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Since 1999, the #1 Motorcycling Magazine for Women and the Men Who Ride with Them

Riding Right: An Uphill Battle

Starting out on an incline

By Susan Rzepka Orion

Starting out on a hill can be tricky. Have you ever been stopped on a hill behind a truck or car that has rolled backward toward you? It's a little unsettling. Vehicles with manual transmissions may roll back from a dead stop on a hill. And motorcycles are no exception. 

an uphill battle
Starting out on an incline doesn't have to be an uphill battle.

Blame it on gravity, or blame it on the weight of the vehicle. Both factors weigh heavily in creating a potential rollback when stopped on an incline. The degree of roll and amount of control depend largely on the operator's level of skill and experience. With practice, starting out on an incline will not always be an uphill battle.

When stopping on hill, bring your motorcycle to a controlled stop using the same braking technique you always use. Apply both brakes smoothly and simultaneously while downshifting to first gear. If you brake using the method recommended by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), you are accustomed to putting the motorcycle into first gear and using both brakes simultaneously. Your left foot comes down to the pavement first, because your right foot remains on the brake pedal. Your head and eyes are up, looking straight ahead, and the handlebars are completely squared, not turned or leaned in any direction.

At this point you can choose from two methods for dealing with stops on a hill:

Method one: Keep one foot on the ground; use the rear brake only.
If conditions allow, keep your right foot on the brake while your left foot remains on the pavement to balance the bike. Release the front brake lever, freeing your right hand to fully control the throttle. Trust that the rear brake alone will hold the motorcycle in place. It will! It can be a little daunting to do this the first few times you try it, especially on a hill. You might want to try this technique at a stop on a level surface first so you can experience what it feels like to let off one brake and rely solely on the other for stability. Have confidence that one brake can hold the motorcycle in place on its own.

an uphill battle rear brake
Use the rear brake to keep the bike from rolling backwards.

Remember that having your foot, or feet, on the ground is simply a balancing technique. You are not holding the motorcycle in place with your body. This is the job of the brakes. Few individuals of any size or strength have the power to prevent a motorcycle from rolling backwards on a hill with their legs alone. Even Fred Flintstone, digging his heels into the dirt on a good day in Bedrock, would fight against gravity and lose!

Now it's time to use the clutch and throttle to take off. Ease out the clutch slowly part way into the friction zone, which is the area of travel in the clutch lever where partial power is transmitted to the rear wheel. Give the throttle a little twist until the rear wheel is powered enough to hold the bike steady without the rear brake. As you release the rear brake, continue to ease out the clutch, add throttle and away you go!

Method Two: Keep both feet on the ground; use the front brake only.
If you don't feel comfortable with just your left foot on the ground, place both feet on the ground for stability and hold the motorcycle in place with only the front brake. Again, trust that the single brake will hold the motorcycle in place. It will!

Now it's time to use the clutch and throttle to take off. Ease the clutch slowly part way into the friction zone. Release the front brake and give the throttle a little twist as the clutch transmits power to the rear wheel. This technique requires a little bit more finesse as it's nearly impossible to control the throttle when your hand is on the front brake lever, and you rely primarily on the clutch and throttle to power the rear wheel and hold the bike steady. As you release the front brake, continue to ease out the clutch, add a little twist of throttle and take off. 

an uphill battle brake lever
Ease the clutch into the friction zone to hold the bike steady before releasing the brake.

For a variation of this technique, stabilize the bike with both feet on the ground. Then simply reapply the rear brake, release the front brake, and use method one.  

Starting out on a hill does not have to be an uphill battle. Ultimately, it comes down to mastering the friction zone -- coordinated use of the clutch and throttle -- while managing the brakes. Coordinated use of the friction zone is the single greatest basic skill any rider can possess. Practice in a parking lot until you are able to control the motorcycle at very low speeds using the friction zone without stalling. This basic skill really pays off, and comes in particularly handy on hills. 

About the Author
Susan Rzepka Orion is a certified MSF RiderCoach and Rider's Edge Instructor who loves to ride, write, and help others who want to do the same. You can find her on the road on her Yamaha V Star 1100 Custom.

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