Monday, June 15, 2015

What's Holding You Back?

If you're not riding the way you'd like, what's holding you back?  It's nice when we can externalize it, and say, "These tires are almost done.  This bike has no cornering clearance.  If I only had the latest magazine and webforum fodder under me, then I'd really be something."   Nice, but often untrue.

What if it's really internal rather than external?  Easier to fix or harder?  Easier to recognize and examine, or harder?

This question has been on my mind for the past month.  It started when I was behind another rider who appeared to be fundamentally competent, but excruciatingly slow (not hyperbole).  He appeared to look through the corner, push on the inside bar, accelerate on exit, and so on, but the bike barely leaned, and was even slow on the straights.  In my head I kept asking, "What's holding him back?"

It's an interesting question, because when you ask it in front of a mirror rather than in reference to someone else, it gets more challenging to answer.  The blanket answer really comes down to beliefs.  Do my beliefs hold me back?  I'm pretty sure the beliefs of the rider in question were holding him back.  Easier to say that than it is to identify which exact beliefs are culpable, and come up with a way to change those beliefs. 

If beliefs might be holding us back, one approach I'm experimenting with is to write down my beliefs about any given situation - riding or non-riding - and my beliefs about myself and my abilities.  Armed with that list, rather than ask myself how to change a belief, I ask myself what would happen if it's not true.  What if the tires will still grip past 10 degrees of lean angle?  Okay, how about 20 degrees?  How about 40 degrees?  How would the world be different?  How would I ride?

These beliefs and their questioning need not be limited to motorcycling.  You need to apply some judgment to the questions and the way you choose to test for truth.  For instance questioning your beliefs regarding gravity, or the solid nature of the oncoming bus should probably be tested in some way that won't lead to grave bodily harm. 

With the above caveat in mind, what do you believe?  How do you know it's true?  How would you ride and live if it weren't true?  How can you (safely) test it?  Challenge yourself. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Do You Believe in Tar Snakes?

Sung to the tune of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?"

Sunday I was out for a ride, and when passing over a mid-turn tar snake, the bike got a little wiggle on.  Woke me up a bit.  Then it reminded me of the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford, "Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can't - you're right."

Say what?  Everybody hates tar snakes, right?  That's what I believed until I met someone who didn't, someone who seemed completely unperturbed by the presence of tar snakes.  How could that be?  They're slippery.  They're bad when they're hot.  They're worse when they're cold and wet.  They make your bike slide, your elbows stiff, your breathing stop, and other things pucker.  How could anyone not hate tar snakes? 

This guy didn't love tar snakes, he just didn't care.  Wasn't he afraid that tar snakes would put him on the ground?  That's what I asked him.  His response was to shrug his shoulders and say, "They just make the bike wiggle a bit." Wait!  These things put my heart in my throat every time the bike steps out over them, and he says it's just a "wiggle".  Does this guy have ice water in his veins?  If not, what explains his insouciance in the face of imminent disaster?

When I pressed him, he said it was pretty straightforward.  If it's just a snake or three that he's going to be crossing when leaned over, that he gets his braking done so that he can get smoothly back on to a positive throttle, keeping his eyes up and looking for the exit, and stay loose on the bike.  That way, when the bike moves it will only step out a couple of inches, then sort itself out.  On the other hand, if he stiffened up, looked at the front wheel, slammed the throttle shut, and grabbed some brakes, there would be a little more drama. 

The key insight that unlocked it all for me was the realization that most tar snakes are only a few inches wide, and this if your tire slips off of one that its next contact point will be asphalt, and grip will be restored.  Brilliant insight, huh?  The other stuff listed above is just good motorcycle fundamentals that I know I should be doing anyway.  The breakthrough was the belief that traction would be restored in a split second.  Just a wiggle.  On the other hand, if I believed that the tar snake would put me on the ground, I might still stiffen up, close the throttle, look at the ground, and have quite a moment. 

The usual caveats apply; if there is a whole nest of tar vipers, or a large tar patch, you will quite likely have a bigger slide, or even ruin your day, so deal with that situation accordingly.  If you're just dealing with the usual confederation of disorganized tar snakes, get your braking done before tipping in, get your eyes up and toward the exit, and smoothly apply a light throttle, and your belief will pay off. When it comes to tar snakes, do you believe you can, or do you believe you can't?  Henry Ford, nailed it - either way, you're right. 

Oh, and all you dirt riders in the back of the room, you can quit snickering now. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Stirling Moss Said It. What's It Got to Do With You?

Stirling who?  Stirling Moss, perhaps the greatest racing car driver to never win the World Driving Championship.  An immensely talented driver who was particularly good at open road races back in the 50's, like the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio.  These races favored drivers who could read the road effectively because of the challenge of "learning" such a course.  Stirling also raced Formula One, and endurance events like LeMans.

Once, Stirling was being interviewed by a motorsports journalist who asked him why he didn't late brake the same way many of his opponents did, and he quipped, "Better to go in slow and come out fast than to go in fast and come out dead."

