Hauling on a trailer
There comes a time when you need to move a motorcycle (or two, or three) when you can't simply hop on and ride it there. This may be for track days, moving, or purchasing a non-runner.
There are a few basic principles to understand - the first being stability. When you ride your motorcycle along the road in a straight line it is remarkably stable. When it is not rolling down the road, however, it wants to topple over on either side. This is the reason you put a leg down at traffic lights. The point is that, without the rotating mass of the wheels giving you a nice gyro, the motorcycle wants to lie on either side, and that's really an expensive way to trailer a bike.
There are very few rules when it comes to tying a bike onto a trailer. It will always be a compromise, as until you own your own trailer and install your own wheel chocks and tie-down points, you will always be improvising. The basic rules remain - you want to compress the suspension, provide lateral support, and not break parts.
A word on soft metals: Some people like to tie their bike by the bars. While on some bikes this is OK, it usually isn't good. Cast metal does not like to be used as a tie point; it is brittle and will crack under load. There have been several accounts of the cast riser breaking, with the bike toppling over on the trailer, hitting other bikes. That's just what happened to this bike. Notice how the tie-down runs straight from the bar down to the trailer. The bar broke.
More on tie points later. For your first tying experience you should try to have at least one friend there to help.
Rope – It's a good idea to have some along.
Wheel chocks – Nice to have, but are pricey for one-off towing. If you are going to be going to track days regularly, these would be nice to have.
If you were a good Boy Scout and learned a number of knots, and feel comfortable using them to tie your bike down, then you're probably not reading this anyway. The easiest thing for most people is to buy ratchet straps. Ancra tiedowns with their soft hook extensions work really well. They make securing the bike easy. Ancras are available from most motorcycle shops/dealers, and they don't cost much. They have a really nice design; you pull, and the strap moves only in one direction. To release, you just push the button.
Whatever brand of tiedowns you get, buy good ones, as some of the cheap ones are only rated for a few lbs and break easily, not from force but because their components are cheap/finicky garbage. Play with them and learn how they work. Don't be second guessing how they work on trailer day - take them out of the package and figure them out beforehand.
Seen here, only the soft hooks are touching the bike, and the bike is secured enough to go through any bumps on the road. On this one, there's another tiedown on the wheel, due to the position of the hooks on the trailer. If the mount points were more forward, that wouldn't be necessary.
Loading the bike onto the trailer
This may seem trivial; however, many people have managed to drop their bikes off ramps. Remember the discussion of stability earlier - the bike can't fall front to back. It will, however, fall side to side. Therefore, have one person stand on either side, as you will be more able to counter the falling motion if you are pushing from that side than if one of you is standing behind the motorcycle holding both pillion peg brackets.
As the bike's owner, stand on the brake side and hold the right bar and another easy access grab point. Have the helper stand on the left and hold the pillion peg bracket and put a hand on the gas tank. Don't have the helper grab the left bar, as this compromises the ability of the owner to steer the bike. In this configuration the owner does less of the work and focuses on braking and on steering. You will still be in a position to prevent the bike falling. It is very important to communicate what you plan on doing - asking if they are ready to start, and planning who will let go of the bike to get into the trailer and guide it to its final resting point. This can be a time where a third set of hands is helpful, as they can grab both bars and steer from the front while the owner and first assistant push and support the bike the rest of the way.
The brute force method also works. Simply lift the front wheel onto the back of the trailer. Have the owner stand on the trailer, holding both bars and the brake. Have the helper move to the back of the bike and lift it, and both walk the bike onto the trailer rolling on the front wheel. When the rear wheel contacts, the owner can roll it easily to the front of the trailer.
Positioning your bike
If you have one bike, the choice is usually to put the bike in the center of the trailer. There are variables, such as: Are there good tie points there? Is this a two-rail bike trailer? etc.... Here we will assume you have a simple solid-surface trailer with adequate tie points to secure the bike in the center. Have the helper sit on the bike and roll it to the center front of the trailer - front wheel straight, bike upright and straight.
The choice of position might vary. For instance, if one tie point looks weak, avoid it. Move the bike over so you don't have to use it.
If there don't seem to be adequate tie points, you can do some advanced knot tying or come back with a trailer you feel safer with. It is your bike, and as the owner you get the final say. You can always come back tomorrow, but you can't undo the damage of a dropped bike.
Choosing front tie points
The front ties do a few things:
If both ties are equally tight, and the bike is upright, then for the bike to lean it must put additional pull on the outside tie and the inside fork. As the suspension is compressed, and the outside line is tight, it really can't lean to the inside by more than fractions of an inch.
In an ideal world, you'd want to tie from as high a point as possible, such that the angle of the rope coming down from the bike was 45 degrees or steeper. You would also want the tie points to be as wide as possible (say 45 degrees) so that they provided good lateral stability as well as good forward compression. Plastics are often in the way and variations nearly always need to be made.
