Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let the Skis Do the Work

Say what?  This is a blog about riding motorcycles, right?  Yeah, but sometimes ideas and experiences cross over.

On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, I stopped by my old ski area, Crystal Mountain.  Many - too many - years ago I lived and worked there for a season, and since I was a night chairlift operator, I had all my days free to ski - probably close to 100 days that year.   

At age 20, my skiing was more shaped by enthusiasm than by skill.  It seemed like being young, fit, willing to crash, and quick to heal were virtues.  There came a time in that season though where my skiing was in a rut.  I was stiff, ragged, and thrashing my way down the hill.  

Fortunately, I was surrounded by skilled and fluid skier, many of whom were, or had been, quite accomplished racers.  One day during this slump, I was skiing with one of them, and complaining about my struggles, when he said, "Let the skis do the work."  Huh?  I had no idea what he was talking about, and so he made me his part time project.  

Without going into all the details of what we did, he pointed out that the skis were designed to turn, to carve through the turn, and to accelerate out of the turn, and it was my job to figure out how to access and enable the performance that was already there built into the skis.

Motorcycles are similar to skis (in so many ways!), in that most of them are designed to turn, and will do so very well if we can tailor our inputs into the bike to be exactly what it needs in order for it to utilize that built in capability, and no more than what is needed.

This was all brought home to me at a Doc Wong clinic earlier this year on the topic of handlebar pressure.  Now I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, light on the bars, elbows bent, wiggle your fingers.  I know all that stuff."  Then Doc demonstrated how much pressure we should use on the bars by lightly resting his right hand on his left forearm.  He said that was all the pressure that was required.  Not even letting the weight of your arms rest on the bars, but holding your arms up with your shoulders and just lightly resting your hands on the bars.  That day was spent being very tuned into exactly how much pressure I was putting on the bars, and then trying to put even less pressure on.  Frankly, it was a revelation because it made it easier than it had ever been to let the motorcycle do the work.  Depending upon only the amount of pressure needed to initiate a turn, I concentrated on what Keith Code calls "being a good passenger". 

Last month when I was riding back from Oregon in the midst of a nasty spring storm with ripping side winds, I was reminded of this lesson again.  Riding in cross winds is the bane of many riders, particularly new riders, and the tendency is to wrestle with the motorcycle to attempt to counteract the effects of the wind.  Some riders, even very experienced riders, believe that a rider must constantly make counter steering inputs into the bars to correct for the effect of the wind.  For many years I've thought this was not true, and that the best thing is to anchor yourself to the bike with your legs, stabilize your upper body with core muscles, and to put as little pressure on the bar as possible.  This time, thinking of Doc Wong's message, I took it a step further - not that I recommend this, it was for science - and held on only to the right grip with my right hand, and held on to the tank with my left.  Then I paid careful attention to the pressure passing through the palm of my right hand.  Was I counter-steering to correct for the wind?  Was I constantly making inputs to make up for the wind?  The answer - a bit to my surprise - was no, not really.  Even with all that blustery side wind going over the Siskyous and down the Sacramento Valley, the motorcycle wanted to go straight so long as I didn't try to consciously or subconsciously react to the wind.  It all worked better if I let the motorcycle do the work. 

That's the moral of the story.  Let the motorcycle do the work, and concentrate on giving it only the inputs it needs to access the abilities to turn, stop, accelerate, and go straight that were already designed into it. 

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