Think about it.  Here's a guy who's getting paid to win, and his method is to go in slow and come out fast.  So many more choices that way.  So much better opportunity to respond to the unexpected.  So much more latitude to be on the gas to stabilize the bike once you get it leaned over.

You're not getting paid to win races down your favorite mountain road.  That makes taking Stirling Moss' free advice even more affordable. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Want a Better Brain?

A couple of years back, my friend "Budman" Kobza told me about a study that indicated that riding motorcycles is good for your brain.  Who knew?  All about dealing with novelty, and solving problems, and predicting the future, and honing skills.  How cool is that?

Okay, so novelty, and solving new problems is good for your brain, right?  So, will you get that novelty and problem solving experience if you always ride the same roads?  What about if you ride new roads?  In new places?  What about if you ride new roads, in new paces, and on the wrong side of the road?  You'd be a genius, right? 

Welcome to riding in the UK (or Japan, or New Zealand, or Australia, or...).  Last month, we were in the UK for a bit of riding with friends, and a bit of race watching.  Learning to always keep yourself on the appropriate side of the road, even when you are dealing with junctions, driveways, roundabouts (not that hard, really), or meeting an oncoming vehicle coming around a blind turn on a very narrow road (can be quite hard, really) is a great way to exercise your brain.  Always having to hold part of your attention to one side to assure that "reflexes" don't take over and put you in exactly the wrong place.  It's a good mental workout.  Screw Luminosity!  This is REAL fun! 

Okay, so you can't hop across the pond to ride on the other side of the road, what should you do to stay sharp?  (Cue the broken record)  Yep, ride new roads.  Dig out your Benchmark Atlas, or your Thomas Brothers map, and look at little roads a couple of counties away.  Stuff running over ridge tops, or down in creek drainages will work.  Places you haven't seen before.  Roads where you don't know what's around the next corner.  Towns with cafes whose pie you haven't sampled.  You know, for science. 

And if by chance you do find yourself in the UK with a motorcycle, find the smallest roads you can see, and go play.  Not A roads.  Not even B roads.  Look for the ones that aren't even classified.  The local roads out to villages with 8 houses and 2 pubs.  That's where you want to be going.  After all, it's for your brain. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Smooth Throttle - A Little Trick to Make it Easier

Smoothness, the act of riding smoothly is a topic for a whole host of potential blog posts, maybe even a blog of its own.  Instead of trying to address all that stuff that contributes to riding smoothly, here's a little tip to make it easier to be smooth on the throttle.

Ready for it?  Cover the front brake.  Come again?  Yep, by putting a finger or two of your throttle hand over the front brake lever you provide yourself a kinesthetic reference point that you can then move the throttle in reference to.  By looping a finger or two around there, you make it possible to consistently move the throttle in tiny increments, ever so important when:
  • You're in a low traction situation, and you need to manage the throttle carefully
  • You've got one of those new-fangled fuel injected bikes that lurches when opening up from a closed throttle
  • You're deep into a turn and on the edge of the tire, and you need to feed throttle in smoothly
  • You're riding one of those terrible, bumpy goat roads I'm always raving on about, and every time you hit a bump the throttle moves and the motorcycle lurches
Yep, I know that the MSF teaches its students to not cover the front brake, and I understand their pedagogical purpose in taking that out of the mix while on the range with rank beginners.  Are you a rank beginner?  I didn't think so.  Doesn't apply to you.

You're a big kid now.  Try it out if you aren't doing so already, and see how smoothly you can manipulate the throttle.  Keep it up and the next thing you know you'll be able to blip the throttle on a downshift while smoothly braking, astounding your friends and neighbors without the benefit of a slipper clutch.  How cool would that be?

Throttle Like a Rheostat

No, not a throttle like a Linda Ronstadt, or even a Heart Like a Wheel.  A throttle like a rheostat, sort of like the dimmer switch on the wall in your dining room, or the volume knob on your old Pioneer stereo receiver.  Turn it one direction, you get more.  Turn it the other direction, you get less.

Doesn't the throttle on your motorcycle already work that way?  Maybe.  Does it behave in a linear fashion in both directions so that when you roll the throttle on, the bike accelerates, and when you roll it off, it decelerates in a similar fashion?  Always?  Sometimes?  Never?  Is it possible that you're doing something else with the controls of your bike that influences whether your throttle behaves like a rheostat? 

I used to be a little lazy with my gear selection on my BMW R1150R.  It was pretty good at tractoring out of turns when I was a gear too high.  It was easy just to let it pull, even if it shook a bit in the process.  Besides, I didn't need to have it in the meat of the powerband to ride fast enough.  There was no issue.  Kind of freewheel in, managing my entry with the brakes, then tractor out.  Besides, all those guys on the forum said that I shouldn't slow by downshifting, or my bike would wear out, or I'd adversely impact the rotation of the earth, and that would be terrible.

One day I was following some fast, smooth guys, and I noticed their brakelights rarely came on, and that their bikes were always smooth going through turns, and they would accelerate away from me on the exits, so I began to carefully study what they were doing.  What I found was that even though some of them were riding big lazy twins like mine, they were riding them further up the rev band than I was.  Generally, they were riding their bikes with the motor revving in the vicinity of its peak torque, and what they got for their trouble was a bike that would smoothly and quickly accelerate when they opened the throttle.  Not only that, but because they were riding in a RPM range where their bikes generated significant engine braking when they rolled off the throttle, resulting in notable deceleration.  All this without touching the brakes, or in many cases, even the shift lever and clutch. 