Take a look at the distance between the left and right trailer tie points. The closer together they are (or narrower), the smaller the horizontal angle to the bike, and as a result the lower the LATERAL stability. Tow points that are far apart (or wide) provide the greatest angle, and as a result the greatest LATERAL stability. However, as the angle increases they provide less and less suspension compression. Try to have the lines set so each line is near 45 degree angles from the bike.
The choice of tie point on the trailer and the tie point on the bike is a bit of a give and take. You don't want to pick a tie point so wide as to be interfering with another bike or one that, when the line is tight, you have pressure on your plastics. Note that if you tie the bike from a mix of points in the front, or tie one back and one forward, you don't get the same lateral stability.
As a result, people tend to use 3 general tie points on the bike:
Option 2 usually ends up working well. It compromises some width on the trailer tie down point, but it does provide the best stability you can get with a narrow tie down space. Option 1 can give more stability, but requires a wide trailer and doesn't always work when you have a group of bikes to be tied. As two is a lower tie point, you can also use narrower trailer tie points, as the effective angle is still quite great.
Now, your helper has been sitting patiently on the bike this whole time, so it's time to get on with it.
Starting from the clutch side, feed the long end of the ratchet strap (or Ancra soft tie) up through the lower triple and back down. Make sure it isn't snagging any lines/cables.
Next, attach the other end of the ratchet strap to the trailer mount point. Pull the slack through the ratchet, and tension it until the helper feels the bike move. Stop. This is only meant to be a placeholder for now.
On the brake side, repeat the process until the helper feels the bike move the other way.
On some trailers (rentals especially) the front tie down points may simply be a rail. If this is the case, you will need to brace the tie so that it can not slide down along the rail. Tie a bowline around the line as it feeds over the rail. Run the tail of the bowline to the wall of the trailer or some other tie point that can be used as an anchor. At this point, tie a trucker's hitch and tension the bowline. This means that as you tighten the ratchet strap it can not slide down the rail, as the rope is securing it.
Ensure that the front wheel is straight and the bike is centered and straight. Alternating from side to side, add tension to the ratchets so that the suspension is getting compressed. As you are doing this, make sure that the ratchet straps are not interfering with the plastics. If they are, you have two options: remove the plastics or narrow the tie points.
At this point the front end is compressed 1-2 inches and the straps are tight. The helper can slowly get off the bike; it should be self-supporting. (In fact, it would probably be self supporting after the first few clicks of tension)
By compressing the suspension with the tiedown, you get a spring built into the system; hit a bump and the bike rides on the suspension. The ties don't get slack because they're snug and the suspension doesn't have that much travel room. Additionally, the front tie down points run away from the bike, not parallel to the forks. Despite the bike compressing an inch, the ties are only going to get fractions of an inch longer.
Double check that the straps can not slide on the trailer's tie points. Give the bike a shake and see that the lines stay snug.
This trailer is similar to a U-haul flatbed. Using 4 tie downs, the front ties to the lower triple clamp and the rear to the passenger peg mounts.
Alternate front tie points
In some situations, crossing the straps could work better, such as where the tie-down points are too wide or too high and pull significantly on the fairings. For example: If you need to use the normal tie-downs in a truck, halfway up the bed and in the far corners. Crossing the straps there may actually be the best solution.
Loop the straps (via soft-ties) around the forks, just above the lower triple:
Using soft ties, put the plastic hooks right on the fender. This shouldn't create a lot of pressure, but there could be enough that over time it would wear through the paint. Wrap the hooks in shop rags or towels. This shouldn't cause any problems for short trips, but if you're going a long way, put a couple layers of adhesive shelf liner on the fender so the hooks wear on that, instead of the paint.
Tying the back end
The bike is essentially stable with only the front tied. However, you want to keep the bike straight, particularly if there is more than one bike on the trailer.
The front end has been tied forwards and out, so tie the back end backwards and out. You'll be much more limited on the back end as to what you can tie to. Ideally, you would like to compress the rear suspension a bit.
Foot pegs can suffer the same problems as the handle bar risers - some are cast and snap under load. You can use them - just remember to NOT tighten them as much as you would the front. You only need to keep the bike straight now; a few pounds will do.
Again: find a tie point on the trailer rearward of the bike. You won't have to worry about plastics this time (generally). Once again, if you are tying on a rail you must secure the strap so it can't walk down the rail and slacken. And again, pick the lowest tie point you can. A few clicks on each ratchet strap and the rear of the bike is secure.
These are tied nylon ropes, not ratchet straps (and definitely not bungee cords) but the principle is the same.
Walk around the bike. Make sure everything is secure. Give it a shake. It is the owner's responsibility to approve the arrangement. If you aren't happy, try to make it better. If you're still not happy? Unload the bike and start over.
Start the tow. After a few miles, get out and inspect it. In all likelihood it will be fine, but it's good to know. If you can watch the bike from the tow vehicle all the better.