Soft Hands for Hard Rides
By Ramey ‘Coach’ Stroud
Do your hands ever get sore when you ride? Do your fingers ever tingle or go to sleep? How about your neck or your back? Do they hurt too? For many riders these problems are caused by poor posture. Their riding position needs work. For others pain, soreness or weakness are forms of fatigue. Whatever the cause painful or numb fingers are dangerous. Here are a few competition secrets to make your travels safer and more enjoyable.
Lessons Learned From Racing. An important training target for racers is to have soft hands. No, not with lotion! I mean soft hands on the handlebar grips. If racers have a strangle hold on the handlebars precise movement of the fingers is not possible. Soft hands allow smooth roll-on or off the gas in the whoops. Soft hands allow dragging the front brake around rutted turns to make the bike handle faster. Soft hands allow hair-thickness movements of the clutch to control traction. These racing techniques demonstrate having soft hands means more control, not less. To have a velvet touch requires three things: proper mental picture, body memory and an exercise program.
I. Your Mental Picture. We usually begin soft hands training in the classroom. There riders are introduced to the idea that your primary connection with a motorcycle is not arms and fingers. What? If not my hands, then how do I hang on? To answer we look closely at the bikes used for motocross, desert racing, enduros and road racing. Most have a smooth transition between the seat and the gas tank to make knee and inner leg contact easier. Smooth, flat grip plates (Image 1) are placed on the frame to allow a smooth place for the lower leg and ankle to squeeze-in and hold. After a few races the engine cases are scuffed and polished by the gripping of leather race boots. (Image 2.)
Do you have a mental picture yet? No? Then let’s keep working on the idea of waist-down connection. Image 3 shows me teaching a road race class on a street-legal BMWGS. While in a standing position at high speed I would sometimes point to students as I passed to demonstrate that the wind blast called parasitic drag is no match for a strong lower body connection. I could easily stand and steer with one hand in the push of the wind but please don’t try it. You know, professional rider on a closed course, your milage may vary. In Image 4 I am in the air through the whoops to show how lower body connection makes it possible to ride a big bike on a difficult motocross track.
The take-home message? A strong waist-down connection generally allows better control on or off pavement. Yes, there are exceptions. In an emergency it’s okay to hang on tight or if you happen to be doing some freestyle in your backyard. (Image 5 – The Freestyle Exception)
II. Body Memory. The second part of soft hands training is to create “body memory.” This is a term I coined over the years after noticing many riders are not well connected with their own bodies. Many perform movements without knowing how they did it. Body memory training has two goals: (1) to become aware of small pressure changes in the body in different situations and (2) to learn to change those pressures with muscle recruitment (i.e. flexing one muscle and relaxing another). We use static and then dynamic training to hit these targets.
Static Training. For racers I use specially constructed static trainers.These are motorcycle frames mounted on springs with no wheels or engine. The idea is to create the feel of the bike without having to think about steering, clutch, throttle or brake. The goals for static training are to create detailed memories of how it feels to be in different riding positions and to be able to recall the tactile sensations of control sequences. This is very hard to do when you are sliding around a corner or are flying through the air. Everything rushes by too fast to remember what happened. So we slow down the learning process, take away distractions and repeat over-and-over-and-over to create an sequence or chain of conditioned reflexes.
You can do static training just like the racers. Park your motorcycle on the center-stand, a track stand or a box of some kind. You just created your workout area. Your parked bike is now a static trainer. Sit on your bike in your normal seated road position. Feel your hands on the bars. Where do feel pressure? Be sensitive. Be precise. Where your fingers meet the palm is the normal place for pressure when standing still. Gravity is pulling your hands straight down on the bars. It’s the gravity neutral hand position.
What if the pressure you feel is in the tips of the fingers between the first and second joints? It means you are falling back. You may be holding yourself up with your arms. Sometimes this is caused by the shape of your seat. Are you too far back? Can you scoot forward towards the gas tank to change the pressure in your hands. If not the seat, then how about your posture? Poor posture often occurs because our core strength gives out and we can’t sit tall anymore. To test your core strength try going from a seated riding position to standing-up on the foot pegs with your hands on the bars. Do it again only this time really feel where the pressure is on your hands as you go up. Now do the same thing — go from seated to standing — with your arms extended out to the sides like the rider in Image 7. Can you do it?
