Posted by: titaniumparts | August 29, 2008

Backing it in

Ruben Xaus makes it look easy on the Ducati Hypermotard

Ruben Xaus making it look easy on the Ducati Hypermotard

It’s funny how sometimes, often in extreme moments, you can discover capabilities that you didn’t know you had. Not so long ago I had an experience that demonstrated this.

I’ve watched the supermoto aces many times, marvelling at the graceful elegance of their controlled slides. I understand, at least in principle, how ‘backing it in’ works, but I’ve never been able to do it consciously or deliberately.

The principle of backing-in, as far as I understand it, is this: you come barrelling up to the corner and just before you start to tip it in you bang down the gearbox, usually about two gears so that, were you to fully release the clutch, the engine-braking effect would be sufficient to lock the rear wheel. In pretty much the same smooth, fluid motion you also move forward to transfer as much weight as possible over the front, while hard on the front brake – this loads up the forks and lightens the back end. As you turn in, still carrying a certain amount of front brake, and with the front wheel pointing into the curve, you gradually release the clutch, allowing the engine braking to begin slowing the back wheel. Feed in too much engine braking and the rear will lock up, and you’ll be toast; you need to gently feather the clutch, so that just enough force is applied to the rear wheel that it’ll be retarded below the rotational speed of the front and thus begin to break traction, but the wheel must still be able to rotate freely. This isn’t skidding – you may be using a little dab of rear brake to control and modulate things, but you definitely don’t want to lock the rear at any time. Then, with the rear wheel in a controlled slide, still rotating, and gradually coming back into synch with the speed of the bike, you allow it to slide just enough so that as you hit the apex the bike is now pointing out of the turn, with everything back in line, and you can stand it up, get on the gas and drive out.

(In theory, if you have a slipper-clutch fitted you don’t need to worry about modulating the power input with the clutch lever – you can just let the mechanism sort it all out for you).

Allegedly the benefit of backing-in is that it squares off the corner, and is the quickest way to get the bike to a position where you can start to apply power to drive out of the corner.

There’s a great video here of MotoGP rider Nicky Hayden getting seriously sideways:

As I’ve said, while I understand the principle, somehow I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. Two reasons really, or facets of the same reason: to get the slide going properly requires a high degree of commitment, you can’t do it in small measures and build up gradually  – you just have to go for it. I can’t overcome the strong instinct not to mess it up and risk slinging my bike down the road and, as a corollary of that, I have an even stronger aversion to the possibility of going through months of physiotherapy again; been there, done that – it’s a world of shit.

So one day, a while ago, I was out on my Honda FMX650 (which is a kind of a ‘soft’ supermoto, or maybe a ‘citymoto’).

Coming through a big roundabout, at a reasonable clip, I was accelerating into my turn-off. This particular exit from the roundabout is an odd one, as it comprises two lanes, the right-hand one of which is a filter up to some traffic lights and, as is often the case, this had a queue of cars in it. The left-hand lane just goes on straight; I was exiting the roundabout, on the gas and heading into this clear and empty left-hand lane.

At precisely this point the driver of the last car in the right-hand lane’s traffic queue decided he wasn’t going to wait there any longer and, without so much as a rearward glance or any indication, swung his car out and right across my path.

What followed all happened so quickly that there wasn’t any time for conscious thought; it was all pure instinct.

I was already hard on the front brake and banging down through the gears from the moment I’d noticed the car’s front wheel begin to point left. As the car continued to pull out at an angle, to completely block the lane, I can recall thinking that there simply wasn’t enough road left to pull up in a straight line, and I was pretty much convinced that I was about to run straight into the side of the car.

Again without any real conscious consideration, I think I must have calculated that the only thing to do was turn the bike sideways. The front forks were heavily compressed, I’d changed down two gears, and I’d involuntarily shifted my weight forward and to the left of the bars. As I fed in the clutch the FMX’s big single applied its considerable engine braking effect to the rear wheel, which broke free and swung out to the right beneath me. Keeping the front wheel pointing straight I was now sliding fully sideways, whilst pushing the bike down beneath me.

By now the driver had realised his mistake and hit the brakes. If his reactions had been any good he might have realised that the best thing for him to do was keep going forward, to increase the amount of road I’d have to stop, but he didn’t.

I actually glided to a stop almost perfectly parallel to the side of the car, my right knee perhaps six inches from the passenger door, but without making any contact. The driver gave me a very sheepish look, and for my part I was too stunned to say anything. He then drove off, and I gathered myself up and carried on too.

And of course the point is this: I’d effectively just pulled off a backing-in manoeuvre. On some purely instinctual level I’d been able to do all the right things at the right moment, found the right balance and control. But I know that I still could not deliberately and intentionally do it again.



  1. jesus. cool! think i might need to understand the principle a bit more first!!! Take care out there X

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