Riding a motorcycle is kind of like flying an airplane. While the machines themselves are obviously different, the mindset to operate them, surprisingly isn’t.  In the late eighties, I determined to earn a pilot’s license. I remember climbing into the cockpit of a Cessna Sky Hawk for the first time. I sat there rolling the yoke from side to side, pushing it in and out. I thought back to those grainy black and white WWII films I had seen as a kid—Heinkels and Messerschmitts versus Spitfires and Hurricanes dog -fighting over those White Cliffs of Dover. I was sort of hoping that flying Cessnas could be like that. It didn’t take long for my green stomach to tell me otherwise. There never was and there never is an occasion to manhandle flight controls when flying an airplane. Instead, my flight instructor shared the concept of “pressuring the controls.” I’ve been operating motorcycles and airplanes this way ever since.

Just before any takeoff, there is a pre-flight inspection to complete. I walk around the airplane checking the elevators and ailerons, tire pressure, landing and navigation lights. I open the cowling to check the quality and amount of oil.

The same is true with the motorcycle. It’s rare that I don’t walk around the bike again checking tire pressure and lights, making sure the luggage is firmly attached and mirror stalks are tight.

Once the pre-flight inspection is complete, I climb aboard the plane, don a headset and buckle myself in. There are further checks to be made. Verifying the flight controls is one of them. I carefully roll the yoke from side to side, push it forward and pull it back. I press on the rudder pedals. I want to get a feel for these primary controls before rapid acceleration brings the airplane to life and lifts off from those “surly bonds of earth.” Then, as airspeed builds, gaining altitude all the while, these controls become extremely sensitive to movement — any movement.  Now, the word “pressure” replaces “movement” as the operative word, and feeling smooth—being smooth—largely determines how well I am flying.

This is when the motorcycling and flying mindset become one.

The primary controls of the motorcycle are the handlebars, the throttle, the brake, the clutch and the shifter. When riding try thinking in terms of pressuring these controls. For example, instead of rolling on, cracking, whacking or twisting the throttle, think of pressuring the throttle open or closed. Then pay attention and feel the performance as you apply different amounts of pressure. Be smooth.

Once I have established the airplane at my assigned altitude, the idea is to precisely maintain that altitude. When Air TrafficControl says 11,000 feet, they don’t mean 11,180 feet.  This is precision flying or  “flying the needles” since my tolerance in smooth air is the width of the altitude indicator needle itself. It’s delicate stuff at 130 knots, requiring concentration and the subtlest of pressure on the controls.

Likewise, as you motorcycle along the Interstate, try “riding the needle” by concentrating on keeping your speedometer pegged at a given speed. As necessary, make subtle throttle corrections. Pick a challenging needle tolerance and “ride the needle.” Have fun with it and soon you’ll have exacting speed control.

Throttle control is everything.  Here’s another exercise: Eliminate the jerk. Often, when rolling on or off the throttle, no matter how slight, you will feel a slight jerk of acceleration or deceleration. Now imagine that your throttle cable is a singular, slender, silken, thread. Anything other than gentle pressures snaps the thread! Eliminate the throttle jerk. The goal is to pressure the “thread” back and forth and to feel – nothing.

Whenever braking, don’t apply, slam, jam, or even squeeze the brake – pressure the brake. As you apply pressure on the calipers, pay attention and feel the brake pads as they grip the rotors. For a certain pressure on the brake, there is a certain amount of stopping power.  I usually ride with my index and middle finger covering the brake especially in curves. This way, I have instant stopping power with nary a second wasted in having to grab the brake.

Here’s another exercise: when you’re rolling to a complete stop, ensure there is absolutely no jerk arriving at zero mph. It takes a delicate touch. Again, your intention is to feel nothing.

When shifting gears, be smooth. Try “pressuring the shifter.” Whenever you shift gears, apply slight pressure to the shifter first. Then shift gears. The entire shift happens simultaneously. Gently release the clutch.  Pay attention to how it all feels. The goal, once again, is to feel nothing. If there is any jerk, make subtle throttle adjustments. You’ll start earning smiles of self-satisfaction as your shifting becomes seamlessly smooth.

Pressure implies a studied application and is the essence of smoothness. A studied application is also fundamental to expertise.

Fly your motorcycle more by the seat of your pants. Pressuring the controls is the key.

Miles of smiles will multiply. Guaranteed!

See you in third gear.

Jim Ford