So, I tried it.  What a revelation!  Holy smokes, now I didn't feel like the bike was running away on the way into corners.  Now I could accelerate smartly on the way out of corners.  And perhaps most importantly, now I could carefully adjust my line in mid-corner using the throttle as well as other control inputs, and small inputs yielded results.

But wait!  If I'm running near the torque peak so that if I open the throttle a tiny bit, the bike will accelerate, and if I close the throttle a tiny bit, the bike will slow, won't I just be a big, herky-jerky, wobbly mess out there?  Nope, see my earlier post on covering the front brake as a method to smooth throttle inputs, and all will be good.

You may already do this.  It's a common practice among racers.  However, if you don't already do this, give it a try.  I'll wager it will make you a better, smoother rider (with some practice), and that you'll be unlikely to stall a bike mid-corner because you were in a too high gear.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pay Attention - Then Anticipate!

Last week, I read a really great post on LinkedIn in which the author argued that the best advice anyone could get is to pay attention, better even than "wear sunscreen".  As someone who has survived malignant melanoma, that claim doesn't go down without skepticism, yet the author convinced me.  I suggest you take a couple of moments to read the piece.

What has any of this to do with motorcycling?  Well, there's the obvious:
  • Pay attention to what other road users are doing
  • Pay attention to the road surface
  • Pay attention to the vanishing point
  • Pay attention to the condition of your machine
  • The list goes on....
All great stuff.  All important to riding safely and well.  And yet, not enough.  Necessary but not sufficient.  You can do all these things, and still be surprised.  You can do all these things, and still screw up.  You need to go further.  You need to anticipate.

Paying attention is necessary, and utilizing the information gathered through paying attention, over time and with a little reflection, can anticipate that which has not yet happened, and that which we cannot yet see.

A few stories follow to illustrate the point:

Eight years ago when I had the opportunity to ride with Colin Barlow, one of the things I learned was that if I was going to keep up with Colin and company, I was going to have to pay attention.  Riding an open road TSD rally in the high Alps meant that conditions were demanding and the pace was brisk.  If I was going to hang with the guys doing the navigating and timekeeping for me, it was going to be necessary to know what they were doing before they did it, rather than react to it after the fact.  I would have to anticipate. 

Were they getting ready to overtake a line of traffic?  Were they getting ready to turn at a junction? To do this I had to not only 'ride my own ride', but to ride theirs as well.  Where was Colin, the team leader, in traffic?  Were there cars holding him up?  Was the oncoming lane clear in front of him?  Were David and Dominic keying off Colin?  What gear am I in?  If they go, will there be room and time for me to follow?

Rather than waiting to be surprised by Colin's overtake, by anticipating it I could eliminate my own delayed surprise, and the need to work extra hard to catch back up.  Paying attention to my ride, paying attention to their rides, and projecting into the future. 

Second story, same event, but with another rider, we'll call him riderX.  This rider had many years of experience, and decent bike handling skills.  On the basis of strictly physical capabilities, riderX was well within his depth.  And yet, he wasn't.  RiderX was often caught by surprise by the actions of the rider in front of him even though he was keenly focused on that rider's every move.  What was more dangerous was that riderX could not anticipate the actions of the riders behind him.  When riderX would overtake, he would often linger at the completion of the pass, not realizing that the riders behind had followed him and that he was blocking, leaving those riders needlessly exposed to oncoming traffic.  RiderX certainly could not anticipate in 360 degrees, and he probably didn't think or pay attention in 360 degrees.  No tragedies occurred, but riderX didn't make many friends. 

Third story, different place, different year, different rider, we'll call him riderY.  RiderY has years of experience, and has ridden many places.  He rides a very capable bike, and in many cases his bike manages to do his paying attention and anticipating for him.  Riding narrow, poorly surfaced, technical roads on steep hillsides, when the road you can see going uphill around a corner suddenly disappears, you might reasonably anticipate that you're about to go around an uphill hairpin at a speed well under 20 MPH.  You might further anticipate that no matter how wonderful your bike is, that a gear lower than third could be useful, or failing that, you might cover the clutch to make up for the too high gear.  Conversely, you could hope that your bike might sort it out for you.  Which bet do you want to make?

The moral of the story?  As your skills increase, and your motor skills used for riding become more automatic, use the increased availability of your attention to pay attention to more things, to develop more situational awareness, and then take the next step - you might call it the meta step - and use all that information to anticipate that which will happen.  The objective of this is to avoid being surprised .  Surprise is the enemy of safe motorcycling.  When you can't avoid being surprised, at the very least, put yourself in the position of being able to deal effectively with the surprise.  For instance, by having your motorcycle in an appropriate gear for conditions, not the gear you're in as a habit developed by having a bike that's always bailed your butt out in the past.

Pay attention, anticipate, execute, have fun!