“Whatever Boelcke told us was taken as gospel!” ——Manfred von Richthofen

Oswald Boelcke pioneered air combat doctrine in the First World War. A German ace, he authored a list of rules for his subordinates to study in hopes of increasing their odds of success in battle. Boelcke flew, fought, and reflected upon what he had learned to instruct what were to become some of the finest combat aviators of his era. The doctrine he developed is still acknowledged by those in the air-combat community today. That doctrine is known as the Dicta Boelcke. If history is any indication Boelcke taught well, you might recognize the name of one of his charges, Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron.

Keith Code is the owner and founder of the California Superbike School; he has raced, written on, and instructed others in the art and science of racing and winning on motorcycles, including some of the finest motorcycle road racers in the world. His seminal book, A Twist of the Wrist, and its sequel, The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles, served as guidebooks to myself and legions of other roadracers in their quest for faster lap times and podium finishes. If history is any indication Code has taught well, one of his understudies wrote the forward for his first book:

“We spent days going over stuff that Keith had written down about racing… Keith made me think before we got to the track, while I was on the track, and after I got off the bike. I don’t know if everyone can get to the winner’s circle as fast as I did, but I know now that being able to think about your riding is important. Get that part done first.”

That forward was penned by three-time roadracing world champion, Wayne Rainey.

I would not be bothering you with any of this if I had not been volunteered years ago to serve as guest fodder on a public radio call-in show out of Columbus, Ohio. The topic of the show that day was motorcycle safety. My then-boss, Robert Rasor, AMA Vice President of Government Relations, would be along for the ride to lend some gravitas and a couple decades of experience to the show, and we would have another guest as well: Keith Code.

I had never met Keith, though I was very familiar with his work. I found Code’s approach to racing and riding – the way he encouraged a racer to thinkto be profoundly helpful, and my lap times had confirmed the value of Code’s methods. I had, however, no sooner expected to meet Keith Code in a radio station in Columbus, Ohio, than I did Oswald Boelcke, and I hadn’t the foggiest idea what he might have to say about motorcycle safety on the street.

Oswald Boelcke established his place in history in a Fokker, but he favored an NSU motorcycle for his more earthly pursuits.

Oswald Boelcke established his place in history in a Fokker, but he favored an NSU motorcycle for his more earthly pursuits.

We all arrived at the studio about the same time, settled into the comfortable chairs around the table, made our cursory introductions, and arranged the mics to our satisfaction. We waited for the show’s host to run the intro and the program to begin. It started off in a lackluster enough fashion, the switchboard lighting up occasionally with the sort of half-interested parties you might imagine calling a public radio station mid-morning to chit-chat about motorcycle safety.

From the sound of things over the air waves, the callers consisted mostly of the homebound and the bored, but then one woman called in and offered a suggestion so simple, so succinct, and so patently banal as to be just what we were searching for to shake off our stupor. The solution to our motorcycle safety issue, she opined, could be summarized in two seemingly innocuous words: “Defensive driving.”

“It costs more attention to keep something from happening than it does to make something happen.” –Keith Code

“It costs more attention to keep something from happening than it does to make something happen.” –Keith Code

The three of us glanced back and forth to see who wanted to field the call, but Code waved us off – he wanted this one, and his answer would change the tone of the entire show.

Code basically suggested that driving defensively was sound advice for anyone in a vehicle with crumple zones and air bags, but motorcyclists should consider the merits of riding offensively. Riding offensively was a mindset that incorporates all the precautionary steps defensive riding entails but goes a step further to proactively shape the operating environment. In short; observe, evaluate, and act decisively to dictate the traffic situation around you. Your tools are your judgment, your throttle, and your lane placement to maximize your opportunities for success.

Suddenly the studio was awake, the switchboard lit up, and the examples of riding offensively tumbled forth around the table. I was watching Code’s version of Dicta Boelcke be constructed in real time.

“Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking, if possible keep the sun behind you.” ——Boelcke

Seek any advantageous position on the asphalt. On multilane highways, use the left lane, moving slightly faster than traffic flow limits the avenues of approach of trouble to your right, and to your rear, your odds just improved. Merge, move out, and get in that left lane. Get away from the herd, find the dead zones in traffic, car zombies tend to bunch up all staring at each other’s bumper – you shouldn’t. You want clear sightlines, so leave the herd and find the holes in traffic. You want to see – find a vantage point – and be seen. Endeavor to always dictate the situation; do not have it dictated to you. Play to your strengths; small size, maneuverability, acceleration, be aware of and minimize your weaknesses, consider weather conditions.

“You should always try to keep an eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.” ——Boelcke

Don’t be deceived by other drivers. Prioritize your biggest threats: the oncoming car turning left across traffic; the driver in the right lane texting; the driver broadcasting a lane change for the last quarter mile by glancing continuously in his rear view mirror; the car approaching an intersection that should stop. Position yourself to minimize or eliminate the risk. Don’t be deceived by the road. Late-apex blind corners for better sight lines and the additional potential braking area that provides – when in doubt, square off corners. Also, don’t be deceived by yourself: bikes are far more capable than many of their riders, so get off the brakes, look through the corner, turn the bike in, and roll the throttle on. Never give up the asphalt; grass is for lawn parties and voter referendums.

“When over the enemy’s lines, always remember your own line of retreat.” ——Boelcke

Always have an out. In the left lane you have the shoulder or “breakdown” lane, so in a dire situation with a fast-approaching car from the rear, use cars as cover; lane split. Shield yourself from approaching vehicles on side streets by flanking moving vehicles traveling in your same direction.

Situational awareness. Know what is going on around you, glance at the mirrors, scan far down the road, and have a plan ready for any variable you haven’t eliminated or left behind. And practice, practice, practice, muscle memory develops with seat time. Become proficient on your bike, make it dance.

Both Boelcke and Code invest their students with agency, requiring them to think, and to act decisively, to change the environments they operate in to their advantage.

Code was preaching the doctrine of another flying circus, one we all are loosely affiliated with, Dicta Code, the doctrine of two wheels. Boelcke taught a doctrine that promoted situational awareness, taking advantages of your machine’s strong points, and positioning yourself such that you would come out on the winning side. So too was Code, and until I gave it any thought, it hadn’t occurred to me that much like Boelcke, I had been learning these tricks all along through experience. Boelcke gave voice to his experience with his Dicta Boelcke and imparted those lessons to his squadron mates, and Code gave voice to mine: Be the hunter, not the hunted.

Ride hard, look where you want to go, and have a safe and rewarding new year.

  • Old MOron

    Amen!

  • Tod Rafferty

    Reminded of another old combat admonition – If your target is in sight, so are you. The irony in von Richthofen’s case (and yet another cautionary lesson) is that according to the most credible evidence, he was killed by a rifleman on the ground. Whom he never saw. So, while offense may well be the best defense, watch out for what you can’t see.

  • Starmag

    Once one comes to the conclusion that traffic signals and painted lines on the road have no chance of stopping anything, much less a 4000 lb. texting metal rhino, one will be much safer. “They weren’t supposed to do that !” will only matter to you survivors lawyer.

  • HazardtoMyself

    This needs to be shown to everyone who rides and included in the MSF courses. Short, simple and yet so very important. M.O needs to re-post this once a month at least.

    Way too many passive riders out there just going with the flow like the car zombies that don’t “think” about their riding.

    Whenever I get the riding is dangerous blathering from people, I always answer that I feel safer on my bike then in my truck any day of the week. They look at me in shock but I just mention the small size, better maneuverability, more escape options, etc. Have to say, I have never read Keith Code myself (I know, the shame…) but most people never seem to think about the advantages a motorcycle has over 4 wheeled vehicles. They only see the dangers of not being wrapped in a cage.

    To use Kieth’s terminology, I would much rather be able to get out of the herd quickly, use the natural holes in traffic and avoid situations completely then be sitting in my truck with no escape options hoping the brakes work when the texting zombie pulls out in front. Sure in the truck 9 out of 10 I could smash them and be okay, but I would much rather not have to smash them at all.

