Duke’s Den – The Perils Of Confidence

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Confidence colors everything about our experiences on two wheels. At the early stages of our motorcycle careers, we’re mostly concerned with simple tasks like staying upright and not falling over. There are thousands of ways in which a moto ride could turn ugly, and we’re proud when we overcome hazards like gravel and traffic and rain. Your moto mind is sharp because your safety requires it.

As skills improve, so does our confidence, and rightly so. Maneuvers that once required our utmost concentration become second nature, and our focus moves on to other subjects, perhaps a pretty lady riding past, or maybe the pathetic state of your 401k. Or that dickhead in front of you tapping his brake pedal while he checks his email.

But, if you’re not completely focused on what’s going on behind the bars or are distracted by the stuff going on between your ears, you’re potentially compromising your safety.

The accumulation of skills results in increased rider confidence. But be wary of confidence turning into overconfidence.

The accumulation of skills results in increased rider confidence. But be wary of confidence turning into overconfidence.

Several years ago, I was riding on my way to a bike launch a few hours away from my home. I remember being anxious to get out there and try the new bike while I navigated surface streets on the way to a freeway. Traffic ahead was stopped, and I noticed the right lane was shorter, so I casually made a lane change to the shorter queue. What I didn’t notice quick enough was the driver ahead in the left lane also deciding the right lane looked preferable. She side-swiped me and the KTM 950 Adventure I was riding, causing us to hit the deck and prove, once again, that humans don’t bounce well.

Introspection is often a byproduct of intense pain, and so it was on that day as I grimaced to the curb and wondered if what happened was inevitable. The cops and the insurance company said later it wasn’t my fault, but, as I replayed the scenario over in my head, I knew I could’ve done more to reduce the likelihood of the collision.

Had I been more tuned in to my primary mission – navigating traffic safely – I may have noticed a sudden head turn that signalled immediate peril. But I’ll never know for sure, because I was instead not 100% focussed on my surroundings. After all, I had ridden down that same street  hundreds of times, and I had come out unscathed every time. Surely I must be quite competent at it, right?

When humans are proficient at something – anything – they don’t require maximum brain capacity to do it. I’ve played with musicians whose hands seem to fall almost mindlessly on the correct notes and chords while the brain controlling my hands of concrete is running on its rev limiter to simply follow along.

And so it is with trained and skilled motorcycle riders. Hundreds of small movements and actions are needed to just ride out of your garage and into traffic, and yet they are barely even considered by highly experienced riders. However, unlike our musician friends, a wrong note played while riding a motorcycle can be far more painful.

You might be the most skillful rider you know, but take my advice and don’t let your confidence go to your head.

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  • Kevin

    My Grandfather was a Denver motor cop and gave me my earliest training, One of the pearls he gave me that I have always remembered was, “Riding over confident of your skills is the same thing as riding under-skilled!”

    • VeganLondonMan

      Excellent observation!

  • DavidyArica Freire

    Zombie mode is so dangerous in a car let alone in a motorcycle. There are times when I don’t even remember how I got to a certain place. Now I make it a point to take riding as serious as I take my job. The right training, equipment, and focus to accomplish the assigned task.

  • Christopher Nugent

    Nice article Kevin. I don’t know if it’s overconfidence or not but occasionally I go into “auto pilot” when I should be in “manual.” It’s hard not to let routine become routine but that’s why I ride motorcycles. To prevent life from becoming too routine.

    • Kevin Duke

      Call it what you want, Nugie, but it’s something to keep in mind. Riding on auto pilot means you’re not focused on the task at hand. This column was meant as a friendly reminder.

  • JP

    Great reminder. I’m sure a lot of riders can relate to this. I am also the victim of an accident that wasn’t my fault by law, but I could have done more to avoid the accident. No use pointing fingers if you are dead.

