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The Mechanics of Balance

We all know the importance of balance when it comes to riding our motorcycle. Without our ability to balance, we probably couldn’t get our bike moving for the length of our driveway. Once we get moving, our bike stabilizes itself and we have an easier time keeping it upright. Taking off from a stop, stopping and performing slow maneuvers is when our sense of balance is really important because falling over at even low speeds is no fun.

Doctor Anthony Komaroff is a practicing physician and professor at the Harvard Medical School. In a recent Ask Doctor K newspaper column he discussed the mechanics of balance. According to Dr. K, balance requires an intricate coordination between body systems of the brain, the spinal cord, the vestibular system, the visual system and the proprioceptors.

As Doctor K describes, a part of our brain (cerebellum) oversees balance and movement. The spinal cord is a bridge between our brain and body. Our body’s balance (vestibular) system is housed in our inner ear. The visual system is our eyes that send visual information to our brain. The proprioceptors are positioning sensing nerves with the ability to perceive where our body is in space.

So what does all this medical gobbledygook mean to us and our riding? As the overseer our mind must be clear and focused on when we’re doing something at slow speed. Even the smallest distraction can cause us to sense we’re losing our balance. Our immediate reaction is to catch our bike because once it starts tipping it is difficult to keep it up. But our brain can only work with the information it has so our eyes are at the start of the process. The visual data we supply our brain must include the horizon. Our positioning sensors need to know where the horizon is to properly orient us. That’s why visual control is so incredibly important to smooth riding.

If we have our head and eyes up looking straight ahead when we take off from a stop, our bike heads directly where we want it to go. If we’re looking down, we tend to drift slight aside of our intended path and have to correct it when we finally look up. We can experience a similar problem when we’re coming to a stop. Keeping our eyes up until we are fully stopped enables us to come to a nice controlled stop. If we look toward the front wheel to see where we’re stopping, we lose perspective on the horizon and tend to take our foot off the brake the catch our scoot so it doesn’t fall over.

While starting and stopping are minor issues, performing slower speed maneuvers like tight turns create a bigger problem for many riders. We can start by controlling our speed with our throttle, clutch and rear brake while still maintaining momentum so we don’t go too slowly. Then by using our eyes to provide directional and horizon information to our cerebellum, we can more readily and comfortably execute the turn. This means turning our head to see where we want to end up and keeping our eyes up to let our positioning sensor know where the horizon is.

Sending the right visual information to our cerebellum allows it to send the necessary signals through our spinal cord to our vestibular system and proprioceptors. It all starts with our eyes. A clear mind helps, too.

Ride Smart! Ride Safe!