To Hang off, or to Ride Upright? – That is the Question

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The controversy surrounding hanging off

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An extreme example of power sliding and efective weight distribution

In the past 30 years, so much has been written praising the virtues of “hanging off” of a motorcycle when cornering at high speeds, that it makes my head swim.  It appears to me that every effort is made these days to encourage and defend the application of “hanging off” by those who identify with its daring appearance.

So popular is this emphasis on hanging off that the least experienced riders are self assured that they are experts on the matter.

When it comes to sporting motorcycle riding on racetracks, it seems that every Tom, Dick, or Harry believes themselves to be an expert on the subject, based on what they have read, or based on the handful of times they have been on a racetrack themselves.

This hanging off thing only began to become wildly popular, my memory estimates, around the mid 1970s.  .Many of its current proponents may not have been born yet at that time, and they have grown up learning the educated delusion that this is the only way to properly ride a motorcycle fast.

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Two generations of motorcycle road racing. Stirling Watts in 1985 and Eric Watts in 2013.

Hanging off was shunned by numerous riders of earlier generations

I’ve always been a great fan of the late Phil Irving.  Irving was an Australian mechanical engineer and journalist who made important strides in motorcycle and engine development.  He was the chief engineer for Vincent for many years, and the man primarily responsible for the success of the legendary Black Shadow.

In the literary world, Irving authored several classic books on engine and motorcycle technology, and was a regular technical contributor to motoring publications of his era.  I cannot recall whether it was in  the book “Black Smoke”, or “Rich Mixture” or “Motorcycle Engineering” where Irving blasted the practice of climbing all over the motorcycle, condemning it to be but primarily a visual spectacle.  I cannot say that  I agree with him 100%, but that was an expert’s opinion at that time that is now contrary to current thought.

Ted Hubbard, where are you today?

In the mid 80s I had a racing friend named Ted Hubbard.  I think he lived in South Carolina or Georgia.  We always met up at Roebling Road near Savannah.  Ted was at that time, I think, in his early 60s.  Ted had lived in England in the late 60s and early 70s,where he had been a development engineer, and as I recall also a test rider for BSA.

During the time I was associated with Ted we became good friends, hanging out at WERA races and pitting together with the other vintage people.  (Ted and his bike were vintage, but in my case, only my bike qualified as vintage.  I was still relatively young!)

I was racing my 350 Ducati single, and Ted was always racing a big British single.  I believe it was a 441 Victor based bike that he normally rode.  He almost always won the race in his class on that Victor.  Ted was a lightning fast rider and a practical, intelligent man.  He ended up eventually doing some porting work for me on a Ducati single head, and installed a bg intake valve for me.  He was, and I hope still is, a great guy.

Flat track riding style on the road race track.  It works well!

Ted’s riding style?  Ted had more American TT and half mile and mile experience than

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Ted Hubbard’s road racing style

everyone else did.  His riding style was closer to that which you would have seen in dirt track racing than in road racing.   He was always well tucked in, knees against the tank, and he knew exactly where he was on the track every millisecond.  There were of course lots of younger riders on more powerful bikes, climbing all over them, who were not able to keep up with Ted.  And Ted privately shunned their riding style.

I had another friend in the same era named Royce Eaton, from Daytona.  Royce was about 65 years old then, and ran a small hobby type performance motorcycle shop. Memory tells me Royce was a retired airline pilot.  I don’t know what became of him either.  But anyway, there was no way I ever could keep up the pace with Royce his vintage class Triumph T100 Trident, me riding aggressively on my highly modified and more modern GS 750 Suzuki.  Conservation of momentum seemed to be the biggest part of his secret.

Royce’s riding style?  You guessed it.  Tucked in, knees on the tank, always in control, never climbing around on the bike.  Royce also shunned hanging off, and I believe that most of his racing experience had been on asphalt.

Boet van Dulmen and other big stars

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Tucked in old school style

Again, this may be an unfamiliar name to many younger readers.  Van Dulmen was a Dutch world class road racing star who was at the top of his career in the late 70s, around the time of Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Freddy Spencer, and the likes of that era.  Van Dulmen was in fact quite renowned for his lightning fast and always tucked in riding position, but it was a style that was beginning to fall out of favor at that time.

Watch this short documentary and interview with Boet van Dulmen about the Assen TT in 1981, and why Van Dulmen won it.  The commentary and interview are in Dutch.  A couple of minutes into the video you will see the effectiveness of Boet’s upright style.  It’s interesting to see him passing Marco Lucchinelli in the rain, knee all stuck out to the side, while van Dulmen stays tucked in.

So, why hang off? Let’s ask the road racing guru, Keith Code.

I had the privilege of receiving personal instruction from the Master, Keith Code, back in the days before the California Superbike School had become a huge deal.  I attended a road racing school under his tutelage at Roebling Road in the Spring of 1984.  Hanging off was not a subject that was recommended during that class.  Here is what Keith has to say on the subject in his classic work, Twist of the Wrist:

You are moving your body weight from the top of the bike to a position that is lower and to the inside. This changes how your weight influences the bike when centrifugal force begins pushing it toward the outside of the turn. When you weight is higher on the bike, it gives the cornering forces a lever to work with. To overcome the centrifugal force, the bike must be leaned over in the turn. The greater the force, the more you must lean to overcome it. By hanging off, you move your weight to the inside of the bike and lower to the ground, presenting less of a lever for the forces to act upon. This does not weaken the force, it simply lessens its effect. Now the bike does not have to be leaned over as far to make the same radius of turn, and CAN GO FASTER WITHOUT having to INCREASE the lean angle. Even if you go through the turn at the same speed as a rider sitting upright on his machine, you can begin your acceleration sooner than he can because your straight-up bike has more rubber on the road This can be a tremendous advantage. Remember, increasing your speed in a turn effectively decreases the radius of the turn. Right or wrong, everyone who is currently competitive us IS hanging off.

