more of everything than I care to think about. So I must confess, I didn’t pay a ton of attention to this chapter other than to note that I agreed with everything.
Other writers devote entire chapters to suspension setup, so in this, I was a bit surprised to see all these bits lumped into one place.
Having said all that, I actually did learn something I had not read before: how to set sag without actually sitting on the bike. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, so I’m still waiting to give it a try. For a counterpoint on this, see Total Control by Lee Parks for how to do it on the bike (requires two other people).
Chapter 10 two-op and group writing. Tips for safely sharing your sport
Good general commentary. I wish I could say more, but It’s not a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. I do as little of both as I can.
If you’re still reading, you’ve read a lot. I’m a technique junkie, so my recommendation is to buy the book, read it, and add it to your shelf of resources. More to the point, do something to put something in here into practice.
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Tags: RegPridmore, CLASS, Smooth Riding, Lee Parks, Total Control, Ton Up Boys, Ace Cafe, Ted’s Diner, Ma Johnson’s, Motorcycle Hall fo Fame,