The Evolution of Riding Styles

From scratching the track to dragging their knees, racers have created new riding styles to keep up with and surpass the leader.

Dick Mann

Dick Mann scratching the track on his BSA triple in 1971.

Photo courtesy Dain Gingerelli

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One of mankind’s greatest achievements occurred with probably little or no fanfare. The event? The moment that some freewheeling prehistoric man — he could have been named Oog or Grog, it doesn’t matter — decided it would be better if he lifted his knuckles off the primordial ground when he walked, ran or even stood. Through that single action, mankind took another step forward in the evolutionary process that led to the species Homo sapiens, eventual masters of the Earth — and all things motorcycle.

Of course, wouldn’t you know that with the advent of motorcycling came a step backward in our evolutionary cycle (pun). Blame the reverse process on the second motorcycle, actually, because when its rider came up alongside bike number one, you can only imagine that a race ensued. Nobody wants to be the slowest motorcyclist on the planet, and so the two riders diced it out.

More racing followed, until eventually the civilized world endorsed sanctioned events, among them road races. The faster road racers developed all sorts of riding techniques to guide their bikes faster through the turns, and it was probably a British road racer who figured out that by placing the tip of his inside boot onto the pavement while negotiating a corner at speed he could better judge his approximate lean angle to remain on two wheels and, in the process, lead the race. The accepted word for those toe draggers was “scratchers,” which became a common term during the 1960s. Two-time AMA champ Dick Mann, seen at left on his BSA triple at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971, was a scratcher.

Wouldn’t you know it, the reverse evolutionary process kicked into a higher gear, and by the 1970s racers were dragging their knees through the turns. Technology played a key part. The advent of slicks prompted Kenny Roberts, seen above at Riverside Raceway in 1977, to adopt his knee-dragging style in the 1970s and today MotoGP greats like Marc Marquez are dragging their forearms, elbows, even shoulders (!) through the corners, because, well, their bikes’ tacky tires and snappy steering allow them to perform those antics. It’s all in the interest of being leader of the pack. Oog or Grog, or whoever, would be proud. — Dain Gingerelli