Hanging off has nothing to do with safety!

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Kevin Schwantz displaying excellent weight distribution form.

I have heard it said by bench racers, who once spent at most a handful of times on a racetrack, that hanging off prevents you from low siding.  That’s pure bullshit, as evidenced by Keith’s comments above.  Hanging off is about being competitive on the modern racetrack, and nothing more.  It’s about carrying a higher speed while leaned over at the same maximum angle as the guy who is not hanging off.  When riding with a group of other riders who are also not world class competition material, it’s pretty meaningless.
You will low side when you exceed the limits of traction by being leaned over too far.  That’s the only cause of a low side crash.  You can lose traction when you’re upright because you’re riding at the edge of your tires contact patch, or you can lose traction for the very same reason when you’re hanging of just inches from the pavement.  Perhaps being out of the seat already might be an advantage if you were to crash, because you’re already closer to the ground.  But I have always planned not to crash anyway!

You can also drag parts lightly without drastically increasing your chances of loss of adhesion.  I’ve proven this point to myself.  My old Suzuki GS1000 based race bike almost had a hole ground into the alternator cover on the left side of the engine from making contact with the pavement.

I never went down because of dragging parts, but I did experience a couple of violent high side effects on the GS1000  from dragging the left side of the motor, from which I recovered without going down.  I think that those high side effects were amplified by some kind of improper bodily reaction on my part after I felt the contact, but I never figured that out. It didn’t happen often enough for me to figure it out, and I certainly never tried to encourage experiencing it again.

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The Master himself, Keith Code

Ask yourself this:

Ask yourself:  If two identical motorcycles are riding at the limits of adhesion, and one rider is hanging off, and the other one is not, which rider is going faster?

You will naturally and correctly answer “The one who is hanging off, of course.”

Does this make one of them more or less likely to low side by exceeding the limits of adhesion?  Of course not!  They are both riding at the limits of their tire contact patch.

The two primary  advantages  to hanging off are:

First, the additional speed you carry while still cornering,

Second, after you climb back on center at the exit of the corner, you can start applying power sooner than the rider who remained upright, because for the same speed you’re carrying as the more upright guy, you have more tire patch on the road than he does.

Isn’t that advantageous?

For the super rider, yes. For the guy who goes to the racetrack a few times per year, no.

Focusing on smoothing out every transition you make will make you faster than focusing on any one item in your technique. All things need to happen quickly at high speed, but the sudden severity of every change of every condition needs to be minimized and smoothed. That translates to smooth transitions from being hard on the gas to being hard on the brakes, smooth gear shifting both up and down, especially in corners, and smoothness in the shifting around of your own body weight.  That last item is last because it has the least overall effect.

In most cases, especially on less powerful motorcycles, shifting your weight drastically around is a factor that’s only marginally helpful in comparison to the many other refinements in smoothness you need to learn to make with respect to conserving momentum, being in the right place and following the right line, and all the elements of smoothness of action.

For everything…. there is a season….and a time… turn, turn, turn….

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When men were men! Making a KZ1000 go fast.

There are times when a hanging off technique can be quite necessary.  It depends on what you are riding.  Are you riding something from the old steel tubing frame era, like a GS1100 or a KZ1000, or a competitive motorcycle of recent design?

The best case in point was riding my 1978 GS1000 at racetrack speeds.  It required a great amount of steering input, muscle, and weight transfer just to convince it to change directions.  I’m convinced that was most of the reason that hanging off became so popular in the early 80s.  Everyone was riding GS1100s and KZ1000s (and the like)!

Well I hope that was entertaining and didn’t piss you off  too bad if you happen to like to hang off!

No insult is meant to the self proclaimed expert bench racers who insist that hanging off keeps them from crashing. Maybe you believe that it does that for you, but I am quite sure that It doesn’t do that for me.

Unless we were all world class riders of the highest developed skill level (of course we can always pretend) then I don’t believe it makes a hootin’ bit of difference whether or not we hang off in high speed corners on today’s most superbly designed motorcycles.  There are more important things to learn about controlling a motorcycle first .

But it sure looks feels good, and it looks cool too!  Keep the shiny side up!




2 Comments to To Hang off, or to Ride Upright? – That is the Question

  1. paulrritter says:

    When I started road racing in 1973 the racing tires had treads. They didn’t stick as hard as slicks and hanging off wasn’t an issue. The slicks offered more grip and you could lean over farther and people started hitting the ground with pats of the bike. Paul Smart started the hang-off style and other top riders adapted it.

    I didn’t hang off much until after the 1977 Sears Point AMA National. The Ducati bevel twins had lots of ground clearance with the high headers so it wasn’t an issue at first. I might touch a foot peg down or the rear brake lever, no big deal. In 1977 I was really pushing hard, having just passed Cook Neilson and trying to get away when I felt something hard touch down in the left-hand turn nine. The bike moved a few inches sideways but otherwise kept stable so I just kept going,

    After the race and the winners circle and stuff I looked under the left side of the bike and saw a fresh scrape on the oil sump. Whoa. I had touched the crankcase to the pavement! After that I started hanging off more.

    Paul Ritter

    • Stirling says:

      Than you, Paul. I’m honored to receive your comment. I had to patch up the bottom of my clutch cover on my GS 1000 because when slick shod, it touched regularly even when hanging off. I think there also is less tendency to react badly to such touch downs when you’re already near the pavement.

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