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At The End Of Your Rope?: Towing Tips

It's a drag

By Rick Sieman

Sooner or later, you're going to be on one end of a tow rope. Here's how to do it right.

I don't care who you are, or how good your bike is, or how much preparation you take - at one time or another in your dirt bikin' life, you will be forced to have your bike towed in. Bikes break. Face it The nature of our sport abuses machinery beyond common sense, so breakdowns must be considered a fact.

Even worse. You might have to tow someone else in who didn't do his homework. A very close friend of mine and I are no longer on speaking terms because his motorcycle always broke down - and I had to tow him back almost every time we took a trail ride.

Which means that you must look at the Art of Towing from both ends of the rope. And towing is an art as much of an art as bouncing off berms or slogging up a muddy New Jersey clay hill in a rainstorm.

Always carry some sort of tow strap with you when you're on a trail ride. It's no fun pushing a bike even a half mile or so. I use a flat strap because it's very compact.

Towing, like most things in life, requires the cooperation of both parties involved. Leave us examine the party of the first part - the Tower. This is the most important part of the two parts.

We will assume for the moment that you have the correct equipment for the job - namely, a rope of considerable length. Fine. Now take this rope and affix it to a solid piece at the rear of your bike, preferably a frame loop, or a solid high fender bracket. Whatever the mount you choose, make sure it is as near the centerline of the bike as possible. Having the rope off to one side or another compounds the job and just about guarantees twice the effort and some spills.

Rope or strap? It's no contest. Rope can cut hands (or gloves) and is harder to hold on to.

If possible, try to have at least 15 feet of free rope between the two bikes. Don't use too much rope, as this is just inviting snagging bushes or rocks, and perhaps getting a wheel snarled in the towing line.

At this point, you must make a decision. If the distance to be towed is a short one, then you should have the Towee use a quick release method of holding the rope. This way, he can let the rope go if something goes wrong.

If you have a long distance to cover, then tying the rope directly to the steering head is the only way to go. Often, the number plate will have to be removed to effect this. Do it. That number plate is not going to help you at this stage. If a headlight is in the way of the rope, it can usually be pivoted out of the way by loosening a few bolts, then retightening. If it can't be, then take the damn thing off.

Got a headlight or number plate in the way?

One additional thing to be considered: Even if the distance to be towed is a long one, if the terrain is especially tough, use a quick release technique. Better safe than scraped - to coin a phrase.

Now, to the quick release techniques. Probably the most sensible method is to run the rope under the bars right next to the nut on top of the steering head. This is the centerline of the towed bike. Then, run the line over to the left side grip (not the right side) and loop it around twice near the base of the grip.

When this is done properly, the pressure exerted by one thumb should be more than enough to keep it in place firmly.

Move the light (or plate) out of the way. This will give you a cleaner path to route the tow strap.

If trouble occurs, all that is needed is a raising of the thumb and the rope should snake itself out.

Check for potential hang-ups or snarls when you run the rope to the grip. If the rope is too tight under the bars, then re-route it. If there are any knots in the rope, take them out.

The biggest reason for using the left side is that you want to have full control of the front brake if it's needed. This leaves your right hand free. Secondly, if the rope is wrapped around the right grip, it might pull the throttle housing over center and yank the rope out of your hand. You want a solid base - not a rotating base.

You are now ready to tow - once you remember a few basic rules.

1. Always attempt to keep both bikes vertical.
2. Let the towed bike slow both bikes down.
3. Keep constant tension on the rope.
4. When making a turn, try to coast through it rather than power through it.
5. Never apply power when one bike is out of line with the other.
6. Do everything smoothly - don't snap that line.
7. Always look back to see if the Towee is still there.


Wrong! Don't route the strap off to the side. In this case, the speedo on this XR would simply get badly tweaked and the bike would be pulled off-center. Run the tow strap as close to the center of the steering head as possible.

To get under way on smooth ground, stretch the rope taut between the two machines, then smoothly pull off. As soon as possible, quit slipping the clutch and shift up early. Remember, there is a bike behind the tow bike and a spinning knobby throws up lotsa crud.

Keep your speed down, but not too far down. It's much easier to tow at 20 miles an hour than it is at five miles an hour. However, 40 miles an hour can be pure terror on anything less than a smooth road.

If the ground you're starting in is very rough, or deep mud or sand, it may be necessary for the Towee to assist the Tower. Hop off the bike and get alongside, pushing as needed. When the Tower can quit slipping his clutch, hop quickly aboard. If the tow bike threatens to lug, paddle with both feet to ease the strain. You want to get the lead bike hooked up with the earth as soon as you can.

After you route the strap next to the steering head and then run it up next to the handlebar clamps, run the strap over to the grip and simply lay it across the grip. It's not necessary to wrap it around the grip.

Once the mass of the two bikes is rolling, it's fairly easy to keep it rolling. If you come to an obstacle that looks like it might stop you, it can often be ridden over with a quick trip to a lower gear and some revs from the tow bike. Both riders should get up on the pegs for this kind of trickery. If there are any doubts as to the ability of either rider to cope with this kind of a situation, then get off and push the bike across.

Having towed many a bike out of the wilderness, I can testify that some genuinely ratty landscape can be moved across quite easily if both riders pay attention to the business at hand.

Remember, the first bike has to do most of the work and the second bike will have a constant force applied at the steering head, making the bike run truer than if it was under its own power.

Simply holding the palm of your hand over the strap is enough to keep it in place. Not that we're no using the throttle side. If I have to tell you why, you're too stupid to ride a bike.

The person being towed should not attempt to make too many corrections. More often than not, the lead bike will straighten out everything. Just get up on the pegs and attempt to use some body lean whenever you can. Don't play with the bars. It simply won't do any good at all. Waggle the bars too much, and the front end probably will plow severely.

If you do fall, my advice to you is to yell loudly as soon as you can. Often, the Tower will not be aware of the loss of the Towee.

When going down a hill, or slowing - let the towed bike do the slowing and stopping. By smooth application of the rear brake, coming to a halt should be no sweat. If you need to stop much quicker than by this method, my advice to you is to jump off. Whatever.

If you get into a problem situation, simply lift your palm off the grip and extend your fingers; the strap will slip free.

One problem rears its ugly head. Let's say you do not have the official and desirable "hunk-a-rope." What then?

Use your imagination. Tie downs make a fair towing device. So do belts. But let's assume, for a moment, that you are 26 miles from the nearest rock and you want to tow your friend in. Because neither one of you had the foresight of a butterfly, you have no tow rope and no belts.

Fear not. Take a long hard look at the disabled bike. It's fairly bristling with things that can scavenged to make a link between two bikes. That chain, for example, is almost six feet long on the average motorcycle. And those control cables are each about three feet long - and very strong.

If you're going to be towed for a long distance over relatively smooth terrain, you can simply tie the strap (or rope) on to the top triple clamp.

Let's see . . . six feet of chain, three feet of throttle cable and three feet of clutch cable. That should be enough for the job. Do not expect to use the cables again, however, unless you are a very optimistic person.

A few hints: If you have flat tires or damaged wheels in addition to not being able to run, then modify your body position while you're being towed in. If that front tire is flat, get your weight well back and let the damaged tire roll easier. Reverse the process for the other wheel.

One last item - always carry a tow rope somewhere on your bike. But not where a friend of mine did once. He had it taped to his swingarm and it came loose one day. You wouldn't believe the mess.