It’s not just leg muscles that take you vertical. To go up you have to fold forward like you are getting up out of a chair. Folding moves some of your body mass forward from over your butt to over your knees and foot pegs. To “hold the fold” as you go vertical requires core strength. Also as your butt comes up off the seat you may have to bring your hips forward a little in a pelvic thrust. Again core strength is needed. Now let’s add breath. As you fold forward while seated– breath in. As you use legs to go up– breath out slowly. Directed breathing is extra strength and it’s free. If you can do it with no hands, congratulations! Now can you do it slowly 10 times without hands?
Dynamic Training. Now the muscle recruitment and control sequences you just learned go on the road — we suit up and ride. In a protected training environment students practice on a moving bike the skills they learned on the static trainer. The sensations, body positions and control timing are tested and polished. Eventually the skills become engrained and automatic. Then it’s time to return to the classroom to take static training to the next higher level.
III. Your Exercise Program.
If you did the seated-to-standing practice discussed above two things happened. First you tested yourself. Could you do it and how well? If you couldn’t, you learned why not. Poor balance, weak muscles, stiffness, pain, etc. Second, you tried different ways of doing it. You were experimenting to see if the tips in this article made it any easier? If you discovered new ways of doing things it’s time to do some conditioning. For me training means learning new skills and conditioning means practicing those new skills repeatedly so you can do them longer. Training is about learning, conditioning is about endurance.
Physical exercise is an important part of conditioning. When you are fresh it’s easy to have soft hands on the grips and levers. Your muscles are strong and willing. But as the miles unfold fatigue raises it’s ugly head. Not the kind that makes you sleepy or slows reaction times, that comes later. Muscle fatigue is usually the first to arrive. Why? It can be a hydration or nutrition problem but for most riders it is usually exercise related–we don’t do enough. Riding a motorcycle requires our muscles to work in unusual ways that everyday life does not prepare us for. For example how often do you balance on your left leg, raise the right leg about three feet (1 meter) above the floor and then pivot 90 degrees to the left? At home never, but we do it every time we get on our motorcycle. That’s why many riders have left hip soreness during their once-a-year riding vacation. Day-after-day they are doing the mounting pirouette at every gas stop, restaurant, photo op and hotel or campsite and the muscle say ouch!
An exercise program for motorcycle riders usually has three parts: (1) Endurance, (2) Strength and (3) Linearity.
Endurance. Building endurance means improving your bodies ability to absorb oxygen from the atmosphere and then distribute it throughout your body. The rating of how well you do this is called your maximum oxygen uptake or VO2max. Cardiovascular exercise improves your VO2max scores but what is more important it puts more gas in your personal fuel tank. Cardio gives you back more energy than you lose by doing it. It’s weird, like turning iron into gold, but it works. At first it’s just work but stay with it for 30 days on faith and one day you will be surprised with marked improvement of your energy. Please consult your doctor first to get an okay and a target exercise heart rate.
Strength. For motorcycle riders slow-twitch muscles are the strength training target. So we use less weight and do more repetitions. There is not space in this article to describe all the strength exercises you can do on your bike. If enough of you ask for it I’ll do Part II of this article describing exercises for the road.
Linearity. Linearity means flexibility, range-of motion. A safe and consistent stretching program is not just for riding. As we all get older it is very important to keep moving. Muscles contract, tendons shorten, joint capsules pop and crack and we can’t reach all the places we used to. I don’t refer just to the elderly here. When riders of all ages come to my ranch for training we start out each day with stretching exercises. Sometimes even the younger riders have a hard time touching their toes. Check out your local yoga programs. It’s amazing how many yoga postures relate to movements on a motorcycle.
In conclusion, please don’t forget to take a few minutes each morning to do some warm-up exercises. Like tires on a motorcycle our bodies need to warm-up before they work well.
Bio: Ramey ‘Coach” Stroud has been helping world travelers for decades. As a former off-road, motocross, rally and road-racing champion he learned how to ride well with the least effort possible. An endurance athlete for most of his life he knows the human body and how to train it. His around-the-world motorcycle travels have given him the opportunity to learn what it takes to find endless miles of smiles on two and three-wheels.