With gravity perennially pulling you downwards, going uphill is more difficult than going downhill, right? If you look at it purely in terms of the effort and energy required by your machine, yes. Factor in the relative lack of traction on the front wheel, the extra momentum you would by carrying, the additional stress that the suspension, brakes and tyres have to go through – going downhill suddenly starts appearing tricky. Fact is, riding down a windy, hilly road requires a lot more attention and skill than you would imagine. While going uphill, the two-wheeler is loaded at the rear, where the fatter rubber offers plenty of traction. The engine has its work cut-out, but the steering feels light, and the bike turns easily. Also, with the motor having to do a lot more work than on flats, faster speeds are relatively difficult to achieve. Going downhill, however, with the gravity kicking in, you are carrying more momentum and speed in the direction of travel without much effort. Even a gentle dab on the front brake loads up the front of the bike, putting tremendous pressure on the forks and the relatively slimmer front tyres. Owing to all these reasons, it is easy to overcook a corner, lose traction or run wide while going downhill. In hilly areas with no barricades on the sides, one small mistake can turn disastrous. Riding downhill on a motorcycle, therefore, demands the rider to be extra cautious, and requires her/him to be equipped with certain skills to keep safe. In this article, we will share some simple techniques with you, which will help you manage your motorcycle with a lot more confidence while handling steep downhill sections.
Don’t load up the front
As you go downhill, the weight of the motorcycle is transferred disproportionately to its front end. This puts tremendous pressure on the front suspension, tyres and brakes of the motorcycle. Around corners, steering takes more effort, and if there isn’t enough traction available, the chances of the front washing out are higher than on flats or while going uphill. To ensure that you don’t put an already stressed front end of the motorcycle under further load, don’t speed while going downhill. Try and slide back on the seat a little to relieve the front of some weight. Hold the tank tightly with your knees and thighs so that you don’t slide forward. Hold the handlebars gently, and do not rest the entire weight of your upper body onto the handlebar. Try using the strength of your back and abs to stop the front from overloading. Go easy on the throttle, and don’t wait too late to brake. Even as you press the brake lever, do it in a progressive, modulated fashion, never grabbing a fistful. The front tyres on motorcycles are slimmer than the rear, and if optimum traction is not available on the road surface, the chances of the front losing traction are quite high while going downhill, so be super cautious and always take it easy.
Mind the momentum
As you go downhill, the effort required to slow down is increased drastically. Even with the brakes applied, gravity is constantly trying to pull you towards itself, trying to keep you constantly in a state of motion. Unlike on a flat surface, maintaining a state of rest will take effort. Things only get worse as the weight on the motorcycle increases. If you are heavily built, or have a pillion on board, be doubly careful. Account for the added weight and momentum, and ride at even slower speeds.
Careful around corners
With the front loaded up, the steering gets heavy and takes additional effort to turn. With additional forces at play, the motorcycle tends to understeer and run wide while going around corners downhill. To prevent the motorcycle from going wide, plan your entry, drop the anchors early and slow down well in advance. Take a wide approach while entering a right-hand corner. Not only will this allow for a wider turning radius but will reduce the gradient too, as you will be covering a larger distance over the same amount of vertical drop. A wider approach isn’t always advisable on left handers, but if it’s an open corner with a good view of the road ahead, you can take a wide approach while being on your side of the road. In addition to widening the turning radius, a wider approach also expands your field of vision, allowing you to look deep into the corner. For blind left-handed corners, however, you should take a safe approach, and go narrow to avoid negligent oncoming drivers.
Use engine braking, never ride in neutral gear
Engine braking is your best friend while riding downhill. To invoke engine braking, you simply have to release the accelerator, and shift down a gear or two. With the throttle released, the air intake valve is closed, creating a vacuum, restricting the airflow to the cylinders, leading to a strong decelerating effect. Engine braking provides a strong decelerating force which complements the front and rear brakes in slowing down the two-wheeler. The lower the gear, the more the braking force provided by the engine. Make use of the engine braking, as it not only slows down the vehicle effectively, but by decelerating the rear wheel it also helps unload the front wheel and keeps the motorcycle balanced. While going downhill, ride a gear or two lower than the gear you would ride on a flat surface. Also, never ride in neutral gear. A lot of untrained riders engage neutral and turn off ignition to save fuel while riding downhill. It is an extremely dangerous thing to do, as it robs the rider of any control over the vehicle’s powertrain, while also removing engine braking altogether from the equation.
Look far, look where you wish to go
This is one of the simplest, yet most effective tricks of motorcycle riding. Whether you are off-roading, riding on a racetrack, commuting to work, climbing uphill, or descending downhill - keeping your gaze a good distance away on the road improves your control on the vehicle drastically. Lift your gaze, look far, look where you want the motorcycle to be. Seasoned, professional riders swear by this magical trick, and it’s often the one thing that differentiates the average rider from a good one. Do not look too close ahead on the road, take your gaze away, moving it constantly in line with your vehicle’s speed, and you will see that your control on your motorcycle has increased significantly.
Push the inner bars
Counter steering is for real. When a motorcycle is leaned over, nothing works better to reduce the turning radius than pushing the inner handlebar. It might sound counterintuitive to beginners, but that’s how the physics of motorcycle riding work. If you are going around a corner, and want to keep it tight, look where you want to go, transfer your weight towards the inner part of the corner and push the inner handlebar. This skill requires some practice. Riding often through the hills or joining a riding school would really help you master this advanced technique.
Don’t go blind
Be it an uphill, flat or downhill road - if it’s windy, it will have blind corners. Never overtake on a blind corner. Remember this rule always. Not just that, while approaching a blind corner, always leave some buffer for the ignorant, careless road users, those who might attempt crossing over and take up your side of the road. Always be cautious, ride slowly, and keep enough buffer for the mistakes of others.
Don’t late brake
On a flat surface, you might get away if you braked too late and committed a mistake. On a steep downhill slope, however, one error and you would see your motorcycle hurtling tangentially to the desired curve, into the barricade if you are lucky, or into the valley if you are not. One can’t stress enough about the fact that traction is on a premium down a slope. Refrain from trying any adventurous antics, brake early, progressively, and ensure you have enough buffer to handle any surprises.
It’s a slippery slope
An unexpected pothole, a broken patch of road, a trail of spilled diesel, a few drops of leaked oil, wet cow dung, or a stray pebble - it literally needs one tiny aberration to break the traction of your front wheel while going down a steep slope. Going downhill, the front tyre is at an extremely high risk of losing traction. Make sure you compensate for the risk by being overcautious. This holds especially true in wet weather when the available traction is even lesser.
Riding around the hills is great fun. However, it comes with its own challenges. As we always say, safety takes precedence over fun. While riding downhill, do make sure that you take the precautions mentioned above and increase your pace gradually as your skill and confidence improves. As a rule, while riding on streets, always keep a sufficient buffer for any surprises.