  • fastfreddie

    “Confidence colors everything about our experiences on two wheels” I think it colours everything in our lives period.It just bites our ass in different ways when it goes wrong,that’s all;)

  • JWaller

    Not that it would have made any difference, but I wish I had read this article a couple days ago. Yesterday I was riding to meet my wife for an appointment. I got off late from work and was pushing it to make it there on time. I made several mistakes. First, I am a school teacher, and it being the first day of school, I wanted my slacks to look good, so I didn’t bother to wear riding pants over them; that and the fact that it was 104 degrees! Second, I was driving on a relatively slow road through town, so I had the modular helmet flipped open to get some somewhat cooler air to my face. Third, my mind was more on the appointment we had and how that was going to be, what I was going to say, etc. Anyway, I approached a traffic circle, which I should have looked through. I merely checked the quadrant to my immediate left. I was going the speed limit, 30 mph, when I hit the circle. I should have slowed down for the circle due to the possibility of traffic. I was committed, leaned way over to the right when I noticed a red Jeep Wrangler going waaaaaaay fast right toward me. Though leaned over, I grabbed a fist full of front break. I locked the front wheel and could hear the tire chirping on the asphalt as the ass end of the bike began to rotate around to the left side. There was a time compression thing going on. I clearly remember being conscious of the fact that I was going down and that I was going to get a severe case of road rash from the waist down (this is gonna hurt). I also realized that I was probably looking at possible road rash on the face and dental work in my near future. I made a conscious decision to put down my right foot to break the fall, which I did. I’m sure if I would have had a steel hot-shoe, I would have looked awesome, flat tracking it through the traffic circle. However, the relatively soft rubber sole on really hot asphalt stuck like glue. The ball of by foot remained in place while the combined mass of the bike and I continued forward. I didn’t end up with road rash, and now I won’t have the opportunity to get reconstructive surgery on my face (shucks), and the bike was saved. However, it cost me the MCL on my right knee. Not riding in full gear was stupid, but it was a calculated risk, and I understand that. I almost always wear at the very least kevlar reinforced jeans, if not full out armored over-pants. I NEVER ride without a jacket, helmet, and gloves. I typically either wear a real full face helmet, or when I wear a modular, I usually only open it at complete stops. Calculated risks. Riding without my mind on the ride is really the only thing that got me in trouble. I just wonder, if I had been wearing full gear, if I would have let go of the bike instead of sticking my leg out like I did. If so, my bike would have been damaged, but I could have easily gotten up and would probably be no worse for wear today. Anyway, thanks for reading. Don’t allow yourself to become your worst enemy while riding.

  • John B.

    Regardless of how many times we ride down a given stretch of road the circumstances are never the same. Weather changes, climate changes, road conditions change, our mindset changes, traffic conditions change, and the people with whom we share the road change. As such, we can never take our safety for granted. Moreover, since motorcyclists are so vulnerable, we must expect, anticipate, and plan for other drivers’ errors. Your experience exemplifies the notion that motorcycle crashes most often result from an accumulation of factors rather than a single cause. In you case, distraction, impatience, familiarity, and the other driver’s error, among other factors, precipitated the crash. It’s important to recognize when risk factors, e.g., fatigue, inattention, bad weather, traffic, etc., begin to accumulate, and to recognize when it’s time to get off the bike. Too many riders in your situation would merely blame the other driver and move on. I am glad you are okay.

  • JMDonald

    Total awareness. Isn’t that a Zen thing? Confidence can lead to inattention no doubt. A nice reminder. Thanks for bringing it up.

  • Adam Waheed

    Nice editorial Duke.

    • Kevin

      Wow! Compliments from the competition, Kevin, that’s awesome stuff! Nice call, Adam

    • Kevin Duke

      Thx, ‘Heed!

  • John Van Wagenen

    Life is a calculated risk, as long as we survive and learn from our mistakes it’s all good.

  • Y.A.

    I love the focus that good riding commands. In this era of stimulatory overload it’s nice to be able to hop on a bike and just focus on the task of riding.

  • RedDon

    I’ve been riding street bikes for 50 years now and I usually feel pretty confident that I have the situation under control. Then the unexpected happens and the reflexes must take over before the conscious thinking has the time to react. The situation/s that get us most is the driver who looks right at a rider, then turns right in front nevertheless, or that patch of almost unseen sand or liquid in the road that turns traction into greased lightning. I spend a lot of time watching the road surface and when I approach any car on the road my radar immediately expects the worst. That may sound too cautious but I’ve kissed the pavement because of spilled antifreeze and almost run into the side of a van that couldn’t see me because the sun was at my back and in his eyes.