Always Learning – Editorial

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I’ve never been much for team sports. Instead, I’ve always been attracted to more solitary pursuits: skiing, bicycling, running, and, most importantly, motorcycling. When I consider this bent, the common thread I unravel is the constant opportunity for self-reflection and learning that these activities allow.

First, there’s the initial learning curve, which with motorcycling is particularly steep. You’re performing five separate activities with your four appendages, and all of those tasks require a good bit of finesse to master by themselves.

So, while you can go the self-taught route, in order to maximize your enjoyment and, yes, longevity, formal training or, at least, active study of motorcycling is necessary. I’ll admit I’m biased; I’m a product of the MSF’s Rider Education Program (having never traveled an untrained mile on the street) and was a certified motorcycle safety instructor for five years. I’ve also taken numerous track-based riding courses and have been fortunate enough to ride with some extraordinary riders – which if you are coachable, like me, is invaluable in advancing your technique.

Motorcyclist Laying it Down

Proper training and regular practice can keep mishaps like this from happening.

Before I bought my first motorcycle, I completed the MSF Riding and Street Skills (now Basic Rider Course). I remember how – in those heady, early days of riding – just starting my bike’s engine gave me goose bumps. As a new rider, encountering unfamiliar situations would also provoke a strong reaction – usually an adrenaline rush after I’d survived the incident.

Those rides provided me with ample opportunities to learn from my mistakes and refine my riding technique. After my rides, I would sit and contemplate any situations I’d encountered. I celebrated successful panic stops and swerves around obstacles. I considered how I could have handled dicey moments differently. Each time, I mentally thanked the MSF instructors who had taken me to task and pushed me to improve my skills during the two days of range riding. Even though I was actively reading all that I could about motorcade safety, I seriously doubt that I could have taught myself these necessary survival skills.

However, all this focus on technique and theory doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to escape being a statistic. Before the end of my first year of riding, after clocking almost 30,000 miles (including an 11,000-mile, three-month long, cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles), I totaled my bike in a high-speed crash on the Angeles Crest Highway. The day after the accident, I was up in the corner figuring out what I’d done to cause my front end to wash mid-corner. (The answer: I carried a slightly tighter line than usual and found some sand at the apex.)

Truck Driver on Cell Phone

Think back through your ride. Were there any instances where you put yourself in unnecessary risk?

One important technique to employ if you want to learn from mistakes is to not make excuses. I didn’t blame the bad luck of hitting sand in a corner for my crash. Instead, I owned up to the fact that I was the one responsible for the tightness of the line and failing to notice that the shape of the banking of the corner could cause sand to naturally collect at the apex.

You can apply this to almost any situation. Did a car change lanes on you? What could you have done to increase your visibility or space cushioning? A piece of wood suddenly appears from under the car in front of you, giving you no option but to ride over it? Increase your following distance or change your lane positioning so that you can see further ahead. By looking to yourself rather than fate or the other driver (even if the bonehead move really was their fault) you provide yourself with an opportunity for bettering your riding.

Still, looking back at past rides only goes so far. I also test everything I read in order to decide how to incorporate it into my riding. Read an article about a technique? Immediately go out and practice it. Once, a non-riding friend followed me home in his car as I was puzzling over a new lane positioning idea. He later asked me why I was weaving all around in my lane as we worked our way through Phoenix evening traffic. When I told him I was testing a new riding technique and explained its purpose, his reply was, “Really? I just try to keep my car between the lines.”

Sometimes trying something new will make your riding worse before it gets better. Give it a chance, and you’ll reap the benefits. When I decided to ride with two fingers on the front brake at all times in an effort to shorten my reaction time, I remember how my brake application and downshifts became balky – even embarrassing. Over the first couple of days, I was tempted to go back to my old method because it was easier and more familiar. Gradually, over the next week, the technique began to feel less awkward.

Motorcycle Braking Practice

If possible, practice new techniques in a controlled environment until you are gaining proficiency. Don’t be too proud to occasionally practice basic skills like panic stops.

Then one afternoon on my way home from work, it happened. Magically, as if I’d become double-jointed in the fingers of my right hand, I could upshift and downshift smoothly, like I’d been doing it forever. I headed to the mountains to celebrate. I then began to experience the myriad of ways that the throttle and brake can be utilized simultaneously – a study that continues to this day, over 20 years later.

Every ride contains moments that point to refinements of techniques or development of new approaches to riding – for experts as well as beginners. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the characteristics that separate experts from the average rider is reflection on riding situations and techniques. Engage your brain before you release your clutch, and you’ll ride further, longer, safer, and, yes, faster. Make the commitment today to reaffirm your focus on rider education. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

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  • Peter H Hoffman

    It’s well worth spending considerable time on extreme maneuvers. For example, on a clean, dry, deserted road practice maximum braking with just rear, just front, and then both brakes.

    On flat dirt, practice sliding until you are comfortable at near full-lock with your feet up. Make certain to practice both to the left and right.

    I like to practice this: in an empty parking lot, circle to the left until you drag your left peg. Then try to drag a full circle. As soon as you complete the circle, flip hard to doing the same thing to the right. Keep doing this until you are scribing nearly perfect figure 8s while dragging a peg the whole way, except for the second or so it takes flip from one direction to the other.

    • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

      Peter is spot-on. I’d like to add the following caveat: Always know not only your physical surroundings, but also your Law Enforcement surroundings. Simply using a safe location may not be enough to avoid a ticket, if Johnny Law decides you’re violating the spirit of HIS law.

    • toomanycrayons

      Whenever we have civic holidays and businesses close I go out to a large mall and work on the things I learned from Lee Park’s “Total Control.” ( Figure eights are a great way to get no-chicken strip/worn knee puck cred at the bike shop.) They’re private property. The Law doesn’t seem to care, and the owners haven’t bothered me. That being said, there’s seldom anyone around in the morning. I agree with Sean’s warnings about acting up on the street, however. One rider’s practise might easily be seen as another man’s hooliganism, especially if the man is The Man,

  • CrashFroelich

    After nearly fifty years in the saddle (MSF-trained late in life, but it was useful) I believe the best teacher is the thing you’re sitting on. Practice, practice, practice. Especially alone. Become one with the machine you own.

    • Oslo Norway

      Exactly, ride the bike, don’t let it ride you…

  • d s

    I learned the basics in school and it took me a year of practice to be comfortable in using them.