The Limit: Exploring Front Tire Traction
When searching for the “limit” on our bikes there are two probable outcomes, you either crash or you don’t. I’ve experienced both.
The first time I found the traction limit of my front tire was during a race in Spokane Washington, I tipped the bike into a corner and it felt as if I hit ice. I was on my head in an instant without having a clue of what happened. There was no predictable slide in the front tire, there was no wobble in the handlebars, there was really no indication or warning that anything was wrong. I was upright and then I was not.
Since that first incident early in my racing career there have been many more occasions where I lost the front tire and crashed, but there have also been several visits to the edge of front tire traction limits and back, no crashing!
So how do you know if you are getting close to the edge or if you are pushing the traction limits of the front tire?
This is a tough question to answer. If it were easy to find the limit or if there were a lot of telltale warning signs that told us we were getting close to the edge then we wouldn’t see as many front end crashes, even at the elite level like in Moto GP. As Andy Ibbott, author of Performance Riding Techniques says, “It’s a fine line from the edge to the hedge.”
That being said there are some ways to improve your odds. The best way is to have a solid understanding of good riding skills.
Author of Twist of the Wrist II, Keith Code says that, “having good technical skills is the only sane route to mastering the bands of traction and reading their signs. In other words, without a firm grounding in basics, it’s easy for riders to misidentify what they think is a loss of traction when it isn’t or because of poor technique they may skip a band or two and get themselves into trouble.”
He goes on to say that, “Sloppy throttle control gives a false sense of tire grip. Using lean angle in the wrong part of the turn for the wrong reasons gives a distorted feel for it. How the rider sits on the bike can have a huge effect on it. Confusing inputs into the handlebars is another classic way of misreading the signs your tires can give you. All of these [riding errors] will set you up to miss the signals completely.”
With a solid grasp of the riding basics you can begin to pay more attention to certain signals that the front tire may give you as it is approaching the limit.
Feeling the front end of the bike dive or like there is a lot of weight on the front could be a sign that you are nearing the edge. You might feel the front tire slip a little bit like it has skipped over an inch or two to one side. You might feel a bit of front-end chatter or you might feel a sudden twist in the handlebars as the bike slips on the front tire.
Sometimes the handlebars almost go “quiet” in that there is no feedback coming through and sometimes the front end might feel heavy or like it is pushing or plowing through something deep. Sometimes it violently slides or jerks to one side as it loses grip only to right itself suddenly when it regains traction. These are all potential signs that you are getting close to the limits of that front tire. Sometimes there is no warning at all and it feels just like you have hit a patch of ice.
Road conditions, bike set up, tire pressure, temperature, and condition of the tires (brand new or really worn) can play a huge role in how much or how little feedback you receive. You won’t get much warning from a brand new tire on a cold day for example.
Another way to better understand traction limits of your bike would be to educate yourself about the most common reasons for “tucking the front” so that you can avoid pushing the limit in the first place, and so you know what to do if you do feel the front end slipping.
One of the main reasons for losing front tire traction is due to initiating turn in while still hard on the front brake, or in other words, using an unnecessary amount of trailbraking. In this situation there is too much weight on the front tire (which is only designed to handle about 30% of the load) and it is trying to juggle two heavy forces of braking and cornering at the same time.
Grabbing the front brake suddenly in the middle of a corner will create a similar problem and will often give you little to no warning that you are about to hit pavement. Chopping the gas (quickly rolling off the throttle) mid turn will also transfer too much weight to the front tire, though in this case there might be a little more warning that you are pushing the front than if you hit the brakes. The handlebars might wiggle a little bit or you might feel the front tire sort of skip across the pavement or chatter a little bit before it goes.
In either situation, getting weight off the front and back onto the rear by getting off the brakes and onto the gas may transfer enough weight off the front tire so that it can regain traction.
Another common reason for losing traction in the front tire is due to locking up the front brake. Grabbing the brake lever too forcefully or being jerky or jabby with it can cause this to happen. You might hear a screech or feel the front slide forward or start to tuck to one side. In this case the way to save it from crashing would be to come out of the brakes a bit so that the tire isn’t locked anymore and it can regain traction.
Take precautions to ensure that your tires are in good shape and set to the right pressures, be extra careful in cold, damp or less than ideal riding conditions, avoid the major causes of tucking the front and listen and “feel” for the warning signs.
Arm yourself with as much knowledge and practical application of good riding technique as possible. Work on perfecting your braking technique, understanding the finer points of trailbraking, and focus on executing proper throttle control (rolling on the gas throughout the turn to keep the weight transferring to the rear) and you will be well on your way to maintaining front end traction and NOT finding the limit the hard way.
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