Just the other day, I was pondering a botched downshift, really looking at it, taking it apart, gracing it with much more importance than any single half-second of a mundane, around-town, two-wheeled, errand-run should be treated. This is the way my mind works, and I’ve long since given up wondering why the heck stuff like this happens (mostly because that’s another rabbit hole to tumble down) and have just learned to accept it, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Still, just take a moment to consider even just a short list of variables involved in a downshift, botched or otherwise: the bike’s rate of deceleration, the selected gear, the engine speed, the amount of engine braking delivered by the engine, the amount of throttle blip required, the rate of throttle blip necessary to match the rpm during the downshift, the timing of the clutch release, the rate of the clutch release, the need to possibly prepare for another downshift, the traction available to the rear tire, what the rider intends to do after completing the downshift, etc. And there it is in a not-so nutshell, the beauty of motorcycling, the thing that keeps me coming back ride-after-ride, day-after-day, year-after-year.
Riding a motorcycle is not one of those tasks that’s easy to learn yet difficult to master. Rather, riding proficiently is a challenge to learn. Improving that knowledge and skill set requires dedication. And mastery? Well, mastery is a relative term. How does one define mastery of motorcycling? Clearly, Valentino Rossi and all of the riders whose job consists of riding MotoGP bikes are masters of the sport of motorcycle road racing. However, even within those heady ranks, there exists a caste system consisting of the aliens (Lorenzo, Marquez, Rossi, Pedrosa) and the mere mortals.
For us street riders, the idea of mastery is a little more blurred and comes down to desire and focus. If your idea of mastering the art of riding a motorcycle is simply arriving at work successfully or sharing weekend rides with a group of buddies, your satisfaction with your riding ability will peak at quite a different place from a rider who is preparing for an around-the-world adventure tour. Yet, we’re all working with the same basic tools of throttle, clutch, shifter, brakes, handlebar, and, of course, the human body.
Why is it that most car drivers reach a certain level of accomplishment and, for the most part, level off? My belief is that it’s because driving a car in a manner that seems proficient in the real world is relatively easy. Riding a motorcycle requires that you operate five controls with four appendages – while balancing the bike and maintaining a vigilant eye on the environment around you. Motorcycles are smaller and are much more vulnerable to…well…everything.
So, as we go about our daily riding life, each task involved with riding a motorcycle becomes just a little bit easier the more times we do it, thanks to muscle memory and a deeper understanding of the process. Keith Code did the motorcycle world a great deed when he developed the concept of a rider having just $10 of concentration available. In this metaphor, each action has a certain cost. For a new rider, releasing the clutch and pulling away from a stop on a hill may cost as much as $5. An experienced rider may spend pennies. That’s great! However, it can also lead, I believe, to complacence. Code used this tool to help riders progress through skills, but the key to it was that, once they’d reduced the cost of one, they moved on to the next.
I’m pretty certain that most riders, just like most drivers, have an inflated view of their riding ability. If I’m really honest with myself, I can hear my ego whispering in my ear about my motojournalist wing-footed deity status – despite my open acknowledgment of being the slowest track rider on the MO staff. It’s easy to get sucked in, to become complacent. After all, I’ve successfully navigated over a quarter century of riding and lived to tell the tale.
But that’s not enough.
In order to master the art of riding a motorcycle in the arena that I choose to ride, I need to continue pushing myself. By push, I don’t necessarily mean riding faster – though that certainly has its place. What I’m getting to here is the need for a challenge, a need to expand my skill set, a need for continued learning. For me, I think going back to school, in a literal sense, by attending a riding school and having a critical eye focused on my riding to highlight my weaknesses would be a tremendous benefit. While I don’t have an abundance of natural riding talent, I am very coachable and have benefitted greatly from advice given by riding instructors, like Lance Holst, Nick Ienatsch, Jason Pridmore, and Freddie Spencer, in addition to the talented riders I’ve had the opportunity to share the masthead with at the publications where I’ve worked.
What works for me may not work for you. Maybe you want to take your adventure bike off-road or your cruiser on a tour. Perhaps you’ve never felt confident riding in the rain or even just carrying a passenger – both activities which betray any abrupt control inputs. Since we’ve entered the limited riding season of winter, take the time to sit down and think about your riding. See if you can come up with a list of three things (because that seems like a nice number) that you’d like to improve in the next year. Or maybe just choose three things that you’d like to do on your bike in the next year. Go buy a book or spend time researching these list items on the web.
Then actually set out to achieve those goals. Check in during the year to see if you’re moving forward. Every time you step out of your riding routine, you provide yourself the opportunity to learn and advance your skills by encountering new situations and possibly making some mistakes.
To improve, to take steps towards mastery, we need to set goals. When we meet those goals, we need to acknowledge ourselves and move on to a new one. Currently, my running coach is after me because, in the months after completing a marathon – a goal I’d had since I was 18 – I haven’t signed up to run another race. To him it doesn’t matter that what used to be an almost unfathomable distance is now an “only,” as in “I only ran eight miles today.” Still, he’s right. Without a goal, my running has languished. I’m reasonably fit, but my waistline and training times say there is still room for improvement.
The same could be said of my riding. How about you? What stands between you and mastering the ride?