Have you ever sat down and looked back at your motorcycle journey from where it started to where you are now? Motorcycle enthusiasm is unique, something which in most cases is shaped into a person through interaction and coaching from more experienced individuals. It’s a rare occasion that someone comes to love motorcycling without being guided to a bike by someone else. Usually it’s a father, or a grandfather encouraging that first time on two wheels. For the folks that fall into motorcycle love without a push from a person, I would suggest they were still pushed into the passion by other enthusiasts – maybe just in the form of a magazine, or these days from something online. I bring up this conversation because we all remember our first days riding and who that figure showing us the ropes was, sparking our journey to conquer the motorcycle world. From there I’m sure the memories are endless along the path to where you are today in motorcycle experience and skill.
I believe motorcycle riding is different than a lot of other mainstream sport, and with that our approach to developing as an athlete in it should be different. That’s a difficult thing to do when we are bombarded with stick and ball sports, and the athletic development within them. If you just had the thought pop into your head “I’m not an athlete,” I would keep reading – and I would give yourself more credit than that. Anyone capable of operating a motorcycle is an athlete in my eyes, and an impressive one.
I can say with confidence if you started riding as a kid, it was on a dirt bike armed with less than 10 horsepower. Development starts here, and as we grow the bikes we ride grow. We get stronger, the bikes we can handle get stronger, and soon you’re an adult saddled on a 200 hp superbike.
Everyone craves to ride the biggest displacement bike, giving yourself the most power and opportunity for the feeling that only turning the throttle on two wheels renders. How many of us go from big to small though? Some, for sure, but I think we should all be doing it if we want to continuously improve our skills. The benefit from stepping back levels is hard to find in most other sports, but with bikes I would argue the benefit is huge and easily seen. Riding a pack-leading machine is awesome if you’re trying to win a race or set a lap record, but riders should still put some focus on smaller machines to improve riding technique.
Some of the best riding I’ve ever done on a 1000 cc superbike is a result of the riding I got to do on a 600 cc sport bike. 200 hp vs. 120 hp changes how you look at a track, how you apply the throttle, where you weight the pegs, how deep you can trail brake. The way you can carry more corner speed on the 600 gets your brain used to it, and makes it that much easier to push the 1000 to the same spot. This is just one example of a small displacement downsize benefiting my riding. A massive step back is to 100 cc four-stroke bikes; for example, a Honda 100. When you’re used to 200 hp, arming yourself with 10 hp and scaling down the track you’re riding might seem pointless – but it is amazing.
Whether training for motocross, road racing, or really any type of riding, it’s pretty awesome training on a 10 hp machine where the risk is low and the reward is still high as can be. Okay, railing a dirt rut on a 100 doesn’t give you the same ecstasy as it might on a 450, but it’s close. With no power, you can’t make mistakes. A small mistake when you have 10 hp usually destroys your drive, and affects your lap time way worse than a small mistake can with 200 hp. How does this help? Practice makes perfect, and riding the small bikes mistake-free will help translate to riding big bikes mistake free. I love getting out to kart tracks and dragging knee, riding dirt tracks in the summer and messing around on the ice in the winter.
The other glorious part of riding the smaller bikes is that you can make them do things you wouldn’t dream of making a full-sized bike do – until all the sudden it isn’t a dream anymore, and you’re able to translate the small-bike skills into big-bike skills. Going deeper into a corner every lap until eventually the front end tucks on you, but your speed is slow enough your reaction time catches it, and you recover mid corner to complete the lap. This skill at low speeds can help you at high speeds; it’s remarkable how much our brains can learn, and that muscle memory can develop into rewarding skills.
Low risk, low budget, big smiles. That’s how I view going back to the bikes we all learned to ride on, and why I love taking that step back to hone my skills for the high horsepower days. IM
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Inside Motorcycles. -Ed.