    • Blah aka Piglet

      For a truly awful experience, drive a company vehicle with a GPS tattle-tale that takes away your options of moving slightly faster than traffic, passing slower vehicles on two lane highway, or using more than a small fraction of acceleration, cornering, and braking potential.

      • HazardtoMyself

        Yeah, that doesn’t sound very fun. Last time I was tied to a company vehicle was before most people had cell phones let alone a GPS.

        Traffic congestion, road closures or bad directions was always a great excuse for the occasional detour or long lunch. As long as the jobs got done the boss didn’t care very much. Can’t imagine anyone getting away with that anymore.

  • JMDonald

    Motorcycling is a thinking mans pursuit. Constantly processing the environment positioning ones self to the advantage. It takes talent to ride. It takes real talent to pass on the knowledge gained by experience. Not everyone can teach. It’s more than spitting out the words. How lucky we are to have guys like Code around. It is more than his willingness to share. It’s really about truth. Here’s to the road less travelled. If you can find one.

    • Ian Parkes

      ‘It’s more than spitting out words.’ To your congratulations to KC I’ll add mine to CK. That is a triumph elegant, succinct writing. Every word pulling its weight and delivering a full load of sensible knowledge. Everyone loves a well-hung sentence. It was almost music to my ears because for a long time I’ve argued that defensive driving sends entirely the wrong signals, putting everyone on a war footing and encouraging them to think they have to defend their patch on the road. It makes them aggressive to everyone who might come into that zone – especially cyclists and motorcyclists. Far better, I think, to teach ‘active driving’ encouraging people to see themselves in a dynamic environment with other active agents, where they need to assess, interpret, anticipate and act decisively. Research has shown that doing away with road markings in urban environments actually improves flow and actually reduces accidents as everyone has to more responsibility for their choices and because, when they are not straitjacketed by marked territory they give everyone else more space but keep the flow. It’s chaos theory and Code’s code in action.

  • Michael jones

    I thought l could ride motorcycles, l had ridden since l was almost 17, l purchased a Kawasaki 900 when l was 18, so when l joined the NSW Police Force, here in Australia, l wanted to be on one of those BMWs, then l got my chance, l attended the Police Rider Training School and, boy l soon found out how much l didn’t know. It was certainly an intensive 3 months work, which was taught by instructors who had the same mindset as this guy, it was all about staying alive, sacrificing line for safety, being in total control of any situation, being continually switched on, being in control of the machine at any speed, even at 10mph in a carpark, but at the end of the course, l became one of the few, who got paid to do what they loved doing..riding a motorcycle all day and l survived to tell the stories.

  • Blah aka Piglet

    Sorry, but what Code said should be intuitively obvious (but to be fair it does go against what is taught in most Driver (mis)Education™ brainwashing sessions, er classes).

  • Numbone

    It also helps to own your lane by wearing a leather helmet and goggles and mounting a maxim machine gun to your handlebars. .

  • Kevin

    I took Keith’s Superbike School up in Watkins Glen in 1989. I live in South Florida and between the 80+++ years olds still driving, the tourists, the Europeans on vacations, the illegals and Island people who drive like shit and the rich people driving higher end BMWS, Bentleys, Ferrari’s, Jags and Mercedes like nutjob all over let alone the people texting, you have to ride a little aggressive. I have been riding almost 40 years and it is a whole new ballgame with the smartphones, texting has been around for years. When I had my supermoto and sat really high most people now are updating Facebook and twittering when they drive now. Instead of running yellows they are stopping on greens, so they can type. I see more rear end collisions then ever before. When I stop at traffic lights, people leave 2or 3 car lengths between the car in front of them or a car length by the line by the crosswalk at the traffic light. I ride up, and when they look up from their phones they get mad. You have to stay out of the clusterfucks of cars or you will be hit when people change lanes with out looking or signalling.

  • Navroze Contractor

    This is really interesting, the comparison between flying and riding a motorcycle.. couldn’t be more true. Thank you for posting

  • Rick Soloway

    “Dikta Code” shares a lot with the OODA loop:
    “The phrase OODA loop refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations.” The USMC adopted this approach and used it in the Gulf War I.