Pass that test: How to u-turn on a motorbike

It doesn't matter what sort of bike you have, a u-turn is always possible
It doesn't matter what sort of bike you have, a u-turn is always possible

Perfecting the dreaded feet-up U turn can be one of the most stressful parts of learning to ride a motorbike. Most of us neglect the skill the minute we pass our test, but it can be a useful manoeuvre to have in your back pocket and is much easier than paddling your bike around.

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Although it is a slow-speed manoeuvre it is important that you are on the move with the clutch out and the engine pulling cleanly in first gear. Go too slowly and the risk is that you will stall the bike when you are halfway across the road and the traffic is bearing down on you.

Doing a u-turn on a motorbike isn't easy to begin with, but you'll get the hang of it

For that reason it’s worth having your hand on the clutch so you can slip it a little to keep the engine revs up if it starts to bog. You can also use the rear brake to slow the bike down and tighten the turn.

What if your bike is long or awkward to u-turn?

Most bikes should be able to turn in a 20-foot arc, as long as you are confident you can lean the bike properly into the turn. Have your inside foot ready for a ‘dab’ if necessary, but don’t aim to have it on the ground as it will widen the turn. Sitting further forward in the saddle also helps with the steering.

It’s tempting to look at potential hazards like cat’s eyes and the pavement right in front of the bike, but it’s really important that you look where you want to end up heading in the opposite direction.

A u-turn is a part of the full UK motorcycle test

Here’s a round-up of advice from two of MCN’s experts on how to make a smooth, comfortable U turn and impress your mates on your next ride (even if they don’t admit it).

Long-time contributor and MCN expert Rupert Paul’s u-turn advice

Take any bunch of long-experienced, rufty tufty bikers going on holiday and you can guarantee one thing. Eight out of ten of them can’t ride for toffee at low speed. If you don’t believe me, watch those flailing, paddling feet as they wobble up the ramp on the Isle of Man ferry, or down the ramp to the Channel Tunnel train.

They can be riding Harley-Davidsons, grand tourers, sportsbikes or 125s – it makes no difference. Eighty on the M20 is a piece of cake, but doing 1mph confidently on a slippery ramp is another thing entirely. It’s as if going slowly isn’t worth bothering to learn.

So here’s an outrageous assertion: any self-respecting rider should be capable of banging their bike onto full lock and doing a feet-up U-turn.

It doesn't matter what sort of bike you have, a u-turn is always possible

This is not because of any safety issue, or even because riding with both feet on the footrests while going extremely slowly is more efficient than paddling. You just look like a dork if you can’t control your motorcycle.

Top tips for nailing that motorcycle u-turn

So how is it done? Confidence, which comes from – what else? – practice. But there are a few tricks that help.

Clutch control

First is the clutch. At tickover in first you might be doing 8mph. If you want to do a steady 4mph, one way is to pull the clutch half way in. This is a bit like having another gear which is half as short again as first. Or you could pull it three-quarters of the way in, and now you’re doing 2mph. It’s very effective, but will make your hand hurt if you do it for long.

Second is to own a modern bike, because it will almost certainly have a light clutch, a featherweight ride-by-wire throttle and the colossal advantage of centralised mass. Compared with something like my own 1998 Ducati 900SSie (low, narrow bars, leaned-forward riding position, lumpy engine, erratic dry clutch), low-speed manoeuvring is a piece of cake.

Back brake

The third trick is to apply light and continuous pressure to the back brake. This has a similar effect to pulling in the clutch, but because you are dragging the engine down by making the back wheel harder to turn, the whole bike feels planted.

U-turns are suddenly really easy. Try it. Anyone who doesn’t know what you’re up to will think you’re a magician.

All that’s left to do now, is practice, practice, practice with left and right hand turns and you should breeze through this part of your test with an important skill that you’ll put into use most days you ride.

How to make a U turn

MCN Contributor, ex police rider and Rapid Training instructor Mark Edwards agrees

Most of us rarely attempt U-turns and therefore they hold a certain amount of dread if we are suddenly required to do one. But when the day comes and the pressure’s on, a perfect U turn will make you a god among mortals.

The degree of difficulty varies enormously with the type of bike you are piloting. A naked 125 roadster can spin on a sixpence while a heavy and long GSX1300R Hayabusa needs a trading estate in which to nail a really good U-turn.

Whichever bike you ride you should aim to maximise the road width you have and use the least possible speed during the manoeuvre. But before you even consider starting to turn, always have a very, very, good look behind and ahead of you for traffic. A U-turn takes you across both lanes of traffic and you need to ensure you have more than enough time to complete the manoeuvre safely. If you are rushed, the chances of an embarrassing, and costly when it comes to replacement plastics, tip-over are greatly increased.

A u-turn is a core riding skill

When performing the turn, first gear and a slipping the clutch should enable you to ride at walking pace or slower. To keep your speed down, the rear brake should be played off against the clutch for fine control, but stay off the front brake as it will be too sharp. For UK riders a U-turn will be to the right and it can help to shift body weight slightly to the left – a touch ‘above’ the bike – to prevent falling into the turn.

Consciously pick up your vision and look right round to where you want to go. Practise, too, riding with the steering on the lock stops without panicking and pushing the bike down a little to tighten the turn (and be ready to add a smidge of speed as you do so).

Don’t rush it and remember it’s better to abandon early than land in a red-faced heap. We’ve all done it.

Practice doing these drills to help your U-turns

  • Find a quiet place to practise, preferably without spectators
  • Before you attempt a U-turn, first practise riding slowly in a straight line, and slaloms
  • Get used to slipping the clutch and balancing it against the rear brake