The terms feedback and feel are something you hear a lot in the motorcycle performance riding world.
If you watch enough racing you’ll soon realise that being able to feel and react to what the motorcycle is telling you as a rider is an important part of going fast and staying upright.
Even so, walk down any track day paddock and you’ll probably find that the number of riders that have confidence in their feel is quite low – or that they even know what it is.
I wanted to put this article together because I think that many of you may be surprised to know that, actually, you already understand it more than you give yourself credit for.
First, let’s quickly clarify what we’re talking about here.
I would describe them as the following.
Feedback: The information and messages that get past to the rider through the various controls and touch points that they’re using and in contact with.
Feel: The ability to pick up and interpret those messages, and react accordingly.
Reading those definitions I would imagine that many of you will still feel none the wiser, but please allow me the chance to leave you with some realisations.
When riders talk about feedback and feel they are most often talking about grip. So to start with let’s use an analogy I’m sure you will understand.
Have you ever knowingly stepped on something slippery? A patch of ice, an oil spill, a wet and slimy piece of wood?
You look at it and anticipate that it’s going to be slippery, and as soon as you place your foot down and put any sort of weight on it you immediately feel like the surface isn’t offering you enough grip to walk properly on it.
That’s because as soon as you weighted the foot enough to test the grip you received the feedback that your shoe is not properly gripping on the surface you’re stepping on. You then interpret that feedback and walk accordingly.
This is a simplified version of feedback and feel.
To go a step closer to motorcycles you’ve likely experienced this in a car too if you drive. On a wet or icy road when the grip level drops you experience a vagueness from the steering wheel.
In your hands and through the seat you can feel the car isn’t behaving as it should compared to when the grip levels are normal. You react to that feedback and drive accordingly.
To bring it to motorcycles, you also experience this same vagueness on the road when riding in conditions where grip isn’t as plentiful.
The vagueness you feel through the bars is the absence of the strong feedback you get from grippy tyres on a dry abrasive road. When the grip level drops considerably you immediately feel that feedback level drop and you interpret it to mean you shouldn’t ride to your normal standard.
This is something you can experience as a motorcycle rider before you’ve ever turned a wheel on a race track.
On the track the principles are the same.
If you’re used to using tyre warmers and sticky tyres and you forget to switch the warmers on and head out onto the track with cold tyres you know immediately that the grip isn’t there because you’re getting the feedback that tells you this.
Similarly, turn up to a cold and damp track day on Pirelli Supercorsas and you’ll immediately feel that you don’t have the grip you had on your last hot and sunny day.
Another good lesson is going from road biased tyres with a number of track days on them to a fresh set of super sticky hoops.
The bike behaves like it’s on rails, feels planted and that it really “digs in” when you start winding on the power. It’s a difference I believe a complete track novice would feel if doing a test back to back.
All the things we’ve spoke about above are artificial ways that test and change the grip limits of our tyres, but a lot of us are normally riding around on sticky, pre-warmed rubber on dry tracks.
This means the grip levels are high enough that for most riders they are well within those limits and so never get the messages that they are testing them.
And the truth is that until you consistently experience the feedback created from riding to the limit of sticky rubber on a dry track, you’re not going to know what it feels like.
It’s only once a rider’s pace gets hotter and they begin to test the grip levels do they understand it more.
Most commonly it will be the rear that gets tested first at corner exits. Once the rider gets comfortable with driving hard off the turns they’ll start to experience small slides.
But it’s only once they experience those slides do they understand and become accustomed to them. Trying to explain and make someone feel comfortable with that feeling is an impossible task.
In general terms, the closer and longer you can dance along the limits of traction, the faster you’re going to go.
The guys at the top of the sport have such fantastic feel for grip that they can go, and stay, very close to these limits because of what the bike is telling them on a very fine level.
Watch racing enough and see what happens to a rider that complains of a lack of feedback or bad feel from their motorcycle. They go backwards.
It destroys their confidence to find the limit of traction because they’re essentially trying to go to that limit blind.
The fact that you don’t believe you experience feedback should not be a free pass to barrel into the next turn thinking you have an abundance of grip.
There may be reasons why you can’t feel it yet.
Gripping onto the bars too tightly will not only restrict front end tracking and therefore grip, but it will also stifle the chances of you feeling the minute signals the bike is trying to tell you.
This is just one of the reasons why we should work to carry less weight on the bars.
Being newer to the track is going to make feeling for feedback difficult because there are so many other things bombarding your attention. This is natural.
In time certain actions will fall into the subconscious and eventually you will be able to spend a healthy chunk of your available attention on what the tyres are telling you going into, or heading out of a corner.
Feel for how the bike behaves comes into play too. For instance, your bike may be incapable of holding a line because of an incorrect setting.
This is a type of feedback as well because it communicates something that isn’t right with the bike. Make a massive change to a suspension component and you’ll likely feel it on track immediately.
Again to bring it back to pro riders, in comparison they’ll feel the tiniest change in chassis setup because of the smaller signals they’re able to pick up.
Essentially, the bike is talking to you all the time through the way it reacts to how you ride it. The level of feedback you can feel and interpret will come down to your ability and your experience with them.
Feel isn’t something that is improved through study, so don’t take it to mean you’re at some sort of disadvantage because you aren’t sure exactly what feedback feels like yet.
You have a level of feel now as we demonstrated earlier, but as you get faster and more proficient you will begin to pick up on more of that feedback and you’ll be able to interpret it better, which will then improve confidence in your feel for grip and bike characteristics.
Learning correct riding technique is always going to put you in a better position to achieve this. After that it